The Good Delusion

“Advice from friends is like the weather. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad.” -Anonymous

I get emails from folks saying things like “my friends say I’m really good – what do you think?” and I’m really not sure what they’re asking or how much criticism they’re able to take. Seems to me that if they’re quoting their friends, they’ve bought into the delusion already. The good delusion is that any one person can look at a photograph and categorically say whether it is either good or bad. Sometimes, I have consults with photographers who are second guessing their business/pricing/abilities because they don’t think they’re very good and I’m like “what?! You’re amazing!”

I remember seeing something once about how a photography forum user posted an image from the great street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He asked for criticism and people jumped down his throat about how the composition, the light, the focus was all wrong and he was an idiot. Little did they know, it was a piece of work that sold for more money than some people make in a year and was a part of a collection of one of the most highly regarded photographers of all time. So what were they even talking about? Where were they in their understanding of good photography vs bad photography?

What does ‘good’ even mean? It’s all relative anyway. We live our lives on this grid of understanding. Everyone is in a different square on the grid. And depending on where you are, you will see things differently. So just like I can’t look at anyone’s photo and say “that’s bad”, no one can really look at it and say “that’s good”. We make these judgements based on our understanding of good and bad and a year or two down the line, that understanding will have changed as you bounce around on the grid.

In that same vein, don’t just take my word for it either. My judgement of what’s good and bad has come from my influences, my experience, my own preference and bias. I can look at an image and say “the highlights are blown”. That’s a fact. But I can’t say “…and because of that, this image is bad.” Just because something is technically bad doesn’t mean that it’s artistically bad.

I think its so important that we qualify the statements that we make about other people’s work and make it more clear that we’re speaking from our own opinions and understanding of what is good and what is bad. What do YOU think? Do you have a problem with the good delusion?

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Elizabeth Halford

Elizabeth Halford


She blogs about photography and business with her unique plain English approach. Elizabeth has been-there-done-that with running a photography business that doesn’t profit a penny and loves teaching photographers how to get away from the starving artist model of running a creative business.
Elizabeth Halford
  • Exsondra - Very well put!

  • E Brown - I agree, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are defiantly personal perception. However if you would like to display your art work, take a look at . 

  • Lori P - Well said!

  • Lea - I think you’re right on the money! I’ve been a part of a forum at I Heart Faces for about a year and this comes up often when people ask for critiques of their work. And frankly, it aggravates me to see a so called “pro” demeaning someone else’s creativity. First of all, we all start somewhere and it’s likely we all sucked at one point – I know I did. There’s a balance between offering someone constructive criticism as relates to the technical side and telling them their work is no good creatively. Some photographers blow highlights on purpose. Some are known for their soft images. These things don’t appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t mean they appeal to no one. I think sometimes people forget that photography is art. There are no absolutes.

  • Cathy H - Thanks.. I kinda needed to hear that today.. 🙂

  • stephanie - Well said.  I have previously posted my images on a forum (IHF) for constructive criticism.  Most of the feedback has been kind, even if not terrible constructive, but I have balked at it after being told by one “pro” that I shouldn’t even take pictures for free.  I now take the approach of being extremely self-critical and honest, constantly appraising my progress and appreciating my art as exactly that…art.  I understand that this art has to be saleable (in order to make a living) but I also believe there is a market for a wide range of aesthetics. 

  • Stephanie - I completely agree.  Photography is art and art is inherently subjective.  Just because I don’t like a photo or it’s technically imperfect, that doesn’t make it “bad.”  For me personally, a “good” photo is one that speaks to me in some way.  One that makes me pause and look at it for just a little bit longer than the rest.   In the same vein, I’m always grateful when someone compliments my work but I try to take it with a grain of salt.  It’s tough, but I try to keep a critical eye even for my own work.

