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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 faces. You 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.