Critique Honestly But Gently
December 25th, 2015 by David Labelle
Donna Wallin reviews the results of her photo assignment with instructor David LaBelle during a Ruralite workshop. Photo by Mike Teegarden

Donna Wallin reviews the results of her photo assignment with instructor David LaBelle during a Ruralite workshop. Photo by Mike Teegarden

Many years ago, a pack of prankster photographers convinced me to play along with a joke on one of their co-workers who was anxious about attending a photography workshop and having her portfolio critiqued.

They wanted me—if only for a few seconds—to act tough and pretend I did not like her pictures. Foolishly, I agreed to play along.

I met the young photographer, introduced myself, and asked her about herself and how long she had been shooting. I looked slowly through her portfolio, wearing a serious, stern expression.

Doing my best to “act” concerned, I looked up and said, “I don’t see anything in here that suggests that you should keep going in this profession.”

The color drained from her face. I was sure she was going to cry. In that split second, I realized the cruelty of the joke. I felt sorry and embarrassed. After they quit laughing and saw her wounded expression, her colleagues also felt bad.

Though I immediately apologized profusely, flailing helplessly to repair the psychological damage I caused, she stormed away, humiliated. I am confident she hated me that day and probably still does.

It is a lesson that still stings.

Separating ourselves from our creations is difficult. Many feel deeply connected to their art—be it a piece of furniture or a photograph—and can be so wounded by criticism they quit something they love.

I am a believer in the positive power of honest critique, and abhor ego-driven criticism, which kills the spirit.

How we critique is the difference between the recipient hearing and contemplating the evaluation, or closing their ears and heart to what is said.

Begin with the positives. “I love what you did here.” “Wow, you did that really well.” Once someone trusts that you care and are trying to be helpful, they usually will swallow the medicine that follows.

Avoid the judgmental terms “good” and “bad.” With most creative endeavors, good or bad is a judgment in the eyes of the beholder. I have heard people declare a photograph was great just because it was a picture of cat. Never mind that it was blurry and poorly composed. I try to replace the word “problem” with “challenge,” and substitute “interesting” or “uninteresting” for “good” and “bad.”

Be specific. “That works for me” or “It doesn’t work for me” is not helpful. Better to say, “Perhaps if your subject wore a different color dress that didn’t clash with the background, the picture would be more pleasing.” Or, “Maybe if you had used a shallower depth of field to place greater emphasis on your subject, your focal point would have been clearer.”

Keep in mind what you hope to accomplish. Some people want affirmation more than an honest critique. Others sincerely want to learn techniques to help them improve. What is the goal?

I have learned with age and experience to choose my words carefully, realizing how fragile talented people might be in the beginning of their careers or avocations.

My goal is to be honest with my appraisal, but to wrap my words—my opinion or judgment—in a blanket of kindness and support that cherishes another’s precious spirit.

daveL_mug_2011David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit