Talking about photos (the thing with critique)

Most recently, conversations with friends and fellow photographers have spun around photo critique quite a bit. When I met John and Scott at Windansea Beach, we talked about how difficult it is to give and get good critique, and it prompted Scott to write a blog post about it. A tongue-in-cheek Google+ post of mine about how +1s (or likes, favorites, whatever) don’t make better photos, and that you can’t eat them either, somehow turned into a discussion about (online) critique of photos as well.

Scott has it right when he says “You Are the Beginning and the End of Your Art”. No one can be an authority over another one’s artistic vision and creation. At every point in my photographic “career” (or endeavors) I was fully convinced that my photos were good. Not in a technical sense, but in that they conveyed my vision and ideas. Only few others may have been able to see it as clearly as I did (well, ahem, cough-cough), but that’s not the point. I saw it in my photos. And this is one of the biggest problems of photo critique.

Dry Lagoon Beach, Humboldt Lagoons State Park, near Trinidad, CA
Shark Fin — Dry Lagoon Beach, Humboldt County, CA. September 2013.

You can critique technique, of course. The horizon is tilted, sensor dust spots haven’t been removed, there’s visible chromatic aberration, highlight or shadow clipping, disturbing elements at the edges and corners of the frame, a wrong distribution of light and dark, or sharp and unsharp areas – that sort of thing. It’s totally valid. It’s critique about the craft. After all, photography is a technical art form, and if you don’t have your technique straight, it gets in the way of expressing your vision. (or, as I used to say: “You can’t play the piano if you can’t play the piano”)

To a certain degree, you can also critique the artistic side of photography. But when we discuss the composition, like whether it is balanced or imbalanced, we are already entering the realm of taste* and opinion. There is no set of rules that has been carved in stone. No matter how many times someone repeats the rule of thirds (here’s an excellent discussion about it by Mike Spinak: The Golden Section Hypothesis – A Critical Look). And it is clear that some photographs don’t work for most of us, even if we can not precisely say why. And you can only state an opinion about vision, style, and idea. Even if it is an educated opinion – it’s just an opinion. It lies in the nature of both the art and the critique to be highly subjective.

When I took part in one of the many weekly photography themes on Google+, its curator featured the photo that I submitted in his summary post and provided feedback. At first I was happy that my image was selected. His feedback however consisted solely of dissecting my personal and deliberate choice to design the photograph the way I had chosen to design it – because it didn’t work for him. But the way I set up my composition should have made it pretty clear that I made a very deliberate choice in doing that. The only positive thing he had to say about my picture however was that it was “nicely processed”.

I felt misunderstood, and needless to say, I was deeply offended. I had expected that an expert would recognize my choice and idea, and at least respect it. I wondered: Why feature a photo in a curator’s post, if you don’t have anything positive to say about it? Even though the words were carefully chosen and the intent was a discussion, to me it boiled down to a sugar-coated version of “this sucks, I don’t agree with it, want to talk about it?” – yes, we artists don’t exactly have a thick skin when it comes to our own creations. When I stated my intentions and motivation, I was already re-acting, and being in the defense. That never works out too well!

That’s why I think it’s much better to say what you like about a photo – and not what you don’t like. It’s easier to discuss taste and opinion, and it’s easier to disagree that way, too: because if you don’t agree with a negative critique, it’s just too damn easy to tell you that “you just can’t handle it.” In reality, things are a bit more complicated: it may very well be for example that disagreeing with critique will be perceived as undermining authority – the authority of the person giving you feedback.

It’s hard to disagree with a person who has achieved a certain credibility in photographic circles. Because it means questioning authority. Something that an established photographer probably can not allow. After all, that person might be teaching workshops and photography classes – entering a discussion about a critique can wreak havoc on their reputation. Don’t do it. If you receive negative critique, no matter how invalid and subjective it may be – ignore it if you can. And you know how I learned that now. :)

One possible solution to learn from photo critique without exposing yourself directly to invalid and/or inconsiderate negative critique, and at the same time an enjoyable way to learn more about photography and what people see in photographs is reading discussions about images made by others. One book that I would like to wholeheartedly recommend is George Barr‘s “Why Photographs Work“, published by Rocky Nook. I bought it about two years ago and occasionally browse it, find a photograph that interests me, and read what both George and the photographer who made the photo have to say about it.

