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Unsolicited Photo Critiques and Online Etiquette
I came across a post in a Facebook photography group recently asking for comments on a blog post. The topic said “Photographers Should be Criticized.” The notion in the post and in the Facebook discussion that followed is pretty simple. If you post something online, he feels you’re subjecting your work for public critique.
I don’t agree with this premise.
Critique is a useful method to learn and grow, not only as a photographer. It helps with writing and other creative endeavors. I’ve received welcome critiques from photographers better than I am. They helped me refine my photography and improve.
There is a very key difference between a consensual critique and an unsolicited photo critiques.
Providing an unsolicited photo critique creates a good chance of wasted effort. Your effort may come across as insulting, or simply be lost on someone who isn’t ready to learn the lesson you intended.
The author of this post seems to think that a critique needs to be scathing, as he refers to “being blasted” by criticism.
Joe McNally is a master at conducting a critique. I attended a couple of his workshops and a daily critique of your photos is part of the process. Each morning, we gathered to show our photos before the entire class while Joe observes and comments.
He was never abusive or blasted anyone. Instead, he had an amiable way of asking what you intended and offered advice about how you could approach your shot, improve with a different technique, etc. If he liked your photo, he told you.
Joe is gracious with his praise and critique.
Everyone Receives Criticized. Here’s How I Deal With It.
Occasionally, I receive unsolicited photo critiques on my photos shared online. The way I handle it is rather low key. Assuming the comment isn’t abusive, I simply thank them for their input. If it’s over the top, I ignore the criticism completely.
When I engage in something that I don’t want in the first place, then it just grows and ends upon being a bad experience for everyone.
So my advice is simple. Don’t feed the trolls.
About a month later, it seems that the author removed the post. Maybe he received criticism he didn’t like.
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THE PHOTO FLUNKY SHOW: Episode 85
William: Thank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show, Episode 85.
Today we are going to be talking about why unsolicited photo critiques make you look like a jerk.
Hi, my name is William Beem. And I never give unsolicited photo critiques.
Lee: We know better! And I am Lee Beem. I also don’t give unsolicited photo critiques, but I do respond to them.
William: Yes! And before we get started I just want to let you know that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode85 And of course you can find a transcript of the show there for free. Also you can find links to subscribe to the show on iTunes, Google Play and other sources. And you can find all of our shows on a player at photoflunky.com
Also before we get started I just want to remind everybody that you can get some free Lightroom presets from On1. There is a group of presets. They are actually really nice. I’ve been looking at them lately and kind of looking over my photos if I want to reprocess them again and they are absolutely free. I have got a link for you. It is willambeem.com/on1lrpresents. Or you can find the link on the show notes page. But they are absolutely free. They are really nice and I would recommend you go check them out.
Here is where this little topic came up from. About a month ago I was in a Facebook group and someone posted a blog post he had written and it was called: Photographers Should Be Criticized.
I’ll put a link to the post in the show notes, but really, the notion that he had in the discussion was if you post something online you are subjecting your work for public critique. And honestly, I don’t agree with this premise at all. I think if you are posting something online you are sharing; you are not necessarily submitting it for other people to critique it.
Lee: I agree. If I post a family picture or snapshot that I took of our family at a barbecue, and someone starts to give what they deem to be a professional critique on my photo, I will make them wish that they had never seen it.
William: Well, his premise is that you improve as a photographer if people are out there reviewing your photo and telling you what’s wrong with it. And he was quite honestly saying you need to be brutal, you need to go out there and rip everything apart. And one, I think that is kind of rude because my premise is that a critique is only useful when a person is ready to accept it.
Lee: Well yeah. When they ask for it, that’s when they are in a position where they say OK, help me out. Until such point, let them do what they are doing.
William: Well, I’ve got a couple of problems with this premise. Like I said, if we ask for critique then that is fine. It is fair game. We’ve requested somebody’s opinion. And there are polite ways to give a critique rather than ripping somebody apart so I don’t really agree with the fact that it must be brutal.
