Is getting criticism necessarily a bad thing? How does it affect who you are as an artist?
The internet and social media have allowed for almost anyone to be able to express their opinion about anything with almost no restrictions. Of course, this is a neutral by-product of the fact that technology has made communication so much faster, easier, and more convenient. This has allowed for important yet little-known truths to come to light and potentially inspire change. However, when this capability falls into less kind hands, a harsher environment is established.
Over the pandemic, I’ve been given a handful of chances to speak and give lectures to younger creatives. These mainly comprise of college students or even younger. While a lot of questions are asked about technical and creative aspects of photography, there is one question that I always seem to find myself answering. Younger photographers seem to be quite concerned about how they can thrive in an environment with a lot of harsh criticism and that is why they ask about my personal experience.
Negative Comments and Social Media
Social media is not always a pleasant place. If you haven’t accepted that then you haven’t reached out far enough to other people. However, it might make sense to think that people are generally biased into thinking that the internet is dominated by negativity simply because we pay more attention to the negative and hurtful posts, comments, and messages and tend to overlook the positive ones. People also seem to be more compelled into speaking up when they feel the need to point out something bad or wrong, and less when they find things correct and in order. Perhaps social media is a harsh environment because it’s mostly those with negative observations who speak up and people, in general, do not give affirmations nearly as much.
How Criticism Affects You
How we handle criticism varies from one person to the other. It is logical to see criticism as something you would generally want to avoid because they simply point out imperfections in our work. However, one person’s reaction to criticism (at least the true constructive kind) will reflect how they see their work themselves, and how they see themselves as artists altogether. As artists, it is crucial to get used to criticism and be able to determine which ones are valid and constructive, and be able to weed out the empty insults and remarks. To thrive as a creative it is necessary to develop a certain level of resilience to such feedback but it is entirely normal to be swayed and affected by criticism to a healthy extent.
It’s also important to realize that people give and express criticism of other people’s work for many different reasons. There are well-meaning ones who give unbiased feedback that aim to help the person improve their craft or give due affirmation. There are people who simply just react without giving any kind of input about the work in question, and there are people who speak out and give criticism because they see it as a way to boost their own ego. It is important to assess the validity of the statements before we allow criticism to affect us.
How you react to criticism in the public eye can also affect your own image and branding as an artist or simply as a professional. Many respected photographers and other visual artists remain respected amidst constant criticism simply because of how well they handle them. Privately, being able to filter and analyze criticism can help someone not just stay afloat amidst them but also use it to improve themselves and their work just like how criticism should.
Verifying the Nature of Criticism
A crucial step in dealing with criticism is verifying its true nature. You simply want to know and determine if the point is even valid before you let it affect you and consider what it suggests. There are some important questions you need to answer to be able to determine this. The first is if there is actually substance in the remark. Does the comment aim to express opinion or just dislike? Is it talking about the piece or targeting the person instead? Is there actual intention to give meaningful insight? Or is the person just handing out insults?
The second is you want to determine if the observations are true. Is the observation something that can be made by anyone? If not, is the person credible enough to make that observation? If it is true, does it apply to what you intend to create? It’s important to note that while a person is entitled to their opinion about your work, you have to determine if the reason behind them are actual mistakes or simply because of incompatibility of your style and their personal taste. After all these, you will be able to determine generally whether the chunk of criticism is right or wrong.
If the person is wrong or the comment is invalid, that is always a point to consider in the future and for now, it is an indirect affirmation of whatever you’re doing with your art. If you are secure with your personal style and taste, if your craft is a credible translation of your vision as an artist, and if your work does not cause harm or insult to anyone else, then there is no need to defend or even just explain it.
On the other hand, if the observations are valid, then there is so much to be taken from them. Constructive criticism should never be taken as negative. True constructive criticism gives a lot of insight to consider and it can help you identify weaknesses in what you do. Being able to do so gives you a good starting point to improving on these identified factors and while it can have a bit of a sting, being given valuable constructive criticism can be a great thing especially when it comes from credible sources.
In expressing our opinion and giving criticism, there is virtually almost unlimited freedom in doing so. However, prudence in this matter can go a long way in making a more pleasant atmosphere for photographers and creatives of all levels of skill and experience. We must avoid giving criticism that only aims to insult and degrade, we must avoid imposing just our personal taste on aesthetics and methods on the work of other people, and ultimately, we must give criticism with the means and intention to encourage improvement and even inspire a fellow artist who probably has the same struggles that you currently experience or have experienced in the past.
Most people's work is terrible, that's the sad fact. If you can't reason that this world is a nightmare then really what hope do you have of producing work within it? None. You obviously aren't a deep thinker.
Calvin & Hobbs....my favorite cartoon of all time!
I shoot a lot of items with fabrics and fabric samples for the past 24 years. Drum scans, digital captures… I have shot and processed a lot that requires close color rendition on proofs and most has been in CMYK. When I go shoot cars, I believe I can really retain fairly well the original color in my head probably due to the demand clients have in other industries.
