How should you respond to criticism?
You shouldn’t. At least not a first. The best thing you can do with criticism is to let it simmer, sit and settle. You don’t want to let it fester and become something bigger than it is. Read it, listen to it, take it in, and file it away. Let it cool down a little. Come back to it later, when you’ve had time to mull it over. Do not, under any circumstances, overreact to criticism.
When I first started taking photography seriously in early 2009 I was very sensitive about my work. I wanted people to see it and I wanted people to like it – I desperately wanted people to like it – and I also didn’t handle criticism very well. In many cases I simply refused to accept it. I considered any and all comments critical of my work an affront to me and not to the work in question.
This is, of course, a very dangerous way of behaving. As artists, as photographers, we need criticism. We need it to grow and to learn and to improve. You can’t take what you perceive as good (comments! Applause! Adulation! LOVE!) and ignore the bad, no matter how sharp, cynical or caustic you think it may be (often it is not).
Here’s another way of looking at criticism.
When someone takes the time to look at one of my images and levy an opinion – positive or negative (depending, of course, on the way I perceive it) that likely says that the person commenting either a) respects me as a photographer, or b) respects my work itself enough to comment on it. While all of us may yearn for gushing praise, what does that sort of thing tell us about our work? Not much, in my opinion. I’d rather someone suggest a way I could improve rather than dump a bucket of praise on my head. I’d rather post an image online (flickr, Facebook, twitter, etc.) and receive one intelligent, critical piece of feedback than ten thoughtless purple balloons filled with nonsensical back-slapping.
Let us now look at an example or two.
I shot this image back in the fall of 2008. At the time I shot this, man oh man, was I ever proud of it! I thought this really was something else; striking, beautiful, artistic. All of that and a bag of potato chips. Then I shared it with some friends. At first, their feedback was devastating. It took me a while to realize that the only thing under attack was my ego.
Critic: The image is a little soft. I think you could have benefited from shooting off of a tripod.
Me: Yeah, but I didn’t have a tripod! I think I did a great job keeping it steady.
Critic: The composition is weak. There’s no foreground element. Your horizon is dead in the center of the frame. Haven’t you ever heard of the rule of thirds?
Me: Yeah, but rules were made to be broken! (But actually, I don’t understand the rule of thirds. What’s up with that?)
Critic: This sucks.
Me: You suck.
Three people looked at this image and decided to share their thoughts with me. They saw things in the image I didn’t see and they shared their thoughts with me. I should have been open and receptive to their feedback; instead, I was defensive. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
I didn’t want to get that kind of feedback anymore. It hurt my pride, maybe even my feelings (I’m only human, right?) I decided to do something about it. I decided I wouldn’t argue back. I decided I would take the feedback and make something out of it. I would file those comments somewhere in my memory to be used the next time I shot a similar image. Subsequently, whenever I went out to shoot a landscape image I would think back to these pieces of early feedback when surveying a scene.
Where is my horizon?
Think about the rule of thirds!
How sharp is my image going to be? Do I need a tripod?
Does this suck?
Of course, more goes into an image than this, but I would always and forever remember these little nuggets of wisdom. I made them a part of my everyday photography thought process.
More importantly, critical feedback has inspired me to learn and shoot more. When someone gives me a tip I try to learn from it instead of dismissing it off-hand. This doesn’t mean critical feedback doesn’t irk me any less; trust me, it does. I’ve just learned how to deal with it better. I’ve learned how to learn from it, in a way.
I remember standing on the shore at Lake Tekapo and that old 2008 image rolled through my mind. I started to wonder what sort of feedback I’d receive on these images and what people might say.
I thought about the strides I’ve made as a photographer over the last few years. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am or be able to shoot what I shoot without some of the feedback I’ve been honored to receive along the way. I’m glad I don’t simply dismiss feedback anymore. Even if there are those out there that think this stuff sucks.
I’ve touched on feedback once before on my blog. I talked about internalizing critical feedback and turning it into something positive. I still believe in that.
Food for thought.