Why You Should Ignore Most Criticism

Why You Should Ignore Most Criticism

We have all been there, that moment when your stomach slowly turns to drizzled mush as it discovers the harsh brutality of a critical comment. In a few short words your career, art, and passion is reduced to the strangling grip of failure. Receiving criticism is not for the faint of heart but with the right frame of mind you can get the most out of any critique, solicited or otherwise.

Know The Difference Between Technical And Creative

Each photo that you make is a marriage of technical prowess merging with creative vision. In order to evaluate criticism you need to be acutely aware of the line between the two. Especially considering they often can manifest as the same aspects of an image.

The line between the creative and technical often lies with intention. Take, for example, an image with bright lens flare and a blown-out background which could be a creative decision but it could also be the technical error of overexposure. When evaluating criticism try to think of whether each piece of feedback is focused on active creative decisions that you made or technical mistakes.

Technical Criticism

Feedback on technical aspects of your images often can be quite valid. This sort of criticism can be very helpful and really aid in becoming aware at how you can improve your craft. Pay very close attention to technical criticism as it may draw your attention to aspects of photography that you had never previously considered.

Creative Criticism

Creative criticism can often be much harder to accept as it forces you to confront the possibility that there is fault in your vision rather than your execution. Anytime you receive feedback focused towards an intentional, creative choice within your photo, it becomes very important to evaluate its validity. Creative direction is tremendously subjective. There will never be an image created that is universally loved by all, so it becomes critical that you are able to distinguish valid creative feedback from merely a difference of taste.

When facing creative criticism ask yourself if the criticism was because you failed to execute your creative vision or if you succeeded in execution but created something for which the critic did not share your taste? If the criticism is merely a difference of subjective opinion, completely disregard it. Your value as a photographer is your vision. Those critical of your creative direction merely reflect the wrong audience, nothing more. However, if you failed to execute your creative vision in a way that speaks to a like-minded audience, it becomes important to evaluate how you can adapt to better deliver on your vision in a way that connects to the audience.

Credibility

Anyone can be an armchair critic but the validity of that feedback really can vary. A heart surgeon wouldn’t pay much heed to feedback from someone who never studied medicine, nor should you pay much heed to someone who knows nothing about photography. Before you let the anger or shame of the criticism begin to take root, make a point of reviewing the critic to figure out what experience they have to base their beliefs on. Ask yourself: Do I respect this person enough to accept their feedback as valid?

Never Let Feedback Suppress Your Passion

Finally, always remember that it never matters how valid or invalid feedback may be if it is crushing your motivation. If you often find yourself in situations where the feedback is making you want to give up or stop shooting rather than inspiring you to improve and shoot more, then that feedback is toxic and should be discarded. Never let critics rob you of your love to shoot!

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11 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Great writeup, and yep, it all summs up to: "Do I respect this person enough to accept their feedback as valid?"

My favorite unsolicited critique is of concert and event photos where there is little if any control over the lighting. There is always one wise guy who says: "I would have lit this differently." but as a friend always says "If s/he thinks the photo is good enough to look like I lit it, it must be a great photo of the [concert/event]!"

I got some harsh feedback on another site, and I realized my work at the time was pretty bad. But one of the critics posted an image that was poorly composed, with loads of DOF due to stacking. I grudgingly accepted that my artistic side needed a reboot. I just resented that the criticism came from someone who had only mastered post, and had no eye at all.

You need to differentiate between criticism that is meant to help you get better and criticism that is more "I could do better and you should have done it like this".

I want to get better with every photo I take so I am lucky that my wife isn't one of those spouses that says everything I do is the best. She will tell me when something is not good and I need that.

Michael Rapp's picture

Great article, but I have to disagree with "Credibility".
Checking up the critics portfolio is like trying to find out how many great movies were made by the late grate Siskel an Ebert: None. But they were great critics.
Wyh?
Validity.
A good criticism stand on its own feet, because it is reasoned soundly and can be followed by anyone.
That's what makes listening to Greg Heisler or Joe McNally so much fun for me. I might not agree with them, but I can very well see their point of view.

James Allen Stewart's picture

My exact thought while going through this.. I wrote an article about the almost opposite of what this entire article is trying to say.

All the greatest critics, be it food, movies, or art, don't have to be able to produce the product themselves in order for them to understand taste and quality.
Just a fundamental flaw with the viewpoints expressed in this article, in my opinion

Ryan Cooper's picture

I never said to evaluate the critic based on the photography they have created. I wrote to evaluate the critic based on the experience they have had. Both Siskel and Ebert had a great deal of experience.

In terms of photography, for example, a senior photo editor may have never used a camera in their entire life but they have the experience to be credible critics.

There is a huge difference in jackass trolls and actual criticism. The jackass trolls may even have valid points with horrible delivery.

I believe in a productive critique, the question of the creative vision needs to be asked and answered. Many times the vision fails due to technical problems. In art school, the professors would often critique on the creative vision rather than the craft (until you got to a certain point, but you have to start somewhere).

I also disagree with the credability point. Our clients and customers are not experts in photography 95% of the time. We have to know what makes the general public happy to see rather than a bunch of other photographers.

Michael Rapp's picture

Right on!
99% of the so- called criticism online can be summed up in one sentence:
"Stop sucking at photography!".
Constructive criticism points out the flaws but suggests at least one way the situation can be fixed. That is something the photograper can build on!
And the delivery: Most people don't even realize how offensive their coments are. It doesn't help at all that they later say in the discussion that it was about the picture, not about the photographer, and why is everybody taking things so personal?!
Try this:
"Your shirt sucks!" - Nothing personal, right?!
Now say this in a New York subway, three times, without getting a bloody nose.

Andre Goulet's picture

This article only alluded to the biggest point of all regarding criticism: decide if the critic is in your target audience or not before you even consider it. For many of us, the critics we face are generally fellow photographers, but in truth, none of them will ever give you a penny for your work. As most of us know, our target audience, the ones that are paying us, often select VERY different photos from a set than we would. They see meaning in photos, especially of their people or their things, pets, houses, etc that they are emotionally attached to, that we don't.

For technical honing, fellow photographers may be a great source for critiques, but that is likely about it.

This is sooooo true! There are so many photographs in art galleries near Florida beaches that are clearly produced still life shots for tourists. How many pictures of 2 chairs on the beach with a pina colada between them do we really want to see? But tourists buy them! As a photographer, I nearly gag. But my family will often request I do something like that for their living room wall.

Andre Goulet's picture

Something I read here a long time ago: Never forget that your worst critics are not your target audience.