I’d like to start by saying that I feel the word ‘criticism’ is interpreted by some as inherently negative, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Throughout this article, I’ve used the words ‘critique’, ‘criticism’, and ‘feedback’, interchangeably, because I consider them to be more or less the same in this particular context.
Feedback is only helpful when conveyed in an effective way. On top of that, you’re more likely to get a positive response if the feedback is presented in a way that doesn’t come across as combative or demeaning. In fact, it can be a way to build connections within the photography community.
Below, I’ll go over the ways I prevent even my most honest critiques from feeling like an attack.
1. Be Articulate
This one might seem obvious, but I feel it’s one of the most important parts of giving effective feedback. Ensuring that the person you’ve given the feedback to understands what you’re trying to say and why you’re saying it can make the difference between useful constructive criticism and a negative comment.
If you see something wrong with the image or you see something you want to give feedback on, make the extra effort to explain your reasoning. Instead of simply saying ‘the left side of the frame is too dark’ try phrasing it more like ‘I feel that the left side of the frame is a bit dark, so it’s pulling my eyes away from the subject’.
While this might seem like the same comment, on the surface, they can be interpreted in different ways. The former might come across as you not liking darker images, whereas the latter explains that it’s a distraction. This level of clarity increases the chances of the photographer understanding your point of view thus reducing the risk of confrontation.
2. Offer Advice
Some people believe that photography criticism is easy. You just point out everything the artist did wrong, and then carry on with your day. In reality, simply pointing out the issues you have with something is only the first step when it comes to giving an effective critique.
A critique, when given well, is meant to lift people up, not knock them down. That’s why it’s incredibly important to offer solutions to the issues you have with the image.
Instead of just saying an image looks flat, let the photographer know some ways to increase depth within an image. This could be advice they can use in the field or when editing their images at home. Either way, the goal of an effective critique is to have the photographer go into their next shoot or editing session with a new level of understanding or a new perspective that might help them improve their work.
3. Ask Questions
It’s okay to admit when you need some help understanding something before giving a critique. Making incorrect assumptions is not only unhelpful, but it has the potential to come across as rude or disingenuous. Worst of all, when you make a critique so confidently, only for it to show your lack of understanding, it ruins your credibility.
When there is something you’re not certain about, don’t be afraid to ask questions to collect the details you need to make an informed critique. This could include asking questions about the settings, the location, or the intent behind the image. Ensuring you know as much as possible about the image before offering feedback benefits both the critic and the artist, and is a major key to giving a meaningful critique.
4. Acknowledge It’s Subjective
This is another point that may appear to be common sense, but it’s one that I often see failing to be conveyed by the language choices. When it comes to making subjective critiques or giving subjective advice, it’s important to ensure that your language reflects that. Simply adding something like ‘personally’ or ‘I feel that’ can change the way the photographer interprets your comment.
Also, if the photographer responds to tell you that your critique isn’t something they feel is helpful to their particular vision or style, it can be tempting to double down. This is often where I see the civil communication break down, which leads to objective statements and insults being hurled around. However, it’s important to remember that the photographer has their own vision and preferences.
No matter how right you think you are, it’s important to know when to walk away. Furthermore, if it’s clear that the photographer seems uninterested in actually listening to criticism, despite claiming to seek it, it’s best to leave them be than to get into a prolonged argument about it.
5. Know Your Expertise
Continuing with the idea of knowing when to walk away, it’s important to ensure you’re only giving feedback regarding things you actually know about. There’s a reason I don’t give feedback on product photography, car photography, or wedding photography, just to name a few. While it can be tempting to chime in on a variety of photographs, when you lack the experience and understanding in that area, it can do more harm than good, even when done with the best of intentions.
This also applies to editing techniques. When giving editing advice, it’s best to comment on elements you’re familiar with. It’s okay to share videos of other photographers explaining these techniques, but be sure to actually watch them before making the recommendation.
Furthermore, if the photographer asks you a specific question you don’t feel confident giving an answer to, it’s OK to admit as much. It’s better to admit you have no idea than to give bad advice.
