When CC Becomes WTF: My Problem with Online Comment and Critique

When CC Becomes WTF: My Problem with Online Comment and Critique

We all want to get better at what we do in our work, that's a given, right? Studying, reading, taking classes or doing workshops, watching videos on YouTube, and of course tireless practicing, are a few of the many ways we strive to better ourselves in our photography. The time will come however, without fail, when nearly every single one of us will post a photo to a photography group on social media or a forum, and ask for "CC" or "c&c" or simply "Any thoughts?" and await the comment storm that's coming. And usually that's when the problems start.

I'll be blunt: In my opinion, posting your photos in random photography groups online to ask for genuine critique so you can takeaway very real knowledge in how to improve almost never results in anything useful for you. And, surprisingly, it's not only because most internet denizens are usually assholes. I'm going to discuss my observations from my years on the web as a photographer, and what I've learned from trying to learn and grow, and ultimately being in the educator role myself.

Trolls: The Poop Stain On The Web

We all experience them. Hell, some of us are them (and if you are, you had better leave a mean-spirited comment on this article). If for some reason you live under a rock or just quit being Amish last week (welcome to the web, by the way), and you don't know what an internet troll is, it basically breaks down like this (as defined on Wikipedia):

In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

But whatever the case, trolls exist out in Internet Land because, by and large, humans are selfish, poorly educated and arrogant creatures, and the interwebs allow them anonymity and immortality all at once. This shouldn't surprise any of you.

However, not everyone has rhino skin. For some, trolls can quite literally ruin their dreams if they are not prepared, or simply capable, of coping with these comments. I have known more than a few people who have been attacked so viciously on a CC request that they remain emotionally shattered for often several days. You see, the way I see it, the person who aggressively shoots back at the troll, thus starting a 179 comment flame thread, is not who suffers the most. It's the person who quietly deletes their post, and goes off to watch TV, hating themselves and feeling worthless - that's who suffers the most. 

Ok, I'll of course add that, no, it's not anyone's responsibility to coddle an adult online. If someone posts something, and others don't like it, that's just how life works on the web. I get that. But from the perspective of the one wanting to improve your photography, if you are that person who cannot handle trolls, don't post, and don't ask for CC. You will only suffer it, and gain nothing. Remember you are an artist, and you have every right and are expected to be emotionally rooted in your photography. If someone tells you you're utter shite, and then several more trolls chime in to agree and add more impudent comments, it's going to affect you. And depending on who you are, it can vary from a minor annoyance to a major emotional collapse.

And some compound trolling:

Finally, some zero fucks given disrespect:

Moving on...

Context: You Needs It

First off, regardless of my opinion, if you simply insist on posting your images in photo groups and asking for random comment and critique, then you need to make a semblance of an effort to give some context about your shot. What were you trying for? What was your inspiration, in detail? Why do you think you failed / succeeded at your attempt? Why is the shot not final, in your opinion? Why the hell are you asking for critique? 

If you want comment and critique, the more context you provide, the better.  Why?  Check out these formulas I have scientifically** determined in my experience:

  • A brief "hello" message your website link + your posted photo = mostly being ignored, and on occasion some  empty compliments about the shot or your work in general. 
  • No text content at all + your posted photo = mostly being ignored, and on occasion some empty compliments.
  • A quick "CC?" + your posted photo = random acts of arrogance, bias, condescending, trolling
  • Tons of context, describing your vision and purpose for the image, and how you want to improve it but would love others thoughts + your posted photo = being ignored by those who won't bother reading anything more than one short sentence, and likely some reasonably genuine comments from those interested enough to reply. Unless of course they are replying only to try to show off.

​**a doctor with a flashlight can show you where I got these from.

Give the internet world of armchair experts, arrogant punks, über diplomats and trolls a reasonable chance to understand what the heck you're asking for, and why you took the dang shot to begin with. Sure, you'll still be lucky to gain anything of substance from it, but at least you gave it a real chance.

Vested Interest: Mentoring Benefits Both Parties

For an artist to grow via critique, more specifically and ideally mentoring, there has to be a strong sense of vested interest from both parties. And you almost never, ever find this to be the case randomly on the internet. 

