How to Constructively Critique a Photographer’s Work

How to Constructively Critique a Photographer’s Work

As an aspiring photographer, it eventually becomes obvious that likes on Facebook or comments such as “Beautiful work Kiddo!” from your mother aren’t exactly providing an objective evaluation of your talent. Constructive feedback from others in your field is something that everyone can benefit from at times, even as a professional. The problem is, most of us don’t take criticism very well especially when it comes to something we’ve poured our heart into and may actually love on a personal level.

After two years of working on my own without any professional training, I knew it was time to seek advice from others, so I enrolled in classes at my local community college. Part of the weekly curriculum was to evaluate our classmates work from the prior day’s shoot-something that felt very awkward at first and downright embarrassing. But eventually, it became something I yearned for and even worked towards being better at myself. So how can we provide helpful feedback to others without sounding harsh or offending someone? Here are a few approaches I find to be effective.  

 Effective Methods for Providing Constructive Photographic Feedback

1. Don’t just focus on the negatives. On the surface it may seem like the point of a critique is to tell someone what could be better about an image, but doesn't it also seem relevant to inform them of what they did well so it can be repeated? I find that such an approach also helps build rapport such that when you do have suggestions, they are taken with a bit more trust and openness than they may have been otherwise. For example, in the image below taken by Bryan M. Sargent, I found the model’s hair dangling over her right eye to be a bit distracting as well as the stride, which felt like it was sending her directly into the wall. More importantly however, I loved the lower wide angle composition of this shot coupled with an excellent color contrast and I made sure to mention this before anything else in an effort to express I wasn’t focusing on just the negative aspects. 

2. Provide meaningful commentary. Simply telling someone you don’t like their photo because it “doesn’t speak to you” is not helpful and frankly, just lazy. Be more specific. Perhaps you don’t like the way the image is composed, maybe they should have cropped it tighter? Or maybe the post processing is overdone and their model looks a tad-well, purple. Sometimes specifics can seem nitpicky but they are often the exact kind of feedback you need to improve. Another example – I love this classic composition, however; it felt as though the center of the image would benefit from a boost as well as the background which seemed to lack color and emphasis behind the model.

3. Keep it concise. Similar to writing this article, if you try and include too much information in your critique, the reader(s) will likely become bored too quickly and simply disregard the feedback. Time is money and in most cases you will be asked to review several photos, not just a handful; which can drag out forever if you’re not careful. My rule of thumb is generally two sentences per photo, three max. For example, my response to the image below was as follows: 

This is my favorite shot from the scene.  I would consider cropping at his waist, the bridge then cuts through the frame in a nice diagonal and makes the composition more interesting IMO…

What I liked about it and what could be improved all in two steps. 

So if you aren’t already sharing your work directly with other professionals, take a leap of faith. Sure, some people will be rude or not have anything good to say but that is unlikely to be the majority. If you don’t have any colleagues then reach out to local photographers in your area or those whose work you admire online. Most love the art as much as you and will take the time to help if asked politely. While the process of critique is as subjective as the art itself, learning to effectively do so will inadvertently help you improve upon your own work over time.  

Images used with permission of Bryan M. Sargent 

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Rickey Allen's picture

Great article

Ralph Hightower's picture

I've been a member of Toastmasters and there's the "sandwich method" of evaluating speeches:
1) Point out the good points
2) Offer suggestions for improvement
3) Offer encouragement

Don't be negative or discouraging.

Mark Bowers's picture

Absolutely. Being rude or negative esp when someone is in their early stages does no good. Being honest is important but it really comes down to your delivery and communication

Justin Berrington's picture

Today I ran across a post in one of the facebook critique groups where a photographer was asking how to get the subjects faces to pop more. Several people chimed in with ways to help. One member actually downloaded her image and said something along the lines of, "Sorry I didn't ask permission first but I thought it might be easier if I edited the image with my critique". He posted his version and then people started critiquing his edit and praising him for it. I felt this was really wrong of him to do and told him so. He felt that, "people are too touchy about their images, especially in a cc and advice group." I went on to tell him that someone asking for cc is not asking someone to edit their images and that he knew it was wrong from the beginning as he appologized in his opening comment for not asking permission. I don't know, maybe I was wrong for challenging him on it.

What is your take on someone downloading your image and editing it as a way of showing you what they believe you should change or fix?

Chris Martin's picture

I agree with you, editing the image for another isn't something that should be done. Bearing in mind the advice of this post it doesn't take long to write a few sentences. Ultimately, there's only so much you can edit, for example you can't repose your subject in editing, only the advice can be given on how to better it for next time.

Justin Berrington's picture

It really didn't require the lengthy list of things he was suggesting or the edit. She asked how to make the subjects faces pop more and plenty of people gave short concise answers on how to achieve that.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

There's another way to look at what the critique giver did. It likely wasn't about "here's the 'right' way to edit an image." Sometimes, it is easier to show someone something rather than try to describe it. This is especially true with new people who haven't developed an eye for retouching yet. Many of us start out dragging sliders way too far because our eye for retouching isn't trained yet. So for that person requesting the critique, the edited, annotated image may have been extremely helpful.

Think back to when you first started using Lightroom. There's at least three ways to adjust the contrast in an image. If you want to create a vignette, there's at least four ways to do that. And how much is too much contrast or vignette? So much to learn. Even more with Photoshop. An annotated edit of my images would have definitely helped me when I got started with Lightroom.

