With the launch this month of Click’s special issue, “Critique: The Why It Works Collection,” a compendium of 105 critiques by Click & Company CEO and educator Sarah Wilkerson, we’re exploring the process of constructive critique in photography.
Critique is invaluable. It allows us to receive objective opinions on our images regarding technical merits as well as how the photo is received by an outside audience.
It’s equally important to give critique. By pointing out what does, or doesn’t, work in others’ photographs, you can reflect on your own work and whether it possesses those same attributes you’re drawn to as a viewer. Objective critique is an important skill to practice and it’s often easier to hone that skill evaluating others’ images.
But HOW do you critique an image?
1. Highlight the successes.
Start positive. Everyone likes hearing how awesome their photo is. What draws you in? Is it an engaging smile in a portrait? Is there a connection between subjects that is palpable? Are the colors so vibrant it makes you smile? Every photo has merits. Tell the photographer what they did right.
2. What grabs your eye? Is that the intended subject? If not, how can that be corrected?
When you first saw the photo, where did your eye go instinctively? Did it go to the subject’s face? Or did it go to a blown out patch of grass? Is there a red toy in the corner of the room that you can’t stop looking at? Cover the distracting element with your hand. Yes, literally hold your hand in front of the screen to obscure the object. Does your eye now go to the intended focal point?
3. Assess the technical quality of the photo.
How is the exposure? Are there blown highlights on important areas of the photo? Is detail maintained in the blacks? Is white balance too cool? Too warm? Is the composition strong? Examine each element of the frame and ask yourself, “does this contribute to the story being told or detract from it?”
4. How could processing be adjusted to strengthen the photo as shot?
When critiquing others, offer suggestions on how to strengthen the photo through processing adjustments. Correct any technical issues such as exposure, white balance, skin tones, etc. Address any clipping on important elements of the frame. Is the sky blown? Does a blown sky matter to you? Suggest swapping the sky. If there’s a distracting element in the frame, can it be easily removed? If the composition isn’t strong, can the image be cropped to make it compelling?
5. What did you learn from this photo that you can take with you to future shoots?
Whether critiquing someone else or evaluating your own image, what can you learn from the suggestions? Were the wrong settings used for the circumstances? Make a note, physical or mental, on what settings would have been better for the situation and file it away to use next time. Did you learn a new composition rule? Go into the next shoot with the intent of using that rule until you master it.
6. What is the heart of the photo?
When critiquing your own work, ask yourself why you clicked the shutter. What about that moment prompted you to capture it? That is the heart of the photo. You’ve captured that moment and you can look back on the photo and remember how you felt as the day or event unfolded. Technical mistakes cannot take that away. What if you toss all of the photos with mistakes? How many memories would be gone? Embrace that it will never be perfect but that the merits of the photo can trump the errors.
Opening yourself up for critique can be intimidating. “What if they rip it apart and I can’t ever see the image the same way again?” Learn from the mistakes, but allow yourself to take pride in the positives. When evaluating your own photos, do your best to detach from the image; put yourself in someone else’s shoes and look at the photograph as though it was taken by someone else. If another photographer posted the image, what would you tell them? By allowing yourself to see the errors in your photos, you can grow as a photographer, but those errors do not devalue a photo. Every photo has merits. Mistakes help us grow. Love the photo for its strengths in spite of the weaknesses.
And ya know… the stinkers give you something to look back on and laugh. 😉