When I posted this image of the mighty Tetons at sunset in a popular online photography critique forum, the first responses were the always-pleasant oohs and aahs. Then someone said that the sky looked like a cardboard cut out and that the foreground trees were much too bright given that the entire scene is backlit by the setting sun. I can understand and appreciate that the trees might be too bright for some—certainly a valid critique. Scrolling further down the page, someone commented that the "gamma was all wrong" (so I had to look up “gamma”). From that point on, the comments (critiques?) continued to devolve into an increasingly more technical discussion of the image. I tried in vain to explain why I chose to process the image the way I did before I finally threw up my hands when someone requested that I post my raw image.
I rarely participate in critique forums to seek critique; I do it because when I was just beginning my career in landscape photography, I found tremendous value in the genuine feedback I received from other photographers whose work I admired. I hope that my current engagement in a handful of critique forums might have a similar impact on eager new photographers—sort of my way to “pay it forward,” I guess. Still, when I post a photograph and it generates a solid constructive critique, I don't just accept it: I embrace it. I'm not the greatest photographer the world has ever seen. Not even close. But I think I'm pretty decent and I attribute a great deal of my success in creating images that people enjoy to the honest critiques I've received over the years. Sometimes they sting, but those comments are the ones that make for better photographers—not the accolades.
I've never been one to process my images in such a way that they no longer represent the scene I saw before me when I clicked the shutter. That said, I'm not a documentary photographer. I’m willing to take a few creative liberties with the processing of my images to ensure that the final result is consistent with the image I visualized. Clicking the shutter button is only one step in the creation of an image; what you do in the digital darkroom is just as important as what you do in the field. One of the techniques I regularly use to overcome the limitations of my camera’s sensor is the manual blending of multiple exposures to increase dynamic range. This allows me to maintain detail in highlights and shadows that would otherwise be lost in a single exposure. I’ll admit that it is easy to get carried away with this or automated HDR techniques. We’ve all seen images that have detail in what should be the deepest, darkest shadows. Since my goal for my images is to share each scene as I saw it with my own two eyes, I usually set a black point that leaves a few purely black, totally void-of-detail shadows. Not only does this help me to convey the image as desired, but those rich black shadows are also critical for setting a realistic tonal balance within the image.
The human eye sees the world very differently than our cameras do. Not only are we able to see roughly 14 stops of dynamic range in a static situation, but as we change our focus within a scene our eyes constantly adjust to the changing light, allowing us to dynamically see about 24 stops. When it comes to resolution and dynamic range, cameras improve all the time, but I applaud the Nikon D800, but even it fails at recording very high contrast scenes the way we see them.
So even though I consider myself a veteran of critique forums and very open to receiving feedback, those two comments bothered me. I pondered on it. I shared the image with other photographer friends and asked them for brutally honest feedback. Not one of them felt the image was over-processed or that the sky looked like a "CGI matte screen from a movie," as one forum member commented. One of them did find that the foreground seemed "a touch too bright." If I'd stepped over the line and the image no longer represented reality, I wanted to know. If I was being overly sensitive, I wanted to know. It seems neither was true.
I went back to the forum and checked the profiles of the members whose comments bothered me. Interestingly, only one of three provided a link to any of their work. Not one of the three had ever posted an image in the forum that I was able to find. Two of these folks were eager to dole out criticism but only without throwing themselves—and their work—to the wolves. Suddenly, their comments lost a lot of weight. And the third, who commented about the "gamma being all wrong"? Honestly, I couldn't care less if the gamma isn't right. When was the last time you stood before an awe-inspiring scene with camera in hand and thought, “Man, I am so gonna nail the gamma on this one!” Yeah, me neither. To the contrary, there have been moments that so moved me I had to remind myself to press the shutter button.
I don't make photographs so I can sit around measuring gamma points. I create photographs because I want to inspire people. I want folks to look at my photographs and smile when they're having a crappy day. I hope someone sees one of my images and thinks, "Wow—I've got to go there!" If my images can do that, I consider them a success.
It takes a lot of guts to post one of your photos in an online critique forum, especially when you’re a new photographer. I remember surfing through page after page of gorgeous images that had been submitted for critique and thinking, “My work is terrible. They’re going to rip me apart!” Still, I took a deep breath and hit the enter button. And then comments started trickling in. Much to my surprise and delight, not one person hammered that photograph. There were some very helpful critiques and even a little praise. Since then I’ve pressed that enter button hundreds of times. Just as important (and perhaps even more so), I’ve left thousands of critiques. Over the years I’ve learned how to offer constructive criticism, I’ve learned how to deconstruct a critique, and I’ve learned to extract the useful information and ignore the crap.
My point is that constructive critiques are one of the most powerful tools we have access to that allow us to grow and become better at our craft, but we shouldn’t accept every critique as the golden word, especially when those critiques are delivered anonymously on an internet forum. In more than a decade of participation in photography forums, I’ve learned that some are better than others. Some forums are filled with people who geek out on every little technical aspect of a photograph while others are populated by people who just really love making and viewing images. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different. You’ll find quality critiques in both, but you’ll also find comments that are misguided at best and flat-out awful at worst. The trick is learning to identify the difference between the two and not letting the negative critiques—however valid—to get under your skin.
The bottom line is this: go out and create photographs. Have fun with the process. Stay true to your vision and don't let overly technical or even mean-spirited comments spoil the experience of making the images that you enjoy.
Bret Edge is a professional landscape and adventure photographer from Moab, Utah. His work is on display year round at The Edge Gallery, his studio on Moab's Main Street. Bret's images and information about photography workshops are available on his website.