Friday, January 3, 2014

How to critique photos


The biggest and most popular part of many photography communities (photography forums, Flickr) are the critique boards (read about "Finding a photo critique group on Flickr"). Just about every subject and type of photography is addressed. The reason for its popularity is the undeclared value it has to those who take advantage of them. If you are serious about your photography a well executed critique becomes an invaluable tool. It is a mirror that reflects both your strong points and your weaknesses and, like a mirror, you need to be willing to accept all your weaknesses no matter how hard it is to hear.

Having someone critique your work can be a hard blow to the ego. If you are overly sensitive about your work you may want to reconsider. However, keep in mind that the members making these observation only know you from what you post. They react to a request and will offer an opinion based on their level of experience and expertise. DO NOT take anything that is said about your work to heart. Instead work on separating yourself from your image and try to look at it from their perspective. After all, they are looking at your work with fresh, unbiased eyes.

Keep in mind that critiques are given in a written format. As you know, intentions are not transmitted easily through the written word and often what someone writes can be easily misinterpreted. If you are writing a critique mind your grammar and choose your wording carefully. You wouldn't want to inadvertently piss someone off by what you write. You also don't want to get banned because of a comment you post. With that in mind, remember that others may have the same problem and what they write may come across in a way they did not intend it to be. Take what is written with a grain of salt. You don't have to agree with everything people write, it is a learning tool only.

Definition

Criticism: (n.) the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes; the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.

Why is giving and taking criticism so hard?

Photography is personal. It tends to be a reflection of how the photographer sees the world. Often that vision is taken further by adding an interpretation of the scene through various editing processes. In the end, a good photograph is considered a creation born out of love. There is an emotional tie. That bond causes the photographer to be protective of their creation, but it also goes deeper, they are protecting their egos. A good critique exposes weaknesses and no one likes to admit their failings.

As the creator, photographers tend to get so close to their work they fail to see the big picture; art is subjective. They work on an image, shaping it into something self satisfying, looking to present some message to the world. When that world views their work and derives a different message it can be a hard slap to the face. It is human nature to defend our choices, wanting to force something that others may not see, not realizing that the alternative can also be enriching.

Part of learning to become a better photographer is to realize that once you release an image to the public, it is no longer yours. I don’t mean yours in the form of legal ownership. I’m talking about that emotional connection, that link that forms from experiences when we first view a scene. When a viewer first sees an image it is compared to what they have seen, felt and explored in their own past because that is what they have access to. They definitely can not access what is in the photographer’s head therefore the creator does not factor into their interpretation of an image. As that creator you have to be willing to let that take place and accept where that image goes.

Objective vs subjective information

Objective: (adj.) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
Subjective: (adj.) based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
Because photography, specially great photography, strike those proverbial emotional chords a good critic needs to be able to separate the emotional from the technical; objective from the subjective. Once separated a more constructive criticism can be assembled and presented to the reviewee. That doesn’t disqualify the subjective, rather it objectifies it into a more constructive format. While that may sound like an oxymoron it is meant to avoid unproductive comments such as, “I like it,” and, “that's pretty!” These types of subjective criticisms don’t benefit the person presenting their work for critique and should be avoided. Instead, explain why you "like" it or what elements define it as "pretty".

4 standard criteria for critique

Analyzing an image for criticism can follow a simple and fairly standardized format. This section explains four standard criteria for critiquing an image. These four are based on well documented standards and work to get the photographer to a more natural conclusion, advancing their ability. Each step progresses from the obvious to the more refined. To what level you take each section depends on your ability to see various aspects of a photograph; from technical to artistic aspects.

Too often I hear people say they can't offer a good critique because of one reason or another. “I'm just a beginner,” or, “I'm not a photographer,” tend to be the more common ones. Let me allay your fears. If you can formulate an opinion you can do a critique, so long as you are honest with yourself and the photographer whose work you are critiquing. To help you out here are the four criteria;
  1. Describe: This is a literal description of the elements and action in the image. No deep insight needed here, just a flat objective description of the image contents. Often this is for self education and not verbalized in the critique. It is just a tool that helps you get an understanding of what you are looking at. Verbalizing the description often helps.

