The Art of Constructive Criticism

I have just received my first ‘hate mail’ and here it is (minus the author’s first name):

“What a stupid article you wrote about Macro photography in the Outdoor Photography Canada magazine for summer/fall 2009.
Who cares about you ingnorance of memory cards and the camera you own. I thought the article was about  shooting Macros. Boy was I wrong. I thought I was going to learn something. Obviously you have nothing to teach or share about that subject.
My macros are nicer than yours.”

In a way, I’m flattered that this particular gentleman was moved enough to take the time to email me, but the shortcomings in his comments has inspired me to write a short blog on the art of constructive criticism.  You see, I would like to engage in a dialogue with any person who has an opinion on my work so that I can learn what clicks and what doesn’t.  But that is hard to do of course if you don’t have the full name or website of the person whose macros “are nicer”.  So, in lieu of a discussion with Monsieur B, here are a few general tips for those who love to point fingers.

Poinsietta leaf

#1. Stand Behind What you Say. 

Why is it that the cloak of anonymity makes some people act differently than when they are in full view?  If your comment is going to be viewed publicly, will you still make it?  If your answer is ‘no’, then perhaps you should revise or even reconsider making such a comment.

#2. Personal Attacks are Not Constructive Criticism

Ask yourself why you feel moved to comment on someone else’s work.  Are you motivated to help that person improve?  Or are you grandstanding, putting someone else down to make yourself feel good?  If your goal is to help others be better at what they do, then learning a few tips on how to get your message effectively and diplomatically across is useful.  If you are out there to thump your own chest…well, probably no one cares to hear it.  Personal attacks on other peoples’ work reveals more about the character of the sender than it helps the receiver.

#3. Start With a Positive

Want someone to actually listen to your feedback?  Start with something they did well.  This will get their attention and help balance out the negatives you are about to dish out.  Humanity spends a lot of time obsessing over the gritty stuff in life, but we can all take a lesson from Barney the Purple Dinosaur and try to get along.  Remember, your goal here is to help another person, not put them down!

#4. Comment on Actions and Behaviours, Not the Person

Simple folks—-keep your comments to specific things that the person could do to improve.  Saying someone’s work is ‘stupid’ is a waste of time.  What about their product is not successful?  What can they do next time to improve?  Be as specific as you can.  This point works for those receiving some constructive criticism too; remember that this exchange is not about YOU but your work.  Don’t take criticism personally as a reflection on your worth.  Learn to evaluate the criticism you are receiving for merit, just as the person providing the feedback is evaluating your work for merit.

#5. Keep Your Own Nose Clean!

Those who offer criticism univited often feel like they stand upon a higher moral ground.  Perhaps they have been in the biz longer than you and feel that this seniority equates to superiority (I’m not sure about the truthfulness of this) or perhaps they are one of those energy-draining, life-sucking parasites whose only pleasure is found in dragging other people down.  In any case, assuming your motives for speaking up in the first place are noble, make sure you are at least doing what you are advising the other person to do!  For example, if you wish to criticise someone else’s writings, then make sure your own written comments are free of grammatical and spelling errors.  (I’m not kidding!  How can I take seriously the comments of someone who mispells ‘ignorance’ in his hate mail??!)

Mean people are a fact of life.  Everytime you put your work out there, you risk negative and unhelpful feedback.  But growing a thick skin will help you deflect criticism that has as its aim the desire to harm and not help you.  And to all of you out there who lift a pen or peck out a few sentences, make it worth your time and ours and learn the art of constructive criticism.

Pink rose


~ by Samantha on October 4, 2009.

