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?

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35 Comments

Previous comments
Andrzej Muzaj's picture

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?

Tyler Finley's picture

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!

Márcio Linhares's picture

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.