Tips for Critiquing Another’s Work

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We live in a society that is in love with instant gratification. Items can be purchased instantly, information can be gained instantly, photos can be shared instantly, and feedback can be given instantly. Social networking via the internet is practically replacing any other kind of socializing, and with the ability for THOUSANDS of people to access, and comment on, another’s work, we sometimes (okay, often) see a decline in social graces.

We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all experienced it. We post a photo – something that we’re proud of – on a blog, or a forum, or a social networking site. We encourage feedback because 1) we’d like to know if the confidence that we have in our own skills is apparent to others; and 2) we’d actually really like to learn and improve upon those skills. We wait in anticipation for the comments to start showing up. And then… let down. Rudeness, or childishness, or trollishness that completely detracts from the experience. The more we put ourselves and our work “out there”, the greater the chances are that someone, at some point, will disregard our feelings.

It seems that the fine art of critiquing has been misplaced in this time of off-the-cuff, split-second judgement and commentary. I’m here to encourage our readers – a fine, discerning bunch! – to slow down, take a moment to reflect, and follow some of these tips before arbitrarily clicking “reply”.

One – Be polite. This is the first tip for a reason. Rudeness, foul language, and sarcasm really have no place at all in the offering of feedback. Regardless of whether you love or hate the photo, we all need to use our grown-up skills and treat one another kindly.

Two – Be constructive. The photographer already KNOWS that whatever work is being submitted may not be appealing to everyone. So if you don’t like the photo, say why. Explain what it is about the photograph that makes you feel the way you do. If you love the photo, explain those feelings as well. To simply say, “I hate it,” isn’t helpful at all. There’s no room for improvement if all that is offered is a gut reaction without interpretation. Even to simply say, “I love it,” doesn’t help the photographer recreate whatever formula generated that response. Though, of course, the latter is generally greatly appreciated!

Three – Offer a solution. One mantra that I try to live by is, “Don’t complain about a problem without having a solution in mind.” If there is a bit of knowledge that you happen to posses, that would help the photographer improve upon his or her skills, offer it. If you see an obvious flaw in the photograph you are giving your opinion about, point it out with an eye toward SOLVING the problem. Be it the photo’s composition, exposure, depth of field, clarity, color saturation, or post-processing boo-boo’s, let the photographer know that you spent some time considering their work and explain – politely! – how they may improve.

Four – Don’t participate in flame wars. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get sucked into the respond, re-respond, re-re-respond cycle when a flame war breaks out in the comments. Let the photographer, owner of the site, or author handle whatever riff-raff comes along. Lead by example and stick to your social graces. When all else fails, remember what Abraham Lincoln said: “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Five – Stick to the subject. The photographer puts their photo out there to be considered, to be enjoyed, or even to be judged. The commentary related to said work is not the forum in which someone’s personal agenda should be advanced. It has been my experience that commentary that is not pertinent to the subject at hand gets disregarded or deleted. Responding to one person’s work with a link or self-advertisement just seems selfish and narcissistic. The photographer is asking for your help and for your feedback, so be constructive and supportive. Consider what you would look for in feedback of your own photographic efforts, and respond in kind.

Six – Tone, inflection, and intent often doesn’t carry over. As we offer our works, and our comments, up to the public for their consideration, we need to keep in mind that we all speak different languages, even if our native tongue is the same. Everyone expresses themselves in a different way, and it’s extremely easy to take something the wrong way. So we as the photographer need to try to keep our feelings out of it, and regard our own work – and the commentary thereof – with a detached attitude. The critic needs to remind himself or herself that written communication often has a greater chance of misinterpretation than face-to-face communication. Easier said than done, I know (believe me, I KNOW). That’s the risk – and the reward – that we take when sharing our work. We may think we’re our own harshest critic, but, well, sometimes we’re not!

Rarely do photographers take pictures and NOT share them with anyone. We need to accept criticism and feedback with an open heart and mind. We need to GIVE feedback in the same manner. The world of photography has plenty of room for everyone to enjoy it; there is no pecking order and this isn’t a popularity contest. And, the tips that I’ve shared here can be applied universally to any subject, not just the critiquing of photography. Be kind to one another, establish firm friendships and great relationships, and let’s all make the most of the shared time and shared spaces to learn, grow, and improve.

Photo credits (all): Tiffany Joyce.

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  • marcus

    One of the things that I heard early on when giving critiques, is to try to find something positive in the image that the photographer can know they did something right. I also try to only focus on one or two areas for improvement. Even if there are a million things wrong with the shot, it generally isn't helpful to list them all unless your goal is discourage the photographer. They aren't going to fix all their mistakes in one step, so give them something positive to encourage them, and one or two things to work on.

  • Tiffany

    Excellently said, Marcus!