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PHOTOGRAPHY CRITIQUING - YOURS AND OTHERS

It’s good to be your own worst enemy.  Especially when it comes to looking at your photography work and deciding what’s good and what’s not so good.  Every year, there should be growth and material you look at from five years ago should not hold up to a shoot from the same location today.

When looking at your photography work, do so as an editor or potential fine art buyer would – with a very discerning eye.  Those who go to a camera club and have their work critiqued by qualified people, know how much help a good critique can be.  Look at your work with an objective eye and try to do a thorough critique to see if an image passes the grade.

If you are a seasoned photographer and are going to be getting into critiquing others work at camera club or salon, the same guidelines below will help with letting others know how their shot stacks up and what helpful tips can be provided to improve the photo.

Some critiquing can be done in the field even before a shot is taken.  When given the time when setting up a shot, ask these questions.  They can also be asked later when going through your work but if caught early enough then they won’t be an issue during the critique.

Visual weight - Where do your eyes immediately go? Where do you want the eyes to go?  If you’re trying to direct the viewers’ attention to a certain part of the photo, but the first thing you look at is something else, then the shot needs a different composition.  Too often when setting up a shot you see the main subject but never look at everything else in the frame to see how they work together.  This is more the case with landscape and nature than with wildlife where speed is more of a concern.  The rule of thirds is a great way to take photos, but don’t do it for the sake of it, it needs to work for your photo. There are plenty of times a centered photo will work best, or even slightly off center.

delicat pano photo
The soapstone yucca, the closest object, is placed using the rule of thirds and the eye flows directly to the sunset colors.

Distracting elements - Whatever isn’t adding to the photo is taking away from the photo.  Photography is more a process of elimination than anything else.  My guide is if an element doesn’t add to it being a great shot, then do whatever possible to eliminate it the frame. If there’s a branch leaning into the photo, or a distracting shadow covering part of the scene, then they’ll likely be taking away from the overall impact.  Another problem I see is when there are lines that lead out of the photo taking the viewers’ eye with them.

reddish egret catching a meal
A soft / contracting backkground keeps the eye on the main subject
delicat pano photo
Other subjects nearby can take away from the main subject

Metering / Correct exposure – It’s possible to shoot with the wrong metering mode, causing poor results as the camera doesn’t know how to correct the exposure. Most of the time this happens when the camera is on evaluative metering when it should be on spot so it can meter for the correct part of the photo and not the whole scene, especially if there’s a lot of contrast. If your metering is fine, but it’s still coming out too light or dark, then you know what you have to do with exposure compensation. Saying “I’ll fix it in post processing” are the words of a bad photographer. Get it right in the camera and you won’t have to spend as much time in front of the computer and you’ll become a better photographer.  Some people seem to think the computer can fix most problems, but there’s a limit to what can be done.

Proper focal length - The main thing adjusting the focal length can do is change the perspective of the photo – the longer lengths appear to push everything in the scene much closer together.  Using a larger focal length lens for landscapes will help condense space if the objective is to highlight part of the whole scene.

Background - This relates back to visual weight and distracting elements, as it’s important to consider what makes your photo great.  Try to have a clean background so the main subject has separation and there are no distracting elements.

Depth of field – Use the right setting for the scene / subject.  A great tool on the camera for this is the depth of field preview button.  Practice using this until it becomes easy to read and understand through the viewfinder.

Is the photo cliché - We all see a lot of cliché photography out there, and we’ve probably all been guilty of it at some point in our lives, but it’s best to try and avoid it. The majority of cliché photos come from a lack of photographic inspiration, which leads us to taking photos of static wildlife portraits, flowers or sunsets.

snow goose landing bosque del apache
Technically a good shot, but just a static portrait shot of an eagle

 

CRITIQUING OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS WORK
Giving critique is a skill in itself. Sadly, not all who do this take the time to get better at providing critiques effectively. Skills improve over time with the right knowledge and practice. 

How should we critique? Since this is an assessment of someone’s photograph, the key component is analysis. Do not consider whether feedback is negative or positive, but simply an analysis of what works and what doesn’t in the image. Often, critiques can lead to negative feedback because mistakes are more noticeable than positives. Good feedback can be given too although compliments are usually given when there is something that is noticeably outstanding in an image.

If you want to improve in the skill of critiquing, there are things to start considering. Here are some ways one should look into when giving a critique:

1. How is the technical quality? Give a “Why” When Commenting on Technique.  While it’s fine to comment on technique, be careful how to do it. Since some recipients are more experienced than others, those with lower level skills can lose the comments in translation. If possible, try explaining why one should follow a certain technique because not knowing the how isn’t too useful.  Things to look for in technique include:
- FOCUS: Is the image sharp? If not, is it intentionally soft and successful?
- EXPOSURE: Is it too light or dark? Are there blown out or underexposed areas?
- DEPTH OF FIELD: Is DOF used properly to control the viewer’s eye?
- LIGHTING: Is the lighting too contrasty, too flat or just right?
- COLORS: Does it have neutral colors or a strange color cast?
- CLEANLINESS: Is it free of scratches, dust spots, stains, lens flare, etc.?

2. How’s the composition?  A photo can be affected by the camera viewpoint and / or the focal length of the lens. It can raise an image from a technical success to an artistic success.
- Framing?  If used, does it balance with the remainder of the scene?
- What should and shouldn’t be in the frame?
- Is your eye drawn to the main subject or does it take a second to see what the intention of the shot is?
- Is the image aligned correctly or is it crooked?  This related more to the horizon.
- Is the arrangement of the elements positioned effectively?
- Is there a strong center of interest, pattern or design?
- Is it simple, yet complete and without distracting elements?

3. How is the emotional appeal?  The vital element for a truly great image is making it unique and memorable so it stands out in the crowd.
- Does the image evoke any emotion when you look at it or does it lack any feel?  Does it excite your imagination and you want more?
- Did the photographer connect with the subject or do they look tense, posed or stilted?
- Does the photograph tell a story?
- Does it grab and keep your attention? Does it have the "wow" factor?
- Does it show a familiar subject in a new, unusual way or an unusual subject in an effective way?

snow goose landing bosque del apache
Is there wow factor for the impact of the photo, the technique and the framing?

4. Avoid Personal Bias - Your personal viewpoint may come in the way of an effective photo critique. A photographer with a strong interest in HDR will probably want a lot of dynamic range in their images. Sometimes they find that an image with just enough contrast needs to have more.

5. Avoid Altering the Message - Not all suggestions are helpful. Some can sometimes be confusing even if the intentions are good. For example, when you ask a photographer to crop a photo, there is risk in altering the message the photographer wants to convey. Does that mean suggesting to crop is a bad thing? No. The elements in a frame are there to create an idea. When you crop, you don’t necessarily change the message, but removing and even adding key elements in a frame may.

6. Avoid Short Statements That Offer No Direction - Statements like “It’s nice,” “It’s beautiful,” “It works for me” are nice to hear, but are lacking if the photographer is looking for suggestions.  Unless the photographer just wants a compliment rather than a critique, you would want to give more information.