20 Responses to “The Art of Constructive Criticism”

  1. […] As photographers, I am sure we all have had useless criticism lobbed our way. How do you handle critiques that are really just personal attacks? Do you attack back, ignore the sender, try to educate the person, or just laugh it off? See what Samantha did with her most recent hate mail. […]

  2. Wise advice Samantha!

  3. Hi Samantha,

    As an amateur Photographer, one who wants to absorb as much information from others involved in the craft of photography, I am shocked to hear about your hate e-mail. I am also writing this as some who has met you previously and would call you a friend (even though I have not known you a long time). I subscribe to OPC and received the issue that the hater received. I had read the title on the cover of the magazine and was expecting the article to be about the techniques you use to take your macro shoots. When I open to page 42 and read the title again along with the first paragraph, I started to think it might be different. I thought it was a fun article about your journey through the techie stuff. All the photos were macro! “Shooting Macro Knee deep in the hoopla” So your down at knee height taking macro shoots and your knee deep in the photography hoopla with all the terminology and technical stuff. Your title is a great hook to get people to read and the photos were great. I am a big fan. So let me see if I can help hater out with his comments -Hater writes, “Hello Samantha, As a fellow photographer I was excited to see your article on Shooting Macro. I was surprised upon reading it to find it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Although, I enjoyed the photography and the story of your entry into the world of shooting, I was hoping for more of a focus on macro itself. Again, I enjoyed what I saw. Do you have any articles or other information on Macro Photography that I should see? Based on the photos I am sure you have something to offer me in my photography journey. Your title was a great hook to get me hungry for more. Although I was wanting something else, I thank you for the fun piece you have written.” So there you go hater problem solved!! Samantha, great job I look forward to learn more from you and hearing some more of your great stories the next time I attend a workshop with you as the speaker. Oh and if my spelling and grammar aren’t the greatest I am sorry, lol.

  4. Sam,
    Just read your rant and your excellent means of totally throwing it back at this “ingnorant”…or in proper English…ignorant person. I met you at Darwin’s Photowalk in Banff and it was shortly after the Summer/Fall issue came out. Your “shooting macro” article was my first exposure to you. Now on the cover it said “knee deep in the hoopla”. No where does it say the typical – “tips”,”how to” or “best gear for”. I had no expectation it was going to be an anecdote for entering the crazy world of digital photography. I really enjoyed the article and it was refreshing to have some humor show up in a typically technical world of photography magazines. Well to close, one comment as per No.4…more blog posts as I have enjoyed each one and keep up the awesome photography and articles.

  5. Thanks everyone for the comments! Ironically, right after I read the hate mail in my inbox, I opened another email from an editor of an intellectual magazine who had seen my work and thought I was a genius. Somewhere in the middle the truth lies!! Just goes to show….

    Do what you do because you love it. Period.

  6. Great post Sam. Something I’m always telling my kids in situations like this is we have no control over what others think or do. We only have control over our own re-action to the situation and hopefully in setting a good example we can influence the other to act differently next time. You handled it beautifully and turned an unfortunate situation into a learning situation for all – hopefully Monsieur B included. For what it’s worth I think the rose macro is gorgeous. As I like to say, photography isn’t the land of 1+1=2 so my saying it’s gorgeous doesn’t make it so – it just means I think so. I am in the process of writing a blog post on my own site inspired by the following quotation by the famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov which you might find interesting in relation to this situation –

    “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I try to dance better than myself” – Mikhail Baryshnikov



  7. I don’t get why anyone would even write something like that. What did he think he would accomplish with that letter? I guess I just don’t understand people sometimes…

    I think the tips you wrote are right on and should be adhered to by everyone.

    I read your article in Outdoor Photography Canada and thought it was great. Your writing style is so casual and friendly and it was a joy to read. Keep it up!

  8. […] situation and turned it into a positive by making it a learning experience for all. She posted a five point blog entry on the art of constructive criticism which I urge you to […]

  9. I didn’t finish reading the article (sorry), with which I wholeheartedly agree. I just wanted to say that the photo of the leaf you shared in the middle absolutely blows me away. I don’t believe there is a “better” macro (or otherwise) photo than that.

  10. Nice article and blog, Samantha. I’ve never understood the being mean thing. There’s certainly manners in which to voice personal opinion on another’s artwork. Certainly as artists, we can’t please everyone, and if we are to put our work out there, we have to expect negative acceptance with positive. However, to compare artwork and say something “is better” rather than “I like this better” is truly based on ignorance. There’s no call for it, and I’m sorry you had to experience it. I’m low enough on the radar that I’ve never had to deal with that experience, but I know it will be pretty hurtful when I do. You’re work is very good (what I’ve seen) and I hope to keep seeing it!

