Guidelines For Better Photo Critiques
One of the critical parts of moving one’s photography to the next level is to have knowledgeable photographers critique your work. Getting better isn’t done in a vacuum and if you have ever dreamed of hanging your art in a gallery or other public space, you need to start understanding critiques. Most photographers are not formally trained and, therefore, not aware of proper procedures when critiquing work. As we are trying to get beyond the typical comments on photography Web sites, we offer up the following guidelines for critiquing photographic projects.
It is often as difficult to give good criticism as it is to hear criticism. However, it is one of the most important tools the budding photographer can utilize in order to hone his skills or step out into new boundaries. It also gives the photographer a sense of what viewers are seeing in his photographs (i.e., what they are speaking to the viewer). Here is a general outline for making meaningful, thoughtful comments that will actually help to push a photographer forward (adapted from leodadominico’s deviant art post).
As photography is a visual medium, it is vitally important for you to look at the work before critiquing it. This may seem elementary, but you should spend a bit of time with the images. What are your first impressions? How do you feel once you’ve spent some time with the project? The period of interpretation is your opportunity to tell the photographer how the work makes you feel.
Important questions to ask yourself:
- How does this make me feel?
- How can I best express the feelings I have?
- What is it about the image that makes me feel the way I do?
- Have you looked at it from different angles and distances?
The second part of the critique is an actual critique of the images themselves. Here, it is appropriate to take images individually and speak or write about them, but be sure to critique the project as a whole. Are there individual elements that do not make for great images but fit within the whole? Other things to consider are the technical and artistic aspects of the images.
As photographers, we are all at varying levels of degrees with regard to our technical control of images. Even the masters run into plenty of situations where they have to make some initial guesses on exposure or other components in order to get in the right ballpark of the correct settings. Therefore, your critique of the technical aspects should take into consideration the different levels of photographers.
Another important concern is that the photographer may have intentionally created a technically imperfect image in an effort to get the look they were after. Here is where asking questions is vitally important. If the photographer has not provided a statement or some type of explanation for, what you consider, a glaring technical error then ask about it before providing a critique. Some technical things to look for are:
- Depth of field
- Aperture selection
Critiquing the artistic aspects of photography can be a bit trickier, though it does not need to be thought of as untouchable territory. Again, asking questions when you are unsure is acceptable. If the artist provides a statement, there may be some clues as to what was in his head when he released the shutter. If he is unwilling to divulge a concept or some artistic vision for the images, then it will be up to you to write based upon what you see. There are many directions that you can go with here but be fair to the artist and look at the project using as much freedom as the artist gives you — if he has neatly packaged the thoughts behind the images, it will be easier to critique the artistic nature of the photographs; if not, then there is a lot of freedom to express how the work meets the standard of your interpretation and whether or not it “worked.”
Things to improve
This is one of the more difficult parts of writing a critique and, because of this, many people just stay away from it. Every image and photographer can improve. There are times when a single image will be perfect to one person or another but rarely does an entire set or project meet that standard. The key is to bring some civility to the critique and be direct enough so the artist understands what you are talking about while still respecting his work and his vision as an artist. This is your opinion and not the opinion of all viewers. It is not for you to think about your comments in that way any more than the artist should. It is the photographer’s job to get multiple critiques and learn from the diversity of knowledge and experience available.
This section is about letting the artist know what you like about the image. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s the “why” that really matters to the photographer. Don’t just say, ““I like the sky.” Something better would be, “I like the color of the sky.” The best would be a comment such as, “I like the deep blue color of the sky, because it contrasts nicely with the yellows and reds in the photo.” Be sure to put some thought into why you like it and be honest with the photographer about what you like and why it works for you.
The most important part of understanding the project or image is to ask questions. If you are unsure and the artist has provided little or no information, it is acceptable to ask. As you get to know the artist’s work and his style, you will start to understand what he’s thinking and what type of mistakes are on purpose or are an artistic part of the work. It is important to gather all of the visual (from the images) and anecdotal (from the artist) information before applying the critique.
Receiving a Critique
One last word needs to be said about getting a critique from others. Remember that this is one person’s opinion about the way your work has made them feel and what they are seeing in the image. Every photographer is coming at the medium from a different point of view and some may simply not like your particular style. That’s not the end of the world and not everyone will like all that you shoot.
Some of the best advice we can give you is to wait until the critique is finished or you have read the entire critique to respond. It would even help to take the time to go through the critique with your images and try to understand what the viewer saw. Maybe it’s something you have previously missed or was an unintended consequence of your work. Take the criticism and apply it to your work so that those deficiencies are taken care of the next time or are part of the decision-making process during your next project.
There you have it. These guidelines will help you become a better commenter by providing a framework for meaningful, educated critique of images and photography series. Please continue to refer to this framework when giving critique to other photographers. One thoughtful, enlightening comment far outweighs a thousand “Cool!” comments.