How to Give and Receive Constructive Criticism the Right Way

How to Give and Receive Constructive Criticism the Right Way

Constructive Criticism is a unicorn in online photography groups; much sought after, but rarely found. Good constructive criticism, or CC as it's often referred to, can be some of the most helpful and growth inducing feedback a photographer can receive but, in the wrong hands, it can be a sword that cuts confidence to ribbons. Here is how to give, and receive, CC in a way that wont destroy your soul.

Here are my three personal caveats, before getting to the meaty stuff:

  • Don't, for the love of all that is considerate, give a critique to someone who didn't ask for it. Sometimes people share images simply because they're proud, or looking for a pat on the back. There are legitimate reasons to share an image that are not invitations for you to jump in with your opinions.
  • Most of the time, the very best critiques are given by people with whom you've built a relationship, and whose skill and taste you trust. A trusted coach always preferable to an armchair quarterback.
  • If you ask for critique from the interwebs, you don't get to decide the tone of your critics. Remember that someone is taking their valuable time to share their thoughts and expertise with you in the hopes that you'll be able to use it to grow. If your critics are terse, direct, or don't give you "one good thing you did" for every mistake, you don't have the right nurse hurt feelings by exploding all over the comments section. You're getting free advice. If you don't like how it's presented, simply move on. You have more valuable things to do with your time than fight perfect strangers on social media.

With those out of the way, on we go.

Environmental portrait in the high plains at the foot of the Colorado Rockies

WHEN YOU GIVE IT

1. It's not about your opinion or your taste.

The first thing to remember is that critiquing art is not a completely subjective venture. While taste is subjective, and no one has a right to tell you what to like or dislike, there are general rules one can use to measure the visual arts that will aid the critic in determining where to give advice. It's best to stick to these recognized rules, such as composition, exposure, lighting technique, and color, and to hold back on treating your personal taste as if it is the measure of good work. Learn to differentiate between taste and technique.

2. Pay attention to the purpose.

Do your best to interpret the intent of the image before deciding how to approach the critique. Many of the technical decisions an artist makes when they create a photograph have to do with the purpose of the photograph and what it's meant to communicate. What an artist may choose as the exposure for a light-hearted family portrait may not be the most effective choice for a moody editorial piece. An unbalanced composition may work beautifully for a photo intended to relate danger and cause tension in the viewer, but not so well for a macro shot of a flower. A color palette that enhances the subject matter in a winter shot may not be as effective for a portrait on the beach. If you can correctly interpret the intent of the image, pay attention to the way the technical choices affect the intent.

3. Your impressions aren't good or bad.

Share your impressions of the image using descriptive language and not quality judgments. "The composition is full of tension and creates movement" is a much more helpful observation than, "I don't like where he is in the frame." Feel free to share how the image strikes you without without the need to qualify it. 

4. Your taste isn't universal.

Keep your personal editing preferences out of the equation. Telling another photographer that you think the image would be stronger in sepia, or with a sky overlay, or with a vignette, or selective color, is not giving them constructive criticism but giving them, "I'd like it better my way," advice. No two photographers will approach post production in the same way, and trying to impose your taste on another photographer will not help them improve.

Environmental portrait in the high plains at the foot of the Colorado Rockies

WHEN YOU GET IT

1. All critiques are not created equal.

If you are brave enough to ask a group of strangers for advice, remember that each person who responds to your image is at a different place in their photographic journey, and that not all opinions will hold equal weight. If someone gives a weak critique because they don't have much technical expertise or experience, their insight may be valid but won't necessarily hold the same weight as someone who has been successfully working in your chosen genre for 15 years. 

2. The 1:3 rule.

If you get feedback from multiple people and one person says, "this image feels sad to me," when it was supposed to be joyful maternity photo, you can probably write the comment off as a personal thing. If three people make similar comments, chances are there is something to the observation. 

3. There are no failures, only lessons.

Putting an image out into the world takes a lot of guts. Sometimes, that ballsy move gets rewarded with hard-nosed critiques that make you feel like a failure. Just remember that there are no failures, only lessons. Learn to separate your work from yourself, because critiques are not value judgments on you as a person, and put what you've learned into action the next time you pick up your camera. If you can do this, you'll be amazed how fast you grow. 

4. Don't feed the trolls

An always valid, but not always heeded, piece of advice. Just don't do it.

Constructive criticism can be amazingly helpful both for the person receiving the critique, since they get an in-depth understanding of how their image affects viewers, but also for the person giving the critique, because they get a chance to think deeply about how a photograph is made and how it can be improved. If the critique is done right, each person walks away a more knowledgeable photographer. 

Portrait in Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs

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19 Comments

Anonymous's picture

I disagree with not giving CC when it's not asked for because everyone gladly accepts accolades but not constructive criticism?? This isn't Burger King.