    This process introduces you to the image. Here is where you identify the subject and supporting elements. Pay attention to colors, shapes, angles, people, textures, light and even editing styles and effects. The goal is to be as objective as possible. Describe the subject and its setting without inferring emotion, that comes later.

  2. Analyze: Here is where your knowledge of photography fundamentals come into play. Use the elements and principles of photography to reflect upon the image. Start with the basics then move to more advanced technical qualities. Take note of such things as exposure, depth of field, composition, framing, contrast, color balance, focal length, posing.

    Once the simple things are analyzed progress to more advanced observations such as the use of leading lines or light to draw the eye to a specific spot, or how colors are used to engage the viewer. With portraits it can be a matter of how far a face is turned or how a hand is presented. You are only limited by your own experience but the best thing about a critique is you also learn from reading what others post.

  3. Interpret: Here is where you begin to be more subjective in your analysis. It is no longer about how an image is created but why it was created. The best way to assess this is by asking yourself some questions. Here are some examples;

    • “What is the photographer trying to say through this image and why?” You are trying to discover the story within the image (if there is one), whether it is implied or un-implied. There are usually visual cues to help determine this. All photos have a story, but not all stories are deep and meaningful. Sometimes, “I am a pretty flower!” is the story and it doesn't need to go further than that.

    • “What is the implied style or historical reference of the photo?” This one can be tricky as it requires some knowledge of past trends and photographic techniques. This is useful considering many of today’s editing software have the ability to replicate many of photography’s past analog processes.

    • “What is the emotional appeal?” Since you can not know what the photographer had in mind when an image was created, you can not really know the true meaning behind why an image was created. You have to rely on clues in the image itself. “What am I supposed to be feeling when I view this image?”

    • “Do I connect with the image and why or why not?” Expanding on the emotional appeal, here you are want to do an introspective analysis of your emotional connection to the image. It can be anything from subject matter to a processing technique. Revealing this kind of information allows the photographer to judge how his image is received by others, specially if the emotional response matches the emotional appeal.

      Remember that just because an image receives a negative reaction from people does not mean that it was not the original intention of the photographer. Photography can be used to elicit all manner of emotions from the viewer, warm and fuzzy to horror and disgust.

    • “Why was the photo presented in this particular style?” Photo processing is a major part of presentation which ties in very closely with intention. A great photograph can be killed with bad editing and vice versa. It can be very easy to get lost in the technicalities of editing that the critic overlooks whether the initial style was the correct choice for a particular subject. Don't forget that lighting, makeup, costuming, perspective and set dressing also help to create a particular style as well. All these elements should be working in harmony with each other.

  4. Evaluate: After collecting all the above information about the photograph, do your best to determine how successfully the photograph met those criteria. Does it accomplish what the photographer was trying to present? If not, what areas need addressing and why?

    This is the hard part, writing it all down. If you follow the steps presented above you should have a fairly decent understanding of what needs to be addressed. It helps to create some bullet points in order to keep track of all the key issues. Just remember that you are addressing someone with an emotional tie to the work. Point out some strengths as well as the faults. Probably more so as strengths are hard to self analyze. Finally, offer suggestions on how the photographer can improve. Don't just say something is broken without offering a way to fix it or, at the very least, explaining why you think it’s broken.
Remember earlier I made mention critiquing to your ability and being honest about it. Sometimes a problem is so obvious that it stands out. While it can be very obvious you may not know the solution and that is okay too. It could be a problem that was missed and the photographer might already have the abilities to correct it or someone else may add to the conversation with suitable solution.

The takeaway here is to be honest but be polite, be subjective but also be objective and lastly, be constructive not destructive.

Some questions to ask

To help you out in formulating a good constructive critique here are some typical questions to keep in mind as you view an image;
  • What is the first thing you notice?
  • Why do you notice that?
  • Do you think this is what the photographer intended you to notice?
  • What other elements do you take notice of?
  • Why did you notice them?
  • What elements make you think the photographer did this on purpose?
  • What is the most interesting or creative thing you see
  • Is this point of interest the main focus of the image?
  • If not, how would you suggest the photographer correct that?
  • What is the photograph trying to convey (message)?
  • Why do you think this?
  • How does the photograph make you feel?
  • Why does it do that?
  • Are there any unanswered questions with the image?

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