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Dealing With Criticism

Every artistic field is rampant with critics. Movies, music, painting, sculpture, photography - every art form has an entire sub-field of writers, bloggers, personalities and just average Joe's who make it their job to criticize other people's work. But it's not just professional critics. You'll find critics in your friends, family and casual acquaintances, too. Pretty much anyone who views your work is one comment away from being a critic.

It's this phenomena that gave birth to the old phrase "everyone's a critic." But although it can feel like everyone's a critic, it's actually a very small number of people. The only problem is, critics are loud and, so, they seem like a bigger group than they are. Most people you'll run into will have only positive things to say, or nothing to say at all (which is almost as good) about your work. But every once in awhile, some critic won't be able to resist the urge to take you down a peg. Especially when you're starting out, these criticisms can be really demoralizing and can even hang you up for a little while in a mire of self-doubt.

With a little over 11 years experience under my belt and a few successes to my name, I'm happy to say I'm no longer bothered by criticism of my work. It rolls off my back like water off a duck. But it's because I've realized a few things - things I want to share with you so you can avoid letting these criticisms get the best of you.

Keep in mind that when I say criticism, I don't just mean the blatant ones. Sometimes they won't be as obvious as "that's a bad picture." Those criticisms are actually easy to brush off because the person just comes off as a jerk. It's the more subtle criticisms that you don't even really notice until later that can really bog you down. I mean comments like "You know, I've taken a picture exactly like that" or "You must have a really great camera" or "That's pretty good for how long you've been shooting."

It's just anything that hints at you being inferior or not knowing what you're doing. Camera store salesmen are pros are dropping these comments.

These comments can really gnaw away at you and make you want to scream at the person who's saying them. But these comments are much easier to ignore when you realize the mechanism behind them.

These people who make a career out of bringing people down a peg - and I don't mean literally make a career, I mean they tend to bring everyone around them down a peg regardless of the topic at hand - these people do it because they are scared. They are scared of the entire world around them. They're afraid of people being more successful than they are, they're afraid of people being more talented than they are. To these people, life is a competitive sport and everyone is competition. And instead of spending time practicing and being a better person in order to get ahead, they take the easy route of bringing everyone around them down to their level. Instead of working hard to be first place, they work hard to make everyone else last place.

If it seems a little extreme, just think about it. Think about something you are completely confident in your abilities to perform. Cooking, making birdhouses, photography - whatever. Just think of something you are a pro at. Now think of someone who's worse than you. Someone who sucks at cooking or making birdhouses. Do you criticize their work? Do you make comments to demonstrate your superiority? I'm betting not. You're clearly more competent than they are, so you don't need to bring them down a peg. Ever notice that the most critical people are never themselves any good at what they criticize?

Most people operate this way. Most people are generally nice and don't want to hurt other people's feelings. They won't offer up criticism unless really provoked and they will be much quicker to point out the positives in your work. Even if you really, truly suck, people are too nice to say so. They don't stand to benefit from making you feel bad about your work, so they will either lie and say you're great, only point out the positives or just say nothing at all.

That's most people. But it's these critics you gotta watch out for. They are few, but they can really mess you up.

So next time someone critizes your abilities, whether it's a peer, teacher, friend, family member or camera store salesman, just feel bad for them. Pity them. See that they are either consciously or subconsciously intimidated by your abilities. They see you striding out towards first place and they're just trying to grab a hold of your shirt to pull you back to second place. Their survival mechanism is kicking in - that's all.

My advice here may seem a little trite and even a little motherly, but it's really true. Next time someone criticizes your work, take a look at their work. It's probably worse than yours. If it's not worse than yours, then you should feel extra bad for them because they have serious self-esteem issues that prevent them from seeing their own talent. People who are competent and confident in their abilities don't waste time making other people feel bad about their work.

These critics only bother speaking up when they see a threat. So really, if you think about it, criticism is usually a compliment. 😀

Why Other People’s Pictures Are Better

Ahh, so peaceful...oh, except for the shirtless guys fishing to my right and the stretch of houses and volley ball net behind me.

