How Do You Take Your Criticism? Should You Ask for It?

How Do You Take Your Criticism? Should You Ask for It?

Do you take criticism with a pinch of salt or often far too personally and too close to heart? Is there a happy middle ground where it can work for you?

Criticism and feedback are a natural part of the creative world. In an industry where subjectivity and objectivity can often intersect, it's no surprise that unsolicited criticism received throughout your journey as an artist can overshadow any desire to obtain critical reviews from industry professionals. However, there are times where thorough feedback or criticism of your work can propel your career and development. The hard thing is distinguishing where and how to receive such feedback, while silencing all the unnecessary noise created by those who are inexperienced in providing it in a way that will guide you forward.

Join any photography forum or a Facebook group, and you will find plenty of users asking for others to provide criticism and comments on their latest image, however, such feedback is rarely useful because people commenting are not provided with any information regarding the reason for the image, the purpose of the shoot itself, the stage where the photographer is at in his artistic career, or where they want to succeed in. Comments under such posts are quick responses that give surface-level criticism and are often subjective.

A motivational slogan on a diary.

Learning to take criticism and feedback can be a skill in itself.

Whether a certain image looks better in black and white or color is a question that should be determined if you know where the image will be used, what is the purpose of it, and what was the initial intention for it. Similarly, a typical question photographers ask is "what would you do differently?" Quick feedback on post-processing techniques can be helpful if the photographer is more clear in what they are trying to achieve or what they struggled with specifically. In those cases, other photographers can help out by either providing advice themselves or by guiding the image author towards specific tutorials or guides that would assist them in achieving their goal. 

Generally, feedback from fellow photographers in forums and groups will not have a big impact on one's career and development because it's not specific and thorough enough. However, what might keep you from obtaining more personal and detailed feedback could be your fear of criticism and rejection. You may also deal with insecurities and have doubts about yourself as a creative and skilled artist. It can be daunting to submit your work and artist or project statement to industry professionals who are accustomed to providing comprehensive feedback because their own experience in their arena may intimidate you. 

A bird sat on a telephone cable.

You don't need to feel alone in this journey. There are plenty of experienced people who can provide you with useful guidance to help you arrive at your own conclusions regarding your future steps.

If you are looking for guidance with your body of work or a particular project, I would definitely recommend seeking out professional feedback, though. There are regular photography competitions where you can receive a portfolio review as part of your submission; there are also plenty of experienced photographers who offer portfolio or project reviews or mentoring services for an even more involved one-to-one work to help you pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses.

When you are looking for a service like this, it is important to review the quality of work that the competition, judges, or individual photographers review or produce themselves. If it is not within the same arena or level, there is no reason to go ahead with it because you will just waste your money. If you are a wedding photographer striving for excellence, you would not submit your portfolio review to a landscape photographer. And similarly, if you are an art photographer who explores deep social issues with your work, you would not benefit from submitting your portfolio review to a more conventional competition because your work lies in a different category and level altogether. 

A screenshot of reviewer portfolio feedback

I submitted a portfolio review as part of a competition and the review I received was very thorough. It was based on a selection of images, answers to several questions, such as, "what do you hope to accomplish with your photography in the next few years?", and a project statement. When I first received the response, I actually struggled to read through it without cringing at myself. The feedback seemed quite harsh and I did not fully understand it at the time. However, a year later when I revisited and re-read it, I realized that the advice given was something I should have studied more and learned to take in.

The comments on the misalignment between the words I wrote for what I want the viewer to see and understand and the actual read of the images by the jury made me realize that I had tried to make my work fit what I thought the audience would expect from me to see. Only a year later when I read the feedback again, I truly understood it and had an "aha" moment. It actually made me feel a bit disappointed that I had not taken in the advice then because deep down I knew the route I want to take with my work. I just wish I had implemented it earlier.

Receiving feedback from industry professionals can help you take a step back and look at your work from a distance to see what needs changing. We are all too often emotionally attached to our own work, which is why receiving feedback can seem uncomfortable. However, the more you do it, the more you will learn to understand what pointers you should take and what advice does not align with your vision for yourself and your work. 

