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.
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.
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.