How To Bring The "Constructive" Back To "Constructive Criticism"

How To Bring The "Constructive" Back To "Constructive Criticism"

When I was in High School, I took, among other things, an introduction drawing and painting class. At the beginning of the year, our teacher, Mrs. Yantz directed us to draw a landscape using either crayon, charcoal, pen or pencil. At the end of the session, she told us, excitedly, that we were going to tape our finished pieces to the chalkboard and our classmates would critique our work. When we were done, and our drawings were taped up on the board, I listened quietly as my classmates tore one another apart. The majority of the reasons seemed awfully subjective and really didn’t seem to make much sense to me - “I don’t like this because it sucks," “I don’t like what you did with the colors," or "that mountain looks like a pile of poop," etc. When it was my turn, I took part in the tearing apart, happily breaking down everyone else's work the way they broke mine down (my mountain, apparently, looked like a pile of poop). Although it felt good at the moment, it wasn’t until a few minutes later when one of the quieter (and more talented) students in the class looked at the majority of the work and said something to the effect of, “I don’t know, I think they’re all good in their own way…” She went on to [briefly] explain why each drawing was good in it’s own way and where and how each one could be improved. 

The class reacted in the typical way an 11th grade last period art class would react - poorly - and I wish I could say that my 16 year-old-self reacted any differently, but I, like the rest of the class, shunned our classmate back to silence. Our teacher, overburdened, overworked, and quite possibly a few years past retirement tried to explain to the rest of the class that that student was right - critique does not really have to be negative and shouldn’t involve tearing things apart because you personally don't like it, that it should help make the artists next work better. It didn’t matter, however, the negative connotation attached to critique and criticism stuck. 

As I drifted on and out of high school and through college and into the “real world”, the concept of critique took on a few different meanings but none that ever seemed to relate back what we were supposed to have learned that day in art class. It wasn’t until years later - after I picked up a camera and began posting my work online - that I realized how ridiculously out of whack the concept of critique, or CC as it’s often called had become. 

When we post an image online for review we’re almost literally putting ourselves out on a limb. That image, whatever it may be of, is something we feel particularly proud of and despite our lack of certainty about how the image should be processed (color vs black and white), how the retouching looks, whether or not the posing works, if the color toning is appropriate, the etc, etc, had we not felt that the photo had at least something we would not have posted it. In effect, we’re taping it up on the blackboard and expecting the rest of the class to tear it apart… 

Unfortunately, it seems that is still all the “class” knows how to do. I participated in a conversation the other night which began, as they all do, quite innocently enough. A photographer posted a photo in a Facebook photography group. He didn’t ask for critique or review or anything, he just posted an image that he enjoyed making and one which, I assume, he was particularly proud of. Fair enough, right? Well, within a few minutes, the ensuing thread was filled with reasons why the image sucked, how the posing didn’t work, how the shadows should be lifted, and how he broke several rules of photography. Rules of photography aside, all of the critique was based on personal subjectivity! Not a single ounce of reality-based constructive criticism - just other photographers sitting at home telling some guy how they’d do it better. 

Arm Chair Photographers...

I digress. While the criticism can be harsh, the point of it isn’t, in my opinion, to impart our style upon the work of someone else - it’s to look at the work and - objectively - tell the artist what could be fixed / what could be done better. There is, of course, a caveat to this. When compiling a critique of someone’s work, the person doing the critique should be steeped and/or familiar in that particular style and should have a body of work to prove their prowess among that genre. For example, I am a lifestyle and swim photographer. I can look at and critique lifestyle and swim images all day and I think, based on my experience and my portfolio, what I offer should carry some weight. If you ask me to critique a landscape photo, well, although I have seen some mountains, I haven't the slightest idea on how to properly photography them (or draw them)

See what I’m getting at here? When my friend posted his photo in the photography group it was immediately torn apart for reasons which had very little to do with the actual photo - shadows, rules, color, posing - none of the critique was constructive in my opinion because within the first few comments, he had said something to the effect of, I’m not posting this for critique - this is my work and I wanted to show it to you. Well, as Internet “discussions” go, it devolved quickly into name calling and attention whoring until everyone got fed up or tired and went elsewhere.