Lee: I don’t either.
William: A critique is a useful method to learn and grow. I’ve had my share of critiques and I’ve had some very good critiques, I’ve had some that were really not helpful to me at all. Not everybody is as good at critiquing as others.
But here is the problem that I have really got with it. Who appointed him the police of the internet, or anywhere else for that matter, to go off and just start ripping off someone’s photos without a request for it?
Lee: I think the other thing is I would be curious to see if he would take that and extend it to other areas of his life. So for example if he had a little toddler, would he see whipping, lashing and screaming at the child and breaking their spirit as constructive? Or would he maybe see getting better results by focusing on the positives and then correcting them by showing them. We could go anywhere from here, but it comes down to really …. Basic character.
William: Well let’s put it this way. This is going to be harsh, but let’s say that again, you walk up to the guy and he has a toddler. Instead of him insulting the toddler, why don’t we just feel comfortable insulting him. Like, man! You’re raising your kid wrong. Look at those ugly clothes. That’s an ugly kid. Something along those lines. I know it’s your creation but you really screwed that up – go try it again.
Lee: I think why I said character – that was a good example to give – it just wouldn’t enter my mind to think about that. Who thinks stuff like that? So why should it not apply to photography or anything else for that matter? Criticism is constructive when it is wanted, ready to be received and when you are giving it to be helpful. Brutal criticism is never helpful. If somebody is brutal with the way that they lash things out, there is never intent to help. There is actually an intent to elevate that person. They want to appear as superior. So to me it’s self satisfying efforts and I don’t appreciate that. That becomes selfish. That is actually about them and not about helping you.
William: That was kind of the impression that I got and a lot of other people who were giving feedback on Facebook post were saying similar things. Like who are you to criticize my work? I’ve looked at your work and trust me, I’m remaining silent …! And that one actually got some comments. But there is nothing useful about being blasted. And those were the words he used in his post. It must be scathing. You have to be blasted by your criticism and I thought, no. You really don’t. And I’m basing this off of some of the good criticism that I’ve received. So for example, I’ve gone to a couple of workshops that were hosted by Joe McNally and I’ve mentioned them before. He is a master at giving constructive criticism. He knows his photography inside and out and he is sharing his wisdom and helping his students along the way.
I remember I was always a little bit apprehensive when I would submit my photos and I think a lot of the other people were as well. But you know what? Even if you have a photo that he would say, “I would do this another way” he gives you something to feel good on the way out. You’ve learned something from it. It’s not necessarily like he looks at it and says “Man that really sucks!”
I had one photo that I took when we were in St Lucia at the fire department and to me, workshops are a place where you can feel safe to fail, because you can experiment and try things and if it works that’s great. You’ve learned something. And if it fails, you have learned something too.
Lee: Yeah, so you want the critique there.
William: And one of the things that was in my mind; I’ve seen Joe take photographs – portraits – with wide angle lenses before. So I went up there and took one shot of the fireman with a 35mm lens. After everything else I was going safe and long with my 70-200 mm. And I put that photo in for the critique. I wanted to hear from him about that.
He looked at it and said (sigh), “I would have gone long with that one.”
And I knew he was right immediately because you would have really made a nice shot with that. But what I wanted to understand was why – well I knew why on that particular thing why wide angle lenses really aren’t …. But I wanted to know why he can sometimes get shots and a portrait shot or environmental shot with a wide angle lens and still have something good.
I’ve talked to other people who have done these things. He said I want you to shoot wide angle. He put his arm out on the other person’s shoulder and said, never be more than this far away while you are taking photos. And not all of those photos were good, but there was an attempt to practice and learn something. Here is the sweet spot in the lens. Here is how much of the background you need in that wide angle shot to make this portrait work.
Mine didn’t have that element and he explained the reasons why and then he explained how you do it so I got something out of it. It was a critique of a photo if I posted someplace else people would thing, oh my! In that environment he was able to tell me, look this one you want to go long because of the background that you had and here is how you could have done it in another environment and used the same lens.
Lee: I think there always has to be something positive from it and honestly, you would be hard pressed to find a photo where the person who took it didn’t have at least something right and this goes back to something that an old boss used to say when I was in my early 20’s. It kind of stuck with me. When you bring me problems, bring recommendations for solutions. In other words, find the things that you like first. Because there are some. And you might have to sit and look for them. Sometimes you have to get off your soapbox to look for them and that is the reality. Sometimes you just have to step back and say OK this person is trying something different. Where was I when I tried that?
Find the good stuff. Start with that. Then make suggestions. Say, “Have you thought of trying because ….?” And explain why. When you are trying to teach something you have to have the why in there. You have to explain why it didn’t work or why it might work or why it would work.
If you don’t have that, I don’t think you are really giving anything constructive. Constructive criticism does not break something down without teaching somebody what they might be able to do to build it up. And let them do it their way. They are not the same person you are. They are not seeing through your eyes and their purpose is probably different for their photos. And you have to take this into account. You don’t always have that information. Often you don’t, when you are looking at someone else’s photo. This isn’t about being kind. This is just about being a decent human being and actually pulling out a little bit of backbone in your character. Because that’s really what comes across when you give a critique.
William: One of the things I realize that if you post a photo, particularly if it’s in a photography group; whether it’s on Facebook or some other forum. If you post a photo and people like it they will tell you. If they don’t like it and they kind of adhere to what we are saying (if you’re not asked for critique, don’t post one), the resounding sound of crickets on a photo will also kind of tell somebody that this one didn’t live up to what they had hoped.
Lee: Yeah. And I get that all the time. I get it a lot. But I’m OK with it because that’s how you figure out this didn’t work; and you can go back and revisit and think: what is it that just didn’t really resonate with people?
William: Well, at that point someone can ask if they really want to know someone’s opinion. But if someone hasn’t asked for an opinion and you go off and give them your unsolicited photo critique, I think it’s very presumptuous to do that.
Lee: It’s just plain rude.
William: Kind of like we said at the beginning, you know. It’s going to make you look like a jerk.
Lee: And it can be hurtful and I don’t see anything constructive in going out of your way to hurt somebody. To what end? What are they going to gain from it and what do you get from it. You look like a jerk. Actually, no. You are a jerk. And they just feel discouraged. If you like that feather in your cap for making someone feel like OK, maybe photography isn’t for me, well go ahead. I can tell you now, I am not quite as tactful as William when it comes to dealing with people who just break other people down.
William: We had something that came up recently. I saw a photo of a model that I know. Absolutely stunning young woman, very friendly, very bubbly personality. I just adore her to death. And she had a recent photo shoot out on the beach and most of the shots I thought looked pretty good. Then there was one that she put up as her profile photo and I looked at it and thought, oh no!
And it’s not anything to do with her. It was because of the angle of light she was at and the shadows that were casting on her face and I thought this was the photographer’s fault, not the model’s fault. But a lot of people like the photo because I think they like her and they are happy with her and the shadows don’t mean the same thing to them as they do to me.
And what that teaches me is just because you have an idea or an opinion doesn’t mean that everyone shares it.
Lee: The other thing and this actually is very interesting; something else to consider using the model as the example to stay on theme:
Say for example I’m a model (I can assure you I’m not) and I have a photo taken. The people I am appealing to with the final product in my photographs and results are not photographers. So you need to remember that something where you are getting a lot of criticism from a photographer but an overwhelming response from maybe some vendors or product sponsorships or fans … that is a successful photo.
Your photographer might approve your photo or disapprove your photo, but the real results come from: Where is your market? Where do you need your approval to come from? Most of the time, that is not a photographer.
William: I can tell you one time that unsolicited critique actually works and you and I do this quite often. We will look at photos and we will critique them. But we don’t share them outside of our home.