Flip sides for a moment. When you are the one giving the critique, you know what it can be like when you are hit with an image from a friend, asking your detailed thoughts. Sometimes, you are just busy and it is not a good time, so you delay doing it. Other times, the shot is really quite poorly done, and you feel weird replying at all, and you delay doing it. Yet other times, the shot is initially amazing, but you want to do your friend the proper favor of analyzing it in detail and providing real feedback, so you delay doing it. The bottom line is, random acts of mentoring don't usually work, not really. Not for benefit of the one being asked, but certainly not to the benefit of the photographer asking for the critique / mentoring advice. 

But why? Often, the simple answer is that the one being asked for the critique is not emotionally or professionally vested in the work of the one asking for the critique. You don't have to be a jerk to not be vested in someone else's work, you can simply be busy. Or perhaps you are a very introverted person who doesn't do chit-chat very well anyway. Or, perhaps even simpler, you aren't a very good teacher. Fact is, you can be an expert at something, but be no good at teaching it. Even simpler still, you may not know the person very well, or at all, so you are already missing out on tons of unspoken context when it comes to trying to assess an artist's overall experience, skills, and vision. It is a disservice to the one asking you if you opt to give them empty compliments or vapid variations of "Keep trying!", so you often end up paralyzed, not sure what to say.

And on the other side of the coin, if you are fortuitous enough to connect with a fellow photographer you admire and you both just click, and now you finally have that vested mentor who you can show your work to for really great feedback, you had better be ready to accept exactly what you're asking for. A proper mentor - someone who is vested and interested in seeing you grow as an artist - will be willing and (usually) able to help you do just that through detailed comment and critique. Often, they will be generous with their time and speak at length with you because they sincerely want to see you improve and expand. If they are giving you their time, the least you can do is accept what they are saying, and discuss with them like a proper adult, even if you don't entirely see what they may be critical of at any given time.  

The concept of apprenticeship works in many trades because doing is the best way learning. However, those who bring on apprentices, or proteges, have very good reasons to do so. Plainly said, while someone who asks you to become their official apprentice (or protege) often just want free labor or assistance, most of the time they categorically believe in you and want to see you grow and expand in your work, as well. You can't force this to happen, it just does. That is, if it does. You cannot coerce or beg someone to mentor you or take you on as an apprentice. It either happens or it doesn't.

Example: I don't ask, and never will ask, but what I would give to shadow a certain photographer for a summer - sigh

Anyone who has been a mentor for a while, or is an educator of any kind, will all tell you one key thing: Teaching is a great way to learn. I would bet that most of the established and successful photographers in the world have, want, or are actively hoping to find apprentices and proteges,. But they too need to find just the right ones. They cannot force it either. Sure, they can carelessly ask any random shooter to come on board, but it may not be the right fit. 

And this is why, for me, comment and critique in an online community cannot ever fully replace a proper mentor / mentee relationship. That may be an obvious enough statement, but think about how impersonal the internet makes us with one another. Sure, we have to start somewhere, but your best approach should be to meet other photographers in person, or even online, and try to develop professional and appropriately social relationships with them. No, not everyone is particularly social, and maybe that's difficult for you to do. However, if you join a photography group on Facebook, and blindly post a shot in it with "CC welcome.", you had better be ready to be ignored, attacked, or pelted with well-intended but minimally useful comments. 

Can you stumble across a fantastic photographer online who is willing to give you detailed, personal feedback on your work during those crucial times where you are getting started? Of course. There are many wonderful people out there in this industry, that much I have never doubted. But even the most amazing and kind people out there may be too busy or too socially awkward to help you via a Facebook message or email or text message. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Several years ago, I did the usual thing: I shot two or three sessions, then went and posted in photography forums online (admittedly far cruder ones than today's elaborate social networks). End result? Everything I mentioned above, and then some.

I first took offense, and decided I was shocked. But it didn't take long after for me to realize that was the way things were, and I immediately stopped posting in photo groups, trying to ask advice or critique. The few willing to help were rare, and mostly too busy. I recognized that instantly, and left those shooters alone. Everyone else, I figured were there to share, discuss, brag, compliment, troll, complain, have fun or pass the time - and I wasn't gaining a thing for all that time I wasted in photography forums.

