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A Crash Course in The Art of Constructive Critique

“When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic.
We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” 

– Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People *

Earlier this week we discussed honest reasons photographers behave badly online.  I want to be clear that this post addressed the meanness observed in online critiques, not critique itself.  There’s a wide chasm between constructive critique (reasoned, honest, productive discussion) and vicious critique (angry words, derision, destructive attacks).  One comes from a laudable desire to help or converse, the other usually results from some of the human frailties we discussed.

It’s important that we understand that distinction.  It’s equally important that we become comfortable with giving and receiving constructive critique.

There’s no way around it:

Critique is a tough but necessary part of artistic growth.

If no one ever pointed out your blind spots, you’d never achieve as much as you could have.  Staying in a cushy place surrounded only by people who agree with you is a comfortable place to be – but you won’t grow to your full potential if you stay there.

The awful part of online meanness is not just the hurt feelings, but the generation(s) of photographers left bereft of useful criticism.  Instead of seeking advice, the fear of vicious attacks leads many to seek isolation.  And some people who have genuinely useful suggestions to share often stay silent for fear that they’ll be accused of being negative.  Overall, the absence of solid, shared viewpoints will slow progress.

This is why a culture of constructive critique is so important.

Constructive critique doesn’t mean we sugarcoat our words or veil the truth.  Constructive critique simply means that we actually accomplish something.  Vicious critique can contain no substance (“your photos are horrible”), or some substance wrapped in blistering words (“your photos are bad, you need to learn to use your camera”).  Both are equally ineffective.  The first offers nothing that the recipient could use to change.  The second wraps a suggestion in so much virulence that the person is likely to rush to defend themselves instead of consider the point and make a change (see the above Dale Carnegie quote).  Neither produces positive, concrete results.

We can’t change what others do.  We CAN change how WE critique others though.  Let’s see what a constructive critique looks like, and how to deliver one.

1)  If you want to offer a constructive critique, you must consider the emotional state of the recipient.

If your spouse/partner/roommate came home and started listing your flaws and faults out of the blue, how would you feel?

Yeah, me too.

It doesn’t mean we think we’re perfect.  It doesn’t even mean we don’t welcome suggestions.  But when someone chooses the wrong time and place to deliver criticism, it’s not going to have the desired effect, no matter how true it is.

A constructive critique is delivered in a manner, time, and place that the recipient will 1) hear you out and 2) be likely to take action.  That means it has to start with compassion and genuine concern.  Advice given out of frustration and anger will elicit defensiveness and retaliation – not action.

Before offering a critique of someone’s work, check yourself:  Who are you writing this for?  You?  Them?  The gathered audience?  Know your motivations.  If you’re trying to help, meet them in a way and a place that they will hear you out.

Keep in mind that someone seeking honest critique isn’t always seeking bluntness.  There’s a big difference (see below).  This is important to note because sometimes people post an image on a forum asking for “feedback” but they may really just be seeking a confidence boost.  It’s no different from the proverbial wife asking the unlucky husband “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Because you can’t see their faces or understand where they’re coming from, assume nothing in delivering your thoughts.  You can still be constructive and give them help – even unexpected help – if you deliver it the right way.

Use a compassionate hand, or risk your message being lost.

2) Reframe, reframe, and reframe again.

Reframing is simply the art of stating the same idea from another angle.  Mastering the art of reframing will make your life much easier.

So let’s walk a non-constructive critique through a few courses in reframing, and see how we might turn it into a useful, constructive critique by the end.

The Initial Critique:

“Your exposure is crappy – your highlights are all blown out.”

Reframing 101:  Remove emotional triggers.  Take out judgment-laden adjectives (i.e. “crappy”) and state only facts:

“Your exposure was off, so the highlights are all blown out.”

Reframing 102:  Restate the facts to show why the person should care:

“Your exposure was off, so the detail is gone in the highlights.”

Reframing 201:  Watch your pronouns when delivering negative information.  Using the word “you” makes people feel attacked, and it’s rarely truly necessary.

The exposure was off, so the detail is gone in the highlights.”

Reframing 202:   This is where the real magic begins.  Acknowledge the valuable parts of the image before bringing in a flaw:

These subjects have great expressions on their faces, but the exposure was off, so there’s some detail missing from the highlights.”

Finding a genuine, positive remark demonstrates that you care about them and aren’t out to attack.

