Critiquing Photo Critiques

One of the best ways to improve your photography (other than by shooting lots) is to objectively examine your work and let others do so too.

audienceIt seems there are as many ways as there are people to deliver a critique for an image.  Some concentrate on the technical, supposedly objective, aspects that anyone can see; some on the storyline; some on the overall presentation.  Feedback can range from how the image makes the viewer feel, right through to steps to “fix” it.

This post gives you my take on critiques.  It’s my opinion.  My critique of critiques.

Photographers are fickle creatures.  We take photographs to record the world as we see it.  But then, we either then lock the images away never to be shared; or we seek to share every variation of every image we’ve ever taken.  Most of us are somewhere in between.  Social media encourages us to share, but expecting more than a like or “that’s a great photo” can either frustrate us completely or send us into a quivering mass of self-doubt.

Apple ComputerAsking for feedback is not easy.  We sometimes spend hours working on an image, eventually sitting back and saying “that’s it!”.  Handing that image over to someone else, who hasn’t put in the blood, sweat and tears can be somewhat debilitating.

It’s important to realize that a photo critique is not a personal critique.  It’s a reaction to something you have done.  We get those reactions every day – in the meals we make for family members (that was so good!), the help we give to our friends (couldn’t have done it without you!) or the example we set for others (he has a heart of gold!).  And yes, some of those reactions are scary – like job interviews or meeting your future inlaws for the first time.  All of these are critiques.

shutterstock_106756703 (1)Some critiques are blunt and unexplained, like the scores in a skating competition.  Some are thorough but not necessarily clear, like the evaluations often offered in juried competitions of works of art.  For example:  “The calming aesthetic feel of this piece is contradicted by the rugged character of the materials used.  Vibrant, meaningful lines permeate the full span of the work.”  I made this up, but have read some very similar.  Did you get anything useful from it?  I suspect not.

The ultimate critique is a score.  I belong to a competitive camera club.  We submit images for comment and scoring.  There is nothing more unnerving, it seems, than having a number assigned to your image, especially if your number is (a lot) less than your colleague’s or a lot less than the absolute perfect 10 score you gave the image.

SmiliesStrangely, I pay little attention to the scores.  I wait for the commentary.  I look for and most appreciate critiques that help me improve.  To be meaningful, I need a reaction that is specific and factual, not an explanation of someone’s feelings.  And yet, a critique is by its nature an explanation of someone’s feelings about a work.  Those most skilled at giving critiques learn to translate those feelings into specific comments on what works and what needs work in someone’s work.  Do you feel me?

NotebookSo a useful critique for me would be:

“This image evokes a sense of gloom and sadness in me.  The way it does that is through the presentation in black and white, but also in the range of tones through the image.  There are very few bright tones, mostly middle grey and darker.  Normally I would suggest widening the dynamic range a bit for more punch, but I think the more narrow choice works here.  To support and offset that, there are clear, strong lines, shapes, and placement of several objects in the scene.  Clear boundaries between them, prominent contrast.  My only suggestion would be to try brightening only slightly any totally black areas in the photograph, to see if that provides more depth and dimension to the image.”

Again, I made this up, but this is the type of critique I would seek to give and be given.  I would first describe the impact of the work on me, then talk about how that impact is achieved.  Lastly, I would offer some guidance on improvements.

It’s a real skill for someone to deconstruct an image to explain it to someone else.  You have to see the forest AND the trees.  It’s a real skill to provide meaningful commentary that both recognizes achievement and highlights weaker elements where needed.  And, most important to me, it’s a real skill to provide enough direction to make changes without actually giving me the answer.

The AnswerThe worst critiques I’ve received are those where the reaction is clear, praise is appropriate, and recognition of the need for improvements is offered objectively.  But then to spoil it all and say “here’s exactly what you should do to fix it” or “here’s what I would do”…just sends me off the deep end.  You know the old saying “Take a man fishing and he will eat a great meal.  Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”  Reviewers should be able to point out areas needing change by saying “Have a look at the interplay of these two elements in your composition.  They might benefit from a different relationship.”   That is far more valuable than “These two elements are too close together.  Mask out the left side of the one in front for a more dramatic effect.”  In this case, might as well take it one step further and send me an edited image.  While this may make sense if you are a beginner, it should never be offered beyond that level.

I suspect a few of you will disagree.  That’s ok.  Critiquing my critique of critiques is exactly what I would expect.