In light of that (and many, MANY other experiences like it), I’ve compiled a short list of how to give and accept criticism and critique. It might not work for everyone, but it’s at least I think a start. It’s kind of tongue in cheek, but, well…

When Giving Criticism

Be sure the artist / photographer is asking for critique: Nothing sets people off like posting work to show off and then immediately having someone comment how they would change it or what they would do better. I think it’s best to assume that unless the photographer specifically states they are looking for critique, we should keep our opinion to ourself. 

Been steeped and/or familiar with the specific genre: I mean…

Have the body of work to back it up: While everyone in your family agrees that your newborn photography page has some great photos, please keep your criticisms in check. Listen to what the others are saying, look at and understand what the photographer is asking for. 

Be freaking nice about it: Nobody likes a jerk. And on the Internet, people are mostly jerks (or at least it’s easy to come off as one). I’m not saying you have to give the “compliment sandwich” but, come on, we’re all working toward that same goal here. Propping up others is often the key to our own success.. 

Accept the fact that it’s not YOUR work: Everyone is different and is going to do things different and yes, that includes taking photos. If your criticism is based on what you would do differently, it’s not an objective criticism. 

When Receiving Criticism

Realize what you're asking for: You’re putting your work out there into the proverbial lion’s den. Despite my repeated requests, people aren’t going to be nice about telling you what you’ve done wrong. When they tell you, accept it graciously and…

Recognize the source: Not everyone who gives critique knows what they’re talking about. Smile, nod, and move on. 

Don’t get angry: I’ve learned that people love to tell other people they’re wrong. This is a part of life. When you encounter one of these creatures, realize they’re unhappy with the vast majority of their own lives and that somewhere, someone is critiquing them just as harshly. Best you can do (aside from avoiding these people like the plague) is smile and move on. 

Be appreciative: When the criticism seems appropriate, meaning, some valid points are raised, there is a consensus, and your work will be better for it, a heartfelt thank you seems like the right thing to do.

Keep working: Never, ever get discouraged when someone critiques your work. Take a step back and see if it works for you. If so, get back to work and make sure what you put out next time is at least 10% better. 

Wrap Up

With all that said, I realize that I’m not going to change the world and suddenly everyone in forums and groups is going to start to be nice to one another and I'm not about to revolution the critiquing industry (wait, is that a thing?). I recognize what industry we’re in and I know how competitive it is. As I type this, I am sitting in Miami amongst some of the best fashion, lifestyle and swimwear photographers in the world and to be honest, it’s difficult, despite how proud I am of my own body of work, not to look around and critique the hell out of someone else’s work simply because I want nothing more than to be in their position… Ugh. 

Thanks for reading, 


John Schell | Instagram 
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David Vaughn's picture

Great points! It's all too often that constructive criticism on the Internet can turn into personal attacks or disparaging comments. :/

Another thing that I think is good to consider is the possibility of an open dialogue about the work. So many times, someone will give decent critique, and then the photographer will respond explaining why they did things a certain way, and the critique-r gets offended and says something like "Obviously you didn't want critique at all."

Critique, when done civilly and honestly, shouldn't be a one way street. If both parties try to get on the same page, then I think the critique is much more useful.

That being said, there are ways of abusing the system such as saying that that your poorly focused photos are "part of your style" or they're "fine art."

I'm just throwing my .02 into the ring. :P

Richard Johnson's picture

Just to be clear...Are you asking for any CC on this article?

Russell Bradley's picture

I couldn't agree with this article more, I personally strive to do better when someone encourages me, in and through all aspects of my life, when faced with the opposite I pout! ..... no not really, but it is always harder to self fulfill when constantly put down.

I typically try to be as constructive as possible, and will usually find the good in the majority of photos. Especially if I see what they were trying to accomplish and let them know how close they are, just try these things next time or look out for things like this next time so you will have a better photo the next go around.