Nicole York's picture

I think if you're part of a group where it's understood that posting a photo is an invitation for CC, then that makes sense. If you give unwanted critique, though, there's a good chance you'll either waste your time, or be actively rebuffed. Neither of those situations does anyone any good. I've always thought that good rule of thumb is to at least ask. If they're up for hearing your thoughts, it's a win.

Anonymous's picture

I only CC once and then only if it's a really good photo with a glaring issue. If rebuffed, that's fine. Of course, my POV depends on adhering to all your other guidelines.

BTW, your photos look sad to me... ;-)

Nicole York's picture

Haha, that's one for you! ;) lol

Anonymous's picture

According to your profile, you live in Seattle. I'm going out there mid-May to visit my daughter. I'm planning to go whale watching and to Hoh Rain Forest. Any tips or suggestions for those things or anything else?

Nicole York's picture

Oh, I need to fix my profile! I'm a native Washingtonian, but I'm living in Colorado now.
I'd say make sure you've got something for water proofing. The Hoh is definitely a moist place, haha! Also, there's a lot in the area that looks great with long exposures, so an ND filter and a tripod can really come in handy. Lots of moving water, and great areas for shooting on the coastline.

Anonymous's picture

Thanks. Since I'll be flying, I was debating if it was worth bringing my full-sized tripod vs the travel tripod I usually bring on international trips.

Kian McKellar's picture

What? I find people on the street love when I tell them what they are doing wrong with their clothing. I mean they are wearing clothing out on the street thus it must be fair game. ;)

Swede Johnson's picture

I totally agree with the 'if critique is not asked for don't offer it up' when it comes to being brutal, anyway. I had a co-worker who's photo was scathingly ripped apart by a so-called expert on this very sight a few years ago and she never logged on here again. I made the mistake of taking a college photography course in the early 70's taught by a pompous, pipe smoking professor and was bombarded with all the "rules" of photography. Rule of thirds, lighting, composition, depth of field till I wanted to quit. I tried to follow all of them to the best of my abilities but nothing I tried pleased this man. So for my final project I purposely broke every rule I could. Horizon line in the middle, overcast grey day, overexposed, a subject I knew my professer hated, (A Harley) and all the rest of his no-no's, and it was voted favorite by the class! He still gave me a D :) Anyway, I went on to be an untraditional photographer who knows the rules, follows some of them at times, but certainly will not impose my beliefs on another. I still try to live by the rule I learned in kindergarten, if you cant say something nice, don't say anything. I will leave that to the 'experts'.

"1. It's not about your opinion or your taste."

It's always about sharing your opinion. Opinions can be based on fact (objective) or preferences (subjective.)

"Don't, for the love of all that is considerate, give a critique to someone who didn't ask for it."

That should depend on location. It's accepted and reasonable that if you post to a photography site that accolades and criticism are both going to be offered, whether it is asked for or not.

"Most of the time, the very best critiques are given by people with whom you've built a relationship, and whose skill and taste you trust. A trusted coach always preferable to an armchair quarterback."

That is not a logical statement. Trust and friendship has no relevance on the validity of an opinion. Trust and friendship often leads people down the wrong path.

"If you can correctly interpret the intent of the image, pay attention to the way the technical choices affect the intent."

Why try to interpret when you can simply ask the person the intent of the image?

"Feel free to share how the image strikes you without without the need to qualify it."

By doing so you are not fully sharing your opinion, assuming the desire to qualify it is there to begin with.

"Keep your personal editing preferences out of the equation"

Why? They are not being forced to do as you do. By offering your editing preferences they may learn something or it may give them an idea to try something new that is different to what they first created and what you are offering.

"If three people make similar comments, chances are there is something to the observation."

Numbers don't always equal right, and certainly not just three

"If someone gives a weak critique because they don't have much technical expertise or experience, their insight may be valid but won't necessarily hold the same weight as someone who has been successfully working in your chosen genre for 15 years"

The validity of an individual opinion stands on its own and should always be determined on facts, logic and critical thinking, not whether the person giving it is considered a professional or not. Genius often comes from one hit wonders and those that have nothing to do with the particular profession.

"There are no failures, only lessons."

Of course there are failures. It is up to you to decide whether to learn from them or not.

"Don't feed the trolls"

A phrase that needs to die as soon as possible. It is almost always used to discredit others personally to try and shut down discourse.

*******

My advice for taking criticism: Get a hold of your feelings. Lose the cynicism. Open your mind. Determine the value of the criticism based on logic and critical thinking and/or you particular needs.

My advice for giving criticism: Get a hold of your feelings. Lose the cynicism. Then say whatever is left on your mind.

*******

How was that for constructive criticism?

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Nicole, your advices are good for educating trolls but they don't read ;)
Why people even care about "constructive critiques"? I don't think that photographer who is so bored, so he has time to critique random pictures on internet, has anything to offer.
Established photographers, who may offer valuable critique, usually charge for advice, or it is not easy to have few minutes of their time.
I would say, if you have urge to critique others pictures you are probably not ready to give objective critique or you are a troll.
If you receive some critiques, look at the authors portfolio for first few times, and soon you will realize that those critiques are worthless, so you can go back to your photography.

