On critiques and critiquing

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Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?

The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’

Like every effective conversation, information flows in both directions. It’s made a little bit more difficult in this case because there is no easy way to explain certain things – there are limitations inherent to the visual medium that are very difficult to express in verbal language. However, analogues and metaphors can be drawn, and generally we get our points across. Having given and received countless pieces of feedback on my images from all levels of audience, I’ve found there are a few things that useful to bear in mind for an effective critique:

From the giver:

Be objective – whilst it is impossible to completely eliminate personal biases – all interpretative art is subjective, after all – try to separate the ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ from things that really don’t work, e.g. out of focus and motion blurred and nothing distinct in an image that’s meant to be an architectural record. There’s a thin line between an image that is dramatically different but succeeds at the intended message and one that does not; I think that’s determined by whether there are sufficient cues to lead the audience along or if things are a bridge too far. But try not to let the fact that you don’t like cats prevent you from appreciating the composition and execution – I have to keep reminding myself of this when it comes to curating the reader flickr pool.

Be straightforward – since there are already more than enough opportunities for something to get lost in translation when describing the visual with the written or spoken, we owe it to our artists to be as direct and simple as possible – it’s already difficult enough. I think this point is fairly self-explanatory, no?

Be polite – this one shouldn’t even have to be on the list; however, looking at a large chunk of the internet forums, it appears that sadly we cannot take this for granted!

Be specific and give examples where possible – the problem with being unable to pinpoint a specific element in the image that doesn’t work or examples of other images where a concept or idea does is that it leaves the photographer with no way out – there’s nothing he or she could have done differently to achieve a better outcome. This can be frustrating and demoralising, but at the same time thoroughly unhelpful – it’s not that much further to land up at a point where things start to get personal. Better still, try to give suggestions as to how you think things could be changed to improve the image – and by improve, we of course mean better fit the intended objective.

Try to see it from the photographer’s point of view – I am going to cut both ways with this one: if you’ve got somebody who’s really cruising for a compliment, then perhaps blunt objectivity is pointless for both of you: putting time and effort into viewing an image properly to give a balanced critique is going to land up with an unhappy photographer and a waste of your time. On the other hand, perhaps they really wanted to get an idea out that didn’t work because they lacked experience – but genuinely want to figure out why. Inevitably failures always boil down to experience – whether it’s in not knowing that a composition cannot work because of physically unchangeable circumstances in the scene or hardware, or knowing how to work around them.

Find something positive, or at least be balanced – we are all human, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

For the receiver:

Choose your audience – just as if you are the critic there is no point in offering a detailed analysis to somebody who isn’t looking for one, we as photographers should try to show our work to the right audience. This may seem like an obvious point, but once again in today’s age of social media and rapid electronic proliferation, our images make the rounds before we’ve had a chance to correct any glaring errors with a follow up. Bottom line: if you want feedback on something you’re not too sure about, then find somebody you can trust, or be prepared for the knee-jerk negative reactions. If you want a certain reaction, you’re going to have to go to the right audience with the right (i.e. curated for that audience and purpose) images. And if that doesn’t work, then it may be a signal that something is not quite right. You probably don’t want to go to your competition or somebody with less experience than you, though.

Listen proactively – you’ve taken the effort to make and show the image, and humbled yourself to genuinely want to learn from the critic – take it all on board. Decide later if it’s relevant or not, but nevertheless at least go in with an open mind. After all, the purpose is to learn something…

Remember, it’s not personal – no matter how objective the critic tries to be, and even for the best and most ideal critic, it’s impossible to completely eliminate all elements of personal bias – after all, the photograph itself is biased. It represents our curated interpretation of the world based on our own experiences and preferences – we eliminate that which we feel is irrelevant and keep elements to which we are drawn – for whatever reasons that may be. Everything is subjective – both interpretation of story/purpose and representation of it.

If it is personal, then it probably isn’t that important – of course, this depends on how important that person is to you – and whether their approval matters. But other than for images created for a client – paid or otherwise, and social photography specifically for family and friends can also be considered client work – it shouldn’t matter, because you are photographing for yourself. In effect, you as the photographer are creator, client, and final arbiter of whether an image passes muster.

