Photography and the Addiction to Compliments, Praise, and Positive Criticism

Photography and the Addiction to Compliments, Praise, and Positive Criticism

When we create something like a photo, one of the most painful experiences can be receiving negative criticism regarding our photography. However, positive criticism can be equally damaging (and sometimes more so). Here’s why.

One of the most appealing aspects of photography is the praise we receive when we take a photo, display it, and receive affirmation that people liked the picture we created. The appreciation of our art helps to spur us into creating even more art through photography. However, like anything outside of moderation, too much praise can be harmful.

Praise and affirmation turn harmful when the drive of creating photography shifts from feeling fulfilled when we create something to feeling fulfilled only when we receive affirmation of what we’ve created. In simpler terms, when we are only happy about our photography when someone praises our photos, it may be time to start asking for ways to improve. And while I am all for encouragement, asking for criticism for the sake of growth is a healthy habit to develop.

How Positive Criticism Hurts Photographers

Only feeling fulfilled with your photography when you receive praise from creating it is a warning sign that you may be addicted to praise. Like any addiction, photographers who thrive on praise need to learn to break the habit. The issue is when we are continually receiving approval, we no longer strive to do better work. Constructive negative criticism helps to spur us to become better and create better work.

As a wedding photographer, I used to thrive on the results of seeing my bride and groom share their photos on their social media profiles and the reactions of their friends or family when they saw the images. I would judge the merit of my pictures according to how many good responses the photos received.

Sometimes, however, a bride or groom would upload my photos along with personal cell phone photos from the wedding day. A strange thing would occur when couples did this: their friends and family would be just as complimentary of the blurry, grainy cell phone photos as they were of the images I’d taken. I can’t tell you how irked this made me. “Can’t they see the difference?!” I’d think indignantly to myself. Obviously, they couldn’t, and for a good reason.

Most friends and family of my clients aren’t seasoned professional photographers. People who don’t see the subtle nuances of good lighting or composition may not know the difference between a professional photo and a snapshot from an amateur. Why was I putting so much weight on the opinions of people who may not even understand my original vision? 

How to Decide Whose Opinions to Trust

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” has given some great advice when trying to decide whose opinions to listen to, and whose opinions to discard. She says there are four questions to ask when choosing to accept or discard the criticism (both positive and negative) of others.

Do I trust this person’s taste and judgment?
Does this person understand what I’m trying to create here?
Does this person genuinely want me to succeed?
Is this person capable of delivering the truth to me in a sensitive and compassionate manner?

Gilbert says that if she’s unable to answer “yes” to all four questions regarding any given person, then she will not take their criticism into account. This is a good way of deciding who to listen to when it comes to others' opinions of your photography, good or bad.

Receiving anything other than positive criticism is a scary prospect, but its also one of the best ways you, as a photographer, can challenge yourself to grow. Consider purposing not to seek out praise for your photography and instead return to the roots of creating photos for the sake of creating art that you love. Trust your instincts and challenge yourself to try new techniques. So long as you’re creating photography that you love, who cares what others think?

If you're wondering if you're addicted to praise, here is a simple test to find out if praise drives your photography: if social media commenting didn't exist, would you still be driven to create photography?

Lead Image by Rawpixel.com via Pexels

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40 Comments

A former Facebook executive (Sean Parker) even admits the harm of tapping into human psychology and getting people hooked. I think it's quite damaging to constantly crave approval and praise. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/facebook-sean-parker-human_us_5a046...

And most couples/family/friends will always say good things about photos. To say something bad about a newly wed couple is socially unacceptable.

John D's picture

It's a real challenge. I've been looking for online communities that have a culture of constructive critique, but they seem few and far between. Any group (fstoppers, Flickr, 500px) I've found seems to not quite reach the critical mass where you're likely to get good feedback, though /r/photocritique seems pretty good (and I should go back and post and comment there more myself)

Bill Peppas's picture

I can be a pain in the... :D Just nudge me :)
In other news, if you want very high quality and strict critique on your photos, 1x.com is your friend ( or foe if you don't have thick skin :D )

John D's picture

Thanks Bill, I'll check out 1x.com as well.