6. Be Honest
I imagine some people may have gotten this far and have reached the conclusion that I think all situations where you give feedback should be handled with kid gloves. However, while I do try my best to be particularly careful with my language choices, I’m never one to shy away from giving someone direct feedback.
One of the most important things when it comes to giving a good-faith critique is honesty. When giving feedback, it’s important to identify what advice you can give for the photo as it is presented and what advice you can give for future shoots. Sometimes, the photo you’re looking at can’t be saved, regardless of editing skills. This is one of the most important times to be honest. There’s no point in giving advice on how to edit a particular photo if the photo itself is beyond saving.
To me, giving editing advice for a photo that has underlying problems, such as composition, sharpness, or exposure is like putting lipstick on a pig. I often tell new photographers that it’s better to learn from their mistakes and use that knowledge for their next photography outing than to attempt editing their mistakes away. That isn’t to say they can’t practice some editing techniques on that photo and it doesn’t mean you can’t give some editing advice for future images, but part of growing as a photographer is knowing which photos are worth spending your time on, and which ones serve as a lesson for your next shoot. Giving advice that helps a photographer increase the number of photos that are worth editing starts with honesty.
1. Try to be an Entertainer
We’ve all seen viral videos of judges on TV shows lambasting contestants with a witty one-liner that has the entire audience holding their sides. I also get that it can be tempting to try the same thing, whether it’s to get internet points or gain a feeling of superiority. However, when you look at some of the ‘critiques’ these judges provide beyond their face value of making you laugh, they’re often hollow. That’s because these people are in the entertainment business, so producing an entertaining product trumps providing meaningful constructive criticism.
Much like telling someone that they have the worst singing voice you’ve ever heard isn’t providing any meaningful advice for self-improvement, telling someone they suck at an element of photography in an over-the-top way isn’t helpful. What’s more, it’s rarely funny, which I actually think might be the most offensive part.
Rather than trying to get a rise out of someone or trying to make people laugh, focus on trying to assist someone who has identified that they need help and is explicitly asking for it, so they can get better at the thing they enjoy.
2. Overwhelm the Photographer
When giving a detailed critique we can sometimes get a little overzealous. Even when given with the best of intentions, giving feedback that the photographer is unable to understand or recommending techniques they are incapable of doing at their current level can leave them feeling more discouraged than motivated. This is why it’s important to consider the experience of the photographer, their ability, and their understanding of certain vocabulary and techniques.
As we grow as photographers, we learn new techniques and rules, and we pick up quite a bit of jargon along the way. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone is at the same point of their journey as we are. While saying something like “oh, you should bracket some exposures, so you can blend them together in PS” might be sound advice, if the person is only one week into their photography journey, they might not even know what ‘aperture’ means, yet. While it’s a good idea to introduce these concepts and provide resources, we need to make sure our advice isn’t coming across as what appears to be a fictional language.
3. Critique the Gear
Everyone has limitations. For some it’s time, for others it’s money, for many it’s gear. While it’s okay to comment on the type of gear someone might need to achieve a particular photo they are trying to capture, it’s important to avoid criticizing the photographer for their gear.
While this is nothing new, I’ve noticed an increase in these kinds of comments as the popularity of phone photography grows. While it can be tempting for many to thumb their nose at someone with entry-level gear or a smartphone, it just comes across as elitist. This isn’t to say you can’t point out the limitations of one’s gear and explain what type of gear they might want to consider investing in down the line, but you should be more thoughtful about the way you say it.
There’s a big difference between ‘this seems like a gear limitation to me’ and ‘get a real camera’. While both of them point out that the photographer may want to consider looking at new gear or try shooting in a way that fits their gear better, one of them is a little more demeaning.
Either way, if you do find that the photographer’s gear is holding them back, there may still be other elements they can continue working on with their current gear. Rather than focusing too much on things they should spend money on, try to focus on the immediate aspects they can improve with their current gear. They may eventually reach a point where an upgrade in gear is needed, but until their gear is the main thing holding them back, it’s best not to make them feel like a new camera or lens is a wand that will magically improve their work.
