Critique the Community Episode 24: Fine Art Photography

This week's episode of Critique the Community brings a lively discussion between Lee Morris and Mike Kelley on what makes a quality fine art photograph. We received hundreds of image submissions from the Fstoppers community and Lee and Mike hold nothing back with their critique. In the midst of everything, we also play a prank on Mike. 

Although Mike is known for the architectural photography tutorials he has filmed with Fstoppers, he is also accomplished at selling fine art images. Mike has created a series through a variety of personal projects and regularly sells large prints to a variety of clients. In contrast, Lee has little respect for most art and has never sold a single large print of his work. Let us know who you think is right and chime in with your own feedback below.  

Congratulations to Nikita Tikka for being picked to win a free tutorial. We'll send you a message through your Fstoppers account to claim your prize. If you missed your chance to participate in this episode, join our next one by submitting your product photos HERE





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The Fstoppers Community Rating System

If you have an Fstoppers account, you are able to create your own profile and portfolio directly within the Fstoppers Community. Once you have a portfolio uploaded, you can browse images in the community and rate the photos of your peers. Even though art is usually a fairly subjective matter, we wanted to create a rating system that was as objective and unbiased as possible. This way, if one of your images has been rated 50 times and has received an average rating of 2 stars, you could feel confident that maybe that particular image is not up to par. Below is a simple explanation of the Fstoppers Community Rating System.

One Star: The Snapshot

One star ratings are limited to snapshots only. Snapshots are usually taken to document a time or location, but little to no thought has gone into the creation of the image. If an image has been "lit" with external light (besides a direct on-camera flash), it is at least a two star picture. The majority of one star images have had no post-production work done to them, but do often have an "Instagram style" filter added to them. The average person these days snaps one star images every single day with their smartphones. Most one star images that pop up on sites like ours are images of flowers, pets, landscapes, sunsets, objects around a house, etc. If you read Fstoppers, you should not be sharing one star images for any reason.

Two Stars: Needs Work

All images, besides maybe five star images, always have room for improvement, but two star images "need work" before they should be included in your portfolio. As photographers, we are snapping thousands of images per year, but only a few of those images should ever be shared or put into our portfolio. A photographer who has taken a two star image has put some thought into the composition, exposure, and post-production, but for some reason has missed the mark. A two star image should not be in the portfolio of a full-time professional photographer and amateur photographers should strive for something better. Even complete amateurs who don't understand photography at all are capable of taking two star images from time to time.

Three Stars: Solid

A three star image is an all-around good image. The photographer has a solid understanding of the basics: composition, color, focus, subject matter, and post-production. A three star image is "good," but it's not great. Most part-time professional photographers have mostly three star images in their portfolios. Usually, a level three image would have been rated four stars if it had been shot in a better location, or with a better model showing a better expression, or if there was better post-production. A photographer capable of taking a three star image is capable of taking four and five star images if they would simply pay more attention to the details. 

Four Stars: Excellent

Four star images are fantastic. In most cases, four star images have a certain style to them that links them directly to their creator. A four star image usually requires planning and attention to extreme detail. It's almost impossible to shoot a four star image by getting lucky. Four star images have an almost flawless conception, composition, lighting, subject matter, and post-production. If you have any 4 four star images in your portfolio, you should be very proud of yourself.

Five Stars: World Class

Five star images are flawless and unforgettable. The amount of time, energy, and talent that goes into the average five star image is staggering. In many cases, these pictures require a team to produce, including a professional retoucher. The concept, lighting, subject, location, and post-production on these images have to be perfect. In some cases, the jump from four to five stars may be as simple as changing the unknown model in the picture with a celebrity or bringing in a set designer or stylist to make the image slightly better. Although there are always exceptions, most five star images take days, if not weeks, or months to produce.

Strengthening Your Own Portfolio

Even with our objective rating system, people are going to disagree with what they like because ultimately, art is still a matter of opinion. However, we believe once an image has been rated over 25 times, it will have a rating that is pretty fair and honest (we hope to deter trolls by giving negative Karma points when a vote is more than one star away from the community average). If one of your images in your own portfolio is rated lower than what you personally feel it should be rated, we would urge you to try to look at the image from an unbiased angle. Step back, erase your memory of the photoshoot itself, and try to imagine an art buyer, stock agency, potential client, or local gallery as they decided if they wanted to invest in your services. Would your image make the cut?

David Strauss's picture

David Strauss is a wedding photographer based in Charleston, SC.

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I was expecting to roll my eyes...the instant I saw "Fine Art". Glad I was wrong..some of these are pretty good!

Well we did a lot of eye rolling trying to critique these. We got a lot of submissions but most of them aren't even close to being "fine art" in my opinion.

I've always had trouble deciding what is and isn't fine art. It's a very ambiguous category, especially if you're first getting into it.