Try to avoid mitigating circumstances – perhaps this may be more of a curation issue: if you have to say ‘yes, but…’ as an excuse to why an image doesn’t work, then it probably doesn’t work. You cannot always be there to explain your images; they can of course be viewed independently of the photographer’s presence.

Try to see it from the audience’s point of view – quite often, your audience may not have the required experience or context to fully appreciate all of the detail and subtlety in an image; the very best images of course transcend this (as do images that are fairly simple and without nuance). As such, their comments may well reflect this – not all feedback is useful, and it’s down to you to determine what is. The only way we can do this meaningfully is by keeping an open mind.

There’s always next time – none of us are perfect as photographers, and I hope all want to make the next image better – otherwise we might as well stop photographing since we’d already have made our best images. Accept that there will have to be a next time, and try to remember what needs to be fixed.

For both: remember there are no absolutes. I found it quite difficult to give specific examples in each situation because the nature of photography means there are exceptions to every rule that result in an image that works. I used the first header image as an example specifically because there are things wrong with it that I don’t like, though in a documentary context with the rest of the set it provides a necessary narrative bridge and I am prepared for people to tell me ‘it’s rubbish’. The main problem for me is the model’s head position: it overpowers the face (which is in shadow), and the hair appears to be clipped. There’s also a strong pole coming out of the photographer’s head. The ‘oh but’ would be: shooting through an audience with a model that was moving and responding to direction from the main photographer, nowhere to move, no way to add light from the right,  no way to shoot her with head left, or move the pole. Practically? I wouldn’t normally have published it. 🙂 MT


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  1. theunderscoretraveler says:

    I have been very impressed by Danile Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ where he separates thinking into two systems. System 1 is responsible for immediate response and System 2 takes care of cognition. IMO, even very new photographers have some ability to immediately like/dislike photographs but it takes some training to be able to understand why one feels as one does. I think that critique is very difficult for ‘newcomers’ because they haven’t yet been able to read their own reactions and understand what about the image is causing that reaction.
    Working at that growing that understanding and embedding it into System 2 is part of growing as a photographer and critic. Interestingly that seems for me to have shifted a great deal of cognitive understanding into the immediate response of System 1. I can look at a photo and slmost instantly understand what about it I like or dislike and what the path is to make that photo better.
    (Of course I accept that I am operating at a relatively low skill level)

  2. Hubert Chen says:

    Dear Ming,

    My apologies for not having the time to critique your article following your suggested rules. But I want to take at least the time to thank you for outstandingly clear writing on a very difficult subject. Thank you!

  3. Right. You like the image or you don’t like it; some middle ground reserved.

    How about just taking photos and primarily judging them all by yourself? You’re the best judge of your own photos I’d say, and some will be better than others at that. Keep that up for a few years. Keep looking at other people’s photos you think are great and aim for the same impact, or even better, which is damn tough enough. If you’re skilled (or lucky) and happen to be in an excellent photo taking opportunity, by means whatever, then that’s what it takes to make a really memorable shot of that particular time/subject/feeling/etc. Just be sure to have a camera around.

    Now if I would need to critique this particular image on the post. No critique needed, as this is clearly an example. An in-between-real-shots kinda thing, all on purpose. You know, I know, everyone knows, perfect. No need for critique.

    P.S. Just to express my opinion, the “strong pole coming out of the photographer’s head” doesn’t bother me. To me it looks like a normal foreground-background situation. I’ve never seen poles through heads in real life though… <- Was that critique or just opinion or what would it even matter, hmm…?

    • “I’ve never seen poles through heads in real life though… <- Was that critique or just opinion or what would it even matter, hmm…?"
      It actually really, really bothers me. One of my pet peeves…

  4. Years ago we were taught the difference between critique and criticism, albeit in an entirely different context.

    Critique, we were told, has two parts: what you did well, and what you could do better. It’s a positive process, and one with feedback.

    Criticism was simply what you have done wrong – a negative process with no feedback.

  5. Probably out of my depth, but can’t resist this one.

    A wise and talented photographer suggests five things of importance to the quality of an image, so naturally a critique of the headline image should address these things….