  • Sandy - Thank you for this!  I belong to a large photography forum and I’m really uncomfortable giving critique, even in the “just for critique” section.  Because it IS art expression.  And even if someone is new, and they haven’t developed their style or their craft very well yet, to shoot them down, right at the beginning because something isn’t technically correct, could stop them in their journey of self expression. 

    So I avoid the critique section at all costs, and I don’t put my own images out their for critique.  I’m not there yet — I know I’m not.  But I see in my head where I want to be and I’m going to continue to practice, practice, practice until I get it “right.”  And that’s MY “right” by the way!  🙂  Great article, as always!!

  • Shannon - I was in a photography class working on my degree in graphics and photography and for our projects we had to be critiqued in front of the whole class.  It was sometimes the worst experience ever.  I remember being in love with my project.  It was a portrait and I chose to photograph a friend’s daughter.  She loved the images, so much that they hang in her store.  So much that she has asked me to do her daughter’s photos twice since then.  My instructor tore them apart.  Technically they were all wrong.  I was crushed.  I had shot with a purpose, not even close to the spray and pray approach.  I nearly quit because of that critique.

    Critiques can be rough, especially if you don’t know the intent of the person.  How they saw and wanted to interpret the subject.

  • Kellie - just a comment on the comments…I won’t post for critique over at IHF either…. there is one “pro” (um, yeah, I can’t find this person’s web-site or any examples of their work) who is very harsh and tactless.  I’m not opposed to hearing what i need to change, but I think TACT  and kindness are necessary when giving critique.

  • Matthew Kunce - Fantastic post!

  • Caryn - Oh my goodness you’re reading my mind!  I’ve been wanting to post about how subjective photography is, and that some of what people rave about, I don’t like, and what some people don’t like, I love.  It also brings me to say, who’s to decide what’s good or not!? Aside from obvious technical failure like a badly underexposed photo or something similar, the only person to decide if a photo is great or not, is the person who wants to look at it. And then look at it again. And then perhaps put it in an album or hang it on a wall…

  • Anonymous - Yes, it is always hard to hear what others think… we all have opinions and some people (like my ex husband) think theirs are always right. I wish we could take the word criticism out of our vocabulary and come up with something a bit  more soft and loving. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder!

  • Gry - I love this article!! You manage to put my feelings into words – I always get SO provoked reading forums with so-called pros and all their opinions about what is right and what is wrong! Thank you!

    And also thank you for writing about Brooke Snow’s wonderful Lifestyle Photography!

  • Elsingert - Very good article! I agree, too often people forget that photography is art; did Van Gogh’s paintings portray reality? Of course not! That doesn’t mean that they are “wrong”, or “bad”, though, they are just a different expression his personal creative vision.
    One personal pet peeve of mine is “experts” saying “Thou shalt not clip your highlights and shadows”, when in fact you sometimes must do just that to properly express the feelings you are trying to convey.

  • Peggie B. Hensley - Really punctuates the old adage, “It’s all relative!”  When I was a high school art teacher, I often witnessed that talent and ego are inversely proportional.  I try to remember that now that I support myself with my own art…

  • Npshields - Perfectly stated as the whole concept of critique is wide open.  We never know what the photographer’s objective was when the shutter was pressed.  Yes, some shots are technically not as good but can still be magical in their capture and presentation; guess it’s one of those “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” type thing.  I think what truly separates a good photographer is one who consistently has good results and has the knowledge and skill to handle a multitude of situations, particularly bad or challenging lighting, backgrounds over which you have no control, etc.  My approach, when critiquing, is to be honest if I see something blatantly wrong technically, something that they could learn from to benefit the next shoot, but I always make a point to find something that I really like, emphasizing that, too.  Guess it’s a “Golden Rule” approach; critique to teach but do so gently….

  • Rhondaelderphotography - I think this article was “good”  and I that’s my opinion.  Lol

  • Ifong - Hi You are just so inspired ! I have always learned something from every blog post you posted! Thank you!

