Constructive criticism: good critiquing.

Recently I have noticed a lot of photography groups on Facebook. I’ve joined a few to see what all the fuss is about and in general found some links to cool articles and tutorials etc. the best group I’ve found for educational content so far has got to be the FStoppers group run by the team at FStoppers.com

However I have noticed that on a lot of these groups there are hundreds of people offering “constructive criticism” that I am not sure is actually anything more than just opinionated nit picking.
On the FStoppers group I have, in general, found the CC to be helpful and positive. Their admin team is very quick to stamp out any vicious behavior or insulting posts and in doing so they have made a good environment for photographers who work largely alone to subject their work to peer review.

So today I posted a question on that page asking this:
“What do you feel makes your constructive criticism worth while?
And how do you draw the line between a picture you don’t like (style/content) and one you feel your opinion could improve?

Alternatively what do you think is useless critiquing or the bad points of CC?”

At the time of posting I was careful not to use any terminology that could be mistaken as me saying “what makes your opinion so great?” But still I was weary. Often times asking questions about opinion on Internet forums or pages can feel a lot like poking a bee’s nest with a candy bar…just waiting for hundreds of people to jump on it and reply in ways that would generally be reserved for Friday night pub fights.
However, this FStoppers group seem like a pretty good bunch. Within a few minutes I had a well thought out response come through.

The main point raised was one to do with a practice he called choice coaching.
I’ll copy his post in here so you can read it.

“I come from the world of improv comedy, and have taught improv for almost 15 years. There is something I refer to as “choice coaching,” which is not a productive means of providing feedback.

Basically, CHOICE COACHING is when you tell someone that the choice they have made is the wrong one and that they “should do _____.” What the teacher/coach is actually saying is, “this is how I would do it,” and telling the student their choice was incorrect or wrong because they would have made a different choice.

We cannot know the circumstances surrounding why a photographer used a 35mm lens on a head and shoulders portrait, but just because they did, doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice of lens. Maybe that is the only lens they have, or maybe it’s a deliberate choice to distort the face. Telling them that choice of lens is “wrong” is bad and completely unhelpful critique.

In every class and after every show, we give “notes.” I don’t prescribe to the give a positive comment to soften the blow of a critique. It’s not helpful because… well, it softens the blow of the critique. I believe strongly that a critique should be based in opening the persons eyes to something they may have overlooked or providing information they had not previously known. This is how we develop knowledge.

A good way to do this is to point out what they feel are distracting elements. Ask what they were trying to achieve. Seek understanding. Say things like “I feel the kicker is too hot because it’s blowing out the cheeks; I personally would want to see more skin texture,” rather than “The catchlight is distracting; don’t use ring lights on headshots,” or “Her face looks plastic.”

Finally, in receiving critique it is not helpful to just blindly defend your choices. If you truly want feedback, be open to it. However, I also realize that people get defensive of their work, especially when someone is telling them the choices they made are wrong, rather than helping them to learn, grow and create new knowledge.”

Personally I agree with his answer.
In its most basic terms a critique should offer insight, objective advice, seek understanding and offer solutions to what you feel could be improved.
It should not consist of 10 things you dislike about the image and possibly most importantly you should be able to back up anything you say with basic reasoning.
Telling me you don’t like my images is totally fine! But only if you understand why. Simply Turing around and saying “coz it’s shit mate” doesn’t inspire me with confidence to listen to your points.

So that answer fairly effectively covered what is good and bad critiquing practice! And did so far more eloquently than I could have.
But I still want to know, what makes people think their particular opinion is worth while and where they draw the line on personally disliking the image and where changes could be made to help the artist create a great finished product.
Ultimately the only critique that matters is the market. If your work sells then it has been successful at it’s intended purpose and no amount of forum posts telling you that it’s not perfect will change that.
So at what point does someone feel that their opinion is objective and well based enough to stand in as a push in the right direction? It is certainly true that hundreds of photography and art school graduates are used to being critiqued regularly by their tutors, yet when it comes to the real world their work is not salable.
Are the tutors critiques wrong? Is it too much about technicality over content? Or is it just that the narrative of the image sells much better than any amount of perfectionist tweaking and editing?

As a personal rule I do not critique other peoples images. If they ask my opinion specifically then I will talk through the image with them but in general I don’t often see a time where my opinion is anything more than just that…one man’s opinion.
With the rise of social media and sharing content it gives everyone an equal voice. Yet if you knew these people I’m person do you think you would give equal weight to the opinions of a New York art buyer and a vicar from Sussex when it comes to your photography? Not all criticism should be taken equally and that is something to bear in mind, particularly when it comes to the online world.

I’d love to hear some more opinions about this topic so feel free to comment and get the discussion going!

Helpful links:
Http://FStoppers.com a fantastic resource of articles todo with filming, photography and marketing.
FStoppers Facebook page : great community of photo enthusiasts who span the globe and offer generally really good advice.

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