    Light. The light on the photographer is typical ceiling light, nothing really wrong there except that the lighting of the stage is the opposite with a bright floor and dark ceiling. Shadows are a jumble and the viewer struggles to make sense of the lighting, an effect not unlike a child holding an upward pointing flashlight under their chin. This distracts from the story and weakens the image even though exposure looks pretty good considering the very wide dynamic range – I see loss of detail in both highlight and shadow, if the raw file matches the web image then any exposure change that makes one better will be paid for at the other end of the scale.

    Subject. I’ll go with social commentary for which the subject seems appropriate. Definite potential.

    Composition. The illustration of observer and stage is good, the wierd lighting may even contribute here, but composition could be better executed and rely less on confused lighting. The photographer and model are crowded together and to the lower right with perhaps too much uninteresting space at the top that can not just be cropped out without accepting a very unusual aspect ratio or extending width that may detract from the nice tight observer/stage boundary. Improved framing and perspective would preserve observer/stage separation while better balancing the image, freeing the photographer to correct the confused lighting.

    The Idea. Ha ha, this is where the gig is up. The idea as we now know from MT’s replies was to illustrate a technical point. Had the idea been social commentary one might have expected the photographer to have put some effort into lighting, framing and avoiding poles coming out of subjects heads. That said I too find the image intriguing as commentary, but that post-hoc interpretation has completely skewed my feedback as the faults I point out are faults I would expect a photographer making a social commentary image to control when realizing their idea. Controlling lighting properly may have defeated MTs actual intent, so quite unfair to critcize the lighting. Likewise unfair to expect well considered framing or subject matter in a grab shot meant to make a technical point.

    Magic element. Oddly enough this image’s faults create room for a little magic as viewers have room to create quite a different story than the photographer had in mind when making the image. That said a truly great image adds magic on top of excellence in the first four things and this image does not meet that bar, so my prediction is that this image will not headline a gallery showing of MTs greatest works.

    What would I suggest our intrepid photographer do differently to correct these faults? On this point I do not presume to offer advice as I am certain our intrepid photographer has far greater ability to control light, subject and composition than I do. In fact I’m just hoping my critique is not too lame. The real point I want to make is just how much ‘the idea’ influences the first three things, so much so that a critique based on an idea different from that intended by the photographer can be very unfair/unhelpful.

    Going one step further I think this illustrates the recursive or hermeneutic relation of the four/five things. Each thing influences the others so simple linear analysis of each in order may not result in a good image. It is only when each is reviewed and refined until all are in harmony that an image will be robust. Untangling where an image has gone awry (save obvious tecnical faults) is correspondingly difficcult – really good feedback requires a lot of thought to pinpoint the key mis-step the photographer should focus on correcting rather than putting up a laundry list of unrelated (by the reviewer) faults.

    Really helpful feedback is very hard to give, but a gift to be treasured when recieved.

    • A very sensible interpretation, actually – and not far off my own thoughts. Bottom line though: we know it’s wrong, but it’s interestingly so wrong that it’s right for another purpose…thus coming back in a neat circle to the subjectivity of the whole exercise.

  6. I was recently reviewing a script for a friend’s short film (a few of us have an interest in writing and give each other feedback). Having given him feedback a couple of different times, what probably worked best in the end was to say “I’m not going to tell you how I would write that scene because it would then become my script with my biases/preferences. But what are you trying to say and do you think you said it?” It then forces the person to self critique and maybe they’ll pick up on what could be done better and they’ll learn it more than just someone saying what works and what doesn’t. Of course, if you can engage in a conversation and help each other understand whether the image meets the intended message it’s always a useful thing for both parties 🙂
    Good article Ming – getting retweets, likes or praise isn’t all that useful. I’d much rather have someone say why they liked or didn’t like the photo or have a brief chat about it.

    • Good approach! And I think a very valid point for anything creative: you run the risk of taking over and removing the original individuality…

  7. Chris Huff says:

    I’m a sound guy, not studio work, but live sound. If anyone is going to be critiqued, it will be me and it will be harsh – not always justified. Among sound techs, we laugh about the number of times we’ve had someone come up and say it’s too loud while another says it’s not loud enough. When I do training, I’ll have people mix music and when I hear something wrong, I’ll ask why they mixed an instrument or a vocal in a certain way. I want to know their reasoning behind what they’ve done. It’s a critique, but it’s looking for the why before passing judgement. To me, the key to helping people is learning why they did what they did and then showing them how to improve.