PJ Rankin's picture

I like your points here John. I think it's particularly important to be proud of what you've put out there, for putting it out there in the first place. As someone who plays music and has played the likes of open mic nights, sometimes someone gets up and they're awful. But you give credit where credit is due. That they had enough confidence to go that far and perform in public. It seems exactly the same with photography. And although I'm still learning techniques everyday, I'm a hell of lot more proud of my photography today than just a year ago, even if I look back after a few weeks and think "I could've done this". And if some 'arm chair' photographer doesn't like it, that's their problem. :)

Rob Timko's picture

I've been waiting for someone to say this better than I could. ;) Photographers are the worst part of the photography industry. As well, they are also the best. It's a catch-22. They also drool at tearing each other apart for some reason.

'Have the body of work to back it up" - Eh, you don't have to be a baker to know when the cake tastes like poop.

If you're going to critique, don't be lazy about it. Flippant 'this does nothing for me' or 'they both stink' is being lazy. I think a lot of photographers also don't put in context the photographer and think everyone with a camera should be ripped apart for everything, universally. If you've had your camera a week and are just getting the swing of things..that critique looks different than critiquing the seasoned pro who has a vast portfolio.

Also, don't pick things out just to find things wrong. That's pedantic and silly. I try to split that difference and put on my 'normal person hat' rather than my 'technical photographer hat'.

Christian Berens's picture

Great writeup! I ask for C&C often and am asked to give C&C often as well. It really disappoints me and makes me feel like I'm wasting my time when the common excuse is, "oh that's just my style"
Heavy vignette or dark washed out subjects are your style? That makes me give up at that point.

There is definitely a balance when it comes to being harsh and giving constructive truths, I try to limit my C&C sometimes so I don't write something I regret lol

Thanks for the article!

Bert McLendon's picture

Nice Article John! I'd like to add that it's very important to add the story of the photo, the art direction given, limitations if there were any and the overall goal. This narrows down the direction for people giving the critique and can add focus to what's important for the photographer. It also eliminates sounding defensive because the Direction/limitations/goals were added on in the description of the photo. There is nothing worse than shooting something with certain directives and limitations only to have them pointed out in a critique because the person critiquing doesn't know the back story to the image. hypothetical example- "I shot this for a client the other day. They specifically wanted it in color and with one light to give a darker mood than normal. They also approved the desaturated look I added in post which I like. Overall I'm happy with the image but I'm curious if the composition is the best it can be. Keep in mind that the hand and knees have to be in the picture because they are a huge part of the story for this subject (Parkinson's disease)." - This points out that the photographer is strictly looking for feedback on the composition and has done a good job on educating the viewer on the image itself.

So someone coming in saying "Dude this would look a lot better in Black and white" or "I think a kicker light would have separated the subject from the background" are completely ignoring the specific goals of the image and honestly making their feedback seem ignorant.

Long story short, I think more information/story about the images posted for critique is always good for everyone. It lets us see what challenges the photographer faced as well as what they were able to achieve with those limitations. Sure there are always those times where we just want to get info on a image in which we can't seem to pick a direction and a standard "CC Please!" might work, but I think the more info given up front can always help the info gained on the back end.

Zach Sutton's picture

How to Write The Longest Title In Fstoppers History and Get Away With It Using Tact and Writing a Generally Impressive Article For Readers To Focus On Thus Having The Title Completely Fly Under The Radar.

Zach Sutton's picture

By John Schell


John Schell's picture

I don't see a long title.. ;)

Burt Johnson's picture

Though I agree with most of what you say, I wonder about the "posting to a facebook photography site." Was the site FS?

The FB photo sites I subscribe to are all intended to share AND get CC. They are not meant to be just another Flickr site. As such, ANY photo I see on the sites I follow is assumed to be asking for CC, even if they don't state it. If they later say they don't want CC, then my reaction (though I have never posted it) is that they should not have posted it there -- and instead should return to Flickr or (if it is good enough) perhaps 500px.

There are a lot of really good points. I went to a top notch art school... critique was brutal. It was to the point where everyone was in defense mode and wasn't listening to the actual constructive comments because you felt like you were being ripped to shreds. Who is that benefitting? Really, the only thing that most of us will say now about it is we have thick skin.

I would disagree with having the body to back it up though. I can't cook a steak worth a damn but I know when it tastes like shoe leather. Most critics of any sort are not experts at the craft they are reviewing whether it is food, movies, books, art, etc. I guess the point is that often we know what would make something better without having it in our own portfolios.