*) given the amount of positive reactions that highly saturated landscape photos and overcooked HDR images still get, there is clearly plenty of bad taste out there. :)

**) it doesn’t matter which photo it was, and I do not mention the name of the theme or its curator here.

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20 Responses

  1. Good post, thanks. I also find it strange to feature a photo if it’s not pleasing for some reason. To respect the work of the photographer! That’s a good point. We should trust the photo and the photographer at first. Then start analysing the feelings the photo brings up. And then, just maybe, it is time to be creative with the choice of words. Positivity. That is what we need. Everything will be easier with positive thinking!

  2. I don’t know, as someone that gets asked to critique often, I’m really not sure why people even ask for critique. A lot of times i just say no because I know what the person wants.

    I see the need for Critique when starting out. It really is a helpful tool for learning. But once you turn the corner from Cook to Chef I honestly wonder the need. If I cook something and I think it’s great. i don’t ask “does this need salt?”

    I would only see the need if I was unsure of something. I don’t really ask for critiques unless it’s a realm of photography I don’t usually wander through…but still rarely then.

    So I think that when the Chef asks (I always have to do food analogies) it mostly because they want better affirmation from someone they think is better then the person +1-ing and “Awesome!”-ing. But even at that point they are hoping for a certain answer…Like… Awesome! And then when they don’t get it they retreat to the Introvert Artist Self Defense mechanism (I have this) “it’s ART! It’s subjective!” at which point it’s kinda like… then why ask?

    If you believe that and you believe in what you do… Then that’s just about all that matters. If you do it for a living, the people that buy will tell you if you suck (as long as you understand why they buy) may not be because of your artistry… well at least in my case… my rock matches their drapes.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you. In this instance, the feedback was provided without me having explicitly asked for it (I guess it was kind-of implied when I contributed an image to the photo theme though). Unsolicited feedback is complicated, and it bothered me enough to write this blog post.

      1. Mr kunz, i enjoy looking at most of the photos presented and will make positive comments on the ones i especially like…i enjoy doing this and it makes me smile-so don’t really understand what the issue is? Thx Shirley

        1. Glad to hear that you enjoy giving people who post photos positive feedback, Shirley. This post is the result of discussing more in-depth photo critique with some photographer friends.

    2. Well, I’ve said this before but there’s a difference between critique and feedback. Critique has a judgmental aspect and negative connotations. I’d only accept it from someone whom I have respect for as an artist of the type I aspire to. Feedback, on the other hand, is usually couched in phrases of how that image affects me (“I get a feeling of solitude or loneliness here, do you intend that?”).
      As Peter says when we receive critique (criticism) we retreat. Though I must say I’m getting more thick skinned about it.

  3. Thanks for the good discussion. I have to agree that most of the critique I’ve seen is made by people who are still finding their way to artistic maturity themselves. Too often the critiques centre around photographic ideals which for some reason put pressure towards cookie cutter photographic cliches. Why anyone would want to judge their photo according to how close they come to expressing worn out cliches is beyond me.

    While I like the technical discussion, far too much “technical” talk these days is around processing and less about technical aspects of shooting. I think the processing “expertise” is abundant online and therefore that gets focus.

    Ultimately though, I wish there was more discussion (does not have to be critique) around artistic choices. The fact is everybody wants the cop out in visual arts that the artistic value is “in the eye of the beholder” but the fact is there are objective aspects to visual arts just as there are in literature or music. That is not to discount taste, but some art just is objectively better than other art. We have established traditions of painting going back many hundreds of years and a pretty robust tradition of photography to inform our objectivity around visual art. How many critics in the online world even understand the difference between image and picture? Aren’t there artistic considerations in pictures beyond pure aesthetics?

    There is unprecedented opportunity for the average person to learn to be a good photographer because they can shoot thousands of pictures for no cost with instant feedback. There is amazing opportunity to communicate and learn from the experience of others and this is a good thing. While this doesn’t mean everyone can be Picasso or Ansel Adams, it does mean that the average level of competence is quite good in comparison to the past.

    However, if you want to be more than just a half decent point and shooter I think you have to look at the established artists of the past and present whether painters or photographers. Go online (or to an art gallery) and try to look at the big names whether you like their stuff aesthetically or not. There is a wealth of education in simply looking at the works of masters both from the past and contemporary. Try to just look, and also try to understand the context under which their works are made. I firmly believe this can only make you better as an artist.