    • “I’ll ask why they mixed an instrument or a vocal in a certain way. I want to know their reasoning behind what they’ve done. It’s a critique, but it’s looking for the why before passing judgement. To me, the key to helping people is learning why they did what they did and then showing them how to improve.”
      A very good point! This goes back to the intention (in this case, of the image): we can’t judge suitability for purpose without knowing what that purpose was intended to be, or the thought process behind thing to a achieve it.

  8. Mostly I’m one of your readers, but today I’ll chime in on the who’s talking concept. I agree with you on listening, but not so much to people who know/do less or whose opinions are outside their expertise. Decades ago while well on my way in my filmmaking career when encountering one of these injections about how I had unconventionally edited a particular sequence, I tried out a phrase I borrowed, I think from Stanley Kubrick . I turned to the objector in the small group and politely asked, “and just what qualifies you to have an opinion?” (on the concept for this production) While it did cause a momentary hush in the room, it was quite effective as the decision maker got the point expressed to the group that they after all hired me for my particular expertise and politely dismissed the panel. The point is, over the years as your other readers have pointed out, people with unqualified opinions are legion and all too willing to offer them to you. Take it all in to a point, but filter it with as much objectivity as you can muster.
    BTW: I was looking at the header picture. I liked it for the fun awkwardness of the model, well trying to be a model, it’s quite endearing. Yet for me as well something was missing, for me it turned out to be just a little too much air … cropping in a bit on my tablet, to just barely leave in the pole and also for another feeling even tighter to the edge of the seamless, did the trick for me. Focused the attention on the enthusiastically quirky model and shifted the emotion generated. Of course I didn’t shoot the shot so as a viewer I didn’t care if the context of the photographer was crystal clear or not, it was the subject that interested me. So maybe try the crop someone else and see what ya think.
    Thanks and Good Post!

    • Thanks Bill. I know your position: sometimes you want to say that on a shoot because you wonder why you’ve been tried if they think know how they want the result to look…but insist on achieving it the wrong way.

      As for the header image: there are a lot of things wrong with it; so much so that the intended communication is very different to what I had in mind; this was of course deliberate for illustrating the article (as mentioned in the article). Point of reference and all that. It’s interesting to see that a lot of people are giving me far more credit than the image deserves: firstly, because the context and purpose is missing; secondly, because we tend to see what we want to see in that context, and thirdly, I wonder about human nature and out tendency to disagree 🙂

      As to the crop – depends if it’s about the model or the shoot, and if either, I feel both could of course be done better…

      • I get it that it doesn’t meet the photographer’s criteria, but ha we viewers get to inject our own story. This could be the story of accidentally capturing a glimpse of the process between photographer, subject trying to make a context/purpose shot and how endearingly silly we behave in the quest. Call it street photography of a photo session and see how it rates then. In this story it’s mostly about the model, of course doing a shoot and what she’ll risk in dignity to get an intended communication. Yeah it a way less serious view, but I fighting for the pictures right to entertain here 🙂 And technically it did serve your later intention of showing us what you don’t like as a shot, so it did have purpose … I just happen to like my story better for this shot. Is that disagreement? I feels nicer than that, like an advocacy for another look. PS: I probably would have culled it from my shoot as well, cause I’d likely be on a specific focus that it didn’t match. That’s why I try to get my, well trained eyed, better half to look through my rejects before I send them back to the ether protecting the unintended from my delete key.

  9. Worst. Post. Ever.

    (Sorry, joking of course – someone had to do it!)

  10. Dismiss every critique that comes with the words “like” or “don’t like”.

  11. I’ll offer a different opinion: I really like the header image, and try as I might, I can’t convince myself that the points you mention (the pole out of the photographer’s head, the not-perfect lighting on the model) are crucial – to me the photo is alive, full of energy and movement; a neurotic, almost unnatural one, for sure, but that’s thought-provoking – what is it in this occupation, or in our society, which makes someone behave like this? There’s almost tangible greed in the photographer’s posture – again, thought-provoking: what is it in us, those who are the targeted audience of the shots that photographer is taking, that drives him to create such images for our consumption? All in all, for me as a viewer, there’s much food for the imagination and a very strong social message in this shot, probably more so than in other images you posted recently.