Lee: We use them to help ourselves.
William: Yes. We look at them and say, what do you like about this? What do you not like? Look at those shadows. Or the composition or something like that. We talk about them amongst ourselves, but we would never share that criticism online, particularly for the photographer, for the subject or anything like that, because it wasn’t requested. We just simply say let’s look at this and learn from it so when we go out and take our own photographs we have these things in mind.
Lee: Exactly. That might be one photo that didn’t appeal to us for certain reasons but we might actually like the work overall and be a big fan of the photographer and his or her work. You cannot judge somebody based on one photograph. Please don’t measure them by that and make it public. Just …. you don’t do that with other stuff. You don’t do that with your family. Well maybe with your family! But you don’t do that with your friends; you don’t do that with your boss or the people you work with so why in the world would you publicly put yourself out there behaving like an arrogant jerk?
William: Well, here is the other part. Going back to the model I mentioned, all of her family and friends were looking at this photo and telling her she’s beautiful and she’s gorgeous; “I love this.” As you said, she put it up for that intent and she is very happy with it.
Imagine what a jerk I’d look like if I say “Man, what happened with those shadows there?”
Lee: But here’s another thing. That was her profile photo. That is her personal photo and that is for her and the people who are part of her life. So this is not up for professional critique.
William: No and honestly, the shadows were something I am nit-picking on for what I would or wouldn’t do. It doesn’t mean that the photo didn’t work. Like I said, it shows her. She is a beautiful young woman. Her friends and family are quite happy with it. Who am I to go out there and pass my judgment about one little nit on that photo?
Lee: And again, maybe it doesn’t work for the purpose for which you take photos and it worked for her for whatever she is going to use that photo for.
William: Exactly. And it’s the same thing with some of the photography that you do for your running community and group. The stuff that you do there sometimes is funny.
Lee: I know!
William: Just to give you an example, she did a short video one time after she came back from a run and her shirt was soaking wet.
Lee: It’s Florida. It was 98 percent humidity and like 80 degrees at 4:30 in the morning.
William: But the video was like a second long of her dropping the shirt and hearing it splat on the concrete. And next thing you know she’s got a bunch of people making copycat videos.
Lee: Tagging me in them. It was called “The sound of summer.” I didn’t even think; it was just in the moment.
William: It was there for the community.
Lee: There was nothing professional about it.
William: Imagine if somebody came along and critiqued that photo. Or short video.
Lee: Oh, that would have been so much fun.
William: There’s no story there …
Sure there is! It’s hot and I’m sweaty.
Lee: Do you have comprehension problems?
William: I guess I want to get back to our main point. There are a number of reasons why people put photos up. If they ask or request, please be polite and courteous and try to help them understand why you would do something differently or what you would recommend that they do the next time, or something of that nature. And if you get a comment on one of your photos, my advice is really simple. Don’t feed the trolls. If you engage with them you are just going to end up with a long, drawn out argument that serves nobody. Nobody is going to win and it doesn’t change a thing. They are not going to be helpful to you. They are just bickering. My advice: Don’t feed the trolls. Just let them go. And if you want to, delete the comment.
Lee: Yeah, you can do that too. But it’s never as much fun to delete the comment as it is to put a little “Thanks” or a smiley face or wink or something on the end. You don’t use those emojis.
William: I don’t use emojis. I will leave the comment there and I’ll ignore it. That’s kind of my way of letting you know I didn’t really care for that.
William: Thank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show. We hope that we helped you make sure that you do not look like a jerk online!
Lee: Yeah, because if you say stuff like that you are one!
William: I want to let you know we really appreciate you and we would appreciate your comments on this post, so if you go to
williambeem.com/episode85 leave a comment and let us know what you think. Have you given unsolicited critiques? Have you received some? And how did you deal with it?
Lee And William will answer because he’s nice.
William: Of course you’ll find a transcript of the show when you go there. Thank you so much. We will see you again next week.
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