Apr 122016

How to Take Criticism

Part 2, learn how to give it properly

 Taeko Kawaguchi Adam Marelli-2

As a follow up to How to Take Criticism: Part 1, I’d like to delve further into the ideas that roll around in my head when I look at someone else’s pictures.  One of the best ways to learn how to take criticism is to learn how to give it.

Being on the giving end changes the game of critiquing for a lot of people.  Now, I’m not talking about the criticism you see on Facebook or YouTube, where constructive criticism is confused with personal attack.  If someone says they think you are a “D*ck-bag mother-f*cker and I hope your unborn children all rot in H*ll…” (actual quote from something I saw on YouTube) do not fret.  That is not criticism, that is a plea for help delivered in the form of a personal attack.  We won’t be exploring the psychotic realms of keyboard warriors today.  Instead, let’s look at a clear and simple way that you can offer reviews to friends that will actually help them understand how well they are communicating their ideas in pictures.

Think for a moment how frequently we feel misunderstood when we speak, now imagine that confusion gets compounded by 100 when we take pictures.  Given the opportunity to fully express the ideas and emotions that we have, we don’t often get it right. Arguments with friends, family, and partners are a testament that communication is actually very difficult to do regularly.  If we take the same range of ideas and emotions and remove ALL of the WORDS, you can see how things get a lot trickier.  The range of interpretation just went from moderate to Biblical.

This is why, when I review pictures for someone, I think it is only fair to let them know what I am looking for, so that even if I misunderstand their intentions they at least have a sense of how the pictures appeared and what I was looking for in them.

Taeko Kawaguchi © Adam Marelli-3

How do I review a photograph?

There are three main things that I look for in every picture.  This is no matter what type of photography, be it documentary, street, portrait, landscape, still life, fine art, conceptual, whatever…I am looking for three things.

The three things are:

  • Formal elements
  • Content
  • Point of View

 Taeko Kawaguchi  Adam Marelli-4


Because the combination of these three elements can be rearranged in near endless variety, and if they perfectly overlap with something else, then the picture lacks the unique stamp of the photographer…which means, they need to keep working.

It is the criterion that I put on every picture, project, and series I make.  I do not always pass my own test, which is why my hard drives have hundreds of thousands of shots and I have only a few hundred published pictures.

And what do I mean by Formal Elements, Content and Point of View?  Let me explain in the simplest language possible, because the art and photo world have enough fancy-nonsensical language to put even a lawyer to sleep.

Formal Elements

Formal Elements are the building blocks of a picture.  They start with light and geometry.  They are the whites and blacks, the shapes and colors of every photo.  Every picture has a combination of lights and darks.  If it didn’t it would just be a sheet of white or black paper.  The way a photographer chooses the light, shapes, directions, and the intensity of each of these makes up the Formal Elements.

Formal elements, on their own, have ZERO meaning.  A triangle doesn’t mean more than a square.  The Rule of Thirds is not more pleasing than the 1.5 grid.  These constructs simply EXIST, but they become connected to content, which is where they get their meaning.


Simply put, Content is the meaning that we give to a picture.  It is a belief.  In many cases it is a shared belief, which is why people react similarly to the same picture, but always remember it is a belief and not a fact.  The fact is that it is a photograph, what it means is forever flexible.

This is where most of the world gets stuck, because something like “colors” means different things in different cultures.  Color has no inherent meaning.  We give it meaning and then we agree on it.

Content is a slippery slope because the meaning can and will change with its surroundings.  But that does not stop us from debating it until we are blue in the face.  Which is why I look at content in relationship to the person who made it.  This gets me to the last building block.

Point of View

When I look at a picture, I ask myself “Why should I be looking at this?” Does this photographer have anything insightful to say about the world they are photographing?  It does not matter if they are a photo journalist or constructing dioramas in their basement, there is something in front of a lens and they chose to push the shutter…WHY?

The major problem with this is that many photographers have no idea.  They chalk it up to intuition.  And while every other professional field in the world has a level of intuition, from making a business deal to playing the violin or dodging a punch in a boxing ring…if we do not separate what we do as photographers from what surveillance cameras do, then we are nothing more than expensive recording devices.

What the history of culture, call it high culture if you like, of literature, art, music have shown us over the course of 50,000 years of history is that humans enjoy the perspectives, insights, and points of view of people who have a compelling presence.

The only photography that has ever held my attention is one where I can feel the presence of a photographer who has a point of view about the thing they are photographing.

 Taeko Kawaguchi  Adam Marelli-5

Sum It All Up

If the form, content, and point of view do not reveal enough interesting material about the things that are inside the picture…it is a pass.

But…if that mixture leads to a curious insight about a moment frozen in time forever, then we are on to something and should have a closer look.


  2 Responses to “How to take criticism: Part 2, learn how to give it properly”

  1. Just discovered your website: thank you so much for these informative and inspiring articles. I’ve recently been taken with photography but have struggled to transition from the apprentice to journeyman level, so to speak. It’s so difficult to find compelling discussions of theory that move beyond exposure triangles and rule of thirds (or sites that stress the mechanical side of camera, as important as that can be). What I’ve gained from your articles is a desire to study the histories of photography and painting, and this has renewed my enthusiasm and rekindled my hope that I’ll move off the plateau I’ve found myself on. Thanks so much. Still contemplating your final point about detecting the *presence* of the photographer. Reminds me of a sentence in Galen Rowell’s _Mountain Light_ about good photography communicating/preserving an emotion, which I also found striking (how is a landscape emotional?). I’ve been wielding cameras since I was a kid in the 80s/90s, but I always thought that I was merely recording what was already there — “documenting” family and travels, etc.

    • Dear Curtis,
      Very pleased to hear all of this…happy that the site is doing well for you. The archives are deep, so do have a look around. Hope you continue to enjoy things.

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