Dealing With Criticism as a Photographer

Dealing With Criticism as a Photographer

Remember the old adage, “If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all”? Yeah, that’s not really a thing on the Internet. As photographers we need to understand that criticism is rampant, it's unavoidable, and it's also not always a bad thing. Here’s how to embrace it.

Dealing With the Inevitable

Art is subjective, and photography is art, so it would stand to reason that photography is mostly subjective. Whether you agree or disagree with that statement, we can all be of the same opinion that sooner or later when we put our photography out there for the world to see, we’re going to receive criticism in return. The word “criticism” definitely has a negative connotation attached to it but being critical of someone’s art simply means analyzing both the merits and faults associated with a person or their art (or in this instance, photography). It just seems that the word “criticism” is only used when negatively evaluating something, while any positive criticism is usually assigned a word like “praise” or “positive feedback.” All that to say, not all criticism is bad, and in order to grow as photographers, criticism can be one of the most powerful tools we have.

Embracing Criticism 

Criticism can be broken down into several categories: positive and negative, constructive and un-constructive, and lastly, solicited and unsolicited. Of course, the easiest type of criticism to digest is going to be solicited positive criticism. I’d be the happiest person in the world if all I ever received was solicited positive criticism, but I’d also probably never grow as a person or as a photographer. What makes criticism that is actually beneficial so difficult to hear is that it should challenge us to grow. However, criticism for the sake of criticism (whether positive or negative) is not the most beneficial. So how do we embrace it?

First, we have to ask ourselves what the motivation might be behind the criticism we’ve received. Does the person giving it genuinely want to see us succeed? Does the criticism align with our end goals of what we’re hoping to achieve with our photography? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then it is worth our time and energy to embrace the criticism, even if a bit painful, and figure out constructive ways to change or improve. If the answer to either of the questions is no, then it’s OK to take the criticism with a grain of salt.

It's important to note that I’m talking about both negative and positive criticism. Allowing ourselves to be defined simply by the positive criticism we’ve received can be as harmful to our growth as never receiving and embracing negative feedback.

Understanding When Criticism Is Beneficial

When learning to embrace criticism, we also have to learn when criticism is going to be beneficial to our growth. Just because criticism can be a strong tool in helping us succeed and become better at our craft does not mean that all criticism is beneficial. For example, posting a photo to Facebook and having friends and family comment on the merit or talent and skill behind the photo would not be as beneficial as having an accomplished photographer who you look up to give you constructive criticism on how to make the photo better. Likewise, receiving negative un-constructive criticism from someone who neither wants to see you succeed and doesn’t know what your vision or end goal is would not be beneficial at all unless taken very lightly with a grain of salt. The only great benefit of negative unsolicited un-constructive criticism is that we can go on making our photography and hold our head up high when we’re able to take such criticism lightly because it helps us become surer of ourselves and our abilities in the long run. All this to say, it’s wise when receiving any type of criticism to consider if the criticism will be beneficial.

When Criticism Becomes Personal

Some of the strongest and impactful negative criticism often comes from an unlikely source: ourselves. As photographers, we can be painfully hard on ourselves, and at some point it becomes unhealthy. Of course being critical of ourselves and our techniques can definitely help us grow, but there comes a point when our negative thought-process becomes harmful and starts taking us backwards instead of forwards. 

When you begin criticizing yourself, a great question to ask is “Is this a rational response?” When we come across a situation that makes us think negatively of ourselves, a great practice instead is to consider rational alternatives as to why you’re not where we want to be with our craft. By doing this we can begin making an action plan to help ourselves grow, but also help ourselves practice self-love.

Criticism is alive and well. It’s up to us to take a rational stance toward understanding and processing criticism. Embracing both negative and positive criticism can help you make strides with your photography. Knowing when criticism is going to be beneficial and when it’s not worth a second thought will help you weed out what criticism will help you grow, and what criticism was meant to tear you down.

Lead image used with permission by energepic.com from Pexels, under Creative Commons.

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12 Comments

Robert Nurse's picture

I don't mind criticism. Oddly enough, I crave it. At least in my photography, LOL! Just, if you're going to be critical at least be able to articulate EXACTLY what you find issue with. I have a photo in my profile (https://fstoppers.com/photo/189153) where someone left me two stars. That really ate at me for a while because the person didn't leave any specifics that I could address going forward.

Ben Perrin's picture

I think that's an example of some of the stuff you just have to ignore. Clearly it's not a 2 star image (at least not in my opinion). I've had that as well where someone rated one of my images as 1 star https://fstoppers.com/photo/108123. Pretty sure that person was just a troll but it's not nice when it happens. It probably happens to all of us.

William Howell's picture

Nah, your photography is super solid.
Hey is your 100mm lens a macro? If it is how close do you get to a person? I would like to takes some close-up pictures of the eye.

Robert Nurse's picture

Yup, it's the 100mm Macro. I gave it a try for portraits and it does great.

Donna Macauley's picture

I wouldn't pay too much attention to "starred" ratings. The real way to learn is, as you mentioned, if someone tells you where the issue may be with the image and how to improve it. The groups area on this site seems helpful in that aspect.

if you can't deal with negative reviews then just don't post any work. you could put any pic up and someone will hate it, period. then you have those people who say that horrible photos are great (see what i just did?). i don't mind the negative comments when there are some because i don't really care what they think. i will give my 2c if anyone asks though, if not i keep my trap shut and just laugh at the other "omg that photo is so great" people chime in. in my opinion these people do not help anyone get better, they just feed the false ego.

Matt Pluz's picture

When I first started photography, I met with the director of a local agency in hopes of shooting agency models. I asked them to criticize my work and to be as honest as possible so I could improve. Three bookers joined the meeting, and they took turns tearing my work apart. It was painful, but I kept my smile, listened closely and took notes. I went home, ate a pint of ice cream, thought about another hobby and did not shoot for a week. Then I spent the next year working on every single thing they pointed out. Now, not only do I shoot many of their models' portfolios, my clients are having me hire their models for campaigns. It 's a great feeling of pride to walk in there with a check for them. It always hurts to get criticized, but if you can adjust your mindset, it will greatly benefit you.

Donna Macauley's picture

I prefer critique to come from someone I admire. Random strangers on the internet don't mean much. If you are fortunate enough to get critique from an industry leader or like Matt did, from an agency you want to work with, then you are fortunate and should take take the advice. I was fortunate to have someone I admire and who is an industry leader review my portfolio. Those are the critical points I strive to correct. Everything else is just noise.

William Howell's picture

I love it when someone takes time to look at my photography and then writes some helpful stuff. Also I like it when I’m trolled, especially if it’s funny!

Let's not forget the critics (and Queen Victoria) who despised JMW Turner's late seascapes while praising (the now dated-looking) Pre-Raphaelites instead. The next generation of critics despised the Impressionists, of course...

darren squires's picture

The thing is that photographers are a diverse weird bunch - and I started out as a musician so I know how weird it can get. So while some criticism will be positive and constructive the bad can range from those who know what the rules are but not how to use them to those with, shall I say, an artistic temperament, and worse.

"Does the person giving it genuinely want to see us succeed?"

Who cares ? Stop questionning the intent, you will never know, start questionning the relevance.