Are Your Photo Critique Skills Any Good?

Are Your Photo Critique Skills Any Good?

Opinions are like cameras: everybody’s got one, and it should be upgraded once in a while. If you love giving feedback on photography, great, but make sure you're doing it in a way that’s right for the giver as well as the receiver.

Everyone's a Critic

Enriching as my liberal arts college experience was, I often joke about how college costs an fortune, but at least I can critique the hell out of a historical painting.

That sarcasm comes from a mixture of regret for pursuing a degree of questionable value (I've never had a single client ask for college credentials) together with resentment over my college’s seeming over-emphasis on artistic critiquing.

Very little emphasis was given in my arts school on marketing, bookkeeping, or invoicing. Lots and lots of emphasis was given to developing such incisive commentary as "I feel like the male subject being cast into the shadow of the image is really a metaphor for the alienation a millennial can feel when expected to represent capitalistic virtues in an increasingly toxic America.”

Maybe that's what was going through my head when I told my friend to stand in the corner for my Photo I class project. Or maybe I had no idea what I was doing, and it just looked cool. Those with art school experience might recognize how such "deep thought” can suffocate art, including photography.

Cynicism aside, critical abilities are important in photography. First, let’s differentiate the two types of critiques: the "artsy meaning" critiques and the more practical, technical examinations. The former can be left to art houses and gallery openings; the latter is what we can utilize in our professional universe to benefit others as well as solidify our own understanding and approach to photography.

Benefits of Proper Critique

Why should you care about your approach to critique? Because just as photographic work ranges from weak to strong, so do critiques of photography. Telling photographers that their images are weak and they should give up on photography is not just rude and arrogant, it’s also a missed opportunity to offer help and exercise the analytical part of your brain; a challenge that can also help improve your own images.

Of course, there will always be trolls, and you should discount those critiques. While discouraging others, an unreasonably mean-spirited critic won't likely be giving out good advice anyway.

It's easy to look at a piece of artwork and say "that's crap" or "it's so boring." It's much harder and more rewarding to recognize and articulate exactly how subpar work can be improved.

image of people standing around at an art gallery

My gallery opening at Lill Street Art Center in Chicago.

Tips on Improving Photo Critique

Take it from someone who has given and received countless hours of photography critique: There’s a right and wrong way to offer it.

  • Be methodical in your approach. Take time to gather all the elements of the image: composition, lighting, subject, space created, mood, etc.

  • If you see an obvious issue, for example an odd angle or slightly tilted horizon, point it out and move on. Be encouraging, and say what you like about the image plus what didn't work for you.
  • Be specific about what you think is working and what is not. For example: "I love the dark subject matter, and the filtered lighting you cast on it really enhances the mood of the man in the corner. But next time you might find that adding a hair light behind the subject could keep it from blending in with the background."

  • Telling the creator "I love this!" is nice, but doesn't help. Again, break your appreciation down and explain exactly what you like.

  • Remember that while there are "rules" to photography, the rules can be intentionally broken and happy accidents occur all the time. Perhaps the photographer wanted to underexpose the image for dramatic effect. Maybe that lens flare had purpose. Don't always assume the creator knows nothing.
  • Always be skeptical when you receive a critique. Ask yourself: What is the source of this feedback? Does the source have strong credentials? Is the commenter at a skill level in which the critique is valid? Remember that where there's free advice, there's often bad advice.

  • Don't be a jerk. That advice will fall upon the deaf ears of those who most need to hear it, since they troll out of attention-seeking misanthropy and not out of healthy motives.

Give It Away Now

Should critiques be free? Feedback on photography is plentiful and usually available online at no cost, but the quality and consistency of such feedback is often questionable. Sometimes it's downright wrong. I've seen people give advice on post-processing that could be detrimental to a novice. I've also seen expert photographers offer their valuable time to significantly help someone struggling with a technique or style.

That's why when I find a (free) Facebook group of skilled photographers willing to help beginners, I feel like it's a valuable resource and I like to share it with those in need of assistance. If you're interested in delving into a new photography niche, I suggest looking for the pertinent groups online for inspiration and possibly critique.

However, business advice is generally less reliable than photography critique. I've received some business advice that’s worthwhile but some that’s worthless. A common problem in giving business advice to a photographer is that photographers have different needs and work different markets. Without a good knowledge of someone's location and business, advice on marketing and other business issues can be problematic.

Whenever I have a private photography student, I offer a critique session. Critique is one of the most important ways for beginners to develop their fundamental skills. Instead of just telling them which of their photos do and don't work, I explain exactly why one image strikes me as stronger than another, how an image could be improved, etc. I encourage students to participate in this exercise as well. Once they can effectively analyze their own photos, they're naturally more skilled and objective about shooting and reviewing new work. That’s the source of a photographer’s professional growth.

