How to Critique Photographs in 3 Key Steps

Ansel Adams critiquing students

Ansel Adams Conducting A Critique Session, Courtesy the Ansel Adams Gallery

With our new AYP Club, we’re going to be seeing a lot of photo critiquing as vital way to advance. One of the key components of photography school was frequent critiquing. When I attended the San Francisco Art Institute, each week we’d meet with our instructors in one of the studios, three of the walls of which were covered with white push-pin boards.

Those blank walls would stare back at you as you’d post your week’s work. Then the instructor, with the class trailing, would go to each photographer’s work and comment upon it.

I won’t say that this was always easy and fun, nor was it always constructive.  But in the worst case it taught me that I really didn’t have to listen to other’s opinions of my work.  In the best case I learned something from the feedback.

When I was first seriously learning photography in the 7th grade, I was critiqued by a minister, was one of my father’s patients, he was also a serious amateur photographer. When “Father Vintner” offered to take some of my negatives, print them and make comments on the back, of course I was delighted.  They came back to me a manilla envelope, 8x10s well printed, each print with a short typed critique on the back. Comments were to the point such as, “What would have happened if you’d taken a few more steps closer?”  ”Slightly out of focus or camera shake. Use a tripod, or up shutter speed and hold steady.” and of course the occasional “Superb, I only wish I had taken it!”

This feedback was to the point and caused me to look at my skills and how I could improve. The other point about both my early critiques from the Father, and the much tougher ones later, is that they began a conversation. Up to that point, they had only been viewed by myself, and I had no real feedback. Art needs to be released to the world as vital and living form of communication, which then sparks conversation.

It’s also important in the process to learn to critique another’s work. Tell them what you see, as their audience.  But make it clear when you are stating a fact like “it’s a bit out of focus,” or “my eye  is taken in two different directions”  versus an opinion– which composition and framing often are. Opinions are fine, if stated as such, and as you know we all have them…

So let’s look at the steps to take to critique.  Here’s a mental checklist to go through and see how the photograph holds up.

1. How is the technical quality? Let’s start here before we get to the more subjective issues of composition and emotion.

  • In focus? (or if not,  was that intended?)
  • Exposure: Is it too light or dark? Are there blown out or underexposed areas?
  • Use of depth of field to control the viewer’s eye.
  • Use of contrast? Too muddy or too much contrast.
  • How was lighting handled?
  • How do the colors look?

2. How’s the composition?

  • Framing?
  • What should and shouldn’t be in the frame?
  • Where is your eye drawn to?

3. How is the emotional appeal?

  • What emotion do you feel when you look at the photo? Or lack of?
  • Did the photographer connect with his subjects or do they look tense, posed or stilted?
  • Does the photograph tell a story, or part of one?  (It could be as simple as, “here are my kids who I adore” or “here’s my dog catching a frisbee.” Or a very deep one such as, “this is what poverty looks like, right in my hometown.”)

I’m sure we’ll add to this checklist, but hopefully it won’t become long and cumbersome.  I find that in looking at other’s work (or my own) I can see very fast and get this information and give feedback.

And of course, we do want all critiquing to be constructive, which means state what you see and give a possible solution, like “take another step closer” or “your subjects look a bit tense, relax. Annie Leibovitz plays music on the set, try it.”

Remember you’ll  get as much out of this process as you put in. I expect to see you in our critique group on a regular basis, both giving and getting.

Remember, as we’ve paraphrased from the Beatles,  and in the end, the photo you love to take, is equal to the photo you help others make…

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