  11. Hi Samantha,

    A well handled situation. I enjoyed the article and the images and your images that accompany your blog entry prove that you shoot great macro images. The leaf detail image is especially nice.

    Situations like this remind me of a John Prine song – “Some Humans Ain’t Human.”


  12. Hi,

    thanks for the great quality of your blog, every time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

  13. Hi Samantha, I encountered your name and work in an article written by Darwin Wiggett. First of all, both of your names are fantastic. I wish I knew more people with names as interesting. I have been a professional portrait photographer for twenty-plus years and am now branching out by teaching basic photography with a focus on Nature.
    Darwin’s article on the arguments surrounding image manipulation was so well written, I began looking for more information about him. As his friend, I thought you might have some his same qualities. I was right. I hear thoughtful, intelligent voices coming through in the writing. It has been a pleasure finding you both and I will be subscribing to OPC to see if there are more of your type to be found there. I will also be referring my students to your sites. A new fan. Dave Labrum

  14. Hi Samantha, I wanted to tell you that I loved your article. I have attended “Focus on the Rockies” with you and find your photography very good. Just before your Macro Photography article I had spent about 1 hour trying to photograph a tulip and experienced all the things you wrote about. So, it heartened me to know I wasn’t the only one struggling with trying to get the perfect shot. It also made me realize that it isn’t as easy as some of us seem to think when looking at a beautiful picture taken by others. Keep up the good work!

  15. Hi Sam, very nice article but you forgot to mention that there are pills that work great to calm those who are too negative. 🙂

  16. Hi sam,

    I don’t understand the part about being to negative. I just said I would not put the images in my keepers images.

    Some of these people should get a life.

    I am an honest person and some times the truth hurts, but at least you know the truth. I am not going to lie to the persons whom posted their images. That would be an injustice and not fair. This is my opinion and I am entitled to my opinion as are they., or you. It does not mean an opinion is right or wrong.

    If these people think their images are good, that is the most important issue here. You have to be happy with your images.


    • I guess we have moved over to Sam’s rant. Wow, this just grows and grows. The truth does hurt and I sense that you are feeling that from the comments you received. The issue is not that you felt these images were good or bad, the issues is how you presented your criticism. There is both a good way to critique and a bad. Being that negative never seems to work. Some of us knew our pictures wouldn’t be the greatest but, the objective was to get the view points of others to help make us better. Your comments just make it look like you are down on others or think your just better then everyone else. I am not really that concerned if you like my photos or not. I sent photos I knew needed some input, for me that was the exercise. I received four critiques privately and sure some hurt a little but, they were done with some tact and professionalism. Your comment was not. You seem to have attacked those who posted their pictures and those who didn’t like your comments. Maybe read through the blog and place yourself in the position of those trying to learn. It is unfortunate it has gotten to this as we had a high school student in the group who is going to study photography after graduation. I bet we will never see the six photos from that person now. You sure were helpful!!! And as for appearing to now be on the defensive, all I can says is, you live by the sword you die by the sword. We are all adults so I am sure we will get over it and move on. If you don’t agree that is fine as you have stated I am just expressing my opinion on things be it right or wrong.

      Take care.

  17. I love this post and I should have commented sooner. You really hit the nail on the head here as I think we’ve all been victims of such mean criticism. Genuine critique can be so helpful, but as you say, it’s all about the delivery. That mail you recieved sure twisted my stomach. Funny, following the…um…comments on your workshop with Darwin… I believe honesty is important, but there is a time and place for critique. It’s like the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”, unless your honest critique is requested. Positive reinforcement is always better for growth than negative reinforcement.

  18. I bought the magazine and thought the article was just fine and look forward to more of your writing.
    happy photo trails,
    Evan Spellman

  19. I can’t believe someone wrote that to you! Moreso, I’m very impressed with your response, as my response would have been less sophisticated and calm. Good on you Sam. By the way, I love your page! F

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