Criticism of photography is commonplace. Sometimes, it is invited and genuine, other times, not. How you decide to give or receive it can affect your self-esteem as a photographer. Moreover, it says much about your own creative abilities. Here's how to appreciate criticism and avoid being a criticaster.
We should welcome constructive criticism. It happens when we ask talented photographers whose work we respect to help us to improve. We listen with gratitude to those from whom we have requested a review of our work. Furthermore, they provide helpful feedback that they deliver compassionately so that we can improve.
The Rise of the Criticaster
Unfortunately, some give uninvited criticism anonymously and with spite. That's usually because some people are fuelled with jealousy of others' success. Consequently, they can only attempt to make up for their own inadequacies by trying to knock those more successful than themselves. Besides being poor photographers, invariably, they lack the ability to write a coherent critique. Instead, they throw insults. All they succeed in doing is revealing their limited intelligence. Sadly, most creative people face these attacks from time to time.
The tables are turning against them. No matter how hard they try to hide their identity, it's usually easy to find out who they are. Even using an anonymous account, they can be identified. I already know the name and address of a troll who tried to attack me recently. Sure enough, their portfolio is weak. Moreover, more and more people are going to jail or paying huge compensatory payments for this unwelcome behavior. Be warned!
Your photography work may also get criticized by those on a power trip. There are a lot of self-appointed judges with arrogant delusions of importance out there. You can spot them easily because they don't realize their opinion is just an opinion and has no real authority. Therefore, their uninvited criticisms are unjustified and can be ignored. If someone attacks your work or, worse still, you, it says much more about them than you or your photography.
There are more still who never have anything nice to say. The negative comments of these constant naysayers are tedious. Once we've heard them moaning a few times, we tend to ignore them anyway.
All the above are examples of criticasters. They are those who give poor-quality criticism.
The Return of the Talented Critics
However, we should always consider genuine criticism given with compassion as valid and an opportunity to improve, artistically or personally. If criticism is constructive and designed to help us — we all get things wrong from time to time — the healthy approach is to appreciate that it is being given in a spirit of kindness. We can then take on board what they say. Most of us try to learn from our mistakes and hold our hands up, admitting we got it wrong. Thanking the critic for their help is always the way forward.
Sometimes, we fail to realize what is going wrong with our photography. There's a reason behind that, and it's related to how our minds work. We humans repeat the same patterns of behavior throughout our lives. If those patterns are good, we quickly recognize that and deliberately continue to do the same. However, if the pattern is bad, it is harder for us to identify the cause. So, oblivious to why things go wrong, we repeat what has happened before. Gradually, life's lessons get bigger and bigger, hitting us with more enormous cudgels each time until we understand what is not right and, hopefully, change.
The same applies to creative skills, including photography. Like with life's lessons, it's other people that help us to see our mistakes. We don't necessarily realize where we are going wrong until someone comes along who wants to help us guides us in the right direction. So, constructive criticism given with compassion is essential for improvement.
For example, I was on a school trip when I was a 10-year-old. A teacher saw me taking landscape photos, something I had been doing without instruction for three years. Looking back, I know now that he could see my images would be better if I shot them differently. He said I should include some foreground interest to add depth to the photo. He then mentioned dividing the image into thirds and using leading lines. Thinking back, I can see that his impromptu teaching was delivered with a genuine desire to help me improve. That gentle lesson meant I learned something new and inspired me to learn more about photography.
Years later, many of my seascape images exclude foreground subjects and concentrate on the shape of the subject sitting on the horizon, which I place in the middle of the frame, choosing a degree of symmetry over other compositional approaches. That's usually an island or a headland I am aiming at, and my foreground is either featureless or without lines to guide my eye into the shot. I'm deliberately shunning depth and unequal proportions because that is not what the photo calls for. However, without learning the foundation my teacher gave me, I would not be able to make that compositional choice.
The Trouble With Listening to Criticism
There is one problem with always listening to and accepting criticism of our photographs. If we forever heed the advice given, we all end up shooting similar photos trying to meet the aesthetic whims of others. That stops us from experimenting and branching out.
Are those experimental images commercially successful or aesthetically pleasing to others? Not necessarily. But that doesn't matter. Not every photo you take must be a winner. Many photographers I speak to find their favorite photos are less popular than their more run-of-the-mill shots. Think of your experimental photographs as album tracks instead of hit singles. Those few people who like those shots probably have more discerning and sophisticated tastes.
Furthermore, remember that someone's appreciation or displeasure of any photograph is subjective. Just because someone doesn't like what you've done doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with your photos.
How to Critique Other's Work
So, what should you do if you are asked for a critique or review of someone else's work?
Firstly, say thank you for being invited to do so; it is a real privilege to be trusted with that. Then, take a moment and think about what the photographer was trying to achieve. Have they succeeded in that, and why? Only then, ask the photographer what they were aiming for. Unless they are working towards meeting the parameters of a very prescriptive brief or assignment, there is a good possibility that what they were seeking to accomplish was very different from what you imagined.
Sadly, many people today cannot acknowledge their subjectivity and accept that it is okay to have differing opinions. They are not prepared to discuss a subject, but must debate it. This has bled over into photography, and, as a result, creativity suffers. They make criticasters, not critics. So, when starting to give your opinion, remember that yours is only an opinion and, therefore, susceptible to personal bias.
Always begin by discussing the positive points of the image, relating it to both their perspective and yours. Start by asking the photographer what they think those positives are, and then, add to that. Next, ask them about how they might have approached it differently. Discuss other ways of achieving the desired result. This is where you can make suggestions, but phrase them as questions: "Have you thought about...?" or "What do you think if...?" When people dictate how the photo must be, they fail.
That discussion may cover the composition of the photo, what is included in the frame and what isn't, the camera settings, the story being told, and so on. Your job is to let the photographer consider other approaches and not to dictate to them how it must be.
Sum up the discussion and finish by congratulating the photographer, pointing out what they have done well.
A criticaster will always try to destroy you, whereas a talented critic will help you become better than they are.