How do you critique photographs?

How do you become a better photographer? That’s the big question isn’t it? In my experience, the best way is to take a lot of pictures and then get serious feedback on those same photos. (The second best way is to look at the work of other photographers.) With that in mind, then how exactly how do you critique photographs? As I say in my classes, “Saying wow, neat or cool is not critiquing photographs.” To seriously give (and get) feedback on photographs, we need a common, serious, analytical language for critiquing photographs.

This blog entry explores some of the criteria that I use when I am critiquing photographs. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather these are just my thinking points. I am sure other photographers have their own ideas about critiquing. The more you know about critiquing, and the many ways different photographers do that, the better you will be at giving, getting and benefiting from feedback. This blog entry is an expansion of a podcast, “An introduction to critiquing photographs,” that I posted on December 30 of 2009. You can see that at: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/12/30/an-introduction-to-critiquing-photographs/

Your mother or your spouse can (and will) happily tell you how wonderful a photographer you are becoming. While that is flattering, it does not help you grow as a photographer. Growth comes when you get (and then act upon) serious, critical feedback. That needs to be based on a clear analysis of the photographic tools, elements and techniques that you, the photographer used, successfully, or unsuccessfully, to make the images that communicates their ideas.

These guidelines are not in any particular order. The only issue that matters is if you use some or all of them in the process of making the photograph are you using them appropriately/ effectively? These criteria apply regardless of the photographic style, media, genre, format, etc. These criteria analyze how the viewer experiences a given photograph. If you look past the content of an image, you quickly learn to pay attention to how the viewer’s eye moves through an image.

How is light used?

Is the light creating a mood that supports or contradicts the point of the image? Is the light falling on the person, place or thing as it should be in order to have the viewer experience the image they way the photographer intended?

Is the light harsh or soft?

Harsh light feels intense, aggressive and colder. Soft light creates a feeling of comfort, intimacy and warmth. One is not better or worse, but whatever light is used should be helping the viewer get the photographer’s point.

From what direction is the light coming?For example, in portraits, light coming from overhead can create ugly shadows in the eye sockets and light coming from underneath can make people look ghoulish. Light from sun that is low on the horizon makes a warm glow, which can work in some situations, but maybe not so well in others.

How is time used? Is a high shutter speed or slow shutter speed being used and if so, is the choice appropriate for the message that the photographer is trying to get across? A high shutter speed usually stops action, suggesting a peak of intensity. Panning the camera with the moving subject at a slower shutter speed suggests an intensity of movement that is very different.

What is the photographer’s position/angle?

Is the photographer above the subject, like a giraffe, leaving the viewer to feel that they are looming over the subject? Is the photographer below the main subject, like a dog, leaving the viewer to feel dominated by that subject? Is the photographer standing at their usual height intentionally (or out of force of habit?)

What lens is used? Wide Angle? Telephoto? Normal?

The choice of lens directly impacts the viewer’s experience of the photograph. A wide angle usually makes the closest thing bigger and the farthest things notably smaller. A normal lens records things at about the same scale as the human eye. A telephoto appears to bring things closer, but it also tends to compress the content and flatten things out. One is not better or worse, but whatever lens is used should be helping the viewer get the photographer’s point.

Certain subjects usually work best with certain lenses, such as landscapes with wide- angle lenses. Many great photographs have turned such conventions on their head. For example, many great landscape photos have been made with telephoto lenses.

Is the white in the image “managed?”

When I first started out, an old photographer told me that photography was nothing more than white management. I learned to appreciate his point noting when we look at a photograph our eyes go to the white no matter how hard we try. It is a physiological thing. The best photographers know where to put white in their images in order to direct the viewer’s attention within the frame.

Is pattern, line, or texture used?
Pattern, repetition, lines and textures can add to or detract from the core message of a photograph. It would be absurd to say you must have pattern, repetition, lines or textures in your images. It would be equally absurd to say you can never use them. The only thing that matters is whether those elements help the viewer get the photographer’s point.

How is focus used and what is the point of focus?

Someone looking at a photograph sees something in focus and decides that it is important because the photographer chose to keep it in focus. An out of focus object is object is experienced by the viewer as something that is of secondary importance. Lots of depth of field means many things in focus, which can work well or it can keep the viewer’s eyes racing confusedly across the image.

What compositional elements such as negative space and/or framing are used to direct the viewer’s attention in (or out) of the frame?

One of the best ways to appreciate a photograph’s composition is to simply close your eyes, open them and look at the image. As you open your eyes, do not think about the content. Just pay attention to your eyes and follow how your eyes move around the photograph.

Another great way to analyze the composition is to turn the image upside down to see the shape(s) of the photographic composition. The master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was said to edit his proof sheets upside down, to evaluate the graphic form of the image first and the content second.

Negative space, like framing, can effectively direct the viewer into the best part of the image (or direct the viewer out of the frame.) There is no hard and fast rule about having or avoiding those, but whatever is used should be helping the viewer get the photographer’s point.

Is the orientation, horizontal or vertical working?

Traditionally landscapes are usually made as horizontals and portraits as verticals. People being vertical objects and landscapes being horizontal objects suggest that this framework is a good starting point. Still, do not be a slave to what is “traditional.” On the other hand, when I see a portrait that is horizontal rather than vertical, my first question is to wonder if the change of orientation helps or hurts the final image.

What is the starting point?

The photographer’s job is to stop the viewer from turning the page, walking past the exhibited photo or clicking to the next web page. If we cannot get the viewer to stop and spend time with our images, then we have lost them. An image needs a starting point to capture the viewer’s attention. Some folks call that thing a “center of attention.” I never liked that title because the starting point that draws the viewer into the image may or may not be in the center.

There are no right or wrong answers for any of these questions. The point is to be asking as many of these questions as you can about the image in front of you, so you can critique it intelligently. The long-term goal is to take that same analytical process of deconstructing images and then applying it to your making of new photographs. It is a long process, to learn how to do this automatically. But once you do, your photography will improve immensely.

Understanding how the viewer’s eye moves through an image is the key, to critiquing and photographing. Critiquing as many images as you can is the best way to get better at this process. This is true regardless of whether you are looking at the work of your peers, the work of master photographers, or even common media imagery you see every day.

Looking at the work of veteran photographers while using these criteria can be especially instructive. For example, I admire the work of someone like Irving Penn, who really knew how to compose a photo. He also understood how the viewer’s eye moved through the compositions he framed. On the other hand, since he worked in controlled situations, usually a studio, it was probably a bit easier to get the compositions just the way he wanted.

Someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson or W. Eugene Smith, had a notably more complex challenge. They had to figure out, as the moment unfolded, how to put the photograph together. They had to account for many (or all) of the criteria noted above, as things played out in front of their cameras. The ability to do all of that, intuitively and rapidly is what made them masters. Looking at their work and seeing the results is something to learn from.

3 responses to “How do you critique photographs?”

  1. You raise great points. My only disagreement is that there really are wrong answers. In critique I fight for my ground with some photographers in that they are very quick to respond to questions with ” I wanted it that way” or I couldn’t get closer.” Photographers, like dancers or musicians, must dedicate themselves to practice, refinement and exercise. Building their visual and aesthetic vocabulary might be as important as making their photographs. Keep up the good work.

  2. Indeed, there are “wrong” answers. I probably should have said something like “be wary of absolute, fixed, unbending rules that are passed off as answers.” I could not agree with you more on your other points! Thanks for commenting!

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