Opinions are like cameras: everybody’s got one, and it should be upgraded once in a while. If you love giving feedback on photography, great, but make sure you're doing it in a way that’s right for the giver as well as the receiver.
Everyone's a Critic
As enriching as my liberal arts college experience was, I often joke about how college costs an excessive fortune, but at least I can critique the hell out of a historical painting.
That sarcasm comes from a mixture of regret for pursuing a degree of questionable value (I've never had a single client ask for college credentials) together with resentment over my college’s seeming over-emphasis on artistic critiquing.
Very little emphasis was given in my arts school on marketing, bookkeeping, or invoicing. Lots and lots of emphasis was given to developing such incisive commentary as "I feel like the male subject being cast into the shadow of the image is really a metaphor for the alienation a millennial can feel when expected to represent capitalistic virtues in an increasingly toxic America.”
Maybe that's what was going through my head when I told my friend to stand in the corner for my Photo I class project. Or maybe I had no idea what I was doing, and it just looked cool. Those with art school experience might recognize how such "deep thought” can suffocate art, including photography.
Cynicism aside, critical abilities are important in photography. First, let’s differentiate the two types of critiques: the "artsy meaning" critiques and the more practical, technical examinations. The former can be left to art houses and gallery openings; the latter is what we can utilize in our professional universe to benefit others as well as solidify our own understanding and approach to photography.
Benefits of Proper Critique
Why should you care about your approach to critique? Because just as photographic work ranges from weak to strong, so do critiques of photography. Telling photographers that their images are weak and they should give up on photography is not just rude and arrogant, it’s also a missed opportunity to offer help and exercise the analytical part of your brain; a challenge that can also help improve your own images.
Of course, there will always be trolls, and you should discount those critiques. While discouraging others, an unreasonably mean-spirited critic won't likely be giving out good advice anyway.
It's easy to look at a piece of artwork and say "that's crap" or "it's so boring." It's much harder and more rewarding to recognize and articulate exactly how subpar work can be improved.
Tips on Improving Photo Critique
Take it from someone who has given and received countless hours of photography critique: There’s a right and wrong way to offer it.
Be methodical in your approach. Take time to gather all the elements of the image: composition, lighting, subject, space created, mood, etc.
- If you see an obvious issue, for example an odd angle or slightly tilted horizon, point it out and move on. Be encouraging, and say what you like about the image plus what didn't work for you.
Be specific about what you think is working and what is not. For example: "I love the dark subject matter, and the filtered lighting you cast on it really enhances the mood of the man in the corner. But next time you might find that adding a hair light behind the subject could keep it from blending in with the background."
Telling the creator "I love this!" is nice, but doesn't help. Again, break your appreciation down and explain exactly what you like.
- Remember that while there are "rules" to photography, the rules can be intentionally broken and happy accidents occur all the time. Perhaps the photographer wanted to underexpose the image for dramatic effect. Maybe that lens flare had purpose. Don't always assume the creator knows nothing.
Always be skeptical when you receive a critique. Ask yourself: What is the source of this feedback? Does the source have strong credentials? Is the commenter at a skill level in which the critique is valid? Remember that where there's free advice, there's often bad advice.
Don't be a jerk. That advice will fall upon the deaf ears of those who most need to hear it, since they troll out of attention-seeking misanthropy and not out of healthy motives.
Give It Away Now
Should critiques be free? Feedback on photography is plentiful and usually available online at no cost, but the quality and consistency of such feedback is often questionable. Sometimes it's downright wrong. I've seen people give advice on post-processing that could be detrimental to a novice. I've also seen expert photographers offer their valuable time to significantly help someone struggling with a technique or style.
That's why when I find a (free) Facebook group of skilled photographers willing to help beginners, I feel like it's a valuable resource and I like to share it with those in need of assistance. If you're interested in delving into a new photography niche, I suggest looking for the pertinent groups online for inspiration and possibly critique.
However, business advice is generally less reliable than photography critique. I've received some business advice that’s worthwhile but some that’s worthless. A common problem in giving business advice to a photographer is that photographers have different needs and work different markets. Without a good knowledge of someone's location and business, advice on marketing and other business issues can be problematic.
Whenever I have a private photography student, I offer a critique session. Critique is one of the most important ways for beginners to develop their fundamental skills. Instead of just telling them which of their photos do and don't work, I explain exactly why one image strikes me as stronger than another, how an image could be improved, etc. I encourage students to participate in this exercise as well. Once they can effectively analyze their own photos, they're naturally more skilled and objective about shooting and reviewing new work. That’s the source of a photographer’s professional growth.
Have you received either helpful or harmful feedback on your photos? What medium did they come to you in? Please share your experiences in the comment section.
Lead photo by Igor Miske via Unsplash.