The benefits of criticism and how to give and receive it

Jun 22, 2022
Creative Photo Folk
The benefits of criticism and how to give and receive it

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As creators our work is often a reflection of ourselves so it can be really difficult to receive criticism without taking it personally, yet it’s absolutely vital to invite feedback if we wish to improve. Here’s how to navigate this tricky scenario.

Within various Facebook photography groups I often see photographers asking for ‘gentle’ feedback. I commend these people for reaching out for help, but why gentle? Is it because they only want to hear nice things, or are there just so mean many commenters that asking for feedback is risky? I’ve certainly seen cruel comments and reactions in some groups, while in others, people who are far too kind to be helpful.

Just yesterday I saw someone post an example of some retouching work they’d done. The work was very heavy handed and the skin colour was all wrong so they received a lot of laugh reacts and negative comments. Many people would have shut down and chosen to rock themselves in a corner believing they didn’t have what it takes. But not this person. They simply started again using all the feedback they received and posted a revised retouch a few hours later that was worlds ahead of their first attempt. There were no laugh reacts on that one. Only 80+ encouraging comments full of respect.

It’s tough but it works.

Our photography can’t improve in an echo chamber so reaching out for feedback is the fastest way to make genuine progress but receiving even one negative comment can cancel out all the positive ones and throw us so far off track that we may even contemplate quitting. But hearing only positive platitudes can be equally as damaging. It might be encouraging to hear ‘love this’ but what does that give you to work on next time? At the very least they could tell you why they love it, which is a helpful exercise in critical thinking for them too.

Criticism, or as I like to call it, creative critique is often exactly what we need to improve. Validation is perfectly fine if you need a little ego boost or extra motivation but it’s not going to get you out of your comfort zone or speed up your path to success.

But artists, by nature, are sensitive people. The act of creation is a vulnerable one which already puts us on the defensive, and the more personal the work, the more our ego gets involved. Yet if you are putting your work out there, which is absolutely necessary if you hope to get anywhere with photography, then criticism or rejection will likely come. That is just the nature of the industry and has happened even to the very best artists, probably even more so. Art is subjective, as it should be, and you’re never going to please everyone. Hard to believe, but even the Beatles have haters while some of the world’s most renowned artists didn’t sell a single work during their lifetime while now they’re worth millions.

People will always judge you no matter what you do so you may as well be judged for doing something that serves you.

So while it’s crucial to share your work for feedback, it’s also just as crucial to practice resilience. It’s taken me a long time to learn not to take things personally and be able to objectively see things for the lesson they are. We cannot control how other people react but we can certainly manage how we react and so now when something hurts me, I take a few minutes to sit with the feeling and work out why I feel triggered and reflect on whether the hurt is justified. And in the rare case that it is, I can choose to retaliate, I can choose to sit in pain or I can choose to move on. And so I choose to move on.

Rejections are inevitable and in most cases, not at all personal and it’s important to accept them with humility and grace.

A few months ago someone posted a photo on Facebook specifically asking for feedback. Seeing as it was a creative technique I teach I gave what I thought was a friendly and helpful suggestion. She reacted quite dramatically accusing me of attacking her and the more I tried to explain the more angry she got. Nobody wins in that situation. Not only could she not accept the feedback she invited but she escalated into anger. And I felt like a terrible person for upsetting someone even though that was never my intention. But later I realised my only mistake was to feel hurt. She obviously had a lot going on that had absolutely nothing to do with me.

In terms of my own work, I’ve been rejected many times, mostly from exhibitions and yes, sometimes that hurts. But I’ve also been accepted by just as many so it’s important to keep things in perspective. Just recently I was rejected from a show that a friend had encouraged me to enter and I later found out he was one of the judges! The same artwork that got rejected made me $3k in print sales in the same week so it’s an important reminder that everyone’s opinion is subjective. I don’t know what the criteria was for choosing the finalists. Maybe they didn’t like photography. Maybe it was too controversial for the theme (which admittedly it was a little bit). Maybe my work wasn’t a good match for their audience. There could be any number of reasons which have nothing to do with me personally or the quality of my work. And even if it did, what do I gain from stressing about it? There are plenty more opportunities.

These days I’ve been in the art game long enough that I rarely get triggered. I’ve always said the day I receive a mean comment will be the day I know I’ve made it because it means my work has reached an audience that doesn’t feel obliged to say nice things to me. I think the most disparaging comment I’ve received was from someone accusing me of ruining the underwater industry by teaching how to create underwater images in Photoshop. And man, that was one of the best comments I ever received because I thought, wow, you think my work is that convincing?

On the flip side I used to work for a gallery that ran an art prize and us staff were often devastated when an independent judge didn’t choose our favourites. It’s just one person’s opinion and you can’t know what context or agenda they were operating from. I tell you though, the absolute worst thing about those awards, are the artists who could not accept rejection with dignity and retaliated with anger, often attacking the work of the artists who were chosen. Please don’t ever be that person. Can you see why failing to manage your emotions can do you more harm than good?