So one day a guy posted on a social media group a car that I have shot many times myself and I made the “mistake” of saying that the color was not accurate. The guy was very popular on that group so right away my comment was trashed, taken as an attack on the photographer. This was a photographers discussion group so I did not expect such a response. Never the less the photographer nicely agreed that the colors were not accurate which put an end on additional negative comments addressed to me.
Otherwise when I started, I went to Paris, to knock at the door of a few studios with my “portfolio”. The first and last guy I met was super nice and took time to look. He totally trashed most of my photos with comments (politely and I thanked him) and made me realize that I had a lot of work to do. This was a great experience, so I worked harder from that point.
Photography is a subjective form of art, you have to be able to take criticism, understand the source and then find motivation within it. I have received both sides of it and know that you cannot become complacent. Do you play it safe and only shoot your strongest genre and specific style within? No, you challenge yourself and learn more because only then do you improve.
90% of the Internet photography world will never know, because they don’t display their work.
On various online photography forums, I have often seen critique given by people who do not have any work of their own displayed. I find this quite odd ... how can we know if someone's opinion is viable unless we can see the caliber of work that they produce themselves?
If someone cannot create photos that I find to be excellent, then that person's comments mean nothing to me. Only those who have been there and done that, and done it well, have anything worthwhile to say.
I want critique that is based on years of experience and success, not just based on what somebody thought up as they sat at their computer.
It’s easy to get away with being negative about peoples work behind the veil of the internet… same with gear and everything else… anyone can log in and say oh XYZ camera and lens is useless but provide no context as to how they know.
As a Fuji owner I see on a daily basis people claiming the AF doesn’t work, yet I have sharp shots.
Getting sharp shots isn't all that matters. What many of us need and want is a camera / lens combination that will take a tack sharp photo every single time, regardless of what the conditions are. Of course one can get sharp, in focus photos with any camera, even cheap crap junk cameras and lenses. But will any old camera or lens get a bird in rapid flight in perfect focus, all 15 shots in a 15 shot burst perfectly focused on the bird's eye, even when the background is very busy and contrasty?
I recently got a very nice, marketable image of a running Whitetail buck with my Canon 6D. But I only got one great shot, when the occasion would have yielded at least 4 or 5 great frames if I had had a camera shooting far more frames per second than my backup 6D shoots. Did the old, less capable camera give me a great shot that was sharp? Yes. Did it give me all of the great, sharp shots that I would have ideally wanted from that opportunity? No. Not even close. Great images wre never taken, that could have been taken if. I had had a much more capable camera.
I don't mind criticism, if it is constructive to make one a better photographer or anything else. I hate the vague criticism made by people, like "this sucks" or "try a different profession." criticisms like that does not make one a better photographer.
If you're going to display your work, no matter where, you can't be thin skinned. It's subjective. You will NEVER make everyone happy. You have to be happy with your finished product, or, if you're commissioned, your client has to be happy. Beyond that, it becomes background noise.
"Don't take criticism from someone you wouldn't take advice from"
Read this 5 time, understand it and have a better life.
This is very true… people who’s attitude you don’t like before they attempt to critique your image are not going to be offering you anything useful.
I’ve often found that someone who is a dick, will make dick like comments about peoples work, so essentially just staying true to form.
ouf that was a good one. post it note-on the desk.
Great piece Nicco. When I was in school for Fine Arts we had to go to painting class, put up our work, and have our critique. Then to Drawing class, put up our work- another critique. Then to 2D design... same. I would quite literally have my work critiqued day in and day out for years. Now, as an adult I see the value of those times where I developed the skill, as you discuss, to ask myself those basic questions. "Is the person's criticism valid? Is it educated, on topic and with the intention of discussing my art?" If it is- even though it may sting a bit, I see it as a gift they are giving me towards considering elements of my work to become better. If it's just some grumpy naysayer "Most people's work is terrible" with broad strokes, I've learned to not even be bothered by them anymore. Looking back, years of being critiqued may have been one of the most valuable things I learned in College.
Many years ago, I sent a link of my Whitetail Deer portfolio to a successful professional wildlife photographer. His response was simple, yet meaningful:
"You need better bucks and better light."
Most of my photos were taken in overcast conditions, which are real easy to shoot in, yet tend to get boring if not mixed in among some directly lit images.
And almost all of my photos were of average and below-average bucks, in terms of antler size and physical maturity. They were mostly 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 year old bucks, when Whitetail bucks don't fully mature until they are 5 1/2 years old.
I valued this criticism, and thought of those words, "you need better bucks and better light" thousands of times over the next decade. Those words drove me to shoot in challenging light and to search and search and search for bigger bucks. Thank you, Tony Bynum, for helping to make me a better deer photographer!
This was a good pointer, good listener too.
I learned a very valuable lesson from David Bausch. He asked a very simple question: "Did you get the shot?"
I take pictures for my enjoyment. I watch You Tube videos by Alex Kibbel and Sean Tucker for ideas, suggestions, and to view the works of the greats who contributed to this art form, my preferences being Jane Bown and James Vanderzee. But I keep my efforts to myself because in the end it's how I feel about my finished product that I print out and tape into my journals.