  • Melissa Jean Johnson - What a great post! I know personally I follow a lot of photographers who I revere as amazing artists, but if my photos were to look like theirs I’d trash it as a bad photo. It’s just not my style and what’s good to me – but who am I to set a standard for someone else?

  • Ann Cockerham - I am 3 years into this photo-art and I love it! I have many people ask me what do I feel about other photogs in the area and I can’t say anything but they have their style I have mine! Heck I am still trying to get mine set, I have it in my heart and mind… Just trying to grasp it!
    Sometimes I will take a picture that will have a blur to it, or the lighting is all wrong, but when I put it in photoshop just to play with tones and shading you can make a fabulous piece of art! I had one bride, picture was a bit washed, slight blur… but involved the Bride, Groom and some trees in the fall! I changed to black in white, played in lightroom with it and was doing this for fun! But in the end, this photo was the one she blew up and has framed above her bed. 
    I showed one photographer in the area I know and she was like “I cannot believe you even gave that to your client!” But what I saw as a piece of art… she saw crap! What matters is “my” client loved it. Your clients should feel the same passion for your style as you do or sometimes they may not get your view!

  • Lorna T Morgan - This is right on the money and I think everyone should re-read this post at least once a month because it is easy to forget that we are all learning at all times.  Thank you Elizabeth, again you made me think and smile as I continue to bounce around the grid.

  • Vicky Holmes - Well I am doing your September critique so I guess I will soon find out if I am good, or bad… 🙂

  • blufluff - i think i was one of those who recently sent you a pic to get your opinion on… :/  however, i now don’t care!!  i’ve since realised that it really doesn’t matter, as long as i like it, and/or the people who hire me like it, and of course they’re going to as it is of their loved ones!  also, i see some pics that people post of fb, the quality is quite poor (mobile phone) but it’s what it is OF that people like and comment on.  i saw this comment one day in a forum, and i’ve remembered it since… “when you see someone elses photos they always look better” – and i think this is because you don’t look at them so critically, meaning that you don’t know how exactly they were post processed, etc.  just love doing what you do and others will too!

  • Derek Heslop - Very well put and I agree with the comments from other contributors. However, although I like the compliments I get I still try to be ruthless and honest with myself and have deleted many a video clip or image that I might have otherwise kept. I’m new to all this digital stuff and bought (for me) an expensive camera (SONY nex vg20) so I could do both video and stills and I am improving but it takes time. None the less my own judgement is what counts as I know what I am striving for.

  • Aaron Witko - Great post!

  • Denise - SO true!!!!

  • Cheryl Sargent Flatt - I’m new to your site. Thank you for linking back to this article through FB. I needed to hear this today…to remember that it is my art and that I should passionately pursue it. It is a process that I love learning about. So…thank you.

  • Lisa - I often feel frustrated that I’m not where I want to be and wonder if I’m really on the right track or if I should scrap it all and consider it a waste of time since I do it because I’m just driven to. I’ll create a photo and post it in a Flickr group and wonder why I’m not getting as many comments as I would like. Then I’ll see people commenting on photos I think are not nearly as nice (to me). It is relative isn’t it. I guess it would be better to surround yourself with the type of people who LIKE the kind of photography you like as well so when you do post something, you are posting it to the “right crowd”. I guess it’s just encouraging when other people say, “I love your photo”, etc. And I don’t mean family and friends! Strangers because you know they are not partial and when you are really striving to create and make something – someone saying they like it – to me anyway – spurs me on and encourages me to think that I am making a difference. That what I’m doing matters. That the time I’m so dilligently putting in, is starting to pay off. Sounds shallow but I think it’s how a lot of people feel possibly. That they want to know that other people see value in their photos too and that they are on the right track – making something that others can enjoy too!

  • Rachelle Hinkley - I am having so much anxiety over my images recently because I was told that my pictures look grainy, now it’s all I can think about, I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong, if it’s my ISO being set to the wrong number, if my shutter is open too long, I’d kill for some kind of advice right now, because I’m not sure if its me or my camera finally pooping out on me!

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