Dealing with critique

In spite of what I have written in the past, there remains an unquenchable desire to show your work to peers and hear what they have to say.  I think a photographer goes through stages with criticism.

At first you are so green that any criticism is both welcome and helpful.  You may be dismayed at how much you don’t know, but you have to get past this and listen and learn. Out of focus, bad color, exposure, poor processing. It will ring true in time and you will either fix it or quit.

After some time, perhaps years you know enough about technique to be comfortable with what you offer and to ignore those who disagree.  This is with respect to technique, but not style or composition. There is always some dispute on technique even late in your career. But it becomes secondary to style.

With respect to style, you either join the herd and get consistent accolades, or you don’t.  And assuming your technique is good, the criticism will tend to center on composition or subject.  In my case something like 10% of the criticism will ring true, the rest will not.

This gets us to the crux of this essay. How to deal with criticism that does not ring true. Examples of what does not ring true to me are words like static, boring, what’s the subject etc. This sounds to me like dogma. It could be the notion that beauty is boring and still life’s are exciting.  Or that the viewer is so dumb they need to be guided to part of the image as if some parts were not worth including. That begs the question, why were they included?

The problem here is that if you don’t subscribe to such nonsense, you will be ostracized. Or you can develop a tough hide and show what you have and ignore criticism that is not self evident or that is purely subjective. Art is not democratic.

When I take a picture, I either know it might be special, or I am just doing it for practice because I am already there. The trick is to get the special ones right which is not easy. But it happens often enough.  But just as often, it is only special to me.  Other photographers are not impressed.  This is the situation you need to deal with.  Almost as vexing is when other photographers like the work you have done that you are not fond of.

I think the only response when you are a loner is to show and listen.  Like I said, 10% of the comments may ring true. Some other themes may ring true over time, but most are just subjective. I don’t like B&W, but that is subjective and carries no value in critique, the same is true in similar areas.

But the key here is to show and listen, not to change or argue. Be true to yourself no matter. Praise is almost always worthless but you do need to hear what others don’t like.  If this dislike starts to ring true to you, something has been gained.

So show, listen, and never argue. That will be my process until I learn more about dealing with criticism.

Followup. This leads me to the following suggestion when you are making critique. Some stuff is objective, like out of focus. Some stuff is subjective, like rule of thirds. Be careful to word your critiques so that the subjective stuff is clear and never expect anyone to agree with such assessments.

Sometimes out of focus or color cast or low contrast is intentional, so never be dogmatic about anything, even objective stuff.

More followup: Since writing this I have had some success at the landscape forum. But my decision to show problem images at critique is not working. I think they still expect an image that would work when fixed. My problem images just don’t work so they probably need to be scrapped.

I see no point in showing a good image at a critique forum so it probably means not showing anything there.

I do get some critique at Landscape, so I probably just need to file that information away for future reference. Any reply ends up sounding defensive.


14 Responses to Dealing with critique

  1. Bert DeMars says:

    Judging (critiquing) is a subjective call made by and through an individual’s personal tastes. Most work presented on FM are individuals looking for accolades. Which is a natural human trait. The problem comes when individuals – as a thinly veiled request for kudos – ask for C&C of the their work in the regular FM forums. Or, only post on the Critique forum where there is a hand full of “good old boys” who dominate the forum, and who I’ve never seen post on the regular subject forums.

    Folks in the regular subject forums who post with a description and request to enjoy, are folks who just enjoy sharing work with others.

    If you follow the work in different forums, you know whether your work is good or not. And if you are a serious shooter, you’ll take the time to read and learn about lens/camera properties, and post processing. And do the work and practice to perfect your skill.

    • begbert says:

      Good points and thanks for your comment.

      I consider the landscape forum to be a presentation forum. This is a place to show stuff that the photographer believes is mature and worthy and not in need of critique. Not to say many are not seeking it, but more about the general nature of the forum. But that forum like almost all forums are ruled by a certain dogma. If you are not following the dogma, you either must eventually conform or be ostracized.

      The critique forum of course ought to be for showing images which you want critiqued. And I had that forum in mind when I wrote this piece. I do think I want critique, but I will not be bound by dogmatic ideas. I have been around too long for that. If the dogma never made inroads in my style in 30+ years, it never will.

      • Jim says:

        I agree with what you are saying Ben. Critique is my expressing implicit, of explicit, guidelines as I perceive them to be. There are no rules chiseled in stone. A friend recently wrote,” There are no rules that say a photo has to look like a photo all the time. Artists don’t illustrate in the same style all the time, so why should we be limited? Just don’t expect all photographers to rave about it, that’s all. Some are missing out on the fun because they are purists to the core and shun Photoshop, and they consider using filters and plug-ins and stuff “cheating”. That is their problem, not yours!! “. My photography is shared so others might comment, positively, or negatively. In all actuality we are students from day one to death. Never let us stop learning from those willing to share. Jim

        • begbert says:

          Exactly, I agree with you. The key is to listen to the critique but be your own final judge. What are you trying to do? If nobody thinks that is worth doing, it still does not mean it is not worth doing. If they spot something like a tilted horizon, and you don’t want a tilted horizon, perceived or otherwise its a good catch. But if you want a B&W and I don’t like B&W, that my problem.