    So, from my point of view, if you had not posted this image, it would have been my (and possibly others’) loss — unless you had another from the same series that had the same dynamic and tension, but without the minor distractions.

    • I am not shure wether this discussion is upon this Image. If it would be than i would agree with you. It is not a bad Image at all. quite the opposite 😉

      • Ups…
        it is about this photograph. at least partly. Then i have to say it is still a great image by itself but not for the intended use 😉

        The pose is ok, Overdone but not bad. might fit the topic. It looks as if the photographer is not the one in the Frame. I would expect him to stand on the right to the one in the picture. It also looks as if the main flash (or studio light) did not fire as if this would be a test shot for the rim light (and yes it seems overpowered). Like this the image looks like a documentory shot about work in a Studio. And not a bad one.

        • Well, I think it is _also_ about the photograph, in a way – the basic premise is that there is something fundamentally wrong with this image; I was trying to make the point that for at least one viewer (me), its merits far outstrip the shortcomings.

          Intended use – if it’s meant to be a straight documentary shot, I don’t think it would work – but seen as a social commentary (on consumerism, voyeurism [of sorts], objectifying the model, pleasing the masses – whatever one chooses to read into this), it’s really strong, and I think the ‘wrong’ light and the contorted body position only make it stronger.

          My view, of course.

          • But you bring up another interesting point here: critique is only valuable insofar as it is relative. There’s no way for us to say good or bad unless we know what the purpose of the image is; how many critics do, and how many photographers explain (or have the chance to?)

    • Tom Morgan says:

      …maybe there is soul in this image. Could this be the imperfection that some look for in an image.

      • Hm, I’m not sure – it’s not an emotional image (I think), nor does the pole _add_ to the image. It’s just that to my eyes the strength of the shot overcomes the imperfections. I don’t think the shot would be weaker without the pole…

        I’m curious – is the social commentary I see in this image completely in my mind, or does anyone else see it too? 🙂

        • I admit I didn’t see the social commentary until you mentioned it. It was more a case of ‘what are the elements to tell a story’, ‘timing’, and ‘how do you use otherwise intrusive elements’ – but in a grab shot to show somebody something without really wasting time waiting for the right moment? In that sense, it fit the brief – I was able to demonstrate my point about continuous lighting and shutter speeds – but it fails as a documentary image, a fashion image, and perhaps could be better without the pole as social commentary…

    • Haha, it has soul! 😛

      I had others but none of what I’d consider ‘ideal’; the situation was dynamic, I wasn’t there to shoot (just grabbed a few frames to demonstrate something to somebody else; it was at a Hasselblad event earlier in the year) but I did feel this frame was a good illustration for the article. Your commentary sees a lot more merit in it than I did!

      • Well, I think it’s a good example of the dark red dot from your diagram – it has definitely left a strong impression on me 🙂

        Do you think there might be some inherent danger for all of us of missing shots while curating (or overvaluing some others), if the only eyes/mind/spirit that decides is our own? No matter how much we hone our curating skills, we can’t escape ourselves, and there might be things we don’t even consider in a shot (or value too much). Maybe having someone else (ideally somewhat different from you) look at our work – at a larger selection of it than just the things we ourselves consider good – once in a while could be beneficial? Or course, if that someone is a person whose artistic judgement you trust and respect.

        I’m thinking of the collaborative process of making a CD (that’s from my professional world, I’m a classical pianist) – a talented producer will not only squeeze the last bit of potential out of you during the sessions, but will also provide really useful feedback during the editing process; especially valuable as not enough time passes between the sessions and the editing to distance yourself from what you’re hearing.

        • “Do you think there might be some inherent danger for all of us of missing shots while curating (or overvaluing some others), if the only eyes/mind/spirit that decides is our own? “
          Yes and no – how would we execute the shot if we didn’t visualise it to begin with? That bit does’t doesn’t connect for me. We can’t shoot what we didn’t see and all that.