Have you received either helpful or harmful feedback on your photos? What medium did they come to you in? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

Lead photo by Igor Miske via Unsplash.

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29 Comments

Rod Kestel's picture

"..a metaphor for the alienation a millennial .." now that's quotable.

I like your approach, supportive but real. Adopt the shit-sandwich method "This is great"; "you could do this better"; "love your work". Assuming of course, the work isn't just shit, in which case, ummm.

There is a small essay in the classic book, The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy Scholes talks about how quality is not just "what I likes". He gives 7 attributes of quality. Worthy of treatment in an FS story I reckon.

1. Vitality
2. Originality
3. Workmanship
4. Proportion and Fitness
5. Feeling
6. Personal Taste
7. The Test of Time

Scott Mason's picture

Rod,

I love the seven quality measures, thank you for sharing them. And glad I'm not the only one who enjoys my sarcasm. ;)

Tim Gallo's picture

"The former can be left to art houses and gallery openings; the latter is what we can utilize in our professional universe to benefit others as well as solidify our own understanding and approach to photography."

Nope. I think the former is what important. The latter - is just technique - technique will never bring actual understanding and approach to photography. And its rarely that in "professional" universe people are hired just because of their technique (ofcourse there is market even for those - where tastes and sense of a photographer matters not much - others will do the thinking for him lol).

You are talking about technique, and than you use words such as "weak", "crap" and "boring", than "strong" and "stronger" and e.t.c. How is it connected with the technique? Is it not "artsy" way of describing of picture? Also "Artsy" is a bad taste word.
So how do you point out a "strong" picture? Based on your understanding of a proper technique? Here is what bothers me - you see a proper lighten, maybe accidently strong picture of a "exhibit A" - and you push a student in that direction. And than there is a chance you missed his weak, yet connected with his identity poor pictures of "exhibit B" and he stops exploring the subject. Ending up with technique and absolute lack of understanding of his own place and way in photography world. And its all because of the non "artsy" critique... (gosh I hate this word).

"how subpar work can be improved."
and again - how? subpar work will always be subpar, even with perfect execution :).

Anyways, interesting subject for discussion.

Scott Mason's picture

We could differentiate genres of photography, as each individual one merits a critique on the meaning vs technical side, some of them both. What I was stating is that this article was more geared towards the technical side, not that technical is the only useful form of critique.

And sorry, but I think you missed many of the article's points as you're actually corroborating my stated opinions. For example, you're right - "boring" and "crap" are not useful technical critique as you say, and as I also state in that paragraph. Perhaps another careful read-through will clear up the confusion.

David Pavlich's picture

So subjective. If I see an image that I wouldn't display in my home, it has a strike against it. Harsh and that is kept to me. I wouldn't say that to anyone. But we each know what we like and I can guarantee you that there are many that have looked at my tone mapped stuff and thought the same thing...not in my home! :-)

The highest compliment that I can give is to strongly suggest to the shooter that he/she should have the image printed and displayed where it can be seen easily, be it at home or a gallery. There are several photographers here that I've suggested that to and happily found out that they had, indeed, printed the shot.

My critiques go mostly along the technical side. I'll leave the artistic critiques to the artists. ;-)

Rod Kestel's picture

Yeah, 'would I hang that on my wall?' is a good test. Or 'would someone pay for that?'

Mind you, look at some of the hideous things people think are good. And then we could get into an elitist discussion on the basis that we know better.

Scott Mason's picture

I appreciate both of your comments and get the feeling that you're coming at it from a fine art angle of which I typically don't think in these days. So I'm glad you brought that to the table. Now that I think of it, I'm saddened by the fact that I shoot so little fine art. As we get busier with commissioned, commercial work, the passion projects sometimes take the back seat.

David Pavlich's picture

As with all things subjective, we have our own ways to judge stuff. I actually look at images that I produce and decide if I thought someone might purchase it as a print, which is what I do, sell prints.

What sells to the general population is very different than what sells to art seekers. I sell a substantial amount of HDR tone mapped stuff to carguys, machinists, mechanics, and the like. It's something that they relate to.

Other prints that sell well are wildlife. They tend to be animal lovers or people that know someone that loves animals and is having a birthday or in need of a Christmas gift.

So you're correct when you ask about paying for something.

>>Always be skeptical when you receive a critique. Ask yourself: What is the source of this feedback? Does the source have strong credentials? Is the commenter at a skill level in which the critique is valid? Remember that where there's free advice, there's often bad advice.<<

Do you have to be a skilled musician to critique music? Do you have to be a skilled painter to critique paintings? Do you have to be a skilled photographer to critique photographs?
No, you don’t.
Knowledge is important (technical understanding, but also historical and contextual), communications skills are important (it’s not only what you say, but also how you say it) and figuring out the intentions of the photographer you are critiquing.