A screenshot of a portfolio review feedback.

One of the conclusions in the feedback I received.

Make sure that you do the initial legwork and research the body of jurors, the organization, or the individual who will be providing the review or feedback to see if it is a good fit for your work and what you are striving for in the future. Comprehensive feedback, although sometimes costly, can be priceless for your career and development. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable because this does mean stepping out of your comfort zone, but it can be just what you needed at this point and time in your career or artistic journey.

Have you submitted your work for a review before? Was the feedback useful for you?

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Tom Reichner's picture

Back when I had only been photographing wildlife for a few years, I showed my best Whitetail Deer photos to a professional wildlife photographer. I wanted to specialize in Whitetail Deer photography, and sell my images to magazines and publishers ..... so this professional wildlife photographer's opinion was important to me.

After he took a couple days to look through the three dozen images I had sent him, his response was .....

"You need better bucks and better light."

That was it ..... that's all he said. And yet that was what I needed to hear. That simple sentence of his stuck in my mind like molasses, so much so that I have still not forgotten it even after all these years.

I began to search the continent for places where I could find better, bigger bucks. And I began to pay much more attention to the ambient light, and figuring out how I could use it to the greatest advantage when searching for photo-making opportunities. I studied other people's deer photos (particularly those used in magazines, calendars, and advertisements) to see how they used the light that was available to them.

I took that guy's words - his critique - very seriously, and his honest feedback fueled a passion to make better deer photos that would lead me to search relentlessly for better deer photo opportunities for the next decade, and beyond! If he had just heaped praise on me, instead of telling me what I needed to do better, I would not have grown or improved nearly as much.

I didn't need someone to be nice to me. I needed someone to challenge me to do better. That is exactly what he did, and all these years later I am very thankful that he was honest with me instead of giving me a pat on the back that I didn't deserve.

Anete Lusina's picture

I think what you said is key, "this professional wildlife photographer's opinion was important to me", because too many people allow unimportant opinions to sway and confuse them. If we know what we are striving for, we also know the type of audience/jury panel that we need to seek out to provide us with feedback. Sounds like you find just the right one!

Bruce Grant's picture

I first went B&H's Depth of Field in 2019. My goal wasn't to win the challenge explicitly but to have my imagery critiqued my industry professionals because there aren't a lot of free opportunities to personally interface with those who make a living doing this line of work. I wasn't just looking for stamps of approval, I wanted to know why a particular shot was liked or disliked - I didn't care about how scathing the critique could be, because if we don't hear all the gory details how can we ever expect to grow? Reviews weren't the best but they weren't the worst either.

I went to Depth of Field again in 2020 and I was fortunate that some of the photographers had returned from a year ago and I was eager to show them that I listened to their critique and tried to incorporate it into my work. Over 2 days I had my work reviewed by 7 photographers and while I had more positive reviews this round there were still some elements in my portfolio they identified that needed to be addressed.

Still learning, still growing.

Anete Lusina's picture

It can be tough to read/hear those reviews but it can be important for those who want to grow and develop within their chosen field. Some people choose to forego anything of this sort completely which is fine because there are many successful photographers who don't give a damn about competitions or other people's opinion and they are still very successful. I think we all need to find the route that is most suitable to us.

David Pavlich's picture

One thing I've learned over the past several years is that if you're going to post a photo for anyone to see, especially on a photo based web page or in an exhibit is this; you'd better have thick skin. If you don't, you will not be a happy photographer. I do a lot of tone mapped stuff and fully expect to be 'beaten up' by some. It's part of the deal. This stuff is subjective and you have to treat it that way.

And for sure, if you don't have thick skin, don't ask for a critique. That would be a shame, however, as critiquing, both giving an receiving, is an excellent learning tool.

Bruce Grant's picture

Agreed! I'm here to learn and improve and I've always welcomed constructive critique. Give it to me straight. Granted, practice and studying are essential but peer review definitely has its place.