    1. Exactly, John Zewenluk. I can’t say it any better. Years ago (and perhaps still) we went through a time where all literature was subjective. The guy writing short stories in Madagascar is just as good as Shakespeare sort of thing. But you’re right, there are established traditions that form our views and you’d have to be very, very good to break them and create new traditions (Picasso, Pollock, Warhol). I don’t see that happening on G+ or Facebook.

    2. Thanks for stopping by John! I agree, there are established ways and traditions for photography as well. That part is pretty much missing in my post, and I’m glad you brought it up. I guess we could turn technique/tradition/vision into a nice Venn diagram of photographs that work. :)

  4. Great article Alexander. I agree with what Peter said above, once you have established yourself I see little need for any sort of analytical critique. But when starting out, they can be invaluable if done properly and in the right context and the right individual doing the critique. I think more of a portfolio review might make more sense in some cases however (something a bit different I think) or do you place that in the same category.

    I recently watched an interesting interview with Joe McNally. At one point during the interview he was talking about his early career. He had been shooting for some time but wanted validation that is methods and his vision, were working. So he sought out critiques from several photographers whom he admired at the time. The feedback Joe got was not critical of his overall work, but instead provided direction and a path to follow photographically.

    One thing I thought was important was that he sought these critiques from other journalism photographers. Asking a Landscape photographer to look at your studio portrait shots might not be the best idea ;-) I think that is part of the problem with many of the social media sites, they are overly generic. This make any meaningful critique pointless in my view

    /*** My comments below are meant with all sincerity! Just some thoughts ***/
    My ONLY negative comment Alexander, is that your comment at the end of the article could be left out:

    “given the amount of positive reactions that highly saturated landscape photos and overcooked HDR images still get, there is clearly plenty of bad taste out there.”

    I get that you don’t like it but by saying it, your criticizing a style you personal don’t agree with while putting your own work above it. I personally think your above that, true or not. ;-)

    My tastes in photography are not so specific, though if I had to pick favorites I would say I lean towards BW landscapes. Yours are indeed wonderful, with much to like.

    1. Thanks for you comment John. Well, even a saint like me ;) has to add some snide remark here and there. I guess I should have added a smiley to that one. It’s actually the perfect example why the “taste” argument is something that should be avoided in discussing photos.

  5. Really great stuff Alexander. The dunes image -you already know I love. And the writing and subject matter is thought provoking. I don’t know if you remember but about a month ago Peter did a thing on FB with 2 of his images. One of his bestsellers and one of his personal faves. The discussion that ensued perhaps got a little heated. I was so taken and fascinated by all of the conversation. I think it was a great example of how we photographers get very passionate about our work. And it’s so easy to get defensive. I like your comment about doing your best to ignore the negative stuff. For me being a beginner-I have to listen to the negative stuff. I have seen alot of improvement in my work by doing so. I am a terrible writer and tend to ramble on and be not coherent. I thank you for the suggestion on the book by George Barr. I will get it and look forward to learning some things. Again thanks for the great blog Alexander

    1. Thanks for stopping by Maria! Yes, the discussion on Peter’s images was really interesting (and it was not my intention to add to the “heat” of it).

      And re listing to the negative stuff… I don’t know… if it works for and you can take it, why not. But I don’t want to believe that as a beginner, you have to listen to negative critique. Both positive and negative critique can be motivating to make things better, but negative critique is much more likely to demotivate. The question is how YOU can get the best learning effect from it for your own work.

  6. I have never read this book entirely:
    But believe wholeheartedly in its ideal.

    Critique is good for one thing for me. Learning how someone would approach my work differently, or, their thought process on how THEY work.
    After that I must take responsibility for each piece I make and decide whether their opinion even matters (for that specific work). Each piece we make takes on a life of its own and demands that we make specific decisions for the message we intend to build. I disagree that there are any set parameters to how a photograph works…it just needs to work for me….unless I decide it needs to work for someone else and my typical tack will not work to that end. If we want our work to speak to others, we need to learn their language, speak it with our own dialect and educate the viewer to the new language we are creating.

    We choose our audience. If we want to “speak” to established masters then we will run down that trail. If the trail we choose deviates, then we will likely be marginalized by them. It’s as simple as that.

    To your main point… I agree. There is a point when a photographer knows what status quo is and chooses whether or not to employ it into the work. Speaking to the strengths of a photograph made by one of these photographers certainly goes a lot further than the “*let-me-show-you-how-to-pick-apart-this-work” approach. *It’s appearance is one of self-importance and arrogance.

    There’s much more to this…good comments.

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