How to deal with criticism as a professional photographer

This is a really tough subject to talk about, and definitely something I’ve struggled with over the years – how to take criticism, and how to avoid honest appraisal of your work feeling like an intense personal attack on your very soul!

There’s an innate problem when you work in any creative field that you will identify closely with what you create. After all, you’re being commissioned and paid to create something that is uniquely you and yours, rather than just by the number of boxes you’ve managed to unpack within a certain time. On one level this is a good thing. It feels right, and makes sense to invest a lot of yourself in what you do. Each shoot you work on is arguably the culmination of all your technical and craft knowledge, all your creativity and your imagination, and all your “soft” skills.

There’s a catch though. When someone says something critical of our work, no matter how well-intentioned or carefully phrased, we feel as if it’s an attack on “US”, rather than our work.. We lash out, criticize them in turn, dismiss their opinions as BS, and take every single word directly to heart. Needless to say, this isn’t very helpful behaviour!

I’ve been here many times over the years, and first off, I’d suggest you simply develop a thick skin for people whose comments don’t matter – such as internet trolls and the like.  Life really is too short for getting drawn into a firefight caused by someone just looking to drag you down to their level.  Mind you, when people do matter, you need to know how to deal with criticism constructively.

  • Define the type of criticism – first off, is it actually genuine – did you balls up in some specific way? Did you miss something off the brief, or did you ignore some of the creative direction and shoot things the wrong way?  If the mistake is yours – OWN IT.  Do not try to wriggle out of it, and make excuse after excuse. Not only will you sound pathetic, but you’ll seriously reduce your chances of ever working for them again. Own up to what you’ve done, and offer to make good in any way you can. It’s possible you can re-shoot it, or if not, offer to waive part or all of your fee.
Brownlee Triathlon - Criticism
Sometimes you (or a member of your team…..) will make a genuine, honest to god mistake. Like not getting shots that were on the shot list. If this happens – own up, and don’t try and wriggle out of it!  Obviously, I don’t have the missing shots to make the point, but you get the idea!
  • Is the criticism simply misplaced? Have they simply made a mistake? Photography can be very technically complicated, and it’s possible the client is miffed because they simply don’t understand some technical aspect or other – maybe they’re trying to make a large format print from a low-res proof. If this is the case, then find out what’s gone wrong and patiently explain to them how to fix it.
  • Is the criticism a deflection? Are they trying to pass the buck onto you for their own failure? Here you need to tread very carefully indeed, and I’d suggest preparation is the key. Make sure you had things written down before the shoot began so that you’ve got something to fall back on in case of a future dispute. Politely point out that you followed the brief, delivered what was asked for, and ask them to be as specific as possible about what’s wrong. Be very wary of getting drawn into a heated argument about details, and be very careful about what you commit to email.
Dealing with criticism
Not from the actual shoot in question, but I have had an occasion when someone who was on the shoot at the time, and “loved” everything I shot there and then, decided the next day he didn’t like it at all. I asked around a bit, and found out that someone above him had decided they didn’t like the shoot, and it was easier to pass the buck on to me, than stand up and take the blame.
  • Do they genuinely not like what you’ve done? If this happens during the shoot, then change what you’re doing, but if this comes to light after the fact, things can be a bit trickier to resolve. If they were present when you shot it, and have since changed their mind, you’re probably entitled to argue the toss with them, and get them to be specific about what they now don’t like. I’ve had this a handful of times, and it’s generally the case that what’s actually happened is that someone above them in the chain has been dissatisfied with the shots, and now they’re trying to deflect that criticism onto you (see above). It’s also worth bearing in mind the phrase “Never ascribe to malice that which might simply be someone having a bad day”. I don’t want to make excuses for people behaving like a dick (and we’ve all done it at one point or other) but try not to rise to it. For all you know the person on the other end of the phone may have lost their beloved pet that morning, spilt coffee down their best shirt, and just walked out of a very bruising appraisal with their boss. You’re simply next in line for their attention, and consequently they’re not likely to behave in a rational and balanced way.
Criticism
Even if you’re in the right, sometimes it’s just not worth getting into an argument with someone. Isn’t that right Nick?
  • Think twice before replying to any emails. Write a response, but don’t hit “send” straight away. Take 5 minutes, or get someone else to read it, then amend it if necessary. Even if the other party is totally in the wrong, you don’t want to get drawn into a shouting match. If someone is not happy with the work you’ve delivered, then you will only aggravate the situation by bringing ego and emotion into it. Above all, wherever possible, get things in writing ahead of the shoot, along with mood boards/inspiration images in the case of any dispute about the creative direction the work has taken. This is particularly important in the case of shoots where you’re left to your own devices, and the client or their representative won’t be on the shoot.

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