  2. Jim Kelson says:

    I believe I post online for some of the same reasons I had when I joined a camera club and participated in competition. The very process of picking images, looking at them critically and processing can be valuable. Next I do get some valuable feedback. Most often that involves technical considerations such as post processing technique. Sometimes I also want objective feedback on preferences and style considerations. That type of feedback is rarely useful but sometimes it is interesting to hear different comments which sometimes makes me try something different.

    • begbert says:

      Critique is usually useful to some degree. If nothing else is serves as an indicator of where you are perceived by your peers.

      But sometimes when you are told for the 100th time the image is centered, or too soft or off color, or too HDR, friction arises. On your part you feel picked on, but on the other side it sounds like you are not listening when in fact you are simply rejecting or ignoring some opinion.

  3. Bert DeMars says:


    – “The critique forum of course ought to be for showing images which you want critiqued. And I had that forum in mind when I wrote this piece. I do think I want critique, but I will not be bound by dogmatic ideas. I have been around too long for that. If the dogma never made inroads in my style in 30+ years, it never will”…

    Photography is an art form and by definition, has no dogma, no set rules – its all in the eye of the artist. So precisely what do you want critiqued. Do you not know how to use an editor. Are you confused about the use of your camera and lenses. After “30+” years experience I should think your “stuff” should be “mature and worthy” of the big boy’s Landscape forum.

    Or is posting in the Critique forum just an excuse to have an ongoing conversation with the other handful of permanent members.

    • begbert says:

      I will never have work that is considered mature or acceptable at either the Landscape or Critique forum. This is mostly because I reject a few composition rules like centered horizons, read left to right, subject needs a pointer. You can read all about it in my philosophy section.

      After 30 years, I say its all arbitrary. If I post an image that is well received, its always an accident on my part and not something I could repeat, nor wish to repeat.

      Now in my opinion, it is wrong for me to post stuff at the landscape forum when I know in advance is not up to the expectations of that forum. But that is not the case at the critique forum.

      If I want critique, and I do, the critique is the place for it. And in fact I don’t want praise, I get plenty of that from civilians. But I just want to make it clear, if the critique says do not center the horizon when that is exactly what it looks like in real life, I will simply ignore it. That’s a silly rule.

      I filter out the BS composition rules and watch for something with substance.

      My web page is full of images, take a look at my Zion 2012 and you may see what I mean. That’s what I do, take it or leave it.

      Also, the landscape forum images that are really good manage to get to some really nice locations in great light. I get a few of those, but not nearly enough to sustain a daily forum activity.

      Yes, a daily forum activity is something I want.

      • Jim says:

        I have photographed all over the USA. Golden light (hour) is a fading mist that occasionally crosses your path. Just as fog accentuates, shadow define, golden light magnifies the intensity of an image. But how are we to perceive another’s work when we have no idea what they went through to get it. We see what “we like” and convey that. This can cause irritation / conflict. A recent encounter with a Pro-landscape photographer exemplified this when he told me that his most sold image was taken after 14 years of visiting the same location. He said he has spent 98 days at one location waiting for “the moment”. Imagine his frustration when told that it was good but too bad he missed the “Golden Hour”. We frequently expect others to conform to our perspective while not being willing to accept theirs. As people on the forums know, I push the limit most of the time, but never with expectation that I will be loved by the masses. When everybody loves my work I have no room for growth. Jim

        • begbert says:

          You are correct, I just wrote another essay about how all my travels this year missed dramatic sunsets/sunrises.

          For my style, I need em. At the end of the essay I cloned a sky from a local glorious sunset onto a well known icon that was great other than for a clear sky. It makes a world of difference.

          I have been shooting moonlit landscapes which is a bit different and does not need clouds. But it is not catching on.

          • Jim says:

            Check out Todd Lambert on the landscape forum. You can do a search by his name. He does the majority of his shooting at night. You might get some ideas from him. Keep the shutter moving and “enjoy”.

          • begbert says:

            Hi Jim. Yes, I have been following Todd. He does a lot of milky way shots and light painting. I like it but wanted to try something a bit different. To replace light painting I wanted to use moonlight for my light source. This tends to wash out any milky way. I get bright stars but not the dimmer ones making for a bright milky way.

            For more light my current camera is not much good above ISO800 so I would need to either have it modified to astro use which I am considering, or get a new one with better high ISO. But my style works pretty good at ISO800 or sometimes even 400. I loose the milky way, but gain some realism by having a natural light source for my landscape portion.

  4. Geoff says:

    I’ve posted a couple of times to the FM landscape forum, but usually to show others places that may be worth exploring, or as cautionary examples of what not to do. Despite my efforts I don’t think I’ve taken a landscape image worth boasting about. If I had 1/10 of Ben’s eye and technique then maybe that would change :-)

    • begbert says:

      Hi Geoff. I have seen plenty of good landscapes from you. I have decided that i will post only my best stuff at landscape and my problem images at Critique. But that is not to say my best is as good as the best I see there. Its all about the light and drama. I think I figured it out in my travelers lament essay.

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