          Editing: again, yes and no. Personally, I think it weakens one’s own narrative and flow, but in return for objectivity. Depends if you’re curating for a purpose or audience you know well, or one which your editor knows better, I guess.

  12. s wolters says:

    A brave attempt Ming. Hopefully you will find a format that works. The problem with a public medium is that there so many people participating who haven’t got a clue. I admire all your patience and energy for the way you react to all of them.

    There are some subjects that should be avoided at any time. Personal likes and dislikes. Or philosophic observations that go beyond the subject and the imagination of your public. Or questions like: Is it art or not? Keep distance. Keep it down to earth.

    What is it? What is the context? Why did you make it? What is the purpose? Who are your public?
    How is it made? Is it made well enough? Does it work?

    In the end it is all about solving problems. Those can be judged and discussed for a large part in a rational way. When you first define the problem well, it will be a lot easier to analyse things without getting into emotional and personal territories. Try to look at things through someone else’s eyes. Your client, your public, ask yourself if your sister in law would understand it or whatever…

    Without context, it is hard to say anything sensible about your picture and what we are looking at. At first sight the choice for using a the ‘rubbish’ in the environment to create some sort of informality seems okay. The model, the heroin in this story, is a a bit small in the total image, and we can’t see enough details to figure out what is happening and what she is doing. You already mentioned the head position. The accent the hair gets instead of the face is not so lucky. The hair is wild and uncontrolled but not in an interesting way. Such movements you have to do many times over again and then pick out the best. And then you need a bit of luck too. Maybe the ‘decisive moment’ does not occur at all and then you need an alternative.
    The models left arm and leg seem to be unnatural. The arm looks like a stump. That alone would be enough reason to reject the image for commercial use.
    If this would be for a fashion shoot it would not pass the test because you can’t see the clothes clearly enough. Maybe if this photo was one out of many in a series it could still be used, for creating some kind of mood, but as a stand alone it cannot carry the message.
    If someone would come up with this photo I would ask him immediately about the the rest of the shoot.

    • Mostly agreed: in short, does the image communicate what you intended it to?

      (That image included was for example purposes, and yes, I’m aware there’s a huge amount wrong with it).

  13. It’s an interesting subject. I’m more than happy to have them on my work and seek them out. What I find interesting is if you (getting critiqued) then critique the “critiqueres” images. How would they feel? Obviously if the lack of appreciation is very low then it won’t matter. However if they have a history of appreciating their respective art forms I’m always curious.

    • An important question, and one I ask myself when delivering critiques: how/what would I want to know if the roles were reversed? The trouble is, most self-appointed critics don’t even make photographs…

  14. Nice article. I remember four years back when I started out and I went to a feedback event. I was almost stopped dead by an ‘expert’ whose attitude was so negative it was practically hostile, simply because he didn’t like my style. Fortunately I am thick skinned so I stuck at it and found that actually, that opinion was to be in the distinct minority 🙂 However one thing I did take away from this was that if you aspire for your work to be considered art, you cannot fail to have enthusiastic detractors as well as fans.

    • I’m wondering if that may actually be a good thing: if your work can provoke strong emotion – be it positive or negative – that’s much better than no emotion at all. After all, something has to affect you enough to incite an emotion and make you feel something…

  15. For me personally, anything goes and potentially every judgment has value. That ranges from a like, “great shot”, an expletive, a rant, and a rarified commentary on what isn’t working. Ultimately, after a certain period of growth, I think you should be able to step back and decide what to take away (if anything) from any critique. It’s not for everyone, I know. Not sure how many have seen the film Whiplash, but I tend towards the Terence Fletcher school of critique! 🙂

    • Agreed, and the value is heavily weighted depending on the degree of objectivity, experience and self-interest of the critic. It’s a rare thing to find somebody who knows enough, cares enough, but is also detached enough to be able to give you an honest opinion – it is our responsibility as artists to be able to accept that, even if we might not like it…

      Apparently I’m known for the ‘tiger claw’. 😛

      • No such thing as objectivity. Everyone comes at it from their unique angle. And almost everyone has their own axe to grind. But, yes, finding a good critic, a rarity, is a godsend.

