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If somebody asks, how do you critique photos in a fair and constructive way?
In order to critique photos it helps to have a framework to work within, a set of questions you can apply to almost any photographer’s work.
I’ve come up with five questions you can ask to help you critique photos in a way that’s helpful to the photographer. But before we get onto those, there are some considerations.
How good is the photographer?
Somebody starting out in photography is asking for a critique for different reasons than somebody who has been doing it for 20 years.
The beginner is asking for guidance, plus some pointers on how to improve.
The experienced photographer might ask for a critique, but be looking for something subtly different – the way forward, or ideas for projects that help them evolve creatively.
Let the photographer’s confidence level guide your approach. A beginner is less likely to be confident, and in need of encouragement and guidance. A confident, experienced photographer can handle some justified criticism, but needs encouragement and guidance that’s tougher and more focused.
A beginner is more likely to need technical help. They might need ask what aperture to use to get the entire frame in focus, or create bokeh. Or perhaps they don’t understand how changing shutter speed can affect the composition.
But the experienced photographer needs a more conceptual framework to work in. In other words, it’s about ideas and creativity rather than technique.
Ask for a set of photos
If the photographer asks you to critique a single photo, ask for a set of photos instead. It’s easier to critique a body of work than a single image.
Imagine a situation where a photographer has a strong body of work on a particular subject, but shows you the weakest photo. By itself, it may not tell you much and you may not be a great deal of help to the photographer.
But seeing the photo as part of body of work gives it context. You get a much better idea of the photographer’s strengths and weaknesses.
Be aware of your own biases
We all have biases in photography – subjects and techniques we tend to prefer over others. I love black and white photography, but some photographers only work in color. Be aware of your own biases. Stay open to the idea that the photographer whose photos you’re critiquing may have different tastes.
Be the photographer whose opinion they can trust
Take your time and give a considered opinion. Giving a good critique isn’t easy. Ask the photographer pertinent questions and make it more of a discussion than a critique.
Don’t give too much information
You’ll need to make your own judgement on this as every photographer is different. But it’s helpful not to throw too many ideas at somebody, especially a beginner. Give them between one to three ideas that they can work on, but no more.
Five questions to help you critique photos
Now it’s time to look at the five questions you should ask yourself when critiquing somebody else’s photos. But they’re also good discussion points. Rather than tell the photographer what you think, maybe you could discuss it instead? The photographer is more involved and their feedback informs your opinions.
Question 1: Could the subject be more interesting?
It’s easier to make a good photo of an interesting subject than a boring one. Let’s say the photographer has shown you a landscape photo made in your local area. There’s nothing wrong with the photo technically, but they’d like to improve.
You could start by asking yourself if they have photographed the most interesting or beautiful local landscapes.
Perhaps they could benefit by photographing a different type of landscape, or pursuing a theme (ruined buildings or lone trees in the landscape, for example).
An advanced photographer might benefit from setting an ambitious goal, like starting a project with the aim of making a photo book, getting published in a magazine or gaining gallery representation. Then the question becomes how do they find a subject interesting enough to be worthy of this goal?
Always ask yourself, is the subject interesting? How can the photographer find a more interesting subject, or make the subject more interesting?
Question 2: What do you like about the composition and how could it be better?
This is something you can discuss with the photographer. It’s easy to say that a photo would be better if the photographer had taken a couple of steps to the right. But they may have been standing against a brick wall.
Ask yourself deeper questions.
- How well does the photographer place the main subject in the photo? Could they benefit from a discussion about placement (more likely with beginners)?
- Does the photo use negative space well?
- Does the photographer use line, tonal contrast and foreground interest effectively?
- Are there layers of interest in the composition?
- Is the background distracting?
These are all good questions that can help you give somebody practical advice about composition.
Question 3: How beautiful is the light?
The quality and suitability of the light has a massive impact on the photo. For example, a beginner might make a landscape photo in the middle of the day. But experienced photographers know that you’ll get better results at the end of the day when the light is much more beautiful. In a case like this you can suggest that the photographer returns when the light is better.
With more advanced photographers look at the way they handle light and match it to the subject.
- Does the light create mood?
- Could they make the photo moodier by photographing it in a different light?
- Could they benefit from adding artificial light to the photo in some way?
- Is the photographer working with the light or against it?
Again the answers to these questions can help you make suggestions to improve the photos.
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Question 4: Could the photo have more emotional impact?
This is related to the previous questions about light, composition and subject.
Emotional impact can come from light. A landscape photo made during the golden hour or at dusk is likely to be much moodier than one made at midday.
Or it can come from the subject. The emotional impact of portraits comes from the photographer’s relationship with the model, and how good they are at capturing character.
Composition is also important. It could be that a photographer’s photos lack emotional impact because they’re not getting close enough to the subject. In this case encouraging somebody to use a wider focal length and move in closer should result in more impactful photos.
Also bear in mind that some subjects are naturally more emotionally impactful than others. A photojournalist photographing a natural disaster will make photos with more emotional impact than a landscape photographer.
Question 5: How well does the photo (or photos) say what the photographer wanted to say?
If you go to an exhibition there’s usually a short accompanying text that explains what the photographer was trying to achieve.
This information is vital for a constructive photo critique. You need to know what the photographer wanted to achieve to make a judgement about how well they did it.
What are the photographer’s goals? A landscape photographer aiming to have his photos published in a magazine has a different goal to one who wants to make fine art photos.
It’s fine to question the goal, but you need to know what it is to judge whether the photographer achieved it.
Post-processing is an important aspect of this question. The photographer’s post-processing either gets in the way of their message or supports it.
A beginner may be tempted to over-saturate colors, add too much contrast or over sharpen. All these things reduce the impact of a photo and get in the way of the message.
It’s often easier to discuss post-processing when looking at sets of photos, as you can see whether they go together. If not, then perhaps the photographer would benefit from a more consistent approach to post-processing.
Apply these ideas to your own photos
So far I’ve written about these ideas in the context of critiquing other people’s photos. But they’re just as valid for critiquing your own work. If you’re wondering how you could improve your own photos, then these questions are a good place to start.