How to give useful feedback on your own and other people’s photographs.

Two pictures taken within three minutes of each other, one using a wide angle lens, the other a short telephoto. The impact in the second shot comes from the ability of the longer lens to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the key elements in the scene: the crepuscular lighting and the arrangement of light and dark elements in the frame.

Most of us like to receive feedback when we show our pictures to friends and family members. Often that feedback can provide useful tips about which of your photos works, what makes it engaging or how you could have made it better. But feedback isn’t always that helpful.

When somebody says “It’s nice” or makes an unintelligible response, you’re left feeling short-changed. What did they actually like? Why was their response indifferent?

You can learn a lot from other people’s reactions – as long as you can define the reasons for them. But you also need an open mind and the ability to identify useful comments rather than taking potentially negative remarks as hostile criticism. Sometimes we can be just too touchy when our own precious pictures are involved.

Critiquing photographs is a definite skill and there’s a difference between critiquing and criticism that makes one much more valuable than the other. True criticism mainly involves finding fault, with the focus primarily on technical issues rather than emotional reactions.

In contrast, critiquing looks to provide feedback, usually (but not always) with the aim of understanding the choices made by the author of the art work and providing advice on what is or isn’t working while being as objective as possible. Well-thought-out critiques can help photographers to improve their shooting technique, exposure parameters and/or approach.

The aim of a proper critique should be to help the recipient; not put them down. Good critique will look for what’s working and, if something isn’t clear, ask for clarification. It is presented in ways that are kind, honest and specific.

Which of these images best captures the quirkiness of this scene: the two life-sized figures sitting next to real people or the pair on their own? Technically the second picture is better; more even lighting, a simpler composition that tells you more about the subjects’ environment. But the juxtaposition of the cloth sculptures against the real people is more compelling. The ‘busyness’ of the scene adds life to the picture, even though the subjects all look equally static.

Start with your own photographs

Objectively analysing your own photographs can be the most difficult kind of critiquing. This isn’t surprising; each of us has emotional ties to our pictures. We know how we felt when taking them, what we tried to capture and what post-capture adjustments we made to re-create the image we envisioned.

This familiarity will often cause you to overlook potential flaws, so it’s best to start with photos you haven’t looked at for a while. The passage of time can subdue the emotional connection you had when you first took the photo and allow you to view it more objectively. It’s also easier to pretend the images you’re analysing were taken by somebody else when you haven’t looked at them for a month or two.

Be as objective as you can, trying to figure out what you did that worked and where you failed to create the picture you initially envisioned when pressing the shutter button. This kind of objective critiquing can be really valuable if it throws up aspects of your technique you can learn from.

Once you’ve developed confidence in analysing your own pictures, you’re in a better position to start critiquing other photographers’ work.

Where should you put the horizon in landscape shots when both the foreground and the sky are interesting? Should you focus on that trail of footprints leading out to the horizon? Or is it better to take in those sweeping clouds and their reflections in the water below them? If you can’t decide, take two shots; that way you can enjoy both of them.

What to look for

The following steps present a systematic approach to effective critiquing:
1. Start by looking at the technical aspects of the image because technical flaws may be the most obvious reason why a picture doesn’t ‘work’.

  • Is the key area in the subject in focus? If not, did the photographer intentionally allow blurring in one or more areas – and for what purpose?
  • Is the exposure correct – neither too light nor too dark with adequate shadow and highlight details recorded? Find out whether the photographer intended to produce a high-key or low-key picture.
  • Check the lighting. Does it add anything to the composition? Has the photographer used it to the greatest effect?
  • Examine the depth of field in the picture. Does it reflect the photographer’s intention – shallow to isolate a subject from the background or deep to impart a sense of sharpness to near and far elements in the picture.
  • Check contrast levels, looking for blown-out highlights and/or blocked-up shadows.
  • Check colour reproduction. Does it appear natural when a natural-looking image is required? Are the balance and saturation levels appropriate for the subject? Are there colour casts – and, if so, what caused them and do they work for the subject?
  1. Look at the composition.
  • How are the pictorial elements positioned within the frame? Is there anything that shouldn’t be there and, if so, what’s the best way it could be removed?
  • Is the picture too ‘busy’ to have an impact? How could it be simplified – and would that make a better picture?
  • Where is your eye drawn to? Does it travel in interesting directions around the frame to build up a story – or focus laser-like on a single design element? What do you think was the photographer’s intention? Does it ‘work’ for you – and if not, why not?
  • Check the picture’s perspective. Was the choice of focal length appropriate for the subject? Is there a better alternative?
  1. Look for the emotional appeal.
  • Does it evoke any particular feelings in the viewer? Is it meant to?
  • How successful is the composition and exposure in creating those sensations?
  • Is there anything you can recommend to heighten the impact of the image?
  • Does the picture tell a story – or part of one? Was that the photographer’s intention? Is a ‘story’ necessary?
  • Can you pick up any rapport between the photographer and the subject? Does the subject look relaxed or tense? (These criteria apply particularly to portraits.)

Which of these pictures do you find more engaging – the direct stare or the head turned away? You can probably argue in favour of either one since the child is clearly uncomfortable with the presence of the camera. But I find the direct gaze more compelling.

Presenting the critique

When critiquing your own work it’s usually enough to simply chalk your assessments up as things to remember the next time you tackle a particular subject. After conducting this kind of analysis, it’s not uncommon for photographers to return to the same subject multiple times as they fine-tune their shooting techniques and ways to approach it.

Problems can arise, however, when critiquing somebody else’s work because many people are very sensitive to ‘criticism’. Make a real effort to be constructive, providing reasons behind your analysis. Ask for feedback; you may not have fully understood the photographer’s intentions in your first analysis. If necessary, be prepared to explain how you missed the point; fruitful discussions can be beneficial to both parties.

While there is no right or wrong way to offer critique, it is important to know that most people would like to receive feedback that they can learn from and that will help to improve their future picture-taking. Try to understand the motivation behind the picture: What was the photographer trying to achieve? Did he/she have any specific concepts in mind when setting up the camera and/or framing the shot?

Once the ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions have been addressed, you’re able to offer some alternatives. For novice photographers, it also opens avenues for explaining techniques the shooter may not have encountered, such as depth of field control or white balance fine-tuning.

This lets you move on to more technical aspects like where the photographer focused. Was there a reason to focus upon a particular area? How does that affect the mood of the picture or the way the viewer’s eyes are directed?

Questions like: Would the composition be more effective if you used a longer lens?…moved off to the right/left a bit?…shot from closer to the ground/ above the subject?…used a rule-of-thirds composition? – can give the creator of the picture different ways to view the subject.

Similarly, statements like: That tree in the centre of the frame dominates the picture but, for me, the background sets up some conflicts that draw my eye away from the main subject. Maybe you could try a shallower depth of field to emphasise the tree’s dominance.

Knowing why something works, even if it is for only one viewer, can help a photographer to make better choices the next time they shoot.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 85

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