Reframing 301:  Warn people that a critique may be coming WITHOUT using the words “but,” “however,” and “no offense.”  All of that completely washes away any goodwill you created by acknowledging the goodness of what they did.  Plus, these words only raise defensive walls before the person has even had a chance to read what you are about to say!

Use words like “and” or “have you thought of___” or “one idea might be___” instead.

Remember:  Your real goal is providing ADDITIONAL information and building on what they have already mastered – not destroying what they’ve created by implying they need to start all over.

“Your subjects all have fantastic expressions on their facesYou clearly knew how to make them feel relaxed, and when to push the shutter to grab the right moment.  Here’s a thought for you:  It looks like while you were trying to capture those happy moments, the proper exposure settings weren’t quite nailed down.”

Reframing 401:  Try adding some “I” or “we” as well.  This shows that you are also open to fault, your opinion is only one way to look at it, and that you’re in this together:

“I love how these subjects have such great expressions on their faces.  You clearly knew how to make them feel relaxed, and when to grab the right moment.  Here’s a thought for you:  One big challenge we face in portraiture is getting a correct exposure while also paying attention to how the people are feeling and interacting.   It’s easy to overexpose in these situations, and here it looks like some of the highlights have lost their detail.”

Reframing Graduate School:  Acknowledge that the person probably already knows the image isn’t perfect, and give them guidance from your experience.

Often if something is imperfect, the person already knows it in their gut.  They just might not be able to put their finger on it, or know how to fix it.

So give them ideas about how to do even better with their next shoot.  Then reiterate their strengths so that they don’t feel so overwhelmed that they don’t take action:

“I love how these subjects have such great expressions on their faces.  You clearly knew how to make them feel relaxed, and when to grab the right moment.  Here’s a thought for you:  One big challenge we face is getting a correct exposure while also paying attention to how the people are feeling and interacting.   It’s easy to overexpose in these situations, and here it looks like some of the highlights have lost their detail. 

One thing that helped me avoid this was to spend time walking around a park with my camera and practicing rapidly switching from dark areas to lighter areas.  Being able to make those superfast setting changes will help you grab those awesome expressions while still nailing the exposure!  Great work on making some expressive images, I look forward to seeing more.”

Are those words easier to swallow than the statement we started out with?

But Jenika, that’s two whole paragraphs.  It’s faster and still true to just say “Your exposure is crappy – your highlights are all blown out.”

You’re right, it is faster.  But it’s not particularly useful when you direct it at a complete stranger online.  Does it matter what is “true” if we raise hackles and make the person not want to hear what we have to say?

Granted, the last example was lengthy to show the cumulative effect of many techniques.  It doesn’t have to be that long.  And adding a few extra words to your critiques is not about “being PC” or “sugarcoating.”  It’s about making sure your message is expressed in a way that will encourage the recipient to 1) listen, and 2) take action.

Since people are reactive, emotional beings, the most rational and direct thing you can do is to deliver your message in a useful, well-worded way.

There is a time and a place for getting right to the point. 

I had friends in college who regularly asked me to edit their writing.  We built up enough trust and rapport that I could comfortably say “This sentence is dead – cut it.”  Because we all had the same goals and they trusted me, there were no hurt feelings.  They cut the sentence and we moved on.

BUT – the rapport was there first.  We weren’t strangers or vague forum acquaintances.  We were all on the same page about how we were going to discuss and achieve their goals.  And you’ll notice that although my remark was brief, I still didn’t use an attacking “you,” and identified both a problem and a solution in the short critique.  Reframing rules still apply, even in brevity.

Let’s all help each other, and let’s be helpful while we do it. 

Give useful, constructive critiques.  Pick the right time.  Know what the person is really seeking.  Then reframe, reframe, reframe.  And be open when someone does that for you.

You’ll get better results, and I you’ll feel better along the way.


* If you haven’t read How To Win Friends and Influence People, you should probably drop everything and head over to Amazon right now.  It’s one of the very few books in the “self help-ish” genre that I highly recommend.  It outlines a kindness-based, logical approach to getting more done and enjoying more relationships.  I read it as a freshman in college, and my paperback copy has stayed close by ever since.


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  1. Stacey Dawn on June 13, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Great words of advice. You are spot on!!

    • Jenika on June 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      Thanks Stacey!

