Watching a program on N.C. Wyeth, I was struck by a comment by his son Nathaniel about a miniature he had made of a chair. After looking at the model, Wyeth quietly told his son that the work was not really very good, and that he needed to try harder. After his initial emotional response (crushing the model beneath his feet) he started over again and created a far better model than he had the first time. I was reminded of a story told to me by a friend who took his portfolio to a photography workshop where he had an opportunity to have it reviewed by a well known photographer. After looking at the images the photographer asked, “do you want me to say something nice, or do you want the truth?”
The importance of the critique over simple praise goes to how much you care about advancing your craft. Praise can lead to complacency, stopping you from making the refined corrections to your images that may make them break away from the simple capture handed you by the camera. Therefore, criticism can be constructive in that it gets you to pay attention to aspects of your images that you may have overlooked, or ways to polish your images that go beyond your initial reactions. It is easy to look at your own work and have the pride of creation blind you to details that someone else may see as they do not have the disadvantage of having created the image. The emotional distance of a viewer compared to your own has value.
In addition to the reaction of a viewer to a particular image, you need to learn to watch for signals about the conceptual aspects of your image making. Ignoring image content, are there reactions to your handling of tone, contrast, sharpness, and composition that you should take into account in a more general sense. Composition, for example, is an important means of leading the eye of the viewer to where you want them to look, and controls the balance of the image. Minor refinements can make big differences, and paying close attention to the edges of your images as well as the areas of primary interest can strengthen the final impact. How does your control over contrast or color add to or detract from the message of the image and how the image is perceived by the viewer.
While not all criticisms will be helpful, depending on who they come from and the spirit in which they are given, all criticisms come from a point of view other than your own and should be considered simply for that reason. At the same time, praise can be both valuable in boosting your ego, but dangerous if it gives you too much comfort. Creating photography, or any other art, is a process which should be constantly refined and polished.