Doing a photo critique – Part 2: the method

The method – support and develop through your critique

In the previous article I set out an approach for doing a critique of a photograph. The photographer providing a photograph for appraisal deserves your respect. Photography is for all of us – we do no good by discouraging someone. A positive experience will enhance your own reputation and your words will be more effectively received.

I am going to going to assume that the critique is to be a written one. Verbal critique involves the same analytical skills as a written ones. However, the verbal critique requires some degree of skill in delivery and practice in thinking on your feet. I will concentrate on the essential elements in the method. Then we will see the things we need to cover unmasked by delivery issues.

The critique method

1. Initial viewing – The most important thing is to look carefully at the photograph. The amount of time you spend is unimportant. It is what you see that is critical. You should see the whole picture and its detail. You must examine the context of the subject and the framing of the overall scene. You should consider the subject and its content. You must see the composition and observance of compositional rules helping the viewer see into the shot. Consider the title if there is one. It is a part of the photographers’ communication and a vital clue about the context of the picture. This stage is your orientation with the image.

2. Your approach – The aim of this section is to set the tone of the critique and to explain your approach. In a very few words identify what you are going to do and how, as well as what you are going to include.

Next categorise the picture – natural history, portrait, abstract, landscape and so on. Stating your category helps your reader understand your approach. Some subjects sound the same but have different approaches. Natural history and wildlife for example are viewed differently. Natural history is about a record of the subject. It’s expected that very high standards of focus and lighting are displayed. The subject is then considered accessible as a scientific record. On the other hand a wildlife photo is about the subject, it’s environment, the art in the scene and photographic interpretation. A similar distinction may be drawn about portraiture and candid photography – posing as against capture of a live scene. It is important that you outline what the categorisation means. Then the reader will understand some of the later points you are to make.

3. Reviewers Interpretation – now it’s your chance to express your understanding of the image. When a photographer makes a picture they communicating with you the viewer/appraiser of the picture. You should talk about the picture. Discuss how you see it, how you feel about it and what it means to you. This is most important for the photographer. Many reviewers miss this stage or neglect it. For the photographer who has made the photo, this feedback tells them if their message got across. They will see from your interpretation how strongly the message is conveyed and if it was really what they were trying to say. If your interpretation is different to the photographer then that tells them a lot about how effectively they are communicating, or not communicating their message. It tells them what they got across and what they did not. To inform the photographer you need to use terms like “I feel that…”; “The emotions that come over are…”; I think the message is…”; the content is…” or whatever you consider important. – but in detail. The point must be explained fully. Most photos have a story in them. It is important that you say what you think it is. Also identify any hidden meanings or ideas that the picture may convey as part of the overall message. It is also important to say what you think may be missing. There are often elements in a picture that would make the image more understandable or memorable that are not included. Make it clear if you don’t understand something or don’t see the point.

4. Technique – now it is time for a technical appraisal. Is the focus good? Does the exposure seem correct for this shot or is it over-light or too dark? Is the depth of field appropriate and accurate? Is there camera shake or clarity? How is the colour accuracy and contrast depth? Is the tonal treatment accurate. How was the light treated, or how was it created? Were these elements well done or could there be improvements? Soft or hard light? Tripod use? Treatment of highlights? Take into account what level the photographer is working at if you know this or can sensitively deduce it. Try to mention as much of the technically appropriate data that you notice. This is a great learning opportunity for the photographer.

5. Artistic merit – the heart of the picture is in the composition. You should isolate compositional elements that the picture uses. Do they work, do they help the picture or hinder the viewer’s understanding? Is the composition strong, weak or in need of a different approach? Is the crop supportive of the artistic treatment or antagonistic? Does the artistic viewpoint create a pleasing outcome or are there other ways to look at the treatment? Does the composition convey the appropriate emotion? In your analysis expose compositional rules that have been employed or not. Again, this is a learning opportunity. So try to explain your analysis so the photographer has the opportunity to follow up on the points you draw out.

6. Overview – This is your chance to say what you like and what could be improved. start by tackling the things that are positive. In the spirit of sensitive encouragement you should be sure to identify everything that you think is positive and likable about the image. Evan an image you do not like must have commendable features. So bring them out. Say why you like them and what they contribute to the image. Your likes are an expression of some success and the photographer needs to understand them for future shots. Make sure you explain the reasons you like them. “That’s good”, is not good enough. You should say, “the colour of the sky is good and provides a great contrast to the strong red of the main subject – it creates a feature to draw the eye into the shot”. Explaining the positive element and the reason it works is a learning experience for the photographer.

After the positive appraisal you can identify the parts of the image that can be improved. You should concentrate on a few things. Identifying a long list of errors is not helpful. A few main points will help the photographer overcome the most important issues. Be encouraging… “I can see what you were trying to do… you can achieve that by…”. Or, “Be careful with distracting whites or strong lights”. Again, “try to find a standpoint where there is less clutter…”. You should look to help the photographer see the problem by identifying a positive solution. You should also explain why there is a problem. Errors are not obvious until you understand them. Simple explanations are most useful.

It is also helpful to explain other things to try out. “Try it as black and white, your strong contrasts may work well”; “perhaps a more abstract approach would help…” and so on. These things should be delivered sensitively and with the support of the photographer in mind.

7. The last word – You should always end on a positive note – it will help lift the mood. Something like this will help, “this is a good project, continued effort will return great results”. Maybe, “You have overcome challenging conditions to realise this work, well done”. If you think it is a great picture say so, otherwise say you think there is great potential. You are looking to encourage and to provide opportunity for the future. Try and be specific about what could be achieved next time if you can.

And for you, doing the critique…

If you gain the respect of the photographer you will be giving them a lot of hope for the future. You will also be providing them with some valuable lessons. Work with them. They deserve your experience and help. Good luck with your critique. I hope you succeed in teaching, motivating and encouraging… for that is the aim of a good critique.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.