My new approach was to ask my dad, who has been a professional photographer since 1972. I picked his brain on everything I could, and he was super willing to help me, and show me, all the answers he could muster. It was just a short while, but my old man was my first mentor, and 30 minutes discussing with him and his gear trumped countless weeks of bouncing around photo forums. Thanks, dad.

Next, my focus was to shoot and retouch until my fingers figuratively and literally bled, and made it my obsession to better myself at my craft. A practice I try to do to this day, as difficult it is now to shoot for practice or fun, ever since this became my full time job. Nothing, and I mean nothing, helps you learn faster than simply getting out there and doing it. If you want to get better at something, do it a lot. It couldn't be simpler than that. 

Conclusion

We all have a path to follow, and for some it requires thousands of hours of private study instead of out-in-the-open criticism. Still others prefer social groups, both in person and online, to bolster camaraderie and learning. Regardless of the path you want to take, as long as you remember some sage advice from Jake the [John DiMaggio voiced cartoon] dog, you will do well:

Shameless plug: The Facebook comment screenshots I used in this article were all faked. I asked the wonderful photographers, models, and other industry people in my Model & Photographer Syndicate group on Facebook to attack the photo of my wife in the blue dress with impunity, and be as rude and shallow as they could. As you can see, they managed very tame attempts at encroachment. This is testament to how wonderful the folks in this group are (we Admin work very hard to screen everyone who asks to join, and as such have a very useful and friendly group of real humans in there.) Thanks, everyone!

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29 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Excellent article. I've found there are three great ways to beat a troll:

1. Ignore them.
2. Remember that 99% of them troll because it replaces their own lack of ability.
3. Calmly, articulately and intelligently point out the errors in their logic, the irrelevancy of their comments and their rude demeanor. Doing this is frequently enough to tip the balance of a thread back toward maturity and sap the troll(s) of the crucial peer approval of their behavior that motivates their actions in the first place. It also often flips the tables and makes them the ones who feel inadequate. I'm not one for making people feel bad, if simply pointing out the pathetic nature of one's inappropriate and inconsiderate behavior does that, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Shane Castle's picture

If the person is a true troll, and is only dissing the work for grins, then #3 generally does not work so well. If the person is flaming cos he doesn't know any better, or thinks maybe that's the way you're supposed to behave (IOW, a noob), then yes, #3 might have some benefit.

Me, I just ignore it and move on.

Sander van der Veen's picture

I will keep it to nr.1 Just Ignore them... they don't deserve anymore effort. ...

Joshua Boldt's picture

Great article. It dawned on me that the posts were fake once I got down to the hilarious re-edits they did for you. That was some awesome work they did for you. :) However, the fact that I actually thought that they were real for a minute says something about trolls!

Ariel Martini's picture

Nice article dumbass

Justin Haugen's picture

Hey I have an iphone app that will make this article look better.

Jim Stone's picture

I quit reading DP Review forums because of the overwhelming brand-bashing trolls on there.

"Wise men don't need advice. Fools won't take it." - Benjamin Franklin

Aaron Brown's picture

Piss. Poor. Bush. Management.

Predrag Jokic's picture

When working with people there is always "different point of view" to avoid the bad words. As you said in your article"practice ,practice,practice" make as better with our craft and remember there is no bad comment to beat client satisfaction and wallet with bills.
Keep going the good work

"you must be using Canon because the colours and detail are way off"....holly molly.

Rodrigo Capuski's picture

You think you really is a writer? You don't even know how to photograph man!
JUST KIDDING!! HAHA.
I've been through this problem, and only over time you understand how harmful is to accept criticism from people who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.
Awesome text! Congratulations.

"piss poor bush management" lmao

David J. Crewe's picture

Awesome Article Nino!

E Port's picture

This almost drives a sword straight through fstoppers' Critique the Community series. Nino, you trolling Patrick bro? Cause I will type up very mean words at you.

Dylan Patrick's picture

Great article!

