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Do you really want constructive criticism … or approval?

Black and white boudoir by Denver photographer Lynn ClarkPIN

Photography is my second career. My previous writing career started when I was in 8th grade. By the time I left that job decades later, I was damn good at it. I can write as easily as I can breathe.

But I am not yet an expert in photography. I’m getting there … I need about 5,000 more hours until I’m a master (according to Malcolm Gladwell). It been quite the struggle for me to move from being an expert to being a novice, and then an intermediate photographer. I still feel like I’m on the verge of truly finding my voice. It makes sense, then, to have other photographers look at my portraits and give constructive criticism—to tell me what’s working and not working in a particular photo. Right?

Many of the Facebook groups I belong to encourage members to put up images for constructive criticism. When I finally grew a pair and posted my first image for CC, in my heart of hearts all I wanted was for people to like the photo. The CC I received sent me in 500 different directions. I posted another and had pretty much the same experience. And, of course, there were sometimes crickets.

Even though I say out loud that I only care what my clients think of the portraits I make of them, that’s bullshit. It’s freaking scary to put a portrait out there for judgment by other boudoir photographers—especially other photographers who I admire and want to be when I grow up. (And probably worse if they’re someone I don’t admire.) What if they tell me I suck? Should I take down my shingle and slink off into the night?

Why was I posting images? To actually find out what could be improved in my work? Or to get approval and affirmation that I was doing a good job?

Case in point:

In April, I attended a workshop with The Last Forty Percent’s Ewan and Brianna Phelan. The class was great, and I learned what I went to learn—how to push more of the edge with my clients without straying beyond classy.

After the class, Ewan encouraged attendees to post a photo for constructive criticism. So I did: This collage.

Denver boudoir photographer Lynn ClarkPIN

Here’s his CC:

Love her outfit and look. I would have loved to have you shoot it from the other side, so that light was hitting her face. It would make everything like her makeup and hair pop a little more. Also, having her lift her head up and then tucking her hair that’s on the bed under her before she put her head back down would take away that distraction. In the right photo, I would have liked to see her right hand actually doing something. Pulling her bra strap off would have giving that photo that little extra. And adding a smirk would have made it that much more inviting to the viewer.

My immediate response was to feel defensive. These are two of my most favorite recent portraits (not taken at the workshop even). When I gauged my reaction, I realized that I didn’t really want CC on these particular images, and I had been too nervous to show any that I was less confident about.

I understand now that I put them up to have a Sally Field moment with a photographer I admire and with the others who’d see it … not to receive actual feedback. Interestingly, once my ego shut up, I employed a couple of his suggestions.

What if, instead, I’d sent Ewan an entire client session—or even an album design—for CC, or what if I sent images that were almost (but not quite) there,  then asked for his expertise on identifying and correcting the issues? I may have gotten feedback that would help my work overall vs tweaks on two images that I already like (and the client purchased). I lost an opportunity.

I’ve decided that feedback from Facebook group members in general doesn’t help me, and that the way to move my work forward is to hire a couple of those people I admire to do that bigger portfolio review. And, I’ve decided to work on setting my defensive ego aside as much as I can to be open to that feedback.

Have you ever had a portfolio review? What’s your reason for submitting images for CC?


Lynn Clark

Lynn Clark is co-founder of The Business of Boudoir. She's a boudoir and portrait photographer in Denver, Colo. with a mission to help every woman bare her beauty ... and leave with an amazing photo of her own ass (because let's be honest, we ALL want an amazing photo of our own asses.) She brings 25 years of communications background in writing, websites, public relations and strategy to The Business of Boudoir. She's also available for 1 on 1 website evaluation, content creation and editing.

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  • June 13, 2014 - 12:22 PM

    Stacie Frazier - I loved this article, Lynn! I think many of us are guilty of wanting approval over actual feedback. Critiques are scary! But, at least your feedback came from a worthy source! Too often i see critiques from too many people who really have no business saying much of anything, due to being a novice or amateur. And those voices often drown out the more professional opinions. So, I too decided not to offer up my images in those types of group settings. I like your idea of having a private portfolio review though. And, by showing a whole session rather than just 1 or 2 images, you can learn so much more! I’m interested in hearing how this goes for you!ReplyCancel

    • June 14, 2014 - 10:45 AM

      Lynn - Thank you Stacie! I don’t think there’s anything wrong about wanting approval at all, and damn those ‘likes’ DO feel good, don’t they? It was interesting for me to come to the realization of WHY I was putting up photos for CC.ReplyCancel

  • June 13, 2014 - 5:50 PM

    Petra Herrmann - I love this! Love. Love. Love.

    Did I mention that I love this? Here’s why. When I was just getting fairly decent at this photography thing I put images up for critique on a website that I lived, breathed and absorbed religiously. The images that I put up got no response. None. Crickets. It was disheartening as I was really just looking for direction. Where do I go from here? How do I improve. Time and time again, I posted for critique and time and time again, my posts were ignored.

    Finally, I lost my give-a-shit. I no longer cared for critiques, I no longer cared if my image fit this criteria or that, I didn’t give a fuck. From that moment forward I would shoot what knocked *my* socks off, I would shoot the shit that made MY heart go pitter patter and screw the rest.

    It was at that moment that I grew leaps and bounds as an artist. A true turning point. The hardest acceptance to gain is the acceptance that comes from within. To hell with the rest.

  • June 15, 2014 - 11:25 PM

    Lance Taylor - Love this, Lynn. We put our heart and soul into our work, trying to provide the best images we can produce so our clients are happy. It’s tough to hear that your best “needs work”, but you’re so right–we can’t grow until we hear what needs improving. It’s through critique that I learned how to improve my shots over the years.ReplyCancel

    • June 16, 2014 - 7:15 PM

      Lynn Clark - Thank you Lance. I definitely learn from critiques … but it’s so much easier when I know what kind of feedback I’m looking for and ask for that specifically.ReplyCancel

  • June 17, 2014 - 11:54 PM

    Jana - Loved it. I often struggle with this when I post a photo. I have to stop and ask myself do I really want CC on this? From now I’m definitely going to be posting more images I am unsure about to actually get proper CC than ones I love and looking for validation.ReplyCancel

    • June 18, 2014 - 2:34 PM

      Lynn Clark - Thanks Jana! After talking to a few teachers who do reviews, they all said it’s so helpful to know what the photographer is looking for. And, I think it’s OK to post for validation too, or because you have a kick-ass image and you want to show it off (I do it).ReplyCancel

  • June 19, 2014 - 1:36 AM

    Cate Scaglione - I swear, I sometimes think Stacie is my lost twin, because we frequently think the same way and say the same things.

    For anyone who has kids, you know that often for them feel enthusiastic about learning they need positive reinforcement. Now, we are all grown ups now but human nature doesn’t really change. There are some people, for whatever crazy reason kinda’ want to be critiqued (a lot). I just don’t happen to be one of them. Encouragement helps me get better … Tell me what I’m doing RIGHT and I’ll do it, again, even better next time. Telling me what I am doing wrong just makes me paranoid that I still suck. A motivated person will educate themselves and get better…

    Some of these forums are just deflating the way people jump in, usually less qualified people that should probably stay shush. I know who to ask for critiques, and I do when i am ready to accept it…ReplyCancel

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