Anonymous's picture

Wow! I assume you have nothing constructive to add to any conversation relating to subjects where you aren't an expert? One could just as easily paraphrase your comment to include anyone so bored that they read Fstoppers or other photography related sites... I would say, given your inability to distinguish between constructive criticism and troll behavior, you're not ready for any kind of personal interactions.
Oh yeah. I checked out YOUR photos and they're really good. But then, I probably don't know what I'm talking about since I didn't charge you for my critique.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

One thing is a conversation, and different a critique. Frankly, any critique is useless because artist should create for themselves first and for others second. One who will try to please the audience will loose the purpose in ones art.
Trolls are those who are launching personal attacks, usually anonymously, or try to stir antagonistic exchange of opinions.

Anonymous's picture

Okay. Now we're getting somewhere.

Done properly, a critique is a conversation. While you can certainly pay for an official critique and it's worth the money, the kind of informal critiques we're talking about are different. When I critique an image, I state my opinions as suggestions and frequently ask questions to promote dialog.

Secondly, you're right about artists but most photographers are NOT artists and don't see themselves as such. And, honestly, if something isn't obviously art but is supposed to be, perhaps those works are most in need of criticism.

I completely agree with your final statement and it pains me to admit I've engaged in such behavior from frustration. I would say your initial statement and my response both qualify. Personally, this is my least favorite form of conversation due to its inherent limitations.

@Roman

"Nicole, your advices are good for educating trolls but they don't read ;)"

Good Lord. What is it with you young people and the word troll? 🙄

"I would say, if you have urge to critique others pictures you are probably not ready to give objective critique or you are a troll."

That's just being cynical. There's nothing reasonable and logical about that.

Oh, and there's that word again. 🙄

"If you receive some critiques, look at the authors portfolio for first few times, and soon you will realize that those critiques are worthless, so you can go back to your photography."

What if they are able to give good critique and advice on technical matters?

"Frankly, any critique is useless because artist should create for themselves first and for others second."

Photography is both an artistic and a technical craft and profession. A person can be very knowledgeable on the technical side, as I alluded to immediately above, and could offer valuable advice, while being generally viewed as undesirable or awful on the artistic side.

"Trolls are those who are launching personal attacks, usually anonymously, or try to stir antagonistic exchange of opinions."

Any exchange of opinions where there is disagreement is inherently antagonistic since the funadamental definition of that word is about being in opposition of. Even when it is extended to include hostility the usage of that term is problematic since people, especially today, the age where crazy terms such as safe spaces and micro-aggressions exist, often see an intent for offense when logically and objectively there is none.

The truth is, most people who call others trolls are simply trying to avoid addressing what they are saying so they then make it personal. They start attacking the messenger instead of the message. They usual then go on and on calling them trolls and attacking them personally in other ways. At that point they have, ironically, become what they claim to be against. Funny how that works, huh?

You know another thing that's funny? It's funny how artists are supposed to be the most open-minded people on the planet and yet often they are some of the most close-minded people you could ever meet.

Inspiration and discoveries often come from the most unlikely places.

******

There, that's my constructive criticism, and wisdom, from an "established" old man. Don't worry, no charge. 😁

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Peter,
I will not get into discussion about what troll is or what it is not. In young people terms I don't want to go OT (off topic).
Peter, knowledge without experience means nothing. You may think you have great technical knowledge but if you cannot prove it with your portfolio, your advice will be worthless. There is just so many critics who have never create anything or don't have a courage to post their pictures a front of people, but will tear apart other's work.
I don't know who decided about what artist supposed be. If you know, point me towards that person because I would like to learn more. What I know is that artists who I met are mostly sensitive people, and they are putting a lot into their work. Publishing that work and risking critique takes a lot of courage. Then all the internet experts are coming to point all the little things that "could be done better".

As I said, photography is an artistic and technical craft. A person can be technically competent while still having their photos generally viewed as poor from a lack of artistic desirability. Such a person could still offer useful criticism and advice when it comes to the technical side of photography.

"What I know is that artists who I met are mostly sensitive people, and they are putting a lot into their work. Publishing that work and risking critique takes a lot of courage. Then all the internet experts are coming to point all the little things that "could be done better."

So? That's a reality of life and their chosen avocation and profession. Artists are supposed to have the most open minds. At worst, such artists clearly need to make a little more room in their minds and hearts for tolerating it, and at best embracing it, and from wherever and whoever it comes from.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Good that there are people like you who will teach those young artists what is the reality of life. Just because you may read a lot about photography but never made it a skill. Or if I am wrong, please show us your portfolio.

Kian McKellar's picture

Great article. I'd give you a critique but you didn't ask for it nor could I find anything wrong to critique.