Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: How to handle critique

During my college years, I spent hours upon hours in the library stacks looking through back issues of photography magazines from Europe, Asia, the United States, and elsewhere. Because I was enrolled in a domestic photojournalism program, many of the photographers we studied were American. Sifting through the back issues from overseas opened my eyes to numerous foreign photographers I would have otherwise missed.

One photographer (who will go unnamed) stood out. The articles revealed who this person was, how they entered the industry, and how they showcased some of their best work. I was enamored by the story behind this photographer, and I was also intrigued by the fact that we both shared the same love of analog materials and Nikon camera systems. I searched far and wide for any issue of any magazine that featured this legendary photographer.

Never once did I even consider attempting to copy how this photographer worked. My goal was to learn from them and implement that knowledge into my own work. In other words: Build upon what this photographer was teaching me—but in my way, with my technique. Copying another photographer was and is considered a major no-no in the professional space.

photo with notes studying a black and white photograph's composition and subject matters

Shortly after graduation, I found myself at a portfolio review. In front of me sat a leading industry professional, someone with real-world experience and a long history in professional photography. This person looked at my puny portfolio and said, “Your work reminds me of so-and-so.” For just a moment, the world froze. “Excuse me?” I said. He repeated, “Your work reminds me of so-and-so.” You guessed it. So-and-so was the same photographer I had been studying and admiring.

Even though the reviewer was paying me a compliment, it wasn’t honor or pride I felt. It was fear. My first thought was, “Oh no, did I subconsciously copy this famous photographer?” I couldn’t think of anything worse. I felt like my entire four years of training were somehow phony and built upon the vision of someone else. So I did what any professional would do in my situation. I said, “Thank you,” as best as I could muster.

Positive criticism is criticism all the same, and it is often difficult to navigate. When you enter a professional creative field (especially something like photography, where you might be shooting new work daily), having your work criticized is a normal part of the process. And believe me, positive criticism is rare. Most of what you hear is a cutting, to-the-point, ruthless critique. And it hurts.

Today, we live in an online world where critique of any kind is frowned upon. Real critique is a quick way to get banned from the conversation. Recently, I commented on a YouTube video by saying I thought the photographers involved showed artistic merit, skill in filmmaking, and ability to navigate a client but that the resulting photography wasn’t my favorite. I also shared a link to a photo essay I did find to my liking. I should have expected the resulting uproar, but it did catch me by surprise. I was met with name-calling, ageist comments, and anger from strangers who thought I had crossed some sort of invisible boundary where only positive praise was accepted.

photo with notes critiquing a photograph's composition

I briefly had a flashback to photography school, where we were forced to put our work on the wall in front of our peers and faculty as they critiqued us as individuals in front of the group. There was nowhere to hide, and the resulting criticism was often laced with venom. But guess what? Most of the time, that feedback was essential. Painful, sure, but essential all the same. Without criticism and feedback, how are we supposed to improve? Phony support doesn’t work and, in fact, holds back the entire industry. If we aren’t honest with each other, how are we going to be honest with clients? How will we gauge what is average or pioneering?

If you haven’t had your work critiqued, think about attending a portfolio review or reaching out to someone with real-world experience who can mentor you. I live in a small town, but there are at least a half dozen people I can reach out to for feedback. I know that what comes back might not be golden, and I need to mentally prepare for that. If the feedback is less than stellar, it’s not because the person doesn’t like me. It’s because, most likely, the work isn’t quite there yet.

You would think after all these years in photography, I would know what I’m doing, but two days ago, I sent an image to a long-time photographer friend. I was sharing one I liked, and one I thought had visual resonance. All I got back was, “You need to crop that because my eye is being drawn away from the primary subject.” This was not what I was expecting, but after looking at the image again, I thought: “You know, he’s right.


Dan Milnor is a professional photographer and Blurb’s creative ambassador, sharing his advice on photography and bookmaking here monthly. And we’re Blurb, a self-publishing platform made so you can print your books on demand. Learn more at Blurb.

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