There are so many great photographers out there. Thanks to digital cameras, the Internet, lots of resources for learning, great books, online tutorials, etc, etc, it's a piece of cake to find excellent photography. And I'm talking all types of photography - landscapes, wildlife, portraits, commercial - whatever. Just browse around Flickr for any length of time and you're bound to find some really fantastic work.

Now if you're anything like me, seeing all this great work out there can sometimes be discouraging. I've stumbled upon other photographer's sites only to leave feeling like I'm nothing but a small-time beginner. I'm not going to lie, I've wasted entire days stuck all up in my head thinking about how great someone else's work is compared to mine. Even photographers I admire, seeing their success in the art and business of photography has caused me some serious upset, self-doubt and sadness. The first time I saw Peter Lik's website...my brother practically had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge so I wouldn't just give up and find another career - and that was within the past year!

Sound crazy?

I know, I know. I'm sounding like a big, self-pitying baby right now. Self-deprecation is not an admirable trait and doesn't do anyone any good, but I'm trying to make a point here. The point is, there's always someone better than you. And I don't mean they're actually better than you, I mean you will always think there is someone better than you. No matter how great your work is, no matter how much success you have, you'll always find someone with better pictures, more success, a more impressive publication list, a better resume, blah, blah, blah.

The grass is always greener...

Well, there's a reason other people's pictures look better to you even though they aren't necessarily any better than yours. I isolated this reason after hundreds of hours wasted ruminating over someone else's "better" pictures. Now that I know it, I try to remind myself every time I start to get this way. Here it is...

When you look at your pictures, there's no mystery. There's no mystique. There's no "wow" factor...not to you anyway. That's because you were there when you took the shot. You saw the half-naked tourist just out of frame that was rubbing sun-tan lotion all over himself. You could smell the trash can 10 feet away. You just finished a 2-hour long drive in heavy traffic to get there. Your stomach was growling. You know there was a Ranger Station just a few hundred feet to your left.

But when you look at a landscape from Peter Lik or Galen Rowell or David Muench, you see a magical land of color and light where there isn't a sign of civilization for a hundred miles in any direction. You get a tangible emotional response and you can almost feel the peacefulness in the landscape. The picture is just...*sigh*...magical.

Little do you know, they also had a few annoying tourists 5 feet to their left, there was a highway right behind their back and the roar of a generator from a nearby RV was blaring the entire shoot. But you didn't experience any of that, so the picture is untainted. Their picture might not even be any better than yours, but they just did a hell of a good job hiding anything that would kill the mood and the true communication of the photo.

You see what I'm getting at?

So that's the real problem: To you, there's no magic in your shots because you were there. There's nothing new and no mystery. But everyone else's photos are filled with mystery, wonder, magic and newness. As a result, you'll think their picture is better - even if yours is just as good.

There's a real life experiment you can do that will prove this theory. All you need to do is find some amazing magical shot that really blows you away, find out where it was taken, then go check out the location sometime. Walk around, hang out...then when you get back home, look at that picture again. Trust me, it won't have the same impact it did before. It will still be an amazing picture and you'll be impressed by how well the photographer captured the location, but the mystery will be gone. You'll know what was just out of frame.

But do you want to know the good news about all this? Most everyone you show your picture to wasn't there when you took the shot, so they're going to see a magical land of color and light in your images. They're going to be blown away by your shots even though you're just "a pretty good photographer." They'll be enthralled by the mystery and emotion of it all. Just don't tell them about the ugly stuff you framed out - it takes away the magic. Simply be happy you did your job well.

Now don't get me wrong...of course there are some better photographers out there and of course some other people's work is better than yours. But more often than not, it's just this phenomenon going on. The hard part is reminding yourself of this so you don't start invalidating your own success.

You took a great picture. Just understand that you can't possibly get the same response out of it you'd like to get. But don't worry - other people will.

Why I Don’t Do HDR

I sometimes get asked about HDR (high dynamic range) images. Those who haven't browsed my website extensively will ask if I do HDR. Many will assume I do HDR or some sort of variation on it. Those who know me a little better will ask why I don't do HDR. Whatever the case, I thought I'd post this entry to lay out my thoughts on HDR.

First things first: I don't do HDR. I've never done an HDR. None of my images on my blog or website are HDR, nor have they ever set foot in Photoshop. I never airbrush, combine, dodge, burn or heavily alter my images. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I'll tell you that I make very minor adjustments to my digital files in order to get them to more closely resemble the film I used to use - Fuji Velvia. I'll also tweak the white balance on the RAW file because I don't like to think about white balance when I'm out in the field. And, of course, I'll straighten crooked horizons.

Now that that's all cleared up, let me tell you why I don't do HDR.

1. Time

HDR images take too long. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you HDR guys have some Photoshop plugin that does it in a snap, but that's still more time than zero minutes of no HDR. Also, you are spending more time in the field bracketing exposures, loading the files in your computer, opening multiple files, processing them, blah, blah, blah. Besides, the auto-HDR plugins aren't perfect and you usually have to spend a decent amount of time tweaking it/correcting it so that it looks "good."

2. Look

To me, HDR images are hideous. I can usually spot them a mile away...then I'll get a taste of vomit in the back of my throat. I know, those weird halos around trees are absolutely gorgeous, but they scream Photoshop.

3. Skill

I know I'm going to offend a few people with this, but don't worry, you don't have to agree with me (no angry letters, please)...

I feel HDR, for the most part, is a tool used by bad photographers to make up for a lack of skill behind the camera. These people are great (I'm using that term loosely) with Photoshop, but don't know squat about photography. Yep, you need HDR if you shoot at the wrong times, under ugly light, don't know how to manually meter, don't know how to use split ND filters, don't understand your camera's limits, don't know how to use those limits to your advantage, don't know what makes a great picture great, can't use light to your advantage and/or just haven't practiced enough. If you learn to be a photographer and not a graphic designer, you'll get better results without the need for HDR.

4. Contrast

Let me say something that I hope the entire world, especially camera manufacturers, will one day understand: a limited dynamic range is a good thing! Photography is an art form, and like any art form, it doesn't simply document the world perfectly so that others can see it exactly as it is. The limited dynamic range of our camera is a tool to create art that represents the world differently than we see it in real life. Photographs that capture the scene EXACTLY as it was are boring and unimportant. Constantly battling our camera's limited dynamic range is a battle no one should want to win. This contrast we get from our camera's limited range is partly what makes photography a beautiful art form. Just stop shooting in the middle of the day when the contrast is too strong - the light is ugly then anyway.

5. History

The old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind when I think of HDR. If you were to take all the best photographs ever taken in the history of the human race, I'd bet less than 0.0000000001% are HDR. All the gorgeous photographs taken by Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, etc. etc. utilized nothing more than a piece of film and what they could put on their lenses. Thank God they never had HDR because their pictures wouldn't be nearly as dramatic. Yeah, HDR is new and that might be part of it, but the contrast and limited dynamic range in all these iconic photos are partly what makes them gorgeous.

6. Auto-Tune

Ever hear of Auto-Tune? It's that annoying sound effect hip-hop artists have been using on their voice lately that makes them sound kind of robotic. It was cool at first, but then we all realized it's just ugly. Well, HDR is the auto-tune of photography. It's new, people with no taste think it's awesome, it's been overdone and, really, it's just way worse than the old way of doing things - with skill and practice.

7. Split NDs

Learn to use Split NDs on your landscapes (or better yet, hire me to teach you 😉 ). They take 5 minutes of work in the field and will negate the need for HDR. Plus, you'll get the added satisfaction of getting the image perfect in the camera without spending an hour and a half combining multiple images later. Oh, and they look way better than an HDR image.

Before you start writing a long-winded rebuttal, understand that I'm not looking for a debate. These are just the reasons why I don't do HDR and why I don't like HDR. I'm sure there are some exceptions to my arguments and I'm sure there are a few awesome HDRs out there. If you do HDR, cool. Have fun. I'll stick to my split ND filters. And we can still be friends...we don't have to agree on everything 😀