  2. Carey on June 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I plan to be a reframe graduate scholar! Thanks for the reminder, Jenika!

    • Jenika on June 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      We’ll call you Dr. Carey from now on 😀

  3. Julie Watts on June 13, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I’m a photographer and was a psych major in college. It’s fascinating how easy it is for me to take these skills for granted. This is a REALLY great post. I’m realizing more and more lately that lack of communication skills is to blame for so many of our problems…relationship problems at home, at work, with clients, with colleagues. Knowing how to effectively deliver the genuine message you mean to send is SUCH a critical skill to learn!

    • Jenika on June 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm

      Reframing solves so many problems! And you still get to say what you think! I agree that it’s critical. Thanks for the kind words. Whoop whoop, psych majors unite! 😉

  4. Erin on June 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    I LOVE it, Jenika. Being a debater, an artist, and having my degree I totally understand this but here are oh so many out there that just don’t. It does seem that people are lazy and don’t put the extra effort into what they are saying but I do think that most are simply uneducated. It is important to understand the art of photography but the art of communication is also key to the interaction with others. You need to write a book on this subject. It is a great topic and is tightly linked to your last post. Kindness is key, however I have experienced photographers trying to be kind but they lack the skills of communication. This is a lesson for everyone who ever wants to help out another. These skills dive into all walks of life. Sorry for the typos I am working and doing this fast. <3

    • Jenika on June 13, 2012 at 9:10 pm

      Thanks for the thoughts Erin! I really value your time, thanks for sharing your impressions. I’d love to write a book on this kind of content. It would really make the world a better place (in families and friendships as well as businesses!) if everyone had these skills down pat….it’s a constant thing you have to reassess in yourself but it becomes easier as you practice. When I can find a marketable group of topics to go along with this idea, you can bet I’ll be producing something more substantial like a book or e-book. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. Cindy Cavanagh on June 13, 2012 at 11:36 pm


    thanks for great post. I recently took an online workshop where the instructors posted one line answers about my work. It was a hard way to learn the importance of a constructive critique, especially when the comments were about the beauty of my children/models rather than the quality of my photo.

  6. Michelle McDaid on June 15, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Again, another excellent post. I have read HTWFAIP and it was very enlightening for me. Providing constructive FEEDBACK (as I prefer to call it)is definitely a learned skill and I work on it in my day job as a manager all the time.

    Just loving your blog. The way YOU write, by the way, is always an excellent example of how to provide helpful feedback to your readers in a way that is non-threatening.

    I have learned people absorb first your energy and then your words. So all this is sooo important.

  7. Shelby on June 19, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Thank you so much for always seeming to post things relevant to my life right now. It’s almost creepy, but I’ll let it pass, haha. I put your wisdom into action already, so thank you again for for being awesome and providing just what I need 🙂

  8. Amy E. on June 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Terrific advice! I really like the way you gave an example and then gradually built upon it. I would love to receive such constructive criticism on my photos.

  9. Karen on August 14, 2013 at 12:08 am

    Our camera club hosts evaluations regularly and professional photographers are invited in to critique members’ images–a wonderful learning experience for us all. Unfortunately, we have found that a great photographer does not always make for a great evaluator, especially when it comes to being honest, yet kind and tactful, being critical, yet constructive. This article is a terrific training tool for inexperienced evaluators–thank you SO much for sharing it. It actually will be helpful in so many life situations. Thanks!!!

  10. Thomas on August 14, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Two quotes pop up in my mind

    1. “Each photographer is his worst editor.”

    2. “You save someone. You kill them.”


  11. Wayne Molyneux on October 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    A superb article pointing out how easy it is to tread on someones toes even with the best intentions. I ope it gets the exposure it warrants.

  12. John Flores on December 9, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Nice post. Too bad the photos are crappy. ;-). I kid. I actually started a Google+ group that’s a nice considerate place to give and receive critique. Check it out –

  13. Clay Swatzell on December 19, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Great article. I have read a number of articles on providing critiques and have completed the Photographic Society of America photo analysis course. This article summaries in great detail those concepts.

    I’m sharing this with my Facebook photography group as a training guide.

  14. Adrienne Maples on January 14, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    I am a photographer who graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design in 2002. The biggest thing I miss is having a live audience with which to critique work! We are all very sensitive about our work- and it can feel like a personal attack- especially when individuals online are callous & rude. Thank you for addressing this issues, perhaps a few individuals will think differently after reading this! Can’t wait to share.

  15. Robert on August 11, 2015 at 6:34 am

    I stumbled on this post while searching for some inspiration to form a reply to a man that made a critique of one of my photographs on a photo website. His critique was very structured, the points he made quite valid, and his analysis was very detailed, however the way that he framed his comments left one with the impression he was talking down to me and effectively calling me a dilettante – frivolous, superficial and amateurish.
    I didn’t reply for a couple of days. I looked for his work on the site and he had none except for a great list of links under the ‘About’ button, all of them links to his previous critiques of others work. After reading some of them I decided I got off light. He was variously dismissive and insulting, with an arrogant and priggish manner. I think these links were, for him, the proverbial notches on his gun.
    This helped put things into perspective – he is the one with a problem, so I just responded by thanking him for his comprehensive and detailed analysis, and left it at that. I did feel indignant for the others though.

    I’m a retired high school teacher so as you can imagine I have been subjected to the rigors of report writing and all that entails (humanities is not my subject area) however I find there is always something to learn, even though I’ve been doing it for a long time. So it was great to happen upon your post directed at the very subject I was wrestling with – Art / photography criticism. Thank you, it has been refreshing. I will send a link to my camera club members.

  16. Deborah Bradler on January 12, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    Awesome especially after working and inspecting the work of twelve hundred kids off the street

  17. James Bright on January 29, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Excellent. Kindness is always appropriate.
    There are stages of when one is ready for more information.
    And when we are ready to receive more information and criticism.
    This article is one that for all creatives we need to be aware of.
    The words written here are well presented and touch on many aspects of being a creative and encouraging others in the community of creatives.
    Thanks for a great article.

    May I link it on my Facebook page for others to be aware of and to read?

    James Bright
    Ottawa, Canada

  18. Luis Guillermo Martinez on May 6, 2016 at 2:53 am


  19. Dawn Kincade on May 6, 2016 at 3:04 am

    Thanks for these thoughtful words. I have not always responded on photography sites for the reasons you mentioned. This article will be one I will refer back to often. Thank you.

  20. Paul on October 25, 2016 at 5:17 pm


    thank you for this post> I created and admin a photography for beginners community on Facebook. One of my biggest challenges is stopping/preventing people trying to score points in superiority when giving CC.

    Like a previous commenter I notice lots of photographers want to sound superior when “imparting” their words of wisdom. I don’t tolerate this behaviour.

    As you mentioned there’s nothing more soul destroying to new and beginning photographers than have someone hammer your image to pieces without actually being constructive.



  21. bill on January 1, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    Hi, interesting article however where did you get the following please, what evidence is there for validating this statement and giving it the importance you appear to be giving it? Thanks Bill

    “Critique is a tough but necessary part of artistic growth.”

    “If no one ever pointed out your blind spots, you’d never achieve as much as you could have”.

    • Jenika on January 2, 2019 at 12:47 am

      Hello Bill! Oh boy, the evidence for those statements is so abundant I hardly know where to start. If this topic interests you, I would encourage you to look up the concept Illusory Superiority for an interesting start, or the idea that people habitually falsely believe they are better than they are. For example at one university, 68% of faculty ranked themselves in the top 25% of teaching ability (a finding that has been replicated in many populations including people rankings their driving ability, popularity, etc). Most studies find people habitually rank themselves more favorably than their friends and think they’re better than they are at even average tasks. The paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” is particularly interesting – people who were worst at the tasks were also the worst at estimating how good they were and also the worst at recognizing skill in those areas. As they improved on those skill sets, their estimation of their own abilities and ability to evaluate skill in those areas improved.

      So just one area of evidence for the importance of critique is: Human beings are poor at judging their own skills, and the worse they are at the skill the worse they are at judging their own abilities. They need outside perspective and feedback to calibrate how good they are at a skill and fill in gaps of knowledge they don’t realize they have. Receiving good feedback also can provide info they not motivated to seek on their own (and are often motivated to outright ignore or deny, particularly if it is in an area where their sense of identity or self esteem is at play). Added information, particularly where you don’t know you need it, helps you increase competency.

      That’s just one related piece of psychology. The literatures of cognitive bias and education are replete with other elements and examples, more than I could possibly outline in a single comment! Hope this helps for an appetizer though.

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