Help yourself and others to improve
Photographers often have trouble expressing feelings about photographs. It is too easy to say “Great shot!”, “Nice image” or whatever limited phrase comes to mind. A constructive appraisal of a photograph needs the right language, approach and understanding. However, it is worth learning the language. If you can express your feelings about another persons photo it helps you also see a lot more in your own. This is about how to approach constructive criticism of photographs.
Giving a critical review of a photograph requires an approach. Make sure the person concerned actually wants your critique first. You risk creating an upset if you just go ahead and do it. They must be ready for it and open to your approach. You are going to be saying things about someone’s creation. We all feel connected to our photos, so tread carefully. You may not be criticising the photographer directly, but they may see it as a personal attack if you do it wrong. So only do a full critique if you are invited to do a proper one.
Be respectful, approach it gently and suggest things in a positive and reinforcing way. A verbal attack will not put your message across. Suggestions are better. If you say, “this is good” and “that can be improved by” – you helped support them into positive thinking about their next photo. If you say “this is awful, that is dire!”, you help them stick their heels in defensively – not helpful. You should be positive and supportive for a good reason. Your approach and advice will inform their photography into the future. You are helping to mould their artistic and technical future as an image maker.
Remember, your positive influence is aimed to help them as photographers. Make sure you feel comfortable reviewing the work. What you say is just an opinion. Hopefully, the person you are working with will take it as just that too. So don’t do anything to ruin their respect of you. Give an honest, gentle, appraisal. If you cannot, or if you don’t feel qualified to comment, then say nothing. If you step outside your own expertise you will be spotted very quickly and you will be breaking the trust relationship you have with that person. It is an honor to be trusted enough to review someones work. Treat them and the work with respect and care. Ensure you deliver a fair review, even if you don’t like the work. Stand back from the ownership and your personal likes/dislikes. Be impartial and express the appraisal in straight forward, artistic and technical terms. It is OK to say how you feel as long as you justify it with accurate and meaningful learning points (sensitively delivered).
Art can be anything…
Every photograph has its own character no matter what you, the reviewer, thinks. There is always someone who will like it no matter what. I have seen some pretty challenging technical errors turn out as pleasing images. And some pretty outstanding photographers have turned out really poor quality work. In the end anything can be said, but only good sense will prevail. There is no right or wrong with an image there is only your opinion. There is no such thing as intrinsic value – beauty is something you see. Other people may or may not agree. So you will have to argue your point with good sense and good artistic and technical analysis.
Be useful; be specific!
Our aim, to be a positive, reinforcing critic, means our points must be obvious and effective. One glance at a picture with comment “Great image” does little for our hapless photog. However, this tells the them more…
“The strongest element in the picture follows a dynamic angle and has strong colour – both act to pull the eye into the scene. The fact that this element is on a ‘third‘ in the picture also keeps the eye searching for balance in the shot. You are drawn into the page to see more. These strong composition points give the picture holding power and the eye works to appreciate them”.
Our photographer has learned a lot they can follow up and shows they have quite a lot right. The bad news is not so bad then! For example…
“You have a lot of strong highlights. Patches of white attract the eye first. So working light to reduce those would help the viewer see the important elements in the picture straight away. At present they are distracted. You want your viewer to go straight to the powerful part of the picture to really capture their attention”.
This shows the error, and shows how it can be reduced, making the image more effective overall. That sells itself to the photographer!
Take everything into account
Every picture has clues about the authorship. Distracting highlights tell you about their observation of light. Poor use of space tells you they have not understood implied movement… well, there are 100 rules to be followed or broken. The elementary ones are the most obvious. On the other hand, if you spot they have broken a rule to create emphasis then – bonus points!
Your assessment of the artistic and technical elements of the photograph tells you what you are dealing with. Then you can respond appropriately. Deal directly with the level you see in the picture. You should not sound off with over-bearing or overly technical assessments.
The way a photographer presents the picture is important too. My point at the beginning about sweet wrappers in the foreground tells us that either the observational skills are not there, or the author cannot use an image editor. These elementary mistakes also suggests that the author probably has little experience with critiques. So be even more gentle and sensitive. We want to encourage, not beat and bamboozle them to submission!
It is my personal opinion that a title is important. Some photographers disagree. That’s fine. Either way, the presence or absence of a title tells us something. If it is there, take advantage of what you are being told. Your appraisal is going to be more successful if you go with their direction. If it is not there, then you need to say if the picture stands up as a powerful story without it. Equally you need to say why it would help if there was one.
I hope that I have explained how the approach to critical review helps and is important. In Part 2 I will be showing you my system for doing a critique.