Photography is seen as an art form and as such is judged very subjectively. For some, this means that there aren’t any universal standards and that the quality of an image is not definable. Therefore an image can not be evaluated in a constructive manner and every critique is purely based on one’s opinion.
Unfortunately, this leads to the phenomenon that photographers aren’t very accessible to criticism and instead dismiss every critique as personal hate. As photographers, we have to understand that criticism is very necessary for our own development and need to learn how to deal with other’s opinions.
One reason why I searched for local photographers from the beginning instead of internet communities was, that it is very hard to discuss (Street) Photograph in a constructive manner online. Either the critique is very low effort or it is received as a personal attack.
Such misinterpretations quickly poison the atmosphere of any discussion only leaving two frustrated photographers. This might lead on one side to photographers that simply ignore any form of criticism and on the other side to well-versed photographers that don’t leave any critiques anymore.
To clear things up, here is my view on how to give and receive criticism to improve your Photography without taking it personally.
Importance of Criticism
I am glad that we live in a modern of the Internet that gives us the option to get in contact with people all over the world. It connects us to like-minded photographers or even critics that don’t appreciate the results of our work. We are able to show our pictures to people we never heard of before but receive their opinion anyway.
Some of them are genuinely interested in giving their opinion, while others are simply there to hate. For a Street Photographer that puts his work on public display, it becomes very important to differentiate between those two types of critiques.
What I have noticed is that a lot of veteran Photographers ignore any form of critique to become immune to negative opinions in general. This is a very easy way of dealing with opposite opinions and may help you when facing a lot of negative feedback. But it also can hinder your development as a photographer.
Photography and especially Street Photography is very complex. It may not seem like that, because taking a picture is easy, maybe too easy with digital technology? Anyway, it is easy to take a picture that is decently exposed and where the subject is in focus. Those are two criteria that are very obvious for the quality of a photograph.
But photography has a lot more depth that you begin to notice the more you learn about it. Composition, Storytelling and your personal style are just a few additional qualities of a decent image.
From your first image ever taken, it only takes a few days to get decent exposed images, a few weeks to master the auto-focus, but months until your realize that you actually have no idea about photography.
Photography is a form of expression that you don’t master one day and after you hit a certain level can’t go beyond. Your personal style develops throughout your life.
Imagine if you ignored every criticism from the start and just did your own thing. Maybe you would be happier because from your point of view you only received positive feedback, but in reality your pictures might still suck. Not on a subjective level that is discussable, but to everyone who has even the slightest knowledge about Street Photography.
Street Photography can be very random at times. You can land a few decent shots and already believe that you are the best Street Photographer the world has ever witnessed, but “one swallow doesn’t make a summer”.
Criticism reveals your weak spots. It might hurt at first, but it is absolutely necessary for your development, especially in the beginning. Dismissing every critique because it isn’t in your favor only prevents you from realizing where you can improve as a photographer.
Criticism on the Street
Other than critique about our portfolio and images, as a Street Photographer we also face hostile reactions on the street from time to time. Some are from subjects that we just took a picture of and sometimes it’s just negative comments from bystanders that aren’t even in the frame.
First of all, those reactions don’t happen as frequently as you might think. On the brink side, there are also positive reactions and people genuinely interested in what you are photographing, which camera you are using etc.
Nonetheless, negative reactions might throw you off at first but there are easy ways to deal with it.
There are different types of negative encounters.
The first one is just a mean little comment while you are taking a picture of something unrelated to the person. It sounds strange, that since they aren’t even involved in the scene that they still have to express their opinion, but I guess they just seek for attention. Therefore I am just ignoring such comments. It isn’t worth it to invest any time in arguing and explaining what you are
It isn’t worth it to invest any time in arguing and explaining what you are photographing and why, or what your goal is. Let them leave their comment and I ignore them. They aren’t interested in photography and too ignorant to learn anything new anyway.
Then we have those types of dogmatists in Germany that believe that photographing in public is illegal. They don’t care about photography at all, they just want to be in the right. Usually, I try to ignore them as well, unless they come up to me. Then a few questions about the fundaments of their arguments shows their lack of understanding of basic rights and as soon as you continue to photograph they’ll walk away.
