Finding Critics

Bret Edge


 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I've never been one to process my images in such a way that they no longer represent the scene I saw before me when I clicked the shutter.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

Bret Edge Craft & Technique

← Older Post Newer Post →


  • Excellent post, Bret! I fully agree with what you said, I have made very similar experiences. I love how you phrased the equal importance of field and darkroom action. It’s pretty much the same for me but I couldn’t explain it better.

    I have also learned a lot from feedback and work of fellow photographers in online forums. Unfortunately, in many forums people don’t even dare to criticize because there are so many that are not able to handle such kind of feedback and hence this important feedback is simply avoided.

    Karsten on
  • Thank you for sharing this experience and your thoughts about it. I agree with Pat Coddington that several (most?) people don’t actually understand the meaning of the word “critique”. Since each individual’s taste and preference for type of image and how much (or not) processed is different, it always is a challenge to find the right balance between personal emotion related to an image and discussing technical details (and I am NOT going to check what “gamma” means ;-).

    The main question I however have is: what are we (the photographers community) going to do about this?
    Should we start (another) critique group and hope that all members at least are aligned on the meaning of “critique” and approach it with the right mindset (which obviously also means that any constructive critique also needs to be accepted as such)?

    Eric Manten on
  • Great post Brett. An up and coming shooter recently asked me for advice about submitting photos to magazines. My first bit of advice was " grow a thick skin". It can be a rough world out there but I have a ton of respect for those willing to put themselves and their work out there….unlike those that critique without the spine to post their own work!

    Liam Doran on
  • Posting in an online critique was your first mistake. My experience has been that people think “critique” means find everything wrong with this image. And, often, what they find wrong is a matter of taste rather than skill or knowledge.

    Pat Coddington on
  • Thank you for such an honest appraisal of your own experience. I’m just starting out and do not possess a handle on anything technical yet, or a working sense of what’s possible by which means. So many variables.

    Christine di on
  • Well put!

    Jim Denham on
  • “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."

    Wow! I love it. A great way to put it. Even for my own photos I’ve wondered which are the best and now you’ve given me a great measuring stick.

