How to Properly Critique a Photograph

How to Properly Critique a Photograph

Photographers love to critique. Or is it criticize? Or comment? Complain? Postulate? Pontificate? We seem to witness quite the gamut of behavior in response to one simple request: "CC, please."

It's easy to become annoyed or even disillusioned by the online critique community. Much like the rest of the Internet, the relative anonymity seems to be the great enabler of arrogance and vitriol. However, if you can see past the noise, there are a lot of dedicated and knowledgeable photographers who will kindly lend you their expertise. Following these tips can help you be a better critic yourself.

1.) Sometimes, Artistic Vision Exceeds Technical Ability

There are some really original creative thinkers out there who might not yet have the tools to achieve their creative vision. It's important to always critique the artistic aspects of a photograph separately from the technical. Someone's ability to properly expose a shot is not indicative of their creative vision or vice versa. Don't dismiss one by virtue of the other.

2.) A Critique Is Not an Opinion

Art is full of subjective quantities. It's also full of objective quantities. Focus on the latter. There's nothing wrong with expressing a personal preference, so long as it's framed as a preference and not a critique. Critiques should focus on factually based characteristics. If someone chose to color tone a photograph a certain way, you can certainly express your preference for another color palette, but you can't argue the superiority of one or another. If someone presents a blurry shot, there are objective, measurable quantities such as shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that can be invoked to discuss why the shot was blurry and how it can be remedied.

3.) Have a Purpose

Blanket criticism without justification or suggestions for improvement is extremely off-putting (see tip 10). If you truly want to help someone improve, don't just tell them what's wrong, tell them how to improve it.

4.) Speak to Your Audience

You wouldn't put a new student driver in a race car, would you? If someone is new to photography, don't lecture them on frequency separation or dodging and burning. Help them with the fundamentals that have to be in place before they can even begin to think about more advanced ideas. Talking over their head will only discourage a budding photographer.

5.) It's Not About You

I often see critiques that seem to be more interested in demonstrating how much the critic knows than in helping the person who asked for it, or even as a way to sneakily advertise the critic's own work. Doing this helps