Scott Mason's picture

"Do you have to be a skilled musician to critique music?" That's the age-old question, and the reason why so many people seem to hate food, art, movie critics etc. Some critics have little to no experience/credentials in their respective fields which adds insult to professionals receiving harsh critique.

I get what you're saying, especially when it comes to subjective fine art.

However one should be skeptical when receiving technical feedback since it could be coming from someone with less technical understanding than you. You don't have to be an expert to have an opinion but I wouldn't set the bar so low that just anyone could influence your approach to creating works. So my advice is taking everything with a grain of salt.

I agree, you need to have technical understanding to give technical feedback, but that’s not the same as being technically skilled. You can be a scientist who knows everything there is to know about welding processes, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a skilled welder as well and vice versa.
People might hate critique given by people without the skills to do it themselves, but that says more about those people than about the critique. It should be mostly about what people say and how they say it, not about if they can apply it themselves.

Michael L. McCray's picture

I decided to become a photographer when I did not even own a camera. I transfered to Kent State University and signed up for B&W photography. It was the gateway class to major in photojournalism or photo-illustration. I was working my way through college so I purchased a Nikon a produced my 10 images for review. The instructor looked at my work and said I three images of promise but the rest were horrible and I should think of something else to do for a living. I was not going to be allowed to major in photography.

He was right and I appreciated it. I was competing against some really talented photographer who were younger and more experienced.

Did not give up, I learned, it took a year of going back with more and more work until he allowed me to major in photo-illustration.

I never mind hearing constructive critiques of technique it pushes me to be better. On the artistic could care less what people think.

Rod Kestel's picture

Good point. Learning when and how to accept criticism is important.

Scott Mason's picture

Michael, good on you for not letting the first attempt discourage you. Many (if not most) people would walk out with a bitter taste in their mouth and think of something else to pursue.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Luckily I was older had faith and because of the being a trained as infantry in the army had discipline.

I agree, you need to have technical understanding to give technical feedback, but that’s not the same as being technically skilled. You can be a scientist who knows everything there is to know about welding processes, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a skilled welder as well and vice versa.
People might hate critique given by people without the skills to do it themselves, but that says more about those people than about the critique. It should be mostly about what people say and how they say it, not about if they can apply it themselves.

Michael L. McCray's picture

I agree, my daughter has no technical skills but her observations are right on most of the time. I try to learn from most people. Would rather hear others observations about my work than explain it myself.

Ed Sanford's picture

A much better article would be how to accept critiques. Most photographers tend to defend their work rather than accepting the critique. I was in a camera club years ago and one of our rules was that the photographer could not speak while he was being critiqued. As you can imagine there were a lot of bloody tongues and lips :).....

Oh yea it's very hard for new photographers to understand the critique process, it's a learning tool

Sometimes I don't feel like giving a critique because 3 people already told the photographer they absolutely loved it, while I think it's an average shot =/ So I just shut up and move on.

user-156929's picture

I think you're not doing the photographer any favors. Even though they may not appreciate it, a balanced view from disparate views *can* help the photographer to see the good and bad in their work.
Something I've never understood is, a lot of photographers will happily accept general praise (e.g. Great Shot, Amazing,..) but bristle at thoughtful criticism. Maybe they should note in advance, "Only sycophants need comment."

I know but I'm tired of getting people giving me 1 star on all my shots as revenge. It has happened again a few days ago, luckily fstoppers intervened, but it's frustrating, it's like the third time it happened to me... Giving your honest opinion on fstoppers just gets you backlash from angry toxic photographers.

user-156929's picture

Ain't it the truth. :-(

Scott Mason's picture

Sorry to hear about your experience, Nick. Don't let people's immaturity get you down!

Andy Barnham's picture

I always ask what the baseline for the image is and under what conditions, stresses and strains an image was taken. It is all too easy to throw potentially unfair barbs from the sidelines otherwise. I have been requested, numerous times, to take exact shots/ angles/ composition from a client contrary to my advice and as a result either I, or they, or both of us have hated the result. As such a critique can be wrong or irrelevant.

JetCity Ninja's picture

beyond basic composition, i'm absolute shite when it comes to critiquing photography. i can tell you all of the terminology, but i just can't see it in my work or others.

Scott Mason's picture

I think it's a skill that can be learned. Someone posted a great checklist in the comments that would be helpful to go through.

Great read, sharing with others too

Kath Mallina's picture

you know, mostly, the college is also a self-education, but it takes a lot of time for unnecessary courses. What’s about me, I’ve understood in the half of my studying period, college isn’t everything to succeed. That’s why I tried to optimize the time spent on papers and courses to concentrate on things I’d like to do in future. This is a bit awkward to say, but sometimes I used https://gpalabs.com/ and it helped me to develop in photography while my homework was written. In addition, I have to say, I had a grant for education, that’s why I didn’t leave a college and decided to finish my education, but to develop my skills in photography at the same time.