No doubt

Hey guys,

thanks for critiquing my image (20.)
I would like to give a statement about that, just clarify exactly what's going on.

Here the original caption of the image:
"Do what you can't do. A high-key architectural composite, in which I placed the biker who originally performed his stunts 50m on the right side of the building. Adding him on top of the roof gave me the opportunity to add scale to the stunning architecture of the Philharmonie Luxembourg. It added as well way more meaning to the shot."

I am pleased having seen your reaction "wow, that's a cool shot", because that's what I wanted to go for.
But unfortunately, as you can read it is a composite. I want to make things very clear and don#t like to fool people. Hence, I stated that immediately in the caption.

This shot was definitely not meant to be a sports shot nor a documentary image. I wanted to make it art, combining two events from the same place at nearly the same time in one shot. Furthermore, I wanted to add scale to this high-key shot and thought about that concept already while capturing both images.

Still, I don't think that fine art does not allow compositing.
But obviously I did a good job at it, as you could not see it.
I took it as a challenge of my young career as a professional full-time retoucher.

Anyway, thanks for your nice words!
Always love watching your content!

Thanks for the update! So this bit of info does affect my view of this image a lot (because of working with Dave Lehl and judging the Redbull contest). The issue is that the image is cool to me because I assumed it was real and it would be pretty easy to Photoshop images of BMX riders in dangerous/incredible locations. Other composited shots, like Mike's planes or the number 19 image of the guy jumping off of the tug boat are obvious composites so I would rate them differently.

I am not trying to discourage you at all. It's a cool composite for sure, but because of the genre, I have to be tougher on it.

Sure! You have a point about that, comparing it to Redbull. I totally get you, there. Then I'd say "That's unethical". But it's not supposed to be a Redbull or documentary shot. So personal background always contributes to rating as well. I worked myself at a news agency as a picture editor in the past. But I thought, as it is art, it is also a possibility to create things, you normally wouldn't capture.

Anyway, open talk and different opinions are the best start of good conversation and productive exchange!

"The issue is that the image is cool to me because I assumed it was real and it would be pretty easy to Photoshop images of BMX riders in dangerous/incredible locations."

I don't really understand this. Unless you are saying that PP has no part in image production; then surely a shot where the PP is so well done that it wasn't obvious should get a higher mark, not a lower one.

Normally I’d agree but with these extreme sports photos they are “cool” because they are hard or dangerous. I could photoshop someone on top of an exploding volcano. If it’s real it’s amazing, if it’s fake literally anyone could make it in a couple minutes.

Crappy little boats was great lmao probably won't work with Peter Hurley he'll just punch you in the face

Peter is finally sailing down to Charleston this spring...can't wait to finally get to go sailing with him on his own boat!

Let me guess the boat's called "Shabang"?

If it is...I'm not stepping foot on it haha

Double WOW!!! Seeing my image #14 on the front page of Fstoppers AND having it critiqued by Mike Kelley (he's taught me a ton about photographing real estate and architecture through his tutorials - and Lee Morris who seemed to like my image even more).

First, thank you!! Love the site and it's an honor to have my work on it!!!

Now a bit of backstory to the image. I enjoy photographing aircraft in my spare time but wanted something a little different than the standard airplane picture. I experimented in Photoshop with some of the many sequential shots that I captured on a "final approach" aircraft.

The plane in question is a Southwest 737 though I don't remember if it's a 700 or 800 but that's beside the point. I took about 6 or 7 images out of the sequence that maybe spanned 3 seconds. Brought them into Photoshop and worked some magic on them.

I wanted to show movement in a single image but without the blur of a longer exposure. I wanted something different.

Thanks for the extra info. I'm a big fan of that shot.

Much appreciated!!!!

Don't tell Mike "that's besides the point!" He will want to know what sort of hand towels were in the bathroom hahah

Nothing is beside the point in aviation, to a true av geek ;)

True :-) and I'm wanting to add to my collection of aircraft images. Here in Tampa, we get few 747's, almost no 787's, A350's. We are consistently getting 737's (most flavors), A319, 320, 321, MD8x, 90's. I need to venture back to LAX, SFO and similar!!!

I would really love to see this image expanded into a series of 15-20 aircraft. Really cool stuff, and would make great decor art (I could see Lumas or something selling this). I'd be interested in seeing how the images evolved from the first one, until you really nailed the technique and made something consistent and repeatable! Exciting stuff for sure.

Mike, I have additional images in the series and am working on even more!! Like you, I enjoy photographing aircraft and had an idea for something a little different. Yes, there was plenty of trial and error. Also each image has something rather unique. Not just that they are different aircraft. But the colors and shapes that become revealed create an interesting dynamic image - or simply garbage, but then I just tweak and try again. You can contact me directly and I'll send you links to other images in the series once I get them up. Also, I've gotten a ton of great information from your tutorials. Has really helped to slingshot my RE photography. Thank you!!