To be honest, I like the tighter crop on the 'instagram edit." It cuts out the distracting harsh shadows on the ground. Definitely don't like the color manipulation they did though. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

I say fuck 'em. The trolls. In fact, I could give a rat's ass about any critique I might receive. I've been doing what I do -- shooting pretty women in various stages of dress and undress -- for a long time. And guess what else? Just about every single pretty woman photo I post I got paid to shoot. Apparently, my clients, the people who paid me to shoot those thousands and thousands of images, are/were happy with my work> And that's all that matters to me. How do I know they've been happy? Because they hire me over and over. And it ain't like there's any shortage of photographers these days. Sometimes, a client will try to get me to whore my rate. They'll say things like, "Jimmy. I can get photographers to shoot for free, shooting these girls." My answer? Always the same: "That sounds like a great deal for you. I think you should hire them." And they never do.

Very good article Nino. You addressed thoroughly most of the points one should/shouldn't do on learning forums. I would like to add one more.

I have been teaching guitar (and related things such as composition, recording, ...) for a long time. I noticed that the single most important thing you can do as a teacher is helping your students to develop a real passion for the matter you teach. That is the fuel needed to drive through all the obstacles they will encounter throughout their path ... and hopefully lead to a successful career.

In other words, it means that a good teacher will need to nurture that passion EVERY SINGLE TIME they say something to a student.

The problem, of course, is that it is very hard not to forget that sometimes. And the host of the Facebook group you're talking about fails achieving that most of the time. She is top notch at her craft. I've personally been at one of her workshops. She has a great raw personality and this is rare enough to be respected as such. I just don't think that raw approach translates well when teaching. It fails to nurture passion.

... and having a raw host, encourages very raw talks.

My humble 2 cents.

Cheers.

David Vaughn's picture

I'd also say that people need to take the title into consideration. More often than not I'll see someone post an image with a title, and then they'll get blasted because the image makes no sense in relation to the title.

This moves the conversation away from the image and onto the aspects that might be irrelevant depending on the intent of the image and the mindset of the photographer.

If you're going to title your image in an artistic sense, background context is PARAMOUNT, otherwise you'll get people judging competency based on premature assumptions of what you were trying to do with the photograph.

Ansel Spear's picture

It's almost the opposite of what you're saying that never ceases to amaze me.

It's when someone asks for CCs on, for example, a snap of an out-of-focus dog/cat/baby/wife in the distance, obscured by dark shadow cast by a manky old something-or-other, and the replies are all favourable...

"...nice shot, dude"
"Wow, that's really gorgeous..." etc.

I, too, haven give up on DPreview.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Great article and the comments above(especially the ones with selective color and iPhone filter) had me me laughing.

I don't even bother asking for CC's unless it's a group of people that I respect for and have a vested interest in seeing us all get better as a group. If I CC someone myself I always try to give them a positive to walk away from....we're all here to help each other learn to be better IMO.

Dylan Patrick has a Facebook group that I'm a part of and the folks there are really helpful, knowledgeable and respectful of each other. I have learned some good things there and it's a better way to learn rather than from random folks on forums.

Eric Pare's picture

oh wowwwwww the one who posted a badass version for instagram is priceless lol lol lol!!

Christopher Nolan's picture

I like to post photos in FB groups and lie about how I shot it and why as form of trolling, . . . because it is fun, . . . . i know my shit stinks!
great writeup nino!

Mike Conley's picture

Great article Nino! It's on point!! I'm just glad someone finally wrote about it!

There are also some competent trolls, such as Natalia Taffarel, and what's especially sad is that there are loads of people who mistake her aggression, rudeness and overall unhappiness with "honest critique". Yeah, it's easy to criticize when you're competent, but sometimes (like in her case) it's borderline sadism. But I guess for every sadist there's an equal and opposite masochist :)

P.S. I wasn't critiqued by her, it's just my observation after reading her comments on the FB group she contributes to and where she "helps" people.

If Cartier-Bresson posted his work on online forums.

Elias Hardt's picture

What an ugly article. Thank god for photoshop- I have some tutorials on my DailyMotion channel if you're looking for how to do this.

Aidan Guerra's picture

Nino Batista, great advice. I have a question though, if people criticize normally cause they are jealous, why would they be jealous if they are criticizing a photo?