Another point when giving critique is to know whether you are critiquing the photo or the style or what you are looking at. I will never forget the time not so long ago when I posted a photo I took with B&W infrared film (I have a hoard from before Kodak discontinued HIE) for the sake of discussing the evolution of photography and how you can't really do it all in Photoshop. Someone gave me a critique that it was overly photoshopped, the trees were glowing in an unnatural way, why did I add so much grain, etc. LOL!

It's important to know what DOES work when you are critiquing someone too. When you realize someone's strengths, you also know how to communicate with them and they understand how to make it better. I'm pretty decent at black and white landscapes, with film, in a wet darkroom. Learning how to shoot color portraits outside with a digital camera was like learning another language. The comments I've had about my stuff that I understand the most are the people who relate well to how I see things and how I learned photography.

James Nedresky's picture

Jennifer, one point here. Most of those who are officially employed to write critical reviews regarding any creative field such as art or music know an awful lot about what they are critiquing. They write from the standpoint of critical analysis, asking that which is important to question, not simply writing questionable subjective commentary. As for the often annonymously posted online critiquing, you simply take what you get. You take what you need, and leave the rest.

Anonymous's picture

Quality content, John. Motivating for anyone gaining traction and a good reminder for those who have already made tracks.

Randy Budd's picture

You raised some interesting ideas. 99% of the time I only give the positives in my comments. I am quite reluctant to point out anything negative for feat that it will offend the shooter. I believe that I should build up and encourage them to keep on shooting as opposed to tearing them down. Also, who am I???? I am a nobody. I know good work when I see it, but I don't have the skills yet to produce it myself. Therefore, I could be out of line with my critique having no work of my own to back it up. Without the work, my opinion holds no weight. As a result, I will continue with my positive comments.

Dave Piper's picture

Very well written and quite on topic for something I was writing my self !!

I personally despise critiques. especially the nonsense debates that rage on FB or any other social site.

If a critique is meant to be taken seriously and to heart by the artist, it needs to be coming one-on-one with someone learned and that they respect, in order to take into consideration a myriad of factors that determine the critique itself. Only then does it become meaningful, because it can be assumed that the person doing the critique can get answers to "why" and "how" that make up the reason for "being", and they can encourage and train the artist at the same time.

Technical hurdles and training aside, popular and personal tastes are far too subjective for anyone in the creative arts to take fly-by critiques seriously, and especially on a world-wide scale such as that coming from social networks. What works in Germany and garners votes in Canada, does not guarantee praise in France, Ami-Land or England... let alone India or Japan.

Also... subject matter popularity and specifically people: as in beautiful curvaceous girl with long hair... in bikini + sunset + lotsa skin + HAWTness-Factor... will always trump Gritty Old Fisherman On A Pier In Front of Boat in Black and White. The only peers in popularity contests are Cats and Dogs.. and most of those winning entries are from cell phones.

TL;DR - most if not all social critiques are for the "birds"... literally if you catch the slang.

"Recognize the source: Not everyone who gives critique knows what they’re talking about. Smile, nod, and move on."

This is key. Everyone has an opinion on everything. Only a small percentage have any idea about what they're talking about.

Adrian J Nyaoi's picture

If I have nothing positive to say about an image or music or any thing, then I would just shut up. The harshness of any critique is often soften by a few lines of positive comments preceding it.

Kristi Woody's picture

Great points! I tend to defend my choices when I get critiqued, which is a terrible habit. Working on it :) Also, love the warmth in the images you posted. Makes me so sad that it's rainy and chilly here!

Check out Photo Critique on Google+. It's a small group that follows some simple rules:

-People submitting a photo for critique must in turn critique another photo. This keeps down the number of people just posting to get +1s and people who will criticize all day without presenting their own work for scrutiny
-Provide constructive criticism, but be nice

It seems to be working

Anonymous's picture

When having a look to what you made time ago you realize that your own critics fade away.
So, bringing a photograph to social media waiting for a booting like composition is wrong, lighting is not correct or it's out of focus is not the way of building a proper pattern of criticism.
The good criticism starts with the lyrics of Bob Dylan
...and don't criticize what you can't understand.