Critiques I’ve Had

Picture the scenario: you’ve been working on your photography, and you feel like you’re improving. At the same time, you’d like to know more about what things you’re doing well and what you aren’t. Your friends and peers like your work, but maybe you’re looking for more than “I like it!” Maybe you want some of that Constructive Criticism™ people have been talking about. Commentary from someone who has no attachment to you or your work, and will help you improve. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe. I think there’s a lot to consider before even seeking out criticism.

French musicians Justice performing at Panorama Music Festival in NYC

Justice, 2017

While it can be incredibly useful to get a solicited, well-informed critique from a trusted source, I think it’s important to note that critiques are subjective, not objective. It’s also worth thinking about what you want to gain from the criticism. Are you looking for technical pointers? Are you making your first portfolio? Are you trying to appeal to a specific audience? Are you looking for new clients? Thinking about this will help guide your search. 

Olly Alexander of Years & Years performing at Webster Hall

Years & Years, 2016

ODESZA performing at Barclays Center

Odesza, 2017

I’ve thought a lot about what to say about all of this, and rather than make generalized statements, I’d like to share a personal account of different kinds of critique I’ve received or given over the years. As always, this is just one person’s experience and opinion, and it may not fully align with your own or those of others. 

Peaches crowd surfs at Irving Plaza

Peaches, 2014

PROF reaching his mic into the crowd at Terminal 5 in NYC

PROF, 2014

Peer critique groups were probably the first place I started getting feedback on my work. This predates any of my concert photography and I sought out these groups mostly because I was curious if anyone else would like the photos I was taking. I fired up Flickr and went looking for a friendly feedback group. I was still starting out, and wasn’t even in a place to accept very technical or particularly harsh critique. I was at the point in my learning where I didn’t even realize how little I knew, but I felt like I was on the road to improvement, and I was hoping some people would agree with me. I’d even go so far as to say that what I wanted wasn’t critique at all—I was just testing the waters and seeing if anyone liked my stuff. For a short time, this was sufficient, but there were definitely things I disliked. Sometimes egos take up too much space, whether it’s the ego of the photographer seeking feedback, or the ones giving it in the group. You’d be surprised at how confidently people can give poor, conflicting advice, or how adamantly someone will defend a poor decision. Overall, I’d say the groups served the purpose of an occasional confidence boost, but it was important for me not to focus too heavily on the things being said there. I sometimes see “brutally honest” critique groups and I feel like a lot of them are just excuses to be brutal without adding anything that resembles a constructive thought. If you find yourself in a space like that, I’d recommend getting out. Unsolicited critique is often the worst, and people focus on things that are inconsequential, or that they are unqualified to address. There are places that actively work against behavior like that, and you should seek them out.

Singer Sabrina Claudio performing at Panorama Music Festival moments before being rained out

Sabrina Claudio, 2018

Leon Bridges at Forest Hills Stadium

Leon Bridges, 2022

Some years later, when I felt like I had learned and accomplished more, I looked into a paid portfolio review. At the time, I didn’t really have any knowledge about networking, and the research I had been doing seemed to point to portfolio reviews as something I could benefit from. At this point, I was curious if my work was good enough to be hired or commissioned for work. I had street photography, a personal abstract project, and the beginnings of my concert photography portfolio. While the things I had been reading about this portfolio review made it seem like I’d find what I was looking for, actually going through with it revealed that it was a much better fit for established professionals, and that the term “emerging photographer” (a term referenced on the review site) was something very different than what I thought it was. I did make a couple of lasting connections with people who were very helpful and gave me some tips that I found useful, and I found the experience to be a net positive. However, it wasn’t without its downsides. A few of the reviewers seemed unwilling to part with information, one feigned interest only to try and sell me these photo trip packages, and another never responded to any correspondence. The other thing I should mention is that the review was not free, nor was it inexpensive. Registration was not free, and I also spent a decent amount of money preparing. In retrospect, I think I could have skipped it, but I am grateful to have had the experience. Those reviews are intended for people looking to network and be hired more than it is for people just looking for pointers. At my current level, it’s unlikely that I’d do it again. 

Halsey performing at Made In America Music Festival back in 2015

Halsey, 2015

Brian DeMert, of the band Waters, performing at Terminal 5

Waters, 2015

I did another portfolio review a while later that was entirely online, and also paid. This one was supposed to be more in line with what I was seeking: constructive feedback, but also an ongoing relationship with the reviewer. You’d submit your portfolio, then the kind of feedback you wanted, and you’d be paired with someone who would send an audio recording of the review. It was cheaper than the in-person reviews, but this service provided a review from one person, while the in-person reviews were done in groups of five. I received some good feedback from the reviewer, and I applied some of the tips to my portfolio almost immediately. When I reached out to follow up and get ongoing feedback, that’s when I was told I should buy another review, which honestly defeated the purpose of gaining access to this person in the first place. Are you noticing a trend?

Just this year, I had someone look at my work in a free portfolio review. I’m at a very different place with my work now, and feel fairly confident about it most of the time. My questions were mostly about things like sequencing and what they were looking for when hiring someone. Not only did I get good advice and establish a networking connection, I also received this gem: don’t pay for portfolio reviews. The reviews I received were from almost 10 years ago, and so much has changed in the way we can reach people. It seems like a lot more is possible and that some of these barriers to entry are being lowered. I’m all for it.

Jack Garratt performing at the first ever Meadows Music and Arts Festival in 2016

Jack Garratt, 2016

A portrait of Sofi Tukker at Panorama Music Festival

Sofi Tukker, 2017

I don’t really have much experience with formally receiving mentorship, but I think it is the most versatile and powerful kind of critique. I think that one-off critiques have their place, and can identify key areas for improvement, but I also think that there’s a lot more to be gained from critique as a conversation. When I have been asked for opinions on someone’s work, I tend to ask questions before chiming in with any particular commentary. I like to know what the photographer thinks, and what led them to taking the photo that they’ve shown. This isn’t the kind of individual attention that you can really get otherwise. It also establishes trust between both parties, which should hopefully make questions easier to ask, and critique easier to give. Even critique among peers (the kind you know and choose, not the kind in the aforementioned review groups) can be immensely helpful. If I could start over, I think this is the kind of connection I would have put the most energy into securing. When looking for feedback, I also want to be comfortable knowing that the person I’m showing my work to isn’t just imposing their own style on me. Being able to discuss things at length is a good way to avoid this kind of pitfall, but so is selecting solid people to evaluate your work. I think that good critique helps you make the images you want to make, not make images to someone else’s standard—unless, of course, that’s what you’re looking for. It’s complicated, I guess!

I’m hoping that by sharing these experiences, that it gives a little context and maybe takes some of the stress out of getting feedback. It really doesn’t have to be scary.

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