4. Make Personal Attacks
This is another one that, hopefully, most people will see as common sense. However, it is, again, something I see and have experienced in the past. Nothing is gained from a personal attack against a photographer, their preferred style, or their choice of subject.
Back in my more self-conscious days, I was told that the only reason my work wasn’t getting a bigger social media following is because it sucked and the subjects I photographed were boring (namely flowers and fireworks, at the time). This is the kind of personal attack that provides no constructive feedback and only serves as an attempt to set the photographer off.
While I can easily shrug these kinds of comments off today, I’m a little embarrassed to report that I took the bait at the time. I learned nothing from this interaction, and it had nothing to do with my growth as a photographer, as personal attacks rarely do. However, that isn’t to say critiques can only be directed at the finished product. I have been incredibly critical of the methods used by a particular Japanese street photographer. An opinion, I might add, that I was personally attacked for.
However, there’s a difference between criticizing someone’s method of obtaining a photo and insulting them as a person or photographer. While I’ll admit I could have worded some of my criticism better, I still hold the same beliefs. Many of us, myself included, have put ourselves in questionable situations to obtain photos, but there is a line photographers shouldn’t cross.
When the photographer’s method becomes harmful to the environment, breaks laws, or requires them to be a public nuisance, then it is acceptable to point those aspects out, as they contributed to the finished photo. However, if you feel the need to put someone down, or insult their work, then that’s something you should consider working on. Your goal should be to encourage other photographers to pick up their cameras, not put them away. Keeping this in mind will not only help you give better feedback but will also make you a better person.
5. Give Pseudo-criticism
When looking at the work of others, it’s impossible to do so without our own biases and experiences affecting how we look at it. Every image we look at, every picture we take, and every location we visit has the potential to change the way we look at photographs. However, when giving feedback in an effective way, it’s important to try seeing each image with a fresh set of eyes. This is one of the challenges I’ve seen many face when giving feedback, and it’s what leads to what I call ‘pseudo-criticism’. While I’m pretty sure I didn’t invent this term, it’s not one that I see many people acknowledge.
So, what do I mean by ‘pseudo-criticism’? In short, it’s basically what it sounds like, it’s something that is masquerading as a critique, but isn’t substantive.
The best example I can think of goes back to my earlier days of getting into photography. I was watching a video of some professional photographers providing feedback on various photographs. At the time, I felt they often gave blunt, but useful feedback, which was helpful for someone who was still learning the ropes. In this particular video, they put up a photo on the screen, and I was blown away. It was one of the most amazing photos I’d seen to that point. I’d never seen any location like it before, and the conditions were spectacular.
Needless to say, my jaw dropped when one of them gave the photo an incredibly low score. Their reasoning: they’d seen this location shot with a similar composition a few times before. This complete inability to look at an image with fresh eyes is a perfect example of what I consider pseudo-criticism.
It’s okay to use your experience to give advice for future shoots at that location, including the best time of day to visit, seasonal recommendations, and composition. However, using your own online browsing history to completely write off someone’s photo isn’t helpful. This type of criticism implies that once a location becomes popular, there’s no point in even bothering to shoot there. Sorry Iceland, I guess you’re just closed forever, now. You to Tokyo, time to pack your bags and head to a farm up north.
All of this is to say, that when you give feedback on a photo, try to imagine it without the biases you have. An inability to do so not only leads to unhelpful pseudo-criticism, but it damages your credibility.
The Wrap Up
This is not a holy text by which to live your life, as it is based solely on my experiences and opinions. My hope is that at least some of these will help someone out there give more effective critiques, which will lead to deeper discussions about photography and help build stronger connections within the community.
This is one article in a two-part series on photography criticism — be sure to read the other article on taking photography criticism.
About the author: Jordan McChesney is a landscape, cityscape, and abstract Canadian photographer living in Chigasaki, Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of McChesney’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.