I actively participate in many online photography forums, and I have noticed after years you start to see patterns of behavior and the same kinds of people in every forum. Learning how to deal with critiques and comments – both positive and negative can help you grow as a photographer and artist. While this article is geared towards the photographer, much of the information is appropriate for forums of all kinds. Let’s talk about it…

Dealing with critiques

Before the internet, anyone taking a photography class or learning from a mentor relied solely on the critiques of those around them. The instructor would give an assignment, and a couple weeks later you would sit with your classmates and discuss the positives and negatives of the resulting images. Usually, the instructor would spend the bulk of time discussing how the image could be improved while the rest of the class observed, fidgeted and agreed with the assertions of the instructor. The instructor went through a standard script of pointing out a couple nice things and a few areas that could use improvement, and that was the end of it. In all my years studying photography some instructors were certainly better about critiques than others – but the above pattern was my observed average experience.

Enter the internet

Posting a photo on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter today can potentially expose that image to many tens of thousands of eyes, with vastly varying degrees of expertise in the photographic arts. Some will click like and move on, because they do not possess the critique language to offer useful suggestions for improvement. Some will offer constructive critiques based on years of work in the industry which can help you to grow and take your images to the next level. Some will take the opportunity to offer negative comments which do not help you grow but, rather make them feel better because they “took you down a notch”. Which of the people you listen to is up to you; Knowing how to separate the trolls from the people who are looking to offer genuine help is sometimes as easy as not trusting a news article from supernewssourceyoucantrust.com

Take it slow

Journeying into the world of online photography forums can be a rewarding and frustrating experience, depending on how thick your skin is when it comes to public criticism of your work. Upon joining a new forum, take a moment to introduce yourself to the group, it is proper form to mention in your introduction how long you have been shooting, what genre (portrait, landscapes, abstract, etc.) you like to shoot and perhaps what kind of gear you use. The most important thing to remember is how important it is to get off on the right foot with people in the group – how you introduce yourself in a forum is the same as meeting people at a party. You would not walk into a dinner party unshaven with shorts no shirt and flip-flops on and you would not post something like this as your introduction in a forum:

“hAI Guys! Im new 2 photo and lookin 2 learn what kind of gear do u guys use?”

(that was tough for me to write!) Remember, when you are writing questions and comments online, people can’t see your face and tell when you are being sarcastic or funny. You don’t have to come off as a scholar but being clear and direct in your comments and questions can make the experience so much better. Using l33t speak or unnecessary abbreviations (2 instead of to) makes you seem illiterate. Especially when communicating in photography groups, there is a wide range of ages present and many “seasoned” members may immediately gain a poor impression of you or refuse to answer your questions because they think you are not being serious. In this case, you miss out on potentially valuable advice.

Once you have posted your introduction, resist the urge to post a million of your photos and take some time to read back through the group messages. If the group is mature, it is likely this will answer many of your initial questions as well as give you ideas for future questions. Another important point to remember is that you will get out of a forum as much as you put in. If you interact with people, ask questions and offer your suggestions where you can, people will get to know you and interact with you.  That doesn’t mean go through all the old messages and answer every question or add useless comments just to raise your post count.

Know the Trolls

Reading through old messages will help you to identify those forum members who seem knowledgeable and offer genuine helpful comments. Reviewing past messages will also help you to identify those members (Trolls) who are less helpful or cause trouble in the comments section for their own enjoyment. I always say: “Don’t feed the Trolls!” When someone posts an inflammatory comment on your photo, or it appears as though someone is looking to start an argument – just walk away. Don’t press the issue, don’t argue and don’t give them fodder to continue their point. One of the worst things I have seen new forum members do is post a response photo when someone posts a negative comment on their image.

Anatomy of a Troll

There are as many different subspecies of Troll as there are internet forums. In the case of photo forum Trolls, the loudest most arrogant type of Troll are the ones that believe they are experts on everything but share no work to backup their claims. These Trolls thrive on chaos and disorder in the forums and start altercations for sport. They are often either very new to the photography game and have even taken a class from a famous photographer like Scott Kelby or Moose Peterson, making them an instant expert on every genre of photography even if they haven’t ever tried it. The opposite of this kind of Troll are the ones who have been in the photo game since the first Kodak camera was introduced by George Eastman in 1888. This Troll likely made a good image early in his career and has a huge print of it hanging on his wall. He doesn’t even bother taking more images because nothing could ever compare to that perfect image. To him, everything you make has been done before and you didn’t do a good job of it, or you are “getting there, kid”. This Troll will pick and choose the images he comments on and bash the techniques to make himself feel good. Dealing with Trolls can be annoying, but you need to remember there are Trolls in every forum, and they have been around as long as the internet has. They hide behind the cloak of anonymity the internet gives them and bring you down for their entertainment.

The good and the bad

How do you tell the difference between someone who wants to offer genuine help, and the Trolls? Do your research. Read through the back posts in the forum you are in to see how the users in question handled themselves, did they offer genuine advice or comments on other’s posts? Did they leave short inflammatory comments fishing for drama? Often a little research can yield the answers you need. Remember that everyone has a bad day now and then. If a comment seems sharp or short, it may be because that question has been asked a lot before, or the person who posted the question didn’t take the time to word it clearly or correctly. Go back and look at your original post, was is unclear or lacking the necessary detail to answer?