Douglas Turney's picture

I would love to find a community that is critique based that will give honest opinions AND MOST IMPORTANTLY offer their rationale for their views. This is what I think helps the most in improving as a photographer. One of my critics I respect the most is my 14 year old daughter. I've found that she is very good about giving me feedback that is honest. I take her feedback as a quick up or down vote because she simply looks at the photo and decides if she likes it or not. On the other hand I don't take my wife's comments as being too helpful because I know she is too supportive of me.

Kirk Darling's picture

That will probably better be found in a forum catering to professionals one not necessarily excluding participation by enthusiasts, but being strict in demanding that critique standards remain a matter of professional experience with different types of paying clients rather than "it's my art, man!"

Hahahahaha didn't know that one !! It gave me a good morning kickstart :D

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

Didn't know this, great video, laughed hard ;)

Danette Chappell's picture

Haha, this was great! Thanks for sharing!

I almost never post or share photos and when I do, it's for a specific purpose and not any kind of praise, criticism, whatever. I've always said, "If someone tells me it's good, I won't believe them. If they say it's bad, I won't want to believe them." While constructive criticism can be helpful, it needs to be given appropriate weight. *No matter who it is*, their critique will be based on a subjective point of view.
Bottom line: If you have clients, they're the only ones you need to please. If you don't, you're the only one you need to please.

Kirk Darling's picture

But if you don't please your clients, do they know how to tell you why? Do they even know why?

Most times clients won't or can't tell you what they don't like, they simply don't buy or don't call you back after a job. They may try to work with you if they've got skin they're still trying to save, but even then they may not be able to articulate the problem or give you a means of solving it.

Conversely, how do you know what your clients will like? Just because others like it, doesn't mean your client(s) will. In my case, I have a good rapport with long-term clients. In any case, I would always confer with the client rather than depend on a third-parties opinion. That's not to say I never ask for someone else's opinion but I accept what I agree with and discard the rest. My son and his fiancé recently had engagement photos taken. I think they're terrible and I think my son and his fiancé don't like them either but, as you said, what can they do? In this case, there was no communication up front. She wore an outfit that was very unflattering for her figure. The photographer should have asked her to bring three outfits and shot in all three. Communication.

The 4 questions are a good idea. Though I don't think you should discard the criticism of people who are not capable of delivering the truth to me in a sensitive and compassionate manner (if the 3 other questions were answered by yes). You might pass next to very valuable advice. Instead, you just should know that it's their way of communicating, take the content only and throw away the form.

Kirk Darling's picture

Precisely correct.

Interesting list of criteria. Personally I would shorten the last point to 'Is this person capable of delivering the truth to me'. If they pass the previous three tests I would rather hear 'this is shit' from a person I trust and respect because when they say 'this is awesome' I will know they speak their mind and criticism is delivered in good faith and praise is genuine.

Kirk Darling's picture

"This is shit and this is why this is shit."

I'm fine with that.

Andy Day's picture

Was chatting to a creative director from a huge London ad agency recently. He mentioned that they sometimes find that photographers who have risen to fame through Instagram have a hard time accepting criticism and direction during a shoot.

That might be true and it's indeed something to manage for those photographers. Then there is also another issue, which deserves a post on its own I think: what to do when the client is asking very intensively for something you really know is crap? How to make them understand?
For example, in a documentary I am cutting now, the client did not want a particular person to appear just because they did not like him (and so did their consultant as well, which reinforced the client's opinion). Yet, the person was very relevant to introduce the context of a sequence which is now quite unclear and weaker. I didn't succeed to change their mind and now the documentary suffers from it. So any tips on that are welcome. :D

Danette Chappell's picture

Crazy. I definitely want to make sure that I'm constantly checking myself to make sure I'm still open to criticism!

Yes, getting a thumbs up or a like can be addictive. It's also addictive when a friend posts photos that I took of him/her, and others start asking who took the photo.

