Photography Part 6: Criticism should be constructive, whether of your own work, or that of others

  1. I have suffered hugely from destructive criticism in the past, which led me to withdraw from photography completely for years.  It is very easy to point out the flaws in an image, but much harder to genuinely help somebody to improve through constructive criticism.

What do I mean by constructive and destructive criticism?  By destructive, I mean simply telling somebody they think a photo is not good (very frequently expressed less politely on photography web sites).  Or voting “Dislike”.  Or rejecting an image from a group of which you are a moderator without giving a reason.  This is destructive because it is wholly negative feedback without any hint to the photographer as to what the viewer doesn’t like, or how they can improve.

What is much harder is to work out why you think a photograph is poor, or you don’t like it.  Even harder still is to help the photographer work through what they were trying to achieve, work out why in your mind they haven’t achieved it, and then help them to work through whether they could have done anything different to make the image better, and thus achieve what they wanted to.

You may think you are doing the latter.  However, it can come over very differently to the recipient, particularly if they are not familiar with technical terms, or are just looking for some general pointers and receive an essay on all the shortcomings of their picture.  Blinding somebody with science is a form of destructive criticism because it doesn’t actually help them achieve their aims.

There is a point to all this:  if you can learn to constructively criticise the work of another photographer, you automatically become able to develop a technique of self-criticism which will help you to improve your success in helping others to share your experience.  There is no right or wrong, good or bad, but there are always things you could have done differently.

Here’s an example:  You may not like an image that has a pink cast.  You could say “I don’t like the pink cast to this image”.  That is destructive criticism, and offers no insight to the photographer, or method by which he or she could improve.  Or you could ask the photographer “why did you give the image a pink cast?”  That is a constructive comment, because it makes the photographer think through why they did it, and perhaps will help you to see things through the photographer’s eyes.  It may also help the photographer to convey what they really wanted to better next time.  Or you may just agree to disagree.  Or it may turn out not to be a colour cast, but a natural coloration.  The point is, it will generate a positive discussion, and not make the photographer go home, sell their camera and give up.  And believe me, criticism can do that to a photographer.

So please keep your criticism of yourself, and others, positive.  Don’t tell yourself or somebody else that you, or they, are a bad photographer.  Instead, look at the image and ask yourself why it doesn’t meet your, or their, criteria of success.  That way, you, and they, will improve, and we will all be able to share our visual world.  And isn’t that what photography is all about?

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