Happy and glad to see my photo -- Photo number 8 "Frozen" -- criticized here. Always important to get feedback like these.
For info, this picture was taken during a ski trip in Svalbard in 2017. It is a close-up of a glacier in Spitsbergen (the shot covers an area of maximum the size of an A4 sheet if not mistaken). Was not expecting to see this amount of detail trapped inside the ice.

Wow that's really interesting. We had no idea what it was a photo of but it looked really cool

Will you revisit fine art and landscape again? Love the chance to get critiqued by you guys some time.

You should do an episode where Lee critiques 20 Stonehenge photos

Thanks for the feedback. Really good as always. ☺️ I had the first image. I never thought it was difficult to tell what my subject was (probably because I was the one taking it). It was a pulpit in a church. If you see it in my profile the title is Pastor's Pulpit, so hopefully most people catch on if they see that.

Thank you guys for giving nice feedback and constructive critique on my photo nr. 7. This photo is from my bw set that I am photgraphing for my first exhibition. Its bw fine art/nude/glamour. Fine art is totally not my thing since i am way too technical photographer rather than artist. The reason why I made myself do and exhibition of fine art style is to develop my artistic half.

Huge thanks to you guys, im really happy of this win. It gives me motivation for my future work for sure.

Keep up the good work with Fstoppers


Yay, thanks for feedback - I was really curious about it, especially as I see now weak points of this photo (it was shot two years ago, or so). And in general this serie of videos is a gold mine of knowledge about how people look at photography - very refreshing!

PS. Kudos for a nice prank :D
PSS. Fiberoptics, not el-wires ;)

I really really really want to hear Lee's opinion on Rhein II

I’d give it 3 stars. I like it alright.

I can see there is quite a lot of conceptual work in this critique, almost as much as fine art pieces. Is it that fluid? Because for me there is some kind of separation between those two styles. AFAIC conceptual image can be a fine art and vice versa, but the main purpose of both of them differs to me. In conceptual photography my main goal would be... well, to make a statement about the concept. To convey some opinion, statement or emotion about some topic. In fine art, having a clear message sent to the viewer is not necessary. I find them pretty vague most of the time. ;)

Also, I see a there is an opinion that context changes everything - like you said: one person’s snapshot, other’s masterpiece. If I would have to explain what the photo is about and why does it matter, I would consider this a failure in my photographic journey. If my works would need that kind of support (oral, visual - text, etc), that would mean they fail as a stand-alone photographs. They could work as a part of something larger, but not as photographs alone. WDYT?

I was chosen! Haha though it was the weaker of my 2 submissions I was still happy to finally be on this. I was the music sheet one. That shot was done in my first 6 months with a DSLR with on camera flash being bounced haha. Maybe I’ll revisit the idea now that I have learned a ton!

Thanks guys!

Hi guys! I'm Márcio Linhares, the autor of the "guy jumping from the boat" photo (image #19).
I'll try to shed some light on your questions.
The photo is titled "Hoping for the best" and was conceived as a tribute to human resilience and hopefulness trought adversity, but my main objetive is to be thought and emotion provocing, so it's open to interpretation - and humorously many people have had the same reaction as Mike, laughing at the sinking guy (that's me, by the way. So... thanks a lot!!!)
Technically, I have to say you're both right:
1) I recognize Lee's critique of the subject lighting not being perfect, despite having gonne to the trouble to shoot outside on an overcast day, to mimic the stormy day feel (maybe that was the problem). I guess something might have been done lightwise or in post (dodging/burning, more atmospheric elements) to help the blend the subject. I wasn't going for the "colage" feel, so maybe that means I have to work on my PS skills.
2) It was composited from multiple shots as Mike suggested (not from a magazine, but taken by me). 4 shots of the same landscape for the peer and water, one for the sky, one for the boat, one for the guy, and a couple more from were I extracted the water splashes around the boat.

Let me know what are your toughts after knowing that.

Anyway, it's been fun being part of this critique. I aprecciate it.
Keep on the good work. Keep the discusion going. Despite the controversy it might generate, I think this kind of exercise is very useful and you can always learn a lot from the insight of others (that's why I submitted the image in the first place).

Lee Morris: Pfff, one month later I get to see this episode :(
You asked about if my shot was a quick photoshop or no so here's the answer: horizon was invisible because of the fresh snow, fog and back illumination. Here's a straight out of the camera shot

Your critique of the fine art photos was interesting. A couple of times both Leigh and Mike kind of decided that their appreciation of a certain image was conditional on the technique that was used to achieve the image. One was the stonehenge image. Another was the tree against a white background. Joel Grimes unashamedly states that he is an artist and uses whatever tools are available to him to achieve his vision. Surely, the image is the image. If you like it, the technique that was used is immaterial.