Can Self-Criticism Help You Become a Better Photographer?

Yvan Cohen

Tue Jun 11 2024

Can Self-Criticism Help You Become a Better Photographer?

For many people in the creative space, criticism, especially self-criticism, can be a difficult thing to master. For photographers, being able to use your internal critic well is one of the keys to honing your photographic skills.

Photography is deceptively easy, right? Anyone can do it. All you need is a bit of kit (nowadays even a phone will do) that takes pictures. Press the button and 'hey presto', you've created your very own 'decisive moment' for all the world to admire.

You don't even need to know how to take pictures. Your camera, packed with smart technology - autofocus, autoexposure - will take care of that too.

As easy as it may be to take a photograph, it remains incredibly difficult to take one that stands out from the crowd, that tells a story, that moves the viewer. Be honest, how many of those have you taken? For my part, in decades of photography, I've taken precious few.

I remember one celebrated photographer telling me that 99% of his energy was invested in the hope that 1% of his work might be any good. Sometimes it was less than 1%. Sometimes he'd go out and for a shoot and, like an empty-handed fisherman, return with nothing. Which brings me to the role of criticism.

The best photographers are their own harshest critics

The best photographers, I believe, are often their own harshest critics. They sift and winnow, cull and delete until they find the essence of what they thought they saw, and felt, when they pressed the shutter.

It's called editing your photographs, and I'm not refering to the kind done with software. Without good editing skills, and without a critical eye, your photography is unlikely to progress.

The best photographers never assume their work is good. They are self-critical and open to criticism from others. Always ready to learn and always working hard to create impactful photos.

Ultimately, taking great pictures is about choices; when to press the shutter, what angle to shoot from and what to include in your frame. It's also about humility and learning. As we all know, talent and gear may be the raw materials of our craft, but they do not make a good photographer.

An unrecognizable person looks at printed photos Photo by George Milton

Self-criticism requires perspective and culture

Good self-criticism starts with perspective and culture. You need perspective to be able to evaluate your work in relation to others - against the best and worst photography you've seen.

Perspective also requires a certain degree of photographic culture. This means understanding how photography has evolved, how styles have changed and where they are heading. It means understanding why a photographer is good and what makes their work powerful. A good artist in any discipline assimilates influences, learns from the greats, and then develops their own visual signature.

The trouble that that you can, of course, go too far. Self-criticism should be a path to confidence and not a spiral to despair. Imposter Syndrome and self-doubt are not the destination we're aiming for here.

Knowing that you're not where you want to be as a photographer, also means understanding where you're trying to get to. This self-awareness lays the foundations for the confidence we all need to move forwards and set realistic personal goals.

So far, I've focused on self-criticism, but what about the external criticism we all face. Photography is a communication art. We take pictures for ourselves, but also for others. We take pictures for them to be seen.

We've all experienced the sting and pleasure of external criticism. Some people lavish praise, some denigrate and some criticize constructively.

Let's not linger on praise, because it's candy for the ego. A little praise can be good but too much can be misleading. Always assume you can do better.

Negative criticism can be dangerously destructive

Next up is the kind of criticism that degrades. Negative feedback of this kind can be dangerously destructive, leaving one's confidence unnecessarily wounded. Having emphasized the value of criticism as part of your development as a photographer, I would recommend ignoring criticism that seeks to undermine. It's the enemy of progress.

A woman pointing at a clipboard held by another woman who is sitting on a coach. Photo by RDNE Stock project

The most valuable criticism is constructive

The most valuable form of criticism is constructive. Don't get me wrong, constructive criticism can be harsh too. The difference between constructive and negative criticism, however, lies in intent. Constructive criticism may point out weaknesses and flaws but frames them in a positive context, as part of a process of improvement.

Finding critics that you respect, and can trust to be honest with you, is a vital part of any artist's development. The creative process inevitably involves making oneself vulnerable. And, since beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, it's important to find critics who have the culture, perspective and talent to see your strengths and weaknesses.

Developing your own critical eye for photography

Much of the criticism I've been describing has been inward looking, but a good critical eye looks outwards too. Learning to recognize and understand good photography, is about developing your own framework for criticizing the work of others.

Deconstruct your favorite pictures. Analyze them. Ask yourself why you like an image, what are its strengths and weaknesses. Think critically about a photographer's compositional choices as well as the intent, impact and meaning of their work.

There is no right or wrong to your preferences but the deeper your understanding of the photographic craft and the broader your cultural references, the more nuanced your criticism will become. Through this process of learning and analysis, you will slowly refine your photographic eye, creating better pictures as you go.

Written by Yvan Cohen | Yvan has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He's a co-founder of LightRocket and continues to shoot photo and video projects around South East Asia.

Cover image by Annie Spratt

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