How to take criticism and improve as a stock photographer

Hey fellow photography grinders,

As the popular saying goes, “the cream rises to the top…” which is relevant to make it as a commercial / editorial stock photographer.

Barista (re-submit)
The cream rises to the top…

10,000 hours

The learning curve for aspiring photographers is gruesome and requires years and years of practice. According to the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, to master any field, you may need to devote at least 10,000 hours to your craft:

“Once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

jewish man playing guitar
Although I wonder if he’s put in his 10,000 hours towards his music, he certainly has towards growing his beard

This quote applies just as much to music as it does to photography. Granted, I’m probably only a halfway through the 10,000 hours in my own photography.  To achieve my full potential, together with putting in the hours of practice, I have sought advice on the quality of my work.

Consider the Critique Source

Social media does have merit (minus the narcissistics and/or cat lovers) as it’s a tool to share work and build a network, but it must be engaged in intelligently to receive a return on my time invested. My goal is to run a profitable photography business first and to socialise second.

Sure, by posting my images I received some “likes” / comments / followers but in my opinion, I generally don’t receive honest & informed feedback to improve.

On the contrary, some of the comments I received on social media are counter-productive, giving me a false sense that my images are good when in fact they’re crap.

How I often feel when publishing my work on social media

Requesting Criticism on a more personal level

I embrace constructive criticism of my work from those who are more experienced in the field. This feedback could take place on a one-to-one basis or when I ask for feedback on specific images on photography forums, including MicrostockGroupForum. This way the feedback is focused and actionable, especially on a one-to-one basis when there are multiple follow-up sessions to measure progress. These were generally helpful as experienced photographers can see the image at 100% and identify issues which may not be so apparent at the onset, such as focus and noise.

Early on during my photographic adventure I met such an experienced photographer and duly requested his feedback on some of my best images at the time. In typically Dutch style, he was utterly direct and tore most of my photographs apart in such a way that he even made Robert Harding photo editors seem lenient! By the way, they reject like 80% of my submissions, which means that I need to improve my craft not hope they lower their standards.

Some of my early work where I clearly had issues with composition and the post-processing was sub-par. Without others brutally honestly telling me they’re crap I may have continued to repeat the same mistakes…

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn

Although challenging, I tried to actively and calmly listen to his constructive criticism without permitting my ego to hinder what should have been be a positive & humbling learning experience to improve on my weaknesses and strengthen my talent. If only I could nip some of my issues in the bud, such as poor composition, I would avoid repeating the same mistakes down the line, I reasoned.

Cycling bridge with sunset
Some of my earliest pics with major technical issues…

Your energy should be devoted to improving your strengths

Since I’ve worked on my major weaknesses and brought them to an acceptable level, I’ve devoted to working on improving my strengths. This includes identifying and working on exploiting a profitable niche.

I take this quote from the excellent self-help book, Strengths Finder by Tom Rath at heart:

“We were tired of living in a world that revolved around fixing our weaknesses. Society’s relentless focus on people’s shortcomings had turned into a global obsession. What’s more, we had discovered that people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.”

carpet sellers6

Focus on what you do best and keep improving

Frustration is normal, but keep going

After a series of setbacks, it’s normal to feel frustrated and to lack motivation. When this happens, it is a prudent time to honestly reflect on how far you have come and to be humble to know how far you still have to go to reach your full potential.

If your work has stagnated, then be honest with yourself. Perhaps you are not pushing yourself enough and you may be stuck in the comfort zone with limiting negative beliefs. Old gear and cheap equipment shouldn’t be an excuse!

Woman tulip fields
Break free of the comfort zone!

Other Methods to Obtain Effective Feedback

For quick feedback, I recommend uploading images on 500px site, which boasts a complex algorithm that rates images out of a maximum score of 100, according to the number of views, likes, comments, etc. There are some superb images on there, however, just be warned that some images don’t technically merit such high scores and at the end of the day 500px may just be a popularity contest a peg above Instagram.

On a side note, if you purchase a copy of my book, the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography, I’ll gladly throw in a review of 5 of your stock images for FREE.

Portfolio Reviews

Although I have never gone to one myself, portfolio reviews appear to be an effective means to show your work to leading experts on a one-to-one basis, which may also lead to opportunities, and to receive constructive feedback. It’s on my to-do list!

Granted, this has more to do with opportunities outside of Microstock.

Photography Competitions

Lastly but not certainly not least, I recommend that aspiring photographers seek to benchmark their work by submitting to numerous photography competitions. Although this exercise is time-consuming and costly, it is the ultimate test as your image(s) will generally be up against some of the best in the field and judged by an expert panel. By choosing the competitions carefully to suit your style and budget, you will get more out of the experience. Some panels give personalized feedback which is useful and if you do happen to be shortlisted, it’s a great feeling of personal accomplishment and a great way to build your brand within the photographic community.

An image I’ve submitted to the Travel Photographer of the Year Competition

Just remember that “the cream rises to the top…and the crap always sinks”.

Hope you enjoyed this article and please feel free to comment.


Author of the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography – click here to purchase a copy today!

Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography cover

One comment

  1. I also think that joining a local camera club, especially if it has regular competitions with a judge, is a good way to learn about your skills and how to improve them. A good competition judge will highlight the good and bad points about your image and just listening to critiques of other images allows you to see your own pictures in a different light.

    Liked by 1 person

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