Of course, sometimes subjects that were in the frame are questioning what you are doing. As a Street Photographer, I don’t want to conceal that I am taking pictures, although I don’t want to be too open either to not influence the candid image. This can create a conflict, but in general, I believe it is only a fair game if people have a chance to react.
But even in these encounters, there are a lot more people just spewing hate to vent some frustration, than actually wanting me to delete an image. Those that just rage for a second I tend to ignore as well, no reason to deal with them any further. Unless they specifically come up to me to ask me to delete the picture. Then I can still explain what the purpose of the image is and show it to them.
As you can see, I mainly ignore negative reactions on the street. I can imagine spending my time a lot better than trying to teach a lesson in photography to ignorant people that aren’t listening anyway. In two years I only had one person coming up to me to delete a picture and that was in a very polite way. I guess after all the saying “barking dogs don’t bite” tends to translate to humans as well. If they already start off very aggressively they aren’t interested in any discussion, they just want to let off steam, but they are gone very quickly after that.
What is a meaningful critique?
I already emphasized that critique is useful for your development as a photographer. You should listen and internalize the advice from more experienced Street Photography. But how can you differentiate important quality feedback from poorly worded hate?
If you are using Social Media and show your pictures to a wide range of people, you have probably faced the typical negative comments. Single lines that only point out negative aspects of your image or just spew against Street Photography in general.
Recognizing these isn’t very hard, they are obvious short comments, that you can decide to ignore or block. Again, arguing with them is probably a waste of time.
Then there is a whole army of armchair warriors. People that claim to be well versed as a photographer but don’t have a portfolio themselves. Now you don’t need to be great photographer yourself, to be able to give great feedback, but I’d be skeptical to take such comments seriously without knowing them any further. Extract what you see as useful from their opinion but take everything with a grain of salt.
Good critique is not only to describe if you like a picture or not. This is only the very basis of feedback. I know photographers that ask their wife for opinions on which pictures might look good on Instagram and usually they have a very good taste. They are able to strike the taste of people very well, but that doesn’t make them good critics.
The key in meaningful feedback lies not in the judgment of an image, but in the formulated reasons why a picture works or not. It doesn’t help an inch to receive a ton of “great pic” comments on Instagram.
A great feedback should always include a thorough description why certain aspects are lacking. Does the composition feel off, because the leading lines are guiding the viewer away from the subject? Is the story not very well thought and very clumsy because there are a lot of meaningless subjects in the picture?
Those could be points that you can actively work on in Street Photography. Simple statements don’t help you. Unfortunately, it is not easy to receive critiques this thorough, especially on the Internet and from public communities.
Therefore I’d recommend searching for private communities on- or offline with photographers whose work you respect.
Being a good photographer doesn’t automatically make you a good critic. Just like teaching, giving feedback requires other qualities than simply knowing the subject.
One characteristic that often derails conversations is the fact that instead of reviewing the image the critic addresses the photographer in a personal way. I know that the photographer and his photos are hard to separate, but when giving feedback concentrate only on the image.
Things like “The photographer has no idea about layering” aren’t very constructive. Instead, formulate how the picture could achieve better layers. Which perspective might be better for this particular image and explain why this leads to an improved picture.
Giving feedback is also a great way to learn more about photography. It forces you to reflect on the quality of your or others images in a very precise way. Formulating an explanation on why you like a particular image that is more detailed than “I like the colors” isn’t easy. By giving critique you learn a lot about the aspects that make a great quality Street Photo.
Using Criticism to fuel your passion
Just like your critique shouldn’t be targeting the photographer personally, you shouldn’t take any criticism personally as well. If people don’t like your pictures, that doesn’t mean that they hate you personally, or that you are a worse person. Your images and you as a person are two different entities.
Instead, I am very grateful for every helpful feedback. It makes me realize that I may be at 10% my capabilities. That means that there is still 90% of unused potential ready to be trained.
Photography would be a very boring subject if you could master it in a few years. Even more, it is great that we are able to learn our whole lifetime and still discover new things that change our view.
Furthermore, you should be your most important and harshest critic. In the end, you should be confident with your work yourself and not make images only to please certain people.
Integrate useful feedback without losing your personal style. Listen carefully to the tips of more experienced Street Photographers but don’t follow them blindly. Always make up your own mind and the criticism that you face will have a positive impact, whether it was constructive or not.