Taking Criticism – From Others, From Yourself

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I have seen many people use the subjectiveness of art, in all forms, as an excuse for dismissing allegedly bad criticism, touting phrases like “they don’t really know what they’re looking at…”. Usually, this is followed by some sort of claim that the person has been doing said art for many years, or they studied under a certain person. At least the more modest will state that their work isn’t for everyone. But even then, you are still making excuses.

Criticism is a difficult thing for us humans to accept. It is our goal as artists to please the general public, so it is very difficult to accept that someone doesn’t like our work. Especially considering the amount of time we all know we spend on our art, and photography is no exception. But all criticism, regardless of how skilled the source, should be taken into consideration. We can separate our sources into two types: Skilled and Unskilled. Below I will discuss why each is important and how you can utilize it.

Skilled Criticism

Criticism from a skilled artist of any sort should be coveted, especially if the source is a Photographer herself. Why do I say any type of artist? Because they will at least understand the dedication and a few key concepts that are shared among all forms of art: Shape, Texture, Form, Movement, Rhythm, and so on. They will at least be able to speak to you in such terms which will help you to understand their concerns. Obviously, advice from another photographer is incredibly useful, because they may be able to explain, in detail, as solution to the problem: Increase the shutter speed, use a filter, etc.

The catch with skilled criticism is that you know, deep down, that you cannot dismiss any of it. The other catch is that any criticism from a skilled source could point out serious fundamental flaws that may be difficult to accept. But to improve, you must accept every criticism from your skilled peers. It will take some pride swallowing, but it will help you in the long run. To make things easier for you, realize that this person wouldn’t be sharing his or her thoughts if they didn’t think you had potential. They are taking time out of their day to offer you sound advice…they’re not going to waste their breath if they think you aren’t worth it.

Unskilled Criticism

Comments from a layman won’t likely be earth shattering. Most of the time, you’ll get a “Love it” or “Hate it” type response without too much clarity beyond that. For that matter, they may not be able to explain why they like or dislike your work. They have a feeling – a gut reaction, if you will – but they cannot put their thoughts into words. They don’t have the vocabulary or the skill set to properly explain the issue from a technical point of view. This is, of course, frustrating, but any data is important. Learning to use that data, however, is the challenge.

Photography, or art in general, has a number of rules that have been defined as guidelines for creating the ideal shot. As part of your education, you’ve learned about these rules and you likely use them in some form or another, whether you actively think about it still or not. They have become second nature to you. More importantly, you know when to break these rules. The unskilled critic, however, doesn’t fully understand these rules – they may not even be aware of them. But their subconscious is aware. All they will be able to tell you is that something doesn’t look right. They may even be able to tell you what doesn’t look right, but they won’t be able to tell you why. The why is your job.

The important thing to remember about unskilled criticism is that there is more of a chance that a person will like your work instead of hate it. But the majority of viewers will be somewhere in the middle. The likes are great for stroking your ego, but unless they can tell you why, there isn’t much use for their criticism when it comes to improving your work. It’s the dislikes you’ll want to make note of. A person who dislikes your work will likely know why. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to draw it out of them as they may be afraid to offend. You have to assure them that you would appreciate their thoughts. Explain to them that you want to improve and that they are helping you.

Sometimes it’s the comments from the unskilled that will have the greatest impact.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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