What is constructive criticism, what does it mean, and when should it be applied to someone’s photographic artwork?
Constructive criticism is a form of positive and constructive feedback that offers supportive advice and ideas to an individual. Constructive criticism should be applied to someone’s artwork when requested.
Constructive criticism should not be confused with criticism either, or commonly known as “destructive criticism”.
The screenshot below demonstrates an example of destructive criticism aimed at a beginner photographer working on a budget.
While the comment may seem harmless, it can lead to others taking the side of the person offering unwanted criticism, thus creating an unpleasant atmosphere for beginner photographers.
The commentator should have said either nothing or, “Would you be open to some positive feedback on your image”.
Destructive criticism creates a hostile online environment, and it can lead to beginner photographers giving up before they’ve even started.
Destructive criticism is focused on the negative. The feedback can be vague and often lacks guidance or support.
In recent months I have seen a concerning increase in unsolicited destructive and constructive criticism of people’s photographic artwork on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Most unsolicited critique and unpleasant feedback is often viewed in portrait, landscape, wildlife and astrophotography forums and photography clubs and is usually aimed at beginners, primarily female photographers, and those using cheaper equipment.
To the untrained observer, unsolicited criticism, be it constructive or destructive, could be viewed as facetious, however to the trained observer, unsolicited constructive or destructive criticism is viewed as frosty, distasteful, and in some cases I’ve witnessed recently, disconcerting.
As with the image above, the photographer below also did not ask for feedback, advice or constructive criticism either. What started as unsolicited critique ended with the photographer being condescended, i.e. “You might learn something too.”
Commentary such as this is uncalled for, especially in today’s era in which online cyberbullying is on the increase.
There are several reasons why we, as photographers and observers, must never criticise someone’s photographic artwork unless requested, such as:
- The photographer may be a beginner
- The photographer may be working on a budget
- The photographer may be under psychological, emotional or financial pressure
- The photographer may have a disability that impairs their vision, thinking or movements
How to Provide Good Constructive Criticism When Asked!
Firstly, not every photographer will ask for constructive criticism, and others may not even understand how constructive criticism works.
Therefore, you could ask the photographer whether they’re open to receiving general feedback or a more descriptive critique about their image(s).
Secondly, take a look at other people’s constructive opinions. Find a few photos that you like and compare your opinion to the ones that have already been shared.
Is there a piece of constructive criticism that stands out to you? Figure out why it does and use that in your feedback.
Similarly, pay attention to tones that make you feel uncomfortable. This will give you an idea of what to avoid the next time you share your creative opinion with someone.
I use Grammarly to correct my tones; Grammarly’s tone checker can identify the style of your message by analysing your word choice, phrasing, punctuation, and even capitalisation; in addition, it’s free to use too.
Things to remember when applying constructive criticism to someone’s photographic artwork when asked.
- Be polite always, and avoid using language such as: “In my expert opinion, or This doesn’t look nice.”
- Be considerate and fair
- Be friendly and helpful
- Be mindful of your tone
- Do not discriminate
- Never, ever judge a photographer based on their genre, i.e. boudoir photography, photojournalism, culture, religion, conflict etc
It’s also worth noting that constructive criticism should only be applied to a genre of photography you practice or are knowledgeable about.
Valuable, Constructive Criticism is Best.
When a photographer asks for constructive criticism, you must provide a valuable assessment of their work from which they can learn rather than saying: “This looks nice, but there’s room for improvement.”
Their image may look nice, and they’ve likely put much effort into shooting it. However, they’ll learn nothing from that type of feedback.
When offering valuable, constructive criticism, it’s important to remember these steps:
- Empathise that you’re experienced in the genre the photographer has posted. If you’re not, then it’s probably best to keep your input down to a bare minimum
- State whether you’ve trained in or are knowledgeable in any specialist photography subjects too, such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Lighting, etc
- Accentuate that this is your opinion
- Describe what you like about the photographer’s photo, i.e., composition, light, colours, focus, etc. Does the subject, foreground, and background stand out to you? Can you see a story, message or emotion? If so, explain how it makes you feel.
- Mention any improvements that could be made; for example, the contrast and colour look nice, but my eye was drawn to the overexposed area in the clouds. The composition, shadows etc., are striking, but with that minor improvement I mentioned, I think your photo would look even better
- Avoid generalised constructive criticism, i.e. “This looks nice, but you could improve here” or “In my expert opinion, the colours are off.” Vague constructive criticism does not put your point across in a positive way
- More information is better than none; however, try to keep your constructive criticism down to a few paragraphs
- Relate with the photographer; for example, if you’re a landscape photographer giving critique to another landscape photographer, you may want to point out a time you had difficulties with lighting, location, weather etc. Try to apply some lighthearted banter too, if possible
- Try not to be overly technical, but maintain the key points that you’ve noticed and what improvements, if any could be made
Examples of Thorough Constructive Criticism
I see you’re from Norfolk, too; nice to meet you. I’ve over a decade of experience in landscape photography, and I’ve been using Lightroom for the same amount of time too.
I love the overall composition, and the story you’ve created with the lone woman walking down the hill towards the house also works excellently, in my opinion. My eye fell on her immediately.
The background and foreground stand out nicely. The lighting is super, though my eye is drawn ever so slightly to the far right of the image where the bin is.
Your image makes me feel calm, and the tones are good. I love the contrast between the dark blue sky and the yellow mustard fields.
The exposure is excellent though I think the highlights could be toned down to add more depth. I think the horizon could also be levelled off a little more in Adobe Lightroom.
If you worked on those minor points I’ve raised, your image would look even more striking.The Norfolk Photograpgher
Hello, my name is Jon. I’m a still-life, low-light photographer with several years of experience in this genre.
This image looks very moody and the tones are also great.
I think the sharpness could be improved a little, as well as separating the black areas of the subject from the black background.
That minor tweak would highlight the image even more, adding depth and clarity.
I note from your post that you’ve had problems setting up the lighting; I did, too, when I first started.
Nowadays, I use a three-point lighting set-up with a reflector. Bouncing the light about does help increase mood, shadows and colour.
Have you thought about trying this? It may aid you in separating the subject from the background too.
My eye was immediately drawn to the light on the flower and leaves; the composition is fantastic; it makes me feel calm and relaxed.
I like your direction with this image, but I wonder what it would look like with a little more light and colour or even black and white?
The shadows add a lot of dept to the subject too.
With the minor tweaks mentioned above, your image would look even more stunning; well done.The Norfolk Photographer
There is no way of telling whether the people we’re speaking with online are new to the hobby, working on a budget, under psychological, emotional or financial pressure or disabled just by looking at their photos or viewing their social media profile, hence why it’s essential to provide constructive criticism “when asked”.
It’s also important to note that the majority of photographers with disabilities are quite capable of shooting impressive images. I work alongside several disabled photographers that shoot award-winning photography at national level every month.
Therefore it’s always best to build an informal rapport before you consider offering constructive criticism to any photographer.
You should only apply constructive criticism to a genre of photography you’re experienced too. In addition, try not to be overtechnical, especially when talking to beginner photographers.
Maintain a professional opinion always, and try to relate to the photographer.
Finally, as my mother always taught me, “If you’ve nothing good to say, don’t say it.”
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.