How to give critique effectively

Now let’s talk about how to give critique because it’s encouraged within the Creative Photo Folk community. I believe it’s important to share our knowledge and experience with kindness to those who might need it. I wish everyone could learn the lesson of resiliency but many have not, so it’s important to be cautious every time. First, have they asked for critique? It might feel good to help but sometimes it’s just not what people are looking for and they may react negatively. If you feel they could benefit from your feedback, ask first if they’d like to hear it.

If they have asked for critique, start by complimenting something you like about the image. Highlight what they’ve done well so they don’t feel immediately defensive. Then you can start your critique by saying, ‘in my opinion’, to remind them it’s merely a subjective suggestion, and then, ‘perhaps you could try this next time’ followed by a helpful explanation of why and maybe even a personal experience to illustrate the point. And make sure it’s something they actually can improve upon.

I always cringe when I see someone suggest how to specifically improve an image that clearly the person will never be able to recreate.

Also reserve any personal judgement or opinion about the subject matter unless someone has specifically asked. Your purpose is to critique the photograph, not what it contains.

Now I know there are lots of photographers out there who don’t feel knowledgeable enough to provide critique but you must remember that when people share their photos most of the people who’ll view it will have little to no knowledge of photography, so any level of feedback is appreciated, but perhaps qualify your skill level in your response to let the person know where you’re coming from. Let them choose whether they consider your feedback worthwhile or not.

If you really like someone’s photo, give them meaningful encouragement and say what you like about the photo so they can understand what’s working.

Now sometimes, regardless of what you say or do you might hurt someone by accident. Whenever someone says ‘you’ve got some great photos here’ I often chuckle and think ‘only some?’ And I’ve seen photographers go on rants because nobody liked or commented on their images but they’ve seen a photo they’ve decided is worse than theirs receive lots of positive comments. I can’t say it enough, but reading only into the negatives is not going to get you terribly far.


How to accept criticism with humility

Well first we need to decide where we’re going to find it. By now you should hopefully have found some safe photography communities on social media but you may also wish to join an in-person photography club if you’re up to being competitive.

It’s important to manage our expectations and ego first. Think about what you’re hoping to achieve and prepare yourself for what might come. Consider for a moment how you’re going to choose to handle any negative comments.

Most photographers are well meaning and come from a place of genuine help. Some won’t feel confident to give feedback but are happy to provide encouragement. And occasionally there may be those who use the anonymity of the Internet to say cruel things to bolster their ego. These will be the hardest to manage but, if you can put the comment in context as just a hurtful remark rather than helpful commentary you can use the process I mentioned earlier to work through whatever feelings come up and rationalise them for what they are. We can learn so much about ourselves by monitoring the way we react.

Then we consider the helpful feedback. Do you agree or disagree? Remember it is only one person’s perspective and you probably have no way of knowing how credible their feedback is. If you can see the validity in their comment, absolutely take it on board as something to try or improve next time. But it is entirely up to you whether you choose to accept it. And if you feel the feedback is unreasonable or unclear, you can ask for further clarification.

Asking for feedback may even cause confusion if the responses are conflicting. Someone may love a photo that someone else dislikes and this is my favourite scenario, because it shows that everyone has different taste and it entirely comes down to whether you’re happy with it or not, because you will please some but never everyone.

Also try to keep in perspective that not everyone else is as attached to the photo as you might be. The person or place might be meaningful for you and the work it took to create might be significant. This can cause you to get defensive and prevent you from seeing your creation objectively. I can look at a photograph for weeks on end, but only with fresh eyes might I see a problem I didn’t see in all that time and that’s why outside perspective is so helpful because they’re not attached to it the way I am.

Just recently I was looking through someone’s photos that I thought were excellent but they kept pulling my attention back to less excellent photos because they contained someone they loved and they just weren’t meaningful or interesting to me at all. So it can be worth asking yourself if you’re disproportionately attached to something and whether you’re willing to hear the truth about it.

When I’ve received feedback in the past that I disagreed with I’ve not always reacted well. Sometimes I’ve tried to argue back to explain why I’ve made certain choices. But that’s a failure on my part for not conveying that clearly.

Once you post your photo I suggest walking away for a little while as the comments come in to let your nerves settle. When you’re feeling calm read through them objectively and note down those that are helpful. If something hurts don’t immediately retaliate. Take a few minutes to sit with the feeling and try and decide if it’s useful or just a learned response. Read the comment again to make sure you haven’t misinterpreted it. And only when you’ve analysed the feeling and are sure you’re not replying out of hurt, then reply.

I am learning all the time not to let my ego control me. And I am learning that sometimes we create meaning where there is none. I once saw a lady mouth the word ‘crap’ to one of my art pieces and I chose to feel hurt by that. But I’m also not a lip reader. She could have said anything. Or maybe she was talking about something else. Or maybe she did say crap but she’s just one person and I know other people love that particular artwork. Choose a response that serves you. And in the case of criticism, that is purely the path of improvement.

Please always remember, that first and foremost you create work for you. Because you enjoy the process. Because photography makes you happy. If you want to improve, then you will need to take the good and the bad, but remember, it’s all for your benefit. Don’t ever let someone else’s opinion steal your joy.


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