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How to Deliver Helpful Photo Critiques Full of Valuable Insights

It’s been fun selecting the street photography photographer of the day the last few months at Photofocus. It has also taught me much, making me think about the qualities of the photos I pick that made them stand out from the hundreds I sift through each week.

In this article I’ll share the things I consider when looking at photos, as well as when creating them. While this is not an all-inclusive list, it’s a good blueprint to deliver useful and insightful critiques of other photographers’ work, as well as your own.

A Critique Checklist

It’s easier to like a photo than to explain why you like it. It can also be downright nerve-wracking to expose your work to scrutiny by your peers. But, as challenging as it may be, one of the best ways to grow as a photographer is to critique and be critiqued. Going through a critique, on either side, makes you more aware of the qualities that make strong, impactful, photos, and helps you to more consistently include these qualities in your own work.

Below, I’ve broken the critique process down into four stages, this is the process I take whether it’s looking at other photographers work, or self critiquing my own. The first three are all questions to consider as you view the work. The last stage is collaborative, this is when you talk with the photographer about the photo, as well as express your opinions. This order is not set, adapt it to work for you, and the particular photo being reviewed.

Initial Reaction

  • What is your first reaction? Does it get a blurt (wow, ooh, aah, etc.)?
  • What is the first thing you see?
  • Does it make you feel an immediate emotion or mood?

Take it In

  • Do you understand what the subject is?
  • Where do you end up looking after a few moments? Why?
  • Do your eyes move across the photo in a logical way or do they bounce randomly all over?
  • Are there technical issues (poor exposure, dust spots, crooked horizons, etc.) that detract from the work?
  • What is the story?
  • Did your first reactions change as you looked at the image?
  • Is there one word you would use to describe the photo?

Consider the Composition

  • Describe the light in terms of intensity, direction, and color. Does it add to or detract from the mood and message?
  • What composition concepts does the photographer use?
    • Color Theory (contrasting colors, triads, tones, tints, etc.)
    • Contrast
    • Leading Lines (flow, diagonals, etc.)
    • Geometry and/or Patterns
    • Selective focus and depth of field
    • Textures
    • Balance and Position (Golden Spiral, Rule of Thirds, Golden Mean, Diagonals, etc.)
  • What, if anything, would make any of these concepts clearer and give the image more impact?

Communicate with the Artist

  • Keep an open mind.
  • Don’t assume! Ask questions about the choices the photographer made, including:
    • Background of the image (place, time, etc.)
    • What is the moment captured?
    • What story is the photographer trying to tell?
    • Is there a mood or emotion they are trying to convey?
    • What do they like about their image?
    • What do they wish was different?
  • Share your impressions and opinions, including:
    • What you liked most.
    • What you didn’t understand, or wish was different.
    • What the photo made you feel. Were you left wanting to feel more?
    • The story you imagined from the photo.
  • Collaborate!
    • Do their choices, above, match your thoughts and feelings on the image?
    • What would have made more impact for you?
    • Would this have even been possible given the conditions and scene at the time?
    • Are there other photos at this same time that may have included your ideas for composition?

 

How would you critique this image? Like it, don’t like it, impact, mood?

Does this change for each color treatment?

Avoiding Common Critique Pitfalls

Do They Even Want a Critique?

Before you judge someone’s work, gauge whether a critique is even wanted. Many photos posted online aren’t in search of validation or improvement, they are to share an experience the person had. An unwanted critique can seem like an unnecessary attack on a special memory.

Understand the Person Behind the Picture

One of the most important parts of the process is understanding more about the artist. It’s easy to assume people have the same interests and motivations as you. But, this can make your critiques seem like trying to change every photo into what you would have taken, instead of analyzing it on its own merits. Ask questions to understand what made them press the button, what it is about this moment that they wanted to share, and what they want to learn from your opinions.

Find a Balance Between Needlessly Negative and Pointlessly Positive

At one end of the spectrum you have the “pat on the back” crowd, which tend to frown on any sort of negativity or constructive criticism (Instagram, Facebook etc.). Then on the other end you have the “every photo sucks but mine” crowd who can say nothing good about anyone else’s photo. Usually, if they can’t find something negative to say, they will complain about its sharpness or noise (sadly, this seems to happen frequently in many photography community forums).

Praise what you do like, question the things you don’t, and don’t be afraid to say what would help you understand the story, message, or emotions the photographer is trying to share.

Communication is Key!

When the photographer looks back upon their image they relive the story again, feeling everything they felt the first time. A critique can feel like an attack on that moment, taking away the reasons it was special, reducing it a to a pass or fail grade.

As the critique-er, we don’t have those memories and emotions since we weren’t there, but, we shouldn’t ignore that the photographer does. When an image fails to move someone, it’s often because the image doesn’t communicate the story the photographer was trying to tell. The key here is that word “communicate”! Ask questions, tell the photographer what you felt, and ask how it is different from what the were trying to convey.

Egos

When given constructive criticism, it is natural for an artist’s ego to go on the defensive. But, it is not up to the person being critiqued to sell you on their image. Nor, should they let their ego get in the way of an opportunity to learn and grow as an artist.

If the photographer can’t stand up to questions and critique, then they aren’t able to grow as an artist. A good photographer should listen to feedback, positive or negative.

Your Critique is an Opinion.

It is neither right nor wrong, it is simply a way for you to communicate the impact an image had on you, and what may change that impact. There is not a single way an image has to be composed, and other people will have equally valid, but potentially different, ideas about the work.

Photos are More than They Appear

A photograph isn’t just a collection of pixels. It’s a window into the life, thoughts, loves, challenges, experiences, and unique interpretation of the world of the photographer at that moment. To critique it from only your viewpoint of the world and how you would have taken the picture ignores that personal element of the image creation process.

“To review a book, you must first read and understand the story. The same is true with every photograph.” – Me

Each of these images is special to me for different reasons. It is very difficult to separate my feelings and be objective about them. We all have images like this, something to keep in mind during the critique process.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Submit your work and apply your well honed critiquing skills in our Flickr Group and Facebook Page. Or if you aren’t quite ready to critique a complete stranger, take a crack at it by critiquing my images in the comments below!

 

Like this article?  Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques.  Jason’s Articles at Photofocus

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