Westminster fountain at sunset

by Jorge Córdoba

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On 1x I have been told that I present my critique request negatively:

From here: http://1x.com/forum/photo-critique/31716

  1. Does this picture need any composition improvements?
  2. Does this picture tell anything new to you?
  3. Any other problem you see with this picture?

From here: http://1x.com/forum/photo-critique/31871

I "know" that this photo lacks details and sharpness, and also there is a camera shake. Colours are horrible, etc. I do NOT wish to edit this photo is any way now, therefore I request everyone NOT to spend their time writing about the technical flaws in this photograph since I already know them.

I wish to know your views ONLY about the COMPOSITION in this landscape photograph, so that if next time I go to the same place or a similar place I do not repeat the composition mistakes which I might have made here.

Also I would appreciate if people could tell about the generic composition rules that we should follow in a landscape photograph. Two obvious composition flaws here are (IMO):
1. The boat touching the edge of the screen. 2. The road in the mountain is slanting.

On both these posts I have been told that I have framed them negatively therefore I have recieved negative critiques.

I wish to know how to frame the same points "positively", and why are they negative?

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Some of the points are inherently negative. ‘Two obvious composition flaws here are…’. They can’t be included in a positive way. Do you really need to include what you perceive the flaws to be? I understand you don’t just want people to tell you things you already know, but it seems like perhaps you’re tainting their view by including yours. If you post images you actually like, you think are good compositions you will find it easier to ask for critique in a positive way. –  forsvarir Mar 31 '12 at 15:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are two things I can see going on here. First, different understandings of what "critique" is within a given context, and second, interpretation of writing tone on the Internet.

What is meant by "Critique"?

Critique can mean a lot of different things. There's a good answer on photographic critique here on this site, and I think it's also useful to read some educational institutions' guidelines on critique — for example this, from the English department at Goshen College gives examples of how to write critiques for various types of writing, and in general the principles can apply to photography as well. In this sense, the audience for the critique is not necessarily the artist: it may be the public. On the other hand, critique can also be feedback, maybe sometimes on a particular facet of your work (in your example above, composition). Here, you're explicitly asking for guidance for improving your work, which is not necessarily the goal of another kind of critique. And of course, on the third hand, much online feedback is simply looking for affirmation; I don't think that's what you're doing, but it's worthwhile to consider that that's a perspective that may people come to this from.

If a particular forum (in the broad sense; not necessarily a "web forum") isn't clear on exactly what's meant by critique, conflict can arise simply because people have different expectations. If someone is expecting to provide an academic critique, and the artist starts by telling them what to look at, there's a dissonance. Or, on the other hand, if you're looking for that kind of serious critique and someone comes back with inanities about how you should follow certain "rules" to make your photograph "better", that can be frustrating as well.

Think about what you want to get back, and find the appropriate place for that kind of critique or feedback. Trying to make new rules for a place with a different understanding is not likely to be successful.

Communication on the Internet

Second, there's simply the issue of writing on the Internet. If you're asking something of someone for free, it's good form to be a little bit polite. In general, words in ALL CAPS are considered to be yelling, and starting of a conversation with yelling rarely yields constructive results.

In general, when you open with imperatives — telling people what they can and can not say, you're setting a hostile tone. It might be better to not say those things, and instead simply ignore (or vote down, if the site allows that sort of thing) the responses that don't prove useful to you. It may be that there's something that you say you don't care about or have already dismissed that is actually very valuable feedback — or, maybe it isn't valuable, but the responder feels like it really is. In that case, if you've said not to say that part, you've set up a negative situation.

For example, you may say that you only want to hear about composition, but someone may feel that your choices of exposure or technical details which you "forbade" discussing are actually tied to the composition. That's the responses you got to your river-and-boats photograph on 1x. Or, in a certain situation, I may tell you that the best way to accomplish what you want is to establish the context outside of the photograph, and you may respond in a strong tone that I should stop telling you that and instead tell you about what you expected to get advice on; well, sorry, that's still what I think is the most helpful advice and I'm not likely to change my mind just because you demand I tell you something else. That's definitely a negative interaction.

If there's something you really do want to hear about, it would be better to ask for that in particular, without being bossy about what people can't say.

I would even extend this to pointing out things you think are flaws already. If you don't mention them and no one else does either, you might reevaluate whether they're actually a significant problem in the image. If you get some responses which do talk about problem you thought of yourself, then your own sense is validated. And if the responses all only harp on those issues, maybe then it's not the best example to have posted in the first place, and it'd be more constructive (and a better use of everyone's time) to come back later when you have a photo which you're more confident of.

Overall

  1. Be sure of the context in which you're posting. 1x is moderately clear about this; they ask for a What/Why/How format which is different from academic critique but strives to be helpful to aspiring photographers looking to improve their work. It does not seem to be a place to ask about specific issues you see in a photograph. By contrast, consensus so far on this site suggests that here, general, open critique is not allowed and specific questions are more encouraged.
  2. Still, don't presuppose an answer. If you ask for something specific, and something different comes back, consider if it's helpful, even if it's not what you expected to hear. Or maybe especially in that case.
  3. Be respectful of people who are gifting their time and expertise to you; don't waste their time with photos which you know aren't the best examples of your work or of the issue you want to focus on, and don't boss them around with predetermined rules for what responses are "allowed".
  4. If you don't agree, you can try to make yourself more clear, but don't argue. Take the critic's comments as having some value even if you disagree. In fact, do this even if they're manifestly silly, because, hey, being civilized to each other makes the world a better place. If you keep getting answers which are unhelpful, don't bang your head against it trying to get the answers you want out of people. Instead, look at what you can do differently — including finding somewhere else to look for the kind of critique you want.
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+1 for "don't boss them around with predetermined rules for what responses are "allowed"." That's always annoying. –  Ward Apr 1 '12 at 3:51

Here are my thoughts...

The first example is basically asking for a negative response because most of the questions can be answered without elaboration. Question that lead to a more thoughtful answer are usually more positive. For example:

What are some ideas that can help improve the composition of this image?

Now you're asking for positive recommendations towards composition improvements rather than asking people to point out the flaws in it.

What are some ideas for enhancing the artistic aspect of this image?

Again, rather that asking for what the problems are, asking for how it may be better. In both examples, it's asking in such a way as to get people to think about it a bit and think about it with a positive goal of improvement.

On the second one, you kind of rip apart the image immediately and so you've already set a negative stage. Somebody might like the blurry aspect, there are plenty of examples of well-liked images in Flickr that are blurred. So, rather than even mention that you don't like those apsects and you don't want feedback on them, just ask for the information you do want. You might do it like this:

Given a scene similar to this, notwithstanding image sharpness, how might you compose or frame your shot so as to show the various aspects of the scene more favourably?

I realize, given that question, you might still get commentary on other aspects, but that will still have the person thinking about the image and you haven't really started off telling them to ignore that side of. Heck, one answer might be to tightly compose the boats but leave them blurry! Probably not likely, but you never know.

In any event, to reiterate, the positive is about soliciting a statement on improvement rather than one of criticism. Something like "your composition is too heavy on the left" doesn't tell you how to correct it... So, don't ask for that.

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