What is the worst thing you can say on social media about photography? I think it’s “what do you think of my pictures?”. Let slip the trolls of yawn.
The best advice I heard on advice was from Abby Honold on Twitter, who said “don’t take criticism from people you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”
This was covered in more depth, and a lot more characters, by Agnes Callard. She makes a distinction between advice, instructions and coaching. You give someone instructions on how to achieve a goal that leads to a further goal. Her example is telling someone how to get to the library. Ours could be “this is how you load film into your camera”.
She defines advice as combining the impersonal and the transformative. You could think of it as “instructions for self-transformation”. I believe that she is saying that instructions are how to do a thing. Advice is instructions on how to improve in your chosen direction. This makes coaching advice given by someone who has a relationship with you and some investment in your development.
So what does a self-professed expert in photography whom you have never met or spoken to give you instructions that develop you along your chosen path? Or do trolls seek prey? Does the Pope shave in the woods?
I think the answer, on any kind of open forum, is not to ask for general advice or criticism. If you do ask, make it specific: limit the scope. Asking “what do you think?” encourages people to do something they are not very good at and what you get is opinion, not advice. Ask a specific like “is the contrast too high in this shot?” or “does this need more depth of field?” and you are more likely to get a relevant reply. Be aware though, that unless the respondent really knows what they are talking about, you might be listening to an uninformed opinion.
How do you tell if an opinion is useful? The criticism should be of the work, not the photographer. It should describe what an improvement might look like. It might describe some of the difficulties you encountered, which shows the person has experienced them too.
If you want to here criticism done right, listen to some episodes of the Shutters Inc podcast. Try episode 437 as a starter. The pictures are on their website, so you can see directly what Glynn is telling Bruce. This is constructive commentary about the pictures, delivered in a form that can be directly used to make changes. There is also a comparison picture at the end where Glynn edits one of the pictures to show what he was describing. Stuff like this you can carry around in your head to use when it’s your turn to take pictures.
And perhaps a good response to anyone who does give you a piece of their mind is to ask how they did it differently and show you examples. We can all learn, but we should be learning how to improve rather than fight.
Or there is always the mature and considered response my old boss used to give to people he disagreed with – “go stick your head up a dead bear’s bum”. Which is completely contrary to the previous paragraph, but funnier.