General forum guidelines

If you haven’t spent a lot of time in internet forums, you can unintentionally pose questions that get snarky or short answers, even from the non-Troll residents of the forum. Here are a few tips to remember when asking questions or seeking recommendations in these forums:

  • Unless specifically stated for a region, most internet forums can have members from all over the world. Asking questions like “where around here can I find a flashtube for my strobe?” can get you some snarky answers. Most people won’t take the time to look at your profile to see where you live, they will just accost you for not posting your location. Consider something like: “I live near Portland, does anyone have a good source for strobe tubes near Portland metro?”. A few words with a little detail about your question can go a long way.
  • Remember when asking for critiques of your work, you will get more useful information by asking for specifics. Many of the posts I see are just the camera settings, and some include a basic description of the lighting used. For your next critique, consider posting something like “Here is an example from my latest shoot, I’m working on single light setup portraits [camera setting] [lighting settings] What do you think of [the shadows on her face?]” People aren’t being paid to critique your work, they are taking time out of their day to offer help and taking the time to post information on the shot and some questions will often make people more willing to take the time to critique your work later.
  • Don’t post a silly saying with your photo: “the light in the shadows entice the beauty within…” with no camera settings or questions, this makes you look like someone who is just there Trolling for likes.
  • If someone mentions something in the frame – say the model is wearing something that seems out of place and says something like “I like the lighting but the ballet shoes seem out of place in a bodyscape image” take a moment and consider that your work is standing on it’s own without context. Did you say: “the model is a ballerina and she was my bodyscape model for the day”? or did you just post the image? Those critiquing your work don’t know what your direction or motivation is unless you tell them.
  • If you don’t like a comment or critique, don’t get defensive. Look at the image from the perspective of the group, they are seeing the image for the first time and perhaps they are seeing something that you didn’t? If you made a mistake, don’t justify your mistake or deflect the comment, thank the commenter and move on. If you choose to show your work out of context and especially without description, expect people to comment on things that are confusing to them.
  • Remember, (generally) no matter how much you think you know about a subject, there is always someone out there who has more knowledge than you do. Nobody is perfect, and unless you are [insert famous photographer name here] then you probably don’t know everything. Besides, if you are that person why would you be posting for critiques online?
  • People are taking the time to critique your work, take the time to thank them.

Should you listen to comments?

Opening yourself up to critiques of your work can be very traumatic. When I started out in photography, I took a trip to Yellowstone and my mom told me my images were every bit as good as Ansel Adams. I was sure my work was on par with people who had been shooting for thirty years. Perhaps I was a photographic prodigy? I was convinced by the comments of my friends and family that I was the Eddie Van Halen of the camera, amazing. Was my work that good? No. You need to take comments and praise of your work in context. My mom isn’t a photographer and my friends at that time were not either. They lacked the trained eye, and photographic knowledge to critique my work effectively. They compared my work to their own snapshots and compared to those my work was good (it still was terrible to be honest). Imagine the shock and horror I experienced when my first photography teacher looked at my Yellowstone shot, taken at midday with no clouds in the sky and nothing in the foreground of interest and told me it looked like a poor snapshot. My main subject was not in focus, the shadows were harsh, the horizon was way off, and I didn’t understand aperture so more of the image was out of focus than in. I was looking past the technical issues and focusing on the setting and how I remembered it. I tried to justify the work, that the composition was the same as one of the iconic Ansel Adams images. I made excuses for my technical issues and could not look at the photo as it stood on its own. It took me a long time to learn to really see images, and a lot of bruises to my ego.   

Photography is art, and the image I took is my impression/vision of the scene before me, I don’t have to listen to your comments!

You don’t. But, just like any medium of art, there are general practices that most look for in work. These general practices create a basic framework for those learning or striving to get better at their craft. The rule of thirds, not cropping off a model’s hand, getting the eyes straight, properly exposing your image etc. are all photographic rules that are meant to be broken.  The issue many run into is they don’t have the photographic experience under their belt abiding by the rules, so they know when to break them. This often leads to new photographers intentionally shying away from the rules to be cool. If you are intentionally going to post images with model’s hands cut off be prepared for the negative comments. Pollock wasn’t regarded as a good painter at first because of his style, and he had to face a lion’s share of criticism from his peers for the work he was doing. If he had asked for critiques of his early work, I’m sure he would not have ended up where he did in the end. So, if you want to post that Dutch angle image of a selectively colored model shot on train tracks, be prepared for the comments to fly.

Hey! You hurt my feelings!

One of my instructors told me something that stuck with me to this day: “There is no crying in photography.” He would always say this to his students in his introduction to photography classes before their first critique, because criticism can be tough for people to hear. People get their feelings hurt easily, especially when it comes to something they have invested time in like a photograph. I know from first-hand experience that realizing you aren’t a prodigy when it comes to photography hurts. Getting taken down a few notches in public that first time in photo class made me more determined to look at the works of the masters and learn what goes into making a pleasing photograph. It would have been easy to walk away after that first critique with my tail between my legs, but I wanted to get better and create work that made me happy as an artist and others happy as my viewers.

I spent lots of time creating images that adhered to the photography rules, to the point that I was following many of the rules without thinking about them (like the rule of thirds). It was then that I started taking that shot that followed the rule, and then consciously moving on to something more creative that broke the rules – some of my favorite works have followed this pattern. I doubt I would have those images today if I had not learned the basics first.

Conclusion

Surviving in an internet world as a photographer can be easy if you realize that not everyone is out there to get you – even though some are. Find a forum you are comfortable in, that has as few Trolls as possible. One of the older online forums I like is photo.net The members offer genuine well-informed help and critiques and is a great place to spend time without feeling like people are talking down to you. If you get nothing else out of this article, remember that the more effectively you can communicate with others in the forums, the more you will get back for your time spent.  

Good luck and get shooting!

I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to contact me on any of my websites or on social media.

My Photography site: http://www.tahquechi.com/

My Bodyscapes project: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/

My travel site: http://www.blindtravels.com/

Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee