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07/25/2006 11:16:21 AM · #1
Critique for Dummies
A Practical Guide

By John M. Setzler, Jr.

July 25, 2006

We all love to get feedback on our photos. We post them to various online forums hoping others will find them artistic in some way or another. We take the positive reinforcement as a pat on the back. We use the negative feedback to improve our work. Some people are offended by negative feedback and some use it to their advantage. In this guide, we will discuss how to give critique, as well as how to look at a photograph.

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What is a Critique?

Critique comes in many forms, but in a nutshell, itís the opinion of the giver. A critique is a simple description of the photo based on the viewerís personality and background. This description could include a lot of different topics, which we will discuss in this guide.

Before we can discuss how to critique a photograph, I think itís important to know how to look at a photograph. Itís important to try to understand what you see in a photo before you try to give feedback on it.

How to Look at a Photograph

It sounds simple enough, but itís more complex than you might think. Hereís a breakdown of my own workflow for looking at a photograph. I wish I had some flowcharting software to create a graphic for this, but itís not really that complex.

Do you like the photo?

This part isnít usually too complicated to figure out. In most cases, you either like what you see or you donít. The photo will stimulate you visually, emotionally or maybe even both. The stimulation may be good or bad and that will determine whether or not you like what you see. The photographerís choice of subject may or may not appeal to you. You may or may not like the way they chose to photograph it. There are a lot of smaller elements of the image that will determine whether or not the image appeals to you. Sorting out these elements is what builds your critique.

What is the subject?

What is the photographer trying to show you in the photo? What inspired the photographer to choose this subject? Does the subject interest you in any particular way? Was the photographer successful in showing you the subject?

Is this photo spontaneous or set up?

Itís very important to make this distinction whenever possible. I usually hold the two types of photos to different standards. A spontaneous photo may have certain qualities that make me look less at certain aspects of the image. When a photographer has complete control of the subject environment, I am less forgiving than when the photographer is working in a spontaneous mode. In a set up environment, I look for lighting and other technical aspects that enhance the subjectís appearance. Technical excellence is important when the photographer has complete control. In a spontaneous environment, I look to see how effectively the photographer portrayed the subject, and if itís as good as it could be in the given circumstances. I also try to note different circumstances that could produce something stronger. I canít possibly know everything about those circumstances other than what I can see within the image. This brings us to the topic of assumptions, which we will discuss later.

What is the environment?

The subject of the photo may not fill the entire frame. Is the subjectís environment pleasing? Is it supportive of the subject? Are there distractions in the frame? Are there objects that are competing for attention? In a controlled environment, everything seen in the image should have a purpose, whether it is the subject of the photo, or something supportive of the subject. In an uncontrolled environment, extra items in the field of view should not be competing for attention with the subject. Keep in mind that a photo may have multiple subjects or a group of objects that create the subject.

Whatís the mood of the photo?

Does the photo stir your senses? Does the photo make you wonder about something? Does it make you ask yourself questions? Does it inspire you? Does it make you feel good? Does it make you feel somber? Does the photo help you to know the subject?

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Now we have established a few important bits of information about the photo we are reviewing. We know whether or not we like what we see. We know what the subject is and what the photographer is trying to show us. We know that the photo is either spontaneous or set up. We have also considered the environment in which the photo was made.

Where do we go from here?

There are four more basic areas of critique to observe after we have reached this point. These areas are creativity, composition, post processing, and technical aspects.

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Creativity:

Did the photographer take any creative steps to make this photograph interesting to the viewer? Some elements of creativity may include camera angle or perspective, exposure technique, and effective use of lighting. This aspect of the image is usually where good photographers are separated from great ones. We have all seen photos certain subjects, but a great photographer will show it to us in an inspiring way.

Composition:

Is the image composed in an appealing way? Does the eye come to rest on the subject or a specific area of the image? Your personal understanding of composition will dictate what you can and canít say about it in a critique.

Post Processing:

Post processing of a photograph is a definite target for critique. This is one area where the photographer has total control of everything. In general, photos branch into two categories where post processing is concerned. There are those where you donít notice the post processing and those where you do. Post processing is quite subjective. Everyone has his own opinion on how it should be done. In a critique, you might want to discuss the ďwhyĒ questions. Post processing choices are deliberate ones made by the photographer. There is some reason behind it, or there should be. If you canít determine the reason or donít agree with it, itís a good point for critique.

