One of the best parts of being an active member of the online photography community is the range of criticism I have access to when I share my work. Being open to constructive criticism is an essential part of growth as an artist — not only can it highlight shortcomings, but it can also emphasize areas in which you may be strong without realizing it.
When I presented my work for the first time in a gallery I found it fascinating to loiter near my prints and listen in on the people’s comments, compliments, and teardowns of my images. Sometimes they would notice an aspect or way of reading it that I had never even considered, and I found all of it very useful.
I think that when it comes to criticism online it can be difficult to find anyone willing to provide candid, genuine, and well-considered feedback — positive or negative. I think that this is partly because there is often no incentive; in a real gallery you are sharing your understanding of the art with whomever you are with, and with social media, despite the social aspect of it, there isn’t really anything haptic or worthwhile to gain from this kind of comment. It’s far too easy to simply leave a like and move on, or comment a few words and nothing more.
Often you’ll be looking at the work of people you follow, which means you more than likely already “like” it to some extent if it’s consistent with the rest of their images in some way.
On top of this, I think that if someone were to provide a harsh critique of an image that other people may rush to the photographer’s defense, and they can become a victim of the unfortunate online mob mentality, even if their intentions were pure, and they genuinely want to see that artist improve.
Some “critiques” I’ve seen simply involve describing what’s in the image, or what makes it funny, or aesthetic. This doesn’t really provide anything of value beyond letting the photographer know that someone in their audience “got it.” Similarly, some pieces of advice will always be useful to beginners, and these are usually repeated a lot – things like “get closer,” “shoot more,” “use a prime,” “always carry a camera,” and so on.
When it comes to street photography specifically, I think it can be very difficult to provide genuine feedback in a meaningful way. Street photography is one of the most unplanned genres, which sets it apart in terms of the degree of control a Street Photographer has over the scene.
Unlike in a studio, for example, none of the characters are staged, or directed. The light is not set up, and things are constantly in motion. The only thing the photographer should have power over is themselves and their camera — where they choose to stand and how they choose to expose.
This means that when criticizing the finished product it can require more information than what’s simply in the image. If I know the street that a photo was shot on, or understand the quality of the light they were working with then I am much more capable of providing details on how I think they could make the image more effective. If I don’t know anything about the context then there’s only so much I can offer.
At best for a compliment I can say that the scene was “well noticed” or “congratulations for acting quickly” which both seem a bit patronizing. I can mention things I particularly like about the image, but again I assume the photographer knows this already.
I sometimes see people offering their opinion on the way characters or elements are positioned; “it would have been better/more effective if her head was here instead of here.”
It may very well be better the way this person imagines it, but that may not have been an option at the time. The scene may have been fleeting, or the photographer may have chosen that vantage point as it was the best available to them.
Unless the photographer supplies context then this kind of criticism isn’t useful until the photographer is faced with similar conditions. I see the same kind of thing when people talk about the light — unless they knew what the weather was like when they shot that image, there isn’t much criticizing the light can do. However, what can be useful is directing the photographer on a better place to shoot from relative to the source of the light. This can have a genuine effect on the look of the image and relies on something within the photographer’s control.
However, not every image has something redeemable or a salvageable concept. Whether the sum of its parts makes the image uninteresting, or if it’s been severely poorly executed then there isn’t much that can be offered for that specific image. I suppose the execution side can be worked on, and there is any number of resources to improve technical skill, but the hardest thing to fix is a photographer with an untrained eye. The only real feedback that kind of person can be offered is that they need to shoot more frequently and more diversely until they develop their approach.
So far I’ve really been talking about critiquing an isolated image, but often there is a lot more to consider when it comes to offering feedback to a street photographer. Looking at their body of work can be a lot more interesting than any one example, as it can offer insight beyond the scope of what one image is capable.
Once a street photograph has been taken, curated, and edited to the artist’s preference there is only really one option available to them — the decision on whether or not they should share it. There is often no way to go back and recreate the moment, or retake a scene (unless it’s a light-architecture type of image, which is one of the easier forms of street photography for this reason).
I would argue that if you are torn between sharing an image and not sharing it to simply wait until you have had time to let the image fade a little from “relevance” and you will be able to assess it again with a fresh attitude. Good photos can stay good for some time, but “bad” photos can sometimes have merit we overlook.
With this in mind, when you view a photographer’s selection on a platform like Instagram you know you are seeing their highlight reel, and allows you to better understand their message and intention, giving you a better starting point to offer possible critiques.
From here you can look again at an individual image and judge whether or not it fits in with the wider story and the rest of their portfolio. If it stands out excessively, whether by being exceptionally good, exceptionally mediocre, or any other reason, I would want to hear it.
When it comes to useful critique and advice I think there are a few possible facets of an image that can be identified to help with the photographer’s progress. One of the first things I’ll usually notice is the emotional content of an image. Even if poorly composed if there is a powerful emotional component then other things can be overlooked. However, if there is no emotion, atmosphere or mood then I’ll usually offer my perspective on how this can be improved.
I also think that timing is a valuable thing to criticize, despite not knowing the context.
For example, in the above photograph of a punk, I mistimed the swing of his arm, which would have otherwise filled the negative space; which makes it, in my opinion, a fraction of a second away from being a stellar shot. Instead, it is simply passable, but I will never forgive that mistime.
If I see that an image could have been timed differently for a different feel to the scene I think it is worth pointing this out.
In street photography a photograph can be judged by the standards of certain rules/guidelines of Photography and art theory in general – composition, exposure, color – pure aesthetics. However, it can also be understood on another level – the quality of the moment. In my opinion, the best images in street photography come from spontaneous occurrences, verging on photojournalism. If a moment is truly genuine and resonates in some way it can make up for any shortcoming in the aesthetic.
In street photography I think that things like grain, focus, or even exposure simply aren’t as important as in other genres – as long as the “story” is still apparent.
This shot is grainy, Delta 3200 shot at 8000.
This shot is overexposed, as the majority of my film work is.
This shot is both out of focus and has motion blur – but if it were any other way it would be a boring image!
Art criticism is one of the most subjective topics out there, but I think that there can be ways to measure the effectiveness of a photograph in a meaningful way. I run a street photography course at UAL, and a large chunk of the third day involves feedback and criticism. Something I ask of my students is that when discussing a piece of work they are not to say that they like or dislike an image. Instead, they must say what works about the photograph and what doesn’t work about it. Simply liking or not liking something is not useful, as everyone has their own tastes and preferences. By mentioning what works and doesn’t they give the photographer a platform to understand on a deeper level things that they can build on, and things they can avoid in the future.
When it comes to my own work I try and make criticism “easier” by allowing access to more than just the images. I write about my work on my blog, and publish many of my contact sheets — this allows valuable context to be relevant to the criticism, and means I can take the feedback and advice more seriously. Especially if I have multiple versions of the same “frame” as sometimes I will have chosen the one that I prefer but then find out that other people like a different one, for reasons I hadn’t considered.
It cannot be stressed enough that all aspects of any art are subjective. Critiques exist to contextualize and understand the intention behind art and to gauge whether or not it is effective. Not every photographer is at a stage where criticism would even be useful, and not everyone who criticizes does so with the genuine intention to help and assist.
I don’t think it’s worthwhile to take on criticism until you are a totally different photographer, shooting an entirely different style and genre. Instead use these ideas as nudges, especially if you hear the same message from multiple places. Be open with your audience, and encourage as much discourse around your work as possible. Try and understand where people are coming from, but also be discretionary on what you allow to influence you. Only you understand the message you are trying to convey, but when it comes to conveying it effectively sometimes the best thing you can do is listen to others.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.