        Tiger Claw? Still bear the scars. 🙂

  16. One of the most valuable articles on your blog in recent memory. Thank you so much. Needed this after a particularly nasty round of personal “critiquing” over the weekend in a FB street photography group.

    • Thanks – I always look at the critic as much as what they’re saying; there’s no value in something coming from somebody who has no experience to comment or a personal interest in seeing you not make a good image…

      • Actually, there IS value in knowing that your work triggers professional jealousies.

        • It’s flattering, I suppose…but not terribly useful. Especially when the ‘professionals’ in your part of the world are the kind that like to engage in rumourmongering and backbiting to bring down the competition, rather than actually trying to up their skill level.

          • McCurry is a case in point. Of late, he’s the photographer we all love to hate. He’s not without fault but judging by some of the vitriolic outpouring he triggered over the Photoshop row you would think that doesn’t even know how to hold a camera straight.

            • I think it’s again a case of expectation mismatch: what’s represented as photojournalism and by implication has no doctoring turns out to be the exact opposite…and often for things that could be fixed (at least in my mind) by just getting your timing right.

  17. I think that the grease on the wheels of critiquing is a trusting relationship. It does not matter if that relationship is personal or professional, I think there just needs to be trust between the parties for the interaction to both benefit the photographer and not leave them feeling hurt. This also assumes that the party providing the critique generally follows the guidelines that you have listed in your post. I am happy to have a knowledgeable person who I trust tell me their honest opinion because I know them and their biases, and I know that they know me and my capabilities. Often times we can receive useful comments when we solicit feedback from groups at large, but that heavily depends on the culture and values of that group. And even then I have seen some comment threads go south really quickly. If I won the lottery, I suspect that I would hire an editor that I trusted to critique as well as edit.


    • At very least, there has to be a degree of benefit of the doubt and expectation that comments are made without malice. Sadly, the internet is generally not a good place for that…far too much jealousy around.

  18. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ming, I’ve no problem with “critique” – with a couple of provisos. I do, however, have a lifetime loathing of horrible critics who relish in making vituperative comments about other people’s works. I’ve said that already, a number of times.

    My favourite example is the unrestrained fury vented by the French Academy on the Impressionists, for their effrontery in suggesting shadows are blue, not black – the Academy was absolutely unshakable in its dogma that shadows were black and that these Impressionist upstarts were ignorant heretics.

    I am passionate about this issue. Critique should be polite and constructive.

    It should NEVER be thrown at someone, like a mud pie. There’s NO excuse for bad manners, and critiquing someone else’s photos (for example) is NOT an opportunity for ill-bred people to be offensive.

    And if critique has any real merit, at all, it should help the person whose work is being reviewed. Lead them gently in the RIGHT direction – not destroy their enthusiasm for photography by making iconoclastic remarks about their work, so far – but head them forward, to take BETTER photos, without being hurtful and destructive in the process.

    Week after week I see examples of red-necked rudeness with nothing positive, nothing constructive, nothing helpful, so nothing to justify the outburst in question. And it DOES hurt the victim.

    Most “real” photographers are confident in themselves and – like you – spend a good deal of time & energy sharing their skills and knowledge, for the benefit of people still learning about photography. And it is tremendously helpful to the readers. “Critique” is as good a way of sharing, and helping with the path forward, as any other.

    To be honest, I think that if we are ever at the point where we cannot “learn” something knew, some more, whatever, then we’ve dried up and died a cultural death (if not a physical one) anyway.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      OOPS – that last paragraph – I meant “something new”, not “something knew”.

    • “Critique should be polite and constructive.”
      Absolutely! No arguments from me.

      I think the difficulty comes in separating the emotions of the critic, the photographer, and attempting to introduce some degree of objectivity into a field that’s about as subjective as it gets; all we can do is say ‘in my opinion, X is good, but I think it might be better with/without Y’. At least that way, we know what’s working and what isn’t…

      Sadly, the internet is very good at propagating jealousy. All we can do is try to change that. And yes, everybody can always take something away from an honest, genuine opinion – even if ‘that’s not what I had in mind, or that’s not the target audience’.

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