Critiquing others to improve your photographs

First of all, let’s clear up a misconception. “Critiquing” is not the same as “being critical“, at least not in the everyday sense of the word. A good critique is one that gets heard and acted upon. A bad critique sees the recipient putting the barriers up. Just being “critical” or negative is a good way not to get your message across.

The critiquing process, especially when done well, will help not only the recipient but also the person doing the critique. Putting into words how you feel about an image can only help you when you assess your own work.

What’s in a critique?

A critique might start by describing what you can see in an image and perhaps how it makes you feel. If you know something of the photographer’s intention you might also comment on how far the picture delivers on it. You would normally also describe elements that contribute to the delivery, and why, as well as elements that distract.

Making assumptions

You may not had have the opportunity to discuss the photographer’s intentions. Be careful that you don’t just assume you know what they are based solely on what you see in the picture.

You should review only what is put in front of you. You should assume that anything you see in the picture has been done for a reason. To start with anyway. Take this image as an example:

Ancoats Canal Bridge, Manchester. Cobbled spiral ramp leading to a dark dark tunnel
Ancoats Canal Bridge, Manchester

Much against my better judgement, I entered this image for a competition. The judge complained there was not enough detail in the tunnel at the top left of the picture. In other words he assumed I’d made a mistake and underexposed the area. I suppose I could have helped him out by titling the picture something like “Descent to Hell”. I thought it was pretty clear what it was about. If he had said it made him feel confused or uncertain I would have been less bothered.

As it is, he made an assumption about the picture. He ran the risk of telling us more about himself and his imagination than about the picture. That won’t help the critique very much!

Earning the right to be critical

If you’re giving the photographer your feedback directly you hope that he acts upon your comments. You might focus on the elements that work well and mention only a couple of the bits that don’t. In fact, some consider that giving two pieces of positive feedback qualifies you to offer just one piece of criticism.  And if you can’t find two positives to talk about, you aren’t looking hard enough!

You might think that this is being “soft”. If a picture has few redeeming features, doesn’t the photographer need to be told? Actually it is much more about being pragmatic. We need to provide the recipient a way into recognising for themselves where changes might be beneficial.

If you’re critiquing for your own education, you may choose not to hold back quite so much!

Critiquing an image

There is no right way to structure a critique. There have probably been as many methods created as there are photographers. Something approaching the following would be a good basis for assessing the success of an image.

Understand the Intent

Unless you know what the photographer intended, you are not qualified to comment on how the picture should have looked. Nor should you offer suggestions about specific improvements. You may think the intention is obvious from the picture. However, you must make the effort to understand what the photographer felt was important.

Making an inexperienced photographer describe what their intention was is an important part of the critique. It may be they haven’t thought about it before. If so, it provides the hook on which the recipient can hang the ideas that are being offered.

Assess the Content

Statue of Neptune in Bologna, in front of the castle with passers by on a misty autumn morning. Just the topic to start critiquing images.
Statue of Neptune in Bologna. Let’s try critiquing this image

What’s in the picture? It sometimes helps the recipient if you actually describe the picture out loud. For instance, our image isn’t just a picture of a statue. There’s also a castle, some people, a fountain, a plinth and so on. You may find the photographer hasn’t really seen all the details in the rush to take a photograph of the statue. Having someone describe the content more fully might be enough to convince them, say, of the need to simplify things.

Some reviewers look for value that the photographer has added to the photographed scene. Instead of simply pointing and clicking, there might be evidence of thought or insight beyond the immediately obvious. In our example, the relationship between Neptune, all those cherubs and the passers-by could be an indication that this isn’t just a snapshot of a statue.

Review the Composition

One way of getting into this in a helpful way is to describe how you feel your eyes being drawn round the content (or not!)

In the case of our statue, we have a spectacularly muscular naked Neptune dominating the scene. However somewhat incongruously he glances askance at the rather less imposing specimens scurrying by on their way to the office. The off-centre composition (rule of thirds!) and Neptune’s eye-line (what he is looking at) would probably feature heavily in this part of the discussion.

Reflect on the Aesthetic

This is probably the most subjective element. You should handle it sensitively when delivering a critique face to face.  You may well have your own thoughts and ideas. The critique however should refer back to the photographer’s intentions rather than the reviewer’s assumptions.

You would probably mention some of these:

  • the atmosphere the picture evokes
  • the originality of the image
  • the emotional response the picture generates and what triggers it
  • the use of the light
  • how a monochrome conversion contributes to the image

In our picture, the misty light in the picture above hints at autumnal weather but Neptune is standing proud. He is almost silhouetted against the background, and lording it over all who pass. The mist shrouded castle refers back to a time when the occupants looked down on Neptune, but no longer. He dominates the square.

Last and very much least, consider the Technical

Again be careful not to make assumptions about how the photographer approached the picture. A blurry picture isn’t necessarily a mistake (but it usually is.) Again this will work better if you can engage in a dialogue with the photographer. You need to understand something of the choices she made when she pressed the shutter button. You can discuss topics like shutter speed and aperture for example when you have found out the intention was to isolate the subject in some way.

With our statue, you would probably talk about the converging verticals of the castle in the background. It might be the photographer hasn’t really noticed them.  You might mention that if the edges of the building were square to the frame, it might then make the statue appear even more imposing in its environment. But you might also mention that looking up at the statue is also a valid response to it. The converging lines could be an appropriate result of that decision.

How does critiquing help you, the critic?

I think it must be pretty clear that you can be both critic and photographer, and critique your own images. Get specific with your pictures after you have taken them. It will have the same benefit as being clear about your intentions beforehand.

Putting your likes and dislikes into words will certainly help when it comes to converting a scene unfolding in front of you into a two dimensional image.

Just try to leave the technical aspect of your review to the end -it’s much the least important aspect of the critique.

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