Mar 172016

How to take criticism

Taking criticism is an artform.  It terrifies many people, but should not.  We crave feedback, but criticism comes with baggage.  It takes years to learn how to cut through the b/s and get a good review versus some of the horror stories I have heard over the years.

You might not know your reviewer, where their head is at that day, or if they had an argument with their partner this morning.  The day they are having can totally affect your review.  I’ve seen people give consecutive reviews that were on par with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  By that I mean they were absolutely mental one day and perfectly level the next.  If you take their bad day to heart, it might do you some damage.  So here are a few survival tips.  And instead of jumping over the moon at every compliment or selling all of your gear if they don’t like your stuff, here is a look at how I take criticism through two reviews of my work by the folks at LensCulture.  This is part 1.

My submission

My submission

My submission

My submission

What to expect from a review

Critiques are nothing new to me.  I’ve had my drawing, photography, sculpture and paintings reviewed nonstop since I was in my early teens.  The feedback has been everything from “oh my god that is amazing” to “are you sure you really want to be an artist?”  Keep in mind this is all done to test your willpower.  Good, bad, or indifferent, the best thing to do with criticism is learn to tease out the useful stuff and disregard the opinion, conjecture, and outright junk.  All reviewers are different, but photo-people tend to say the same things in reviews.  I’m telling you this so you know what to expect and how to skip through it.  As you read Lens Culture’s review of my work, see if you can spot them.

“I want to see more.”  Always, always, always…unless you have laid down a flawless set of 200+ images, reviewers want to see more.

ADVICE:  Nod, smile, and tell them you are still working.  The funny thing is, you might only be able to submit a limited number of pictures, so they might be reviewing a selection because that’s all there is at that time.  Asking for more is a knee jerk reaction from most people.  Try not to fault them for it.

“I wish there was more explanation or context” or “I wish more was left up to the imagination”

ADVICE:  Some people like to learn, while others like to fill in the blanks.  You will get one or the other in a reviewer. Figure out who you are dealing with and ask them to elaborate…what more would they like to see that would make it better for them, or what should be left out.  If they don’t tell you what they want to see and why, the critique is worthless.  Reviewers need to substantiate everything they are saying…why?  Because that is the purpose of the review.

“Do you know the work of so and so?”

ADVICE:  Reviewers are usually academics first.  If they are into photography and not a photographer themselves, they usually went to school for it.  Which means, when they look at pictures, they think about research.  It’s a tendency that was hammered into them. For you, as the photographer, it is good to know about other people doing similar things, even if the connection is loose.  You want to know your market.  Take notes and if the connections aren’t clear, ask where they see a similarity.

“Can you develop this part more”

ADVICE:  Be careful here…take input, but don’t make work to please them.  Unless they are funding your project, they are only one person.  I’ve seen people give reviews and ask photographer to develop the most absurd niches of a project that are barely relevant because the reviewer has a personal interest in that area.  On the flip side, I’ve seen reviewers point out some connections the photographer missed and it ended up coming together beautifully.

To put all of this into context, here is Lens Culture’s review of my new project “Zen in the Art of Archery (after Herrigel)”  See what you can spot and let me know if this was helpful in the comments below.

Lens Culture Reviewer Feedback


You have quite a compelling and engaging project here. Thanks for sharing your series looking inside the world of Kyudo with us at LensCulture. Of the many photography documentary series I have looked through, you have hit, (no pun intended), on a unique story to tell. And it’s connection to “Zen in the Art of Archery” adds extra interest. I strongly encourage you to continue and put in the work necessary to take it to the next level.

Overall – I want to see more! While you have some strong photographs here, it feels a bit like a first visit to the space. Are you able to go back? Repeated visits are truly the way to uncover unexpected moments and gain a more complete picture of the practice of Kyudo. You almost want to go so much that you get bored with the space and the practice – that is often when the more nuanced and evocative photographs begin to surface. You have a strong natural feel for portraiture, with image 1 being a standout example. The woman’s gaze and gesture are compelling here, but it is the light that really makes this image. Wow, the light in the space is fantastic – what a photographic gift! And you are using the light quite well in all of your photographs. Keep considering how it shapes and transforms the space as you continue photographing. On a compositional note, though, I think more space around the woman would make the photograph even stronger. The crop on her sleeve and the bow feels just a bit awkward. Push yourself to vary your framing and composition a bit more and see what evolves.

Image 2 is quite a strong photograph as well, while I see where you were thinking with including the full 1-2-3 sequence, there may be other ways to show the full arc of the shot, without being quite so specific. Of the three, I would keep photograph 2 for sure with her expression and the framing it is set apart from the rest. You have quite a good eye for detail and your instinct to include moments such as 7, 8 and 10 is spot on. Keep looking to incorporate details as you continue photographing. I like where you are headed with image 5 as well – good idea to use the mirrors as a compositional element. More than that though, it gives the viewer a new look at the Kyudo practice and process. Look for more moments like this when you go back.