    Mike on

Leave a comment

  1. Making the Image: Kathleen Clemons
  2. Night Ranger: A Word With David Kingham
  3. Understanding the Night Sky
  4. Vision Is Better, Ep.60
  5. The Value of Critique
  6. Capturing the Moment
  7. Vision Is Better, Ep.59
  8. Five Key Elements of Food Photography
  9. Using Flash That Doesn't Look Lit
  10. Vision Is Better, Ep.58
  11. Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs
  12. Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash
  13. Vision Is Better, Ep.57
  14. Finding Critics
  15. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
  16. Using the Frame
  17. The Photographer's Tools
  18. Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes
  19. Vision Is Better, Ep.56
  20. Understanding Perspective
  21. Vision Is Better, Ep.55
  22. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
  23. Create Projects + Collaborate
  24. Mirrors or Windows?
  25. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Varanasi, India
  26. F/ The Rules
  27. Drawing the Eye With Selective Focus
  28. C&V Fujifilm Giveaway Winner Announced
  29. In Conversation: Willem Wernsen
  30. Exposing for Highlights
  31. Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits
  32. Cameras Don't Make Photographs
  33. Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind
  34. 10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs
  35. 2018 Maasai Mara Photographic Safari
  36. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Lalibela, Ethiopia
  37. Start With the Corners
  38. Creating Painterly Images with Movement and Multiple Exposures
  39. Using the Guided Upright Tool in Lightroom
  40. The Power of Photographing Icons
  41. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)
  42. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)
  43. Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve
  44. Making the Image: David duChemin
  45. 3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits
  46. The Adjective-Driven Approach to Photography
  47. In Conversation: Oded Wagenstein
  48. Making the Zone System Work for You
  49. Ten (More) Ways to Improve Your Craft
  50. Reference View: A New Way to See in the Lightroom Develop Module
  51. In Conversation: Laurent Breillat
  52. The Best 3 Filters for Landscape Photography
  53. Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting
  54. Photographic Processing and Believability
  55. Visual Storytelling: An Introduction
  56. Making the Image: Piet Van den Eynde
  57. In Conversation: Satoki Nagata
  58. Use Repeating Elements for Stronger Images
  59. In Conversation: Kate Densmore
  60. One (More) Reason To Use Adobe's Creative Cloud
  61. Three Ways to Use Backlight
  62. 2017 Rome Mentor Series Workshop
  63. 2017 Venice Mentor Series Workshops
  64. Controlling Foreground to Background Presence
  65. Making the Image: David Adam Edelstein
  66. In Conversation: David Adam Edelstein
  67. Using Contrast for Stronger Images
  68. Three Ways to Make Better Portraits
  69. How to Direct the Eye in Your Photographs
  70. How to Improve Your Street Photography
  71. In Conversation: Piet Van den Eynde
  72. Starting Your Next Personal Project
  73. Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  74. Five Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  75. Three (More) Ways To Discover Your Vision
  76. Four Ways to Discover Your Vision (Part I)
  77. Three Ways to Make Stronger Black & White Images in Lightroom
  78. In Conversation: Cristina Mittermeier
  79. How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs
  80. In Conversation: Paul Nicklen
  81. Four Ways to Tell Stronger Stories
  82. In Conversation: John Paul Caponigro
  83. Master the Art of Seeing and Improve Your Photography
  84. Adding Light with the Radial Filter in Lightroom
  85. The Power of Abstraction
  86. In Conversation: Anja Büehrer
  87. Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits
  88. Four Ways to Make Stronger Travel Photographs
  89. In Conversation: Martin Bailey
  90. Learn to Isolate
  91. Gear Is Good
  92. In Conversation: Dave Brosha
  93. For the Love of Your Photographs
  94. Working with Target Collections in Lightroom
  95. Review: Epson P800
  96. Seeing: Receptive & Observant
  97. Better Questions
  98. Siri? Ask Lightroom!
  99. Wake Up.
  100. In Conversation: David Jackson
  101. Photographic Skills: Patience
  102. In Conversation: David duChemin
  103. 2017 Jodhpur Mentoring Workshop
  104. 2017 Maasai Mara Safari
  105. Rome 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  106. Florence 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  107. Venice 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  108. Vision Is Better, Ep.54
  109. Vision Is Better, Ep.53
  110. Vision Is Better, Ep.52
  111. Vision Is Better, Ep.51
  112. Vision Is Better, Ep.50
  113. Vision Is Better, Ep.49
  114. Vision Is Better, Ep.48
  115. Vision Is Better, Ep.47
  116. Vision Is Better, Ep.46
  117. Vision Is Better, Ep.45
  118. Vision Is Better, Ep.44
  119. Vision Is Better, Ep.43
  120. Vision Is Better, Ep.42
  121. Vision Is Better, Ep.41
  122. Vision Is Better, Ep.40
  123. Vision Is Better, Ep.39
  124. Vision Is Better, Ep.38
  125. Vision Is Better, Ep.37
  126. Vision Is Better, Ep.36
  127. Vision Is Better, Ep.35
  128. Vision Is Better, Ep.34
  129. Vision Is Better, Ep.33
  130. Vision Is Better, Ep.32
  131. Vision Is Better, Ep.31
  132. Vision Is Better, Ep.30
  133. Vision Is Better, Ep.29
  134. Vision Is Better, Ep.28
  135. Vision Is Better, Ep.27
  136. Vision Is Better, Ep.26
  137. Vision Is Better, Ep.25
  138. Vision Is Better, Ep.24
  139. Vision Is Better, Ep.23
  140. Vision is Better, Ep.22
  141. Vision is Better, Ep.21
  142. Vision is Better, Ep.20
  143. Vision is Better, Ep.19
  144. Vision is Better, Ep.18
  146. Vision is Better, Ep.17
  148. Vision is Better, Ep.16
  150. Vision is Better, Ep.15
  152. Vision Is Better, Ep.11
  158. Vision Is Better, Ep.10
  159. Vision Is Better, Ep.09
  161. Vision Is Better, Ep.08
  163. Vision Is Better, Ep.07
  165. Vision Is Better, Ep.06
  167. Vision Is Better, Ep.05
  169. Vision Is Better, Ep.04
  171. Vision Is Better, Ep.03
  172. Vision Is Better, Ep.02
  175. Vision Is Better, Ep.01

Related Articles

The Power of Photographing Icons

When does a landscape photograph become fine art? Rafael Rojas shares what he's learned.
Read more →

Related Resources

About the Image Show Adam Blasberg Adobe Andrew S. Gibson Andy Biggs Anja Büehrer Bret Edge Bruce Percy Brucy Percy Craft & Technique Creative Cloud Creativity Cristina Mittermeier Dave Brosha David Adam Edelstein David duChemin David Kingham Duncan Fawkes Guy Tal Henry Fernando Interview Jason Bradley John Paul Caponigro Kate Densmore Kathleen Clemons Laurent Breillat Libby Holmsen Lightroom & Photoshop Making the Image Martin Bailey Michael Frye Nathan Wirth Natural Light Oded Wagenstein Paul Nicklen Piet Van den Eynde Podcast Project Nimbus Rafael Rojas Satoki Nagata Sean McCormack Sharon Covert Sherri Koop Simi Jois Street Photography Susan Burnstine Vision is Better Show visual storytelling Willem Wernsen Workshop Younes Bounhar Zone System