Technicals:

In my opinion, the technical aspects of a photo, such as depth of field, focus, shutter speeds, and exposure donít come into play until after the viewer has decided whether or not he likes the photo. In most types of photography, the technical items are not what the photographer is trying to show you. They have presented you with a subject or subjects and their technical choices should be supportive of those subjects as much as possible. Some photographers choose to make the technical aspects of their photo the subject in some cases. These photos have to be treated differently. You should just look at those images and see if you can understand what they are showing you and why they chose to do it.

Assumptions:

Everyone knows the old saying about assumptions. Making an assumption in a critique is simply a bad idea. One of the most common assumption mistakes I see in critiques is when a different view or camera angle is suggested. We have no way of knowing what a photo would look like from a different perspective, so we should never suggest it. Critique what you see. The only assumption you should ever make in a critique is that everything you see is intentional, whether it actually is or not. If you think something you see isnít intentional, you should critique it as intentional. Tell the photographer that you do or donít like his choice. If it is actually a mistake, the photographer will know and learn from it.

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Who is qualified to critique?

Everyone is qualified to critique. No matter how much or little you know about photography, you can always tell if you like a photo when you look at it. If you arenít comfortable with certain aspects of a critique, just leave them out and talk about what you know!

How to receive a critique:

Critiques are opinions and nothing more. They are reflections of the people giving them. You should never argue or complain about a critique. You will either agree with it or you wonít. When you post a photo to a public forum for critique, you must be prepared to hear the worst-case scenarios as well as the educated critiques. If you are sensitive about your photos, posting them online is not a good idea. Donít expect everyone to share your sentiments about any given photo. Photography is supposed to be fun. Donít let negative critiques change your own opinion of your work. Have a good time.

John Setzler

Message edited by Bear_Music - Bolded Section Heads for readability.
07/25/2006 11:34:55 AM · #2
Great post, John. Excellent information and direction.
07/25/2006 11:36:46 AM · #3
Great post. Not just good info for critiquing, but also for photographing.

Thanks!
07/25/2006 11:44:06 AM · #4
Very clear and concise, best I've seen when put to paper (terminal or monitor). Guess I'll drop the assumption of camera positions from my critiques .... (oops!)
07/25/2006 12:34:39 PM · #5
Your comments about "subject" and "environment" are not relevant to all pictures, for example abstract pictures. But all in all, this is a good summary of your ideas of critique. It might even inspire me to write my own. :)
07/25/2006 12:37:33 PM · #6
Originally posted by posthumous:

Your comments about "subject" and "environment" are not relevant to all pictures, for example abstract pictures. But all in all, this is a good summary of your ideas of critique. It might even inspire me to write my own. :)


Nothing is relevant to all pictures...
07/25/2006 12:46:29 PM · #7
Originally posted by jmsetzler:

Originally posted by posthumous:

Your comments about "subject" and "environment" are not relevant to all pictures, for example abstract pictures. But all in all, this is a good summary of your ideas of critique. It might even inspire me to write my own. :)


Nothing is relevant to all pictures...


True, I guess it's a matter of deciding whether or not the exceptions are worth noting.
07/25/2006 03:39:00 PM · #8
Thank you John, an excellent review.

Roger
07/25/2006 03:47:57 PM · #9
This not only helps for critiquing (sp?) but also taking photos...for those of us new to advanced levels of photography. Lots of great ideas to keep in mind behind the camera. Thanks very much.

Josh
07/26/2006 01:28:12 AM · #10
Originally posted by posthumous:

Originally posted by jmsetzler:

Originally posted by posthumous:

Your comments about "subject" and "environment" are not relevant to all pictures, for example abstract pictures. But all in all, this is a good summary of your ideas of critique. It might even inspire me to write my own. :)


Nothing is relevant to all pictures...


True, I guess it's a matter of deciding whether or not the exceptions are worth noting.


This is just a general guide. There are way too many specifics to note. Trying to be concise on a general subject creates mayhem... just like in the challenge descriptions :)
07/26/2006 01:47:23 AM · #11
I'm gonna try using these guidelines to create photos.
Thanks John.
04/06/2011 11:36:52 PM · #12
I'll bump this old thread since there is some current discussion about how to be honest without being rude... It's nearly 5 years old but it's still relevant.
04/16/2011 11:29:53 PM · #13
Thanks for bumping it. I just joined a few days ago and it would take quite awhile before I would have found this. Since a MAJOR part of this site is critique, it seems to me this should be a sticky somewhere. I've already voted in 4 or 5 challenges and I wish I had read this guide before doing so.
05/09/2015 05:47:35 AM · #14
some posts are timeless. this is one of them.
05/09/2015 08:09:12 AM · #15
Thank you and awesome post!
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