Photo by Jana O’Flaherty
featured in Click Magazine’s Why it Works, Jul/Aug 2014

If the mere thought of critique is enough to make you wince or send chills down your spine, you’re not alone. Or perhaps you feel that critique no longer applies once you have the basics down? Not so! Critique is an important part of any photographer’s technical and artistic growth. Here are five key reasons you should make critique a regular part of your personal and professional development as a photographer:

Reason #1: To Identify Opportunities to Grow & Improve

A good critic will not only be able to point out shortcomings and inconsistencies but also provide advice on how to work through them.

The most obvious benefit of critique, of course, is its value in pointing out areas for improvement. Whether you need to work on technical basics, composition, strength of message, personal style, or emotional impact, a good critic will not only be able to point out shortcomings and inconsistencies but also provide advice on how to work through them.

Consider soliciting feedback from multiple peers, instructors, or artists you respect, especially if you come away from your first critique feeling defensive or uncertain. The value of several critiques can be especially valuable when setting growth goals. The reinforcement you get when multiple peers or experts independently identify the same opportunities for improvement is invaluable in figuring out where to focus.

Critique is an important part of any photographer's technical and artistic growth. Here are four ways critique can change your photography.

Reason #2: To Understand and Embrace Your Strengths

…the things you do best may be those that come so naturally that you don’t even realize you’re doing them.

As anyone skilled in the art of critique is aware, identifying an image’s strengths and successes is every bit as important as isolating its shortcomings. As an artist, receiving that validation will be one of the best parts of your critique, so take care not to dwell only on those areas most in need of work. And sometimes, a photo has little to no room for improvement, which makes it a wonderful candidate for critique. Indeed, exploring what makes a powerful image “work” can be even more revealing that dissecting a less successful image.

Pay heed to the aspects of your work that resonate most with your viewers; critiques can unveil (sometimes quietly) your greatest strengths. This is particularly true because the most extraordinary aspects of our style or voice often derive from our natural inclinations. That is to say, the things you do best may be those that come so naturally that you don’t even realize you’re doing them. When your strengths are highlighted by a critic, you will be more likely to consciously replicate — and continue to elevate — those skills and specialties in future works.

Reason #3: To Grow a Thicker Skin

There’s a lot of “us” in our images, and a critique can feel like a judgment of who we are, what we value, and how we spend our lives.

For most of us, the act of creating a photograph is an emotional process. In it we’ve invested our time and energy (which, depending on your phase of life, may be precious commodities indeed). Beyond that, photographs tend to have a very personal component: we shoot what we love, we share our lives, we infuse the image with our current emotional state. There’s a lot of “us” in our images, and a critique can feel like a judgment of who we are, what we value, and how we spend our lives.

The fact is that if you share your images at all – even if you don’t explicitly invite critique – you will need to learn to deal with the sometimes harsh, even unkind opinions of others. But actively seeking out constructive critique will help you to emotionally mature as an artist. Putting your work on display is a form of public performance, and much like acting, dancing, speaking, or singing, the more you put yourself out on the stage, the easier it gets. Receiving constructive feedback from a peer you trust or a mentor you respect will better equip you to process critiques in a way that helps you grow, and you’ll learn to shrug off the would-be critics who seek only to drag you down.

Reason #4: To Obtain an “Objective” Perspective

Our ability to objectively evaluate a work’s merit is severely compromised when we’re so close to the creative process.

You might feel like your own greatest critic, but we naturally overvalue our own ideas and creations. And we attach even greater value to those works in which we have invested a disproportionate amount of time, energy, or emotion. In some cases, the photos that were especially complex to set up, painstakingly processed, long anticipated, or carefully visualized are, in fact, superior works. But cognitively speaking, our ability to evaluate a work’s merit objectively is severely compromised when we’re so close to the creative process. Outsiders, of course, don’t share these emotional attachments, which ensures that they can offer you a perspective that you are simply incapable of achieving through self-critique. For that reason alone, the value of third party critique is something that you can never outgrow.

Reason #5: To Achieve Artistic Clarity

When you find yourself consistently resisting change about a certain aspect of your work, follow your gut.

Artistic critique is inherently subjective. That means critics themselves may disagree about what works or does not work in an image, but it also means that you should feel free to disagree with criticism yourself (although listening with an open heart and open mind should always be your starting point). When you find yourself consistently resisting change about a certain aspect of your work, follow your gut. Hold on to the facets of your art that are important to you, even if they don’t resonate with the critics.

One of the most important parts of critique is processing it: taking it in and determining its value in refining your message and voice. But a critique is not a mandate. You should not feel compelled to make every change suggested. When you receive a critique that encourages an uncomfortable change, question it. Why are you resisting? Would the change undermine your message, your vision, your voice, your reason for shooting? Deciding what not to change can be as important – perhaps even more important – than determining the areas in which you need to grow and evolve. Indeed, having the confidence to disagree with a critic after thoughtfully considering her feedback can be revelatory. Go ahead and chalk it up to artistic rebellion. Own it. These are the moments when an artistic identity begins to take hold.

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