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 via Pexels

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Previous comments

I grew up in a family of artists (writers, painters, actors), and all of them would say that critique is necessary in order to perfect or advance their craft.

I got started in photography a couple of years ago and quickly posted a some pictures to a few social media sites. I got some likes and comments such as "great image!", or "beautiful". While nice, this did nothing to advance my ability. I quickly found some folks, through online education and family contacts to give me some constructive criticism. This, above everything (except maybe taking photos everyday) has been the most helpful thing for my education.

Hello Danette, Excellent article. I see this a lot on FB and I even had a fellow photographer ask me why I don't "like" his photos anymore.

Danette Chappell's picture

Hi Rich! Thanks for reading! I'm glad the article is resonating with people. I think its valuable to remind people that praise can be just as harmful as harsh negative criticism in terms of causing a photographer to become stagnant​ in their growth!

Scott Hays's picture

There is a lot of emphasis being placed on receiving criticism from "critics" in the posts I have read.

One of the things that is going to help is in actually printing your work. If a photographer has only ever posted their work online and gotten "likes" or "thumbs up", the day they have to actually print their work they may be shocked. Just because we look at our work on the computer screen doesn't mean it is going to print exactly the same. In addition, every print may need a different paper to give it the best look possible. There are so many different papers out there that can give your print an amazing look it is ridiculous.

So on to receiving criticism. First, start printing your work. Next; there are organizations like PPA in every state. Ok; the state organizations won't be PPA but you get the idea. Some states have monthly meetings, quarterly meetings then annual conferences. There is the actual PPA itself. I am no longer a member but I can tell you if you would like honest, not going to beat you over the head feedback, an organization like that is the place to go.

Enter competitions in an organization like that. It is an eye opener. As good as you feel your work is, you get an eye opener when you go and view work. If nothing else; find out where the next annual conference for PPA/WPPI or any of the other major conferences are; and go for the weekend. Like I say; the work will blow your mind.

Don't be afraid to join these local/state/regional organizations. The only excuse for not joining is that you are afraid to get feedback. My first year it hurt. My second year it didn't hurt so much. The third year it didn't hurt at all. My first year of submitting to the national competition it stung... repeat and rinse....

Get your work printed... stop getting feedback online. When people can be anonymous they can be as nasty as they want, and they don't have to point at the print and be completely upfront, they don't have to point at that print and say here is what you can do differently. Criticism without being able to tell you how to improve is worthless.

"Positive criticism" whether it is healthy or not isn't really the bigger issue here. People's addiction to attention and praise is coming from somewhere much deeper, an issue that society needs to study a whole lot more before we can hope to solve it.

The worse issue, in photography in particular, is the compulsion that people feel to bash and bicker for no reason, or simply because it makes them feel more powerful and valuable for them to be right all the time...

Tim van Kempen's picture

This is very important read, especially in the day and age we're living right now. Please keep up the great work and keep posting articles like this :)

Justin Howard's picture

Good article! In the social media obsessed world we live in today l think most photographers can relate to a lot of the points put forward in this piece.

I think especially when you are starting out in digital photography there is a tendency to judge your work based solely on the opinions of others, the dopamine hit you get when someone hits 'like' or responds "great work" or "nice!" soon becomes passively addictive regardless of the reasons behind their comments. Also, sometimes it can get to the point where the feedback supersedes the merit of the actual picture itself by this stage you are almost uploading pictures in order to get the positive feedback itself.

I have also been through periods of over-analysing people's compliments in my head: them: "those colours really pop out", me: are you saying that the shot is over-saturated; them: "nice sky!", me: yeah thumbs up for mother nature but what my picture; them: "nice work, you must have a really good camera", me: total facepalm.

One of the main distinctions l draw is whether the person is a photographer or not (l am sure we all have a mixture of creatives and non creatives following our work, don't we!) if they are then their words will always have more weight behind them and past that if they have any creative endeavours at all. Family and close friends will always have your well being at heart first and foremost so its hard to take what they say as a genuine and well thought out critical response. But then again some photographers can be incentivised to downgrade your work and the work of others in their field, as Jean Guaron alluded to above they may have ulterior motives.

With all this forming part of a very complicated mixture l think you have to come back to basics; what does the picture mean to me?; how do l feel about it? etc.