"Here's my edit of your image to my taste and here are the tools I used and the amount of adjustment I applied to get there." An annotated edit of the person's image might go a long way towards helping someone get familiar with the tools in LR/PS and how to adjust them so that they can then develop their own style. Now they can go play with those same tools/sliders on that same image and find what pleases their eye. If the reviewer had just edited the image, I'd have a problem with it, but if they annotated it, I view that edit as being done with the intent to help the person learn something about retouching in an efficient way. The whole "picture is worth a thousand words" thing.

That said, I don't think this is something that should be done as a standard practice. But in cases where it's the fastest way to help somebody learn what they want to learn, I don't see anything wrong with it.

Justin Berrington's picture

I see your point and I do agree that it is helpful. However, at the very least you should ask permission before editing their image. Especially because of what resulted from him doing the edit. After he posted it that thread became about him and his edit and he was getting critiques and praise and she was no longer getting what she asked for in her own forum. I don't believe he intentionally hijacked her post but it did happen and it took away from her getting a proper critique.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I do agree with that. Recently I posted a photo to a group on facebook and was advised to dehaze a bit, as well as increase both the shadows and the whites (it may be that my monitor isn't calibrated, as I can't afford that yet). When I tried that, I realized that I was missing an incredibly valuable tool in lightroom. I am mostly self-taught when it comes to most aspects of photography. I've taken some high school classes, but none have gone too much in depth. People helping me out especially with editing on the internet have been incredibly helpful in making my images appear professional.

Karim Hosein's picture

[A little tongue-in-cheek response here, but somewhat serious]….

What if they don't use Lr nor Ps? I do not have a “Dehaze” tool, but I know how to “Dehaze” with my software. When someone says to me, “Up the contrast to about 23,” that is completely meaningless to me. Yes, I have contrast control (in several modules), but Lr's 23 and DT's 23 are two different things.

They even behave differently, since DT uses a 32-bit floating-point pixel pipeline, while Lr & Ps uses a 16-bit integer pixel pipeline. They even use different colour models internally. So before one says, “This is how I would have done it in Lr or Ps, the question ought to be asked, “What software do you use and what have you done so far?”

After all, the answer to, «set the contrast to about 23,» may just be, “it's already moved to 22. Is that not enough?”

Anyway, point is taken.

Mark Bowers's picture

Personally I wouldn't mind BUT and a big BUT u would want them to ask for permission. I try and be open minded about things like that bc it is such a digital world we live in I would just feel violated if someone did that without asking. Not to mention the fact that they got a ton of likes as well! Prob made the original photographer feel like a lesser

Justin Berrington's picture

I feel bad for saying anything now because in hindsight it only exacerbated her post being taken from a cc thread to someone else's cc thread to a discussion about proper etiquette when giving cc. But I do wonder that if people don't speak up and have meaningful discussions about these types of things then do we run the risk of perpetually giving up various rights to our images?

Mark Bowers's picture

Copyright issues are a huge deal in today's world. I take the rights to my work pretty seriously and would certaonky advocate that everyone do the same. It is a constitutional right! So while we run the risk we must be diligent in claiming what is ours, embedding the proper metadata at all times and avoid supporting sited and groups that try to take that away from creators

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I recently postes a photo on Facebook asking for feedback. The response was all negative, some even taunting. If i cant even get suggestions for improvement, the group is useless for me. I left the group.

Mark Bowers's picture

Tyler-that is really disheartening to hear. IMO anyone and everyone making nothing but negative comments is simply trying to make themselves feel better about the insecurity they have towards their own work. Leave the group and look for greener pastures my friend

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Thankfully for me it was a photoshop experiment i was not in love with anyways, and i can take some negative comments, so i wasn't discouraged from photography in general, but that is not the kind of community photographers should foster. A professional i barely know on instagram took more time out of his day to give me constructive feedback on my photography, my website, and my businesses.

Mark Bowers's picture

Right on! If you ever need an opinion I'm happy to help. Keep doing what your doing!

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Thanks Mark! If you wouldn't mind, I would really appreciate feedback on my newer photos in my portfolio.

Mark Bowers's picture

I will have a look this weekend!

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Thank you!

Mark Bowers's picture

Tyler-you have some great shots for sure. Looks like you are into climbing which is a great outlet for photography. The black and white shot of your friend on the wall is fantastic. The direction of light is good and the contrast very suiting. Something else you do alot of is include people in your photos. This is a growing trend esp with landscapes so I would encourage that. Look for new angles like looking up from beneath someone or getting in really close to something for texture and mystery. Rough hands covered in chalk for example. With the landscapes just keep shooting what your shooting! Get up early and stay out late, that's my mantra. Bracket exposures always cause u never know when you'll need a few. Check focus and Naik it Everytime. I use live view alot with the magnifying lens and manual focus for best results. You're stuff is good just keep shooting and built a portfolio around the style u enjoy. Congrats man!

Tyler Newcomb's picture

Thanks Mark! I really appreciate all the advice and support.

Michael Ellison's picture

Excellent article. Photography like other art forms is subjective and will be liked by some and less by others. But the craft of taking photos and the composition can always be improved. Take the good to press on while considering the critique for improving. And keep shooting.

Mark Bowers's picture

Thank you Michael! I'd you truly love the art then you will do whatever is necessary to improve. That's how I feel about it