One real problem with this is that so many do not understand that Critique is not Criticism. Rather than learning from critical analysis they take anything that is not high praise as a personal attack.
Why do an honest critique of images when you are going to be vilified for doing so?
Saw this too often teaching photography in College. It took a lot of time for students to learn there was a difference. Sad part was many never learned it. The mentality from Little League that everyone gets a trophy.
Not all images are winners, not even from the finest photographers around - which is why they all own big trash cans. Sub standard work goes in the trash. Other than a learning experience it is not shown.

If you want praise for all your photographs tape them on the refrigerator door for mommy to praise your efforts. Don't torture the world with them in public.

I like the difference you make between Critique and Criticism. In french (my mother tongue), there is no such distinction. Both are the same word. That's probably why I never thought of it. Anyway, that gives me a new way to think about how to explain that to people whenever I will need it. Thanks for the insight !

Kirk Darling's picture

The real difference is that you pay tuition to get a critique.

When I think of criticism, I think of the Impressionists. The term itself was meant to be mockery. Egged on by French newspaper critics who called the paintings the work of lunatics and hashish-smokers, people would show up at gallery showings to mock and insult the paintings. At art auctions, people would pass around the paintings, deliberately holding them upside down and sideways and laugh.

Danette Chappell's picture

Interesting!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Love this very much!

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Horses for courses - this subdivides into distinct groups.

First - the pros. Their situation can prove quite precarious. Negative criticism can destroy not only their self-confidence, but also twist them onto an unfortunate side road by persuading them to do something different to avoid the criticism, when in fact the criticism might have been ill-founded. Or worse still - negative criticism can destroy the business - and I've come across at least one example of that, flowing out of bitchy and destructive behaviour by the couple who had engaged the photographer to do their wedding shots and afterwards tried to avoid paying for the photos by broadcasting damaging comments about the photographer and his work.

The flip side of that is positive criticism - and that can have unfortunate side effects too. Again, it can encourage the photographer to pursue the praise and go forward in the wrong direction. Or to get an over-inflated idea of his own importance - which can also be damaging, in the competitive world of professional photography.

And for the rest of us - the amateurs, both beginners, mid-range and serious stuff. Here, the impact will be similar but the outcomes differ, because there's no business - no clients telling you what they want - and complete freedom of personal decision making. Or is it complete? No - not if it's damaged or affected by misplaced criticism - whether the criticism is good OR bad.

I'm afraid I'm the wrong person to ask about this stuff. For a number of reasons.

1 - I worked out what I thought about "critics" when I was only a teenager, and that's now a very long time ago. As a general proposition, they are best described by the saying [mantra?] that "those who can, paint - those who can't, criticise!" Of course there are exceptions - but the world is also full of very bad and sometimes very nasty examples of critics for whom that is the ONLY assessment possible. So before anyone takes any notice whatsoever of a critic or his criticism, they should make a careful assessment of the critic!

2 - Photography is a bit better sheltered from the work of critics than we might imagine. In other fields, the critics publish their work in newspapers and other media. This encourages them to be "controversial", to put it as politely as I feel inclined to. In photography, they are generally more sincere, better informed and - surprise, surprise - often trying as hard as they can to be polite to the photographer and constructive in their comments. But be warned - not all of them are "nice" people, and some are horribly self-opinionated. Example - "do as I do, or your photography will be described as utter rubbish" - and I could put a name to that one, but I won't.

3 - Critics' comments often stem from a misunderstanding in their minds as to what the proper role of a critic is. Is it to "criticise"? - many of the critics who mouth off with negative criticisms are quite convinced that that IS their function. It's not - it stems from a poor understanding of language, and of the meaning of "critic". A critic OUGHT to be someone who provides a critique - not a criticism.

4 - I've found this before in other fields, so I'll chuck it on the heap. Does the critic have an ulterior motive? - one prominent restaurant critic in the state where I live enjoys making sarcastic comments about the restaurants he reviews, which puts me off reading his reviews anyway. Then I saw one about a place in my street (I live on a commercial street, with several restaurants within 50 metres of the front door). So I read it - and to my astonishment, no sarcasm - gentle praise - and a high score (I think he's only ever once given anyone a higher score than 16 out of 20, and he gave this one 16 - which was startling, because it's small and therefore the range of food is limited - and notoriously, the wines and cocktails are rather expensive). And the following week someone told me that he had shares in that business - so his review of the place couldn't possibly be neutral and unbiased.

