Constructive Photography Critique: How to Give and Receive with Grace

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I’ve been in a funk lately. Just a little……off. Like I often hear other people do, I blamed it on the weather and assumed it would pass. A month later and it still hadn’t budged. This wasn’t the snow or the cold, yet completely normal, temperatures—it wasn’t even my kids who have been relatively low maintenance lately (all things considered).

There was only one thing left to do before I took complete stock of my life and started looking into some serious therapy or, dare I even consider, enroll in a yoga class, and that was to bug my husband about it: “What’s wrooooong with me? Why am I sooooooooo cranky? Why don’t you tell me I’m pretty and feed me cookies anymore?” His reply was: a) “I do tell you you’re pretty and you know where we keep the cookies”, and b) “well, you’ve taken some pretty harsh blows lately.”

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He was right. I have had more than a lions share of un-constructive criticism tossed my way these last few months. I consider myself to be fairly good at rolling with the punches. I accepted a long time ago that not everyone is going to like me; no matter how badly I want to invite them over to my house and tell them they are pretty and feed them cookies and convince them to. And not everyone is going to like my photography. I can deal with those things—I really can.

Like many of you, I saw early on that photography strikes so many chords with people, it’s very easy to get an internet debate going between total strangers about whether a random image is good or not. Whether or not it’s strong, if it’s beautiful, and the one that people seem to get hung-up on the most – if it’s correct or not. I have never heard talk of someone using the wrong paint strokes on a canvas. I’ve never walked into a debate over a songwriter using the wrong chords on his original music. I’ve never watched the internet get excited about the exact one proper way to throw pottery. But photography…photography is different with its mathematical magic and scientific reasoning. Photography is the one art that seems to have that one perfect right way.

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We will never all agree on that one right way though. It wasn’t long ago I was reading about a photography trend of the “in-between-shots”, which it turns out, I had been doing for years, I just had been calling them “out of focus shots.” So if even focus is subjective, how can we possibly come together on all the other pieces of our craft? We can’t. What we can do however, is be better for our peers and ourselves by being open to other viewpoints, and being better critics and brave receivers. This comes by giving and receiving constructive feedback, emphasis on the constructive part.

Kind criticisms can be helpful—both offering them to other photographers and being willing to hear them ourselves. I know the internet is never going to be a place where I can post an image and expect nothing but rainbows and sugarcanes of encouragement and praise to come my way, but I have to believe it can be better than what I have personally seen lately.

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Here are three questions I ask myself each time I get feedback, whether requested or not:

1) Am I really wanting other people’s opinions of this image?

Am I really? Because the truth is that there are some images we don’t need feedback on. Either they are just very special to us, are personal, or our client loved them, and for whatever reason, we don’t feel the need to hear what a friend or stranger may have to say about them.

If you find yourself in this situation where unrequested feedback has fallen in your lap over a photo you don’t need or want feedback for, move on. It’s not your job to validate the comment or engage in debate if you didn’t request it. They said what they needed to say, and what a wonderful gift you gave them of allowing them the space to say it.

If however, you have found yourself receiving feedback you asked for and decided that you actually don’t want, be honest! There is nothing wrong with saying, “I guess I wasn’t as ready to hear feedback as I thought I was.” There is no shame in not being interested in criticism, or in thinking others would enjoy your work more.

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2) Is it helpful?

One of the most frustrating things about photography is that there are no redos. You can reshoot anything until kingdom come, but it won’t be the exact moment it was before. So, while nitpicking over a single image, all things considered, will not likely help that photograph, hearing feedback about things in general can possibly help you the next time. Can you take what they are saying and apply it? Can you rework the image in post-production to be stronger? Is there a lesson somewhere to be had in the feedback you are getting?

“You asked for it, you got it!” moments can sometimes be humbling. Remember—it’s not a reflection of you, your character, or your very soul. For as passionate as we can be about photography, for as much as we live and breathe it, criticism is just words on a page or in the air, about a piece of paper or part of a screen that somehow came from your camera. These words cannot eat you, or make you spontaneously combust, even though sometimes it can feel that way.

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3) Is it really about my image?

Some people just need to share their opinion. I get that—I have a tendency to be an over-sharer myself. In this time of social media, we over-sharers forget that not everyone cares what we had for breakfast. Not everyone is interested in knowing that when I’m stressed, I get whiny and want to be fed cookies.

Really look at the feedback you received. If it feels off, or truly doesn’t make sense or seem helpful in any way, consider that it’s not about you. The feedback you received is maybe related to a battle you know nothing about, that somehow got caught-up in the vortex of sequences and ended up under your image because it needed a place to land.

I’m not a big fan of people saying, “it’s not personal, it’s business.” This “business” has taken from my personal life every chance it got. Photography has made me friends and taken my sleep. It’s taught me about beauty and kept me away from my family. You bet it’s personal! But that’s exactly the thing—the image is personal. It gets to be as personal as you want. The feedback however? That’s just business.

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A photographic community only works if people participate. There was a time when I was desperate for feedback of my work—a time when I truly wanted to learn and needed people more experienced to be willing to share their knowledge and skills with me. What power we are giving people when we ask for this! If I could do anything, besides teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I would create a kinder internet. An internet that remains the most helpful source in the world, something that brings us all together, but isn’t so darn mean. I believe with all my unicorn believing ways that this is possible, and that being kind is the first step to being a respected member of any community. Giving constructive criticism is almost as hard as receiving it.

Here are three questions I ask myself before I offer feedback to another photographer:

1) Is it helpful?

It does no good for me to simply tell someone “nice image”. While a pat on the back is always great, enough of them and you’ll just push the person right over. If someone has truly asked for thoughts or a response to their image, is what I am about to tell them helpful? Can they use it going forward? Could it be taken as condescending or hurtful, or am I showing the proper respect? Just because someone asked for my opinion (or the opinion of the internet at large), doesn’t mean I have to be rude about it. Remember that it does take a bit of courage to share your very personal work with the world and though unspoken, I think a photographic community works best when the rule is – to above all else be kind.

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2) Is it balanced?

Does my comment also offer encouragement along with any negative elements I’ve mentioned? Have I pointed out something that was done well, so it’s clear that I invested more than a brief second before I spoke my thoughts for the world to see? I can hear some of you now saying, “it’s not my job to tell them it’s good—they wanted honesty!” To you I say, honesty can still be kind. You don’t have to reassure anyone or lie about your feelings to be honest. One of my all-time favorite quotes:

“Be an encourager. The world has plenty of critics already.” – Dave Willis

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3) Am I okay with this being the only thing someone has ever heard me say?

When you comment on the internet, it is usually read by people you don’t even know. Possibly hundreds or thousands of them. The world does not know that I try my hardest to be a decent human being, but sometimes my mouth gets away from me. The world doesn’t know that my passion can sometimes come across as overbearing. The person requesting feedback doesn’t likely even know who I am. So if what I am about to offer is the only thing anyone could ever attach to my name, am I okay with that? Have I been fair? Have I been helpful? Have I been kind? I would rather be completely forgotten than permanently attached to a unnecessary comment that I wrote in haste or worse yet, an unhelpful comment that I wrote out of spite.

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Do you leave comments on images? Do you post your images and ask for feedback? What are your thoughts?

The post Constructive Photography Critique: How to Give and Receive with Grace by Lynsey Mattingly appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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