Also, I’d suggest revisiting your statement a bit here. At the moment it is descriptive of your personal interest in the project and connection to photography and Cartier Bresson, but it doesn’t give much of a framework about Kyudo. Or what might have struck Cartier Bresson in particular as he read “Zen in the Art of Archery”. A quote from the book itself could be interesting to incorporate. Above all – do keep going with this! I see a lot of potential here and certainly hope to see more!

Additional Recommendations

Recommended Books

Other Photo Competitions to Consider

Portfolio Reviews to Consider


Getting a portfolio review can be nerve-racking the first time, but let me know if you found this helpful so I can share more of my experiences of the critique process.  In the end, I hope to make it more successful for you.





 Posted by at 11:13 pm

  11 Responses to “How to take criticism: Part 1”

  1. This is a great post Adam. It gives you a game plan on how you should take a review and that helps alleviate stress. Instead of the “do they or don’t they like my work” you have a framework to digest their review on a fair and honest level. This review is a bit of a mixed bag. They do give some good critiques but they defiantly wander into the “Can you develop this more” road.

    • Hi Gary,
      Thank you for letting me know that was helpful. I see too many photographers struggle with the idea of a review, let alone the review itself.
      It is not uncommon for people to literally quit photography after a bad review. Most of it is based on mismanaged expectations and an understanding of how the process works.
      For some reason, people know going to the dentist might hurt a little, but they go. Reviews are the same thing. Sometimes it is an in and out procedure, other times it’s a complete overhaul.

  2. Hello Adam,
    I distinctly remember your “road kill” comments on our first workshop in Prague, which were a bit shocking at first, but pushed me to a higher quality plateau. Good job.

    • Carlos,

      Oh do I remember that session…sometimes you have to say something to get your audience’s attention. It was a phrase coined by my drawing teacher Myron Barnstone…but it does work wonderfully.

      Good fun!


  3. Adam,

    I really like your work and, as an amateur, aspire to create images such as yours. From experience I think it important, for both a reviewer and a submitter, to separate objective from subjective criticisms. Why was the work submitted? What were the objectives of the project? Did the project meet the objectives? A recipient of criticisms about such points could consider them carefully. Subjective criticisms are, well, subjective and can be considered as such. Were they requested or are they ‘out of place’. Also it is hard to get the tone right in writing and it is easy for an unintended offence to be caused or taken. Brits use the word ‘quite’ as a derogatory term so you can imagine the mess we can get into! Language as expressed in photography is a whole new subject!

    Thank you for putting yourself ‘out there’.

    All the best,


    • Hi Kevin,

      I’m happy to put myself out there. Having taken so many beating in critiques over the years, it does not bother me so much. And if it helps someone else, then I’ve really done my job.

      Excellent points you’ve made here.
      Written critiques are particularly strange. I received this ones from LensCulture “free.” For some reason the work was eligible, I can’t recall why. But normally critiques are best done in person.

      And this way it becomes much easier to manage those expectations on the spot.

      Thank you for the kind words on my work, I’m sure you are well on your way.


  4. Hello Adam,

    This is a very interesting topic, and thank you for your thoughtful advice. Taking criticism can indeed be challenging. For me, it can be overwhelming to receive a lot of comments (as in too many). Often, I already know some of those weaknesses, which may be the result of constraints over which I had no control – so pointing them out is useless, unless specific ways to address those constraints are offered. Which leads me to my question: do you or should you add an introduction to the work you send mentioning some of those constraints? Because I don’t necessarily want to omit photos that may be perceived as weaker, as they may be compelling for other reasons.

    All the best,


    • Hi Yvonne,

      Great set of questions. First, there are reviews which are formal and final and there are feedback sessions, which are open ended. Until you get a few feedback sessions under your belt, I would not go for a formal review. The reason I say this is because a body of images needs to be delivered with NO EXCUSES.
      If the work is still too rough or there are major kinks, it is best to say that “this is a rough draft, I will be back at the location shooting again and would like some developmental comments so that I can maximize my time and fully convey the idea behind the pictures.”
      This way, the person knows where you are coming from.
      As an example, I ask first time One on One students to send me “5 pictures that didn’t work” because I want to see where the problems are occurring. But if they are submitting to a competition I would not advise submitting near misses. These are two different types of feedback and it is good to know when to ask for them.

      In answer to your second question, if you can add 5 sentence that offer some context about the work and what you are looking for feedback on, that is a great idea.


  5. Hi Adam
    I found your articles on criticism to be very helpful, insightful and practical. In fact while I have had portfolio critiques from several very successful professional photographers what you have shared will enable me to better review my own images. It will also enable me to interpret feedback and take action more easily in developing my photographic practice. Thank you for sharing your insights and thoughts on this topic.

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