5 - Critiques or reviews of other people's work can ONLY be "opinions". And "opinions" are an interesting phenomenon, from a philosophical point of view. Because they can only "agree" or "differ". That's ALL they can do. They are inherently incapable of being either "right" OR "wrong". And the best use that anyone can make of them is to have a discussion - unfortunately more often than not everything goes off the rails at this point, and the differences between those who are "for" and those "against" rapidly degenerate into an argument - not a sensible discussion - with no likelihood whatsoever of producing any kind of useful result, apart from a lot of ill-feeling.

6 - For reasons I won't bore you with here - at the tender age of 8, I ceased having any respect for what other people thought and decided that - instead - I would do my OWN thing. My poor bewildered mother went to her grave some 4 decades later, having spent the intervening years muttering from time to time that she didn't know what had become of me lately, I used to be such a nice little boy. (For the record - I was the only one of her children who was there for her when she needed it - looked after her for the last 20 years of her life - and held her hand and said goodbye to her, as she squeezed my hand and left). For the record - everyone else in the group, please note - say whatever you want to about this comment but aim it at the rest of the group. I'm perfectly serious about saying this - I won't take any notice!

But that's unusual. Most people ARE affected, for better or for worse, by what other people think, say or do. I've lost one close friend from my school days and half a century ago come September 19 this year, I lost my brother to the psychological damage years of criticism of him had done, giving him a deep inferiority complex and an inability to deal with a crunch issue in his life. Both of them committed suicide. So having the power in your hands to be a "critic" comes with a very heavy price tag and a very heavy responsibility to act and behave in an appropriate and sympathetic manner. Critics often don't.

7 - We all know about GAS - and critics' comments (good OR bad) can stimulate an attack of GAS and cause people to waste a lot of money, senselessly buying gear that won't do a thing to improve their photography.

8 - You'll love this one - FINALLY, I should add that I have on a number of occasions come across experienced photographers who take time out to pass the benefit of their knowledge and experience on, to others - to foster them as "growing photographers", and to encourage them to develop and improve. Their comments are kind and gentle, positive and encouraging - and they manage to deal with the "good" points and the "bad" points in that framework, without hurting anyone, and without sending anyone haring off on the wrong course. I could provide quite a long list of names on this one, and I apologise to the others I am not mentioning here - you guys almost certainly already know who you are, from comments I've posted on your articles. But two that sprang to mind writing this paragraph are Ming Thein and Spencer Cox. And there are plenty of others.

William Howell's picture

On point 2, could you please put a name to the pro you were alluding to!

And on point 8, were you talking about me? : )

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

LOL - I spent my working life in the legal profession - no, I won't pass the name on - couldn't raise any enthuiasm about spending the rest of my life fighting with him when he brings a suit for damages for libel.
As for point 8 - I haven't seen any of your articles, but I have seen some comments from you and yes, they rate with the "good guys". I also had a peep at some of the photos in your portfolio just now, and some of the are absolutely superb! I see that on your own site, you most certainly DO share your knowledge and experience - in an amusing an appealing way.
Just a suggestion - I use DxO ViewPoint 3, to correct verticals. On a good day, you can rely on it in AUTO mode - sometimes that misreads the signposts, so I have to make manual adjustments. It's a very effective program (does horizontals and other things as well) - even cropping, although the cropping function is restricted to the format (horizontal or vertical) of the original shot. (You can change the ratio, when cropping - eg from 4x6 to 5x7) but you can't change from horizontal to vertical, or vertical to horizontal.. Not that it matters - I use VP3 virtually exclusively for perspective correction I do have a couple of shift/tilt lenses,but (sadly) it's not always convenient to take them with me on a shoot.
Anyway VP3 is great - they've so far given me free upgrades several times since my original purchase - and the current price is about US$80. No I don't have any connection whatsoever with DxO - except that my family was originally french, and I like DxO's products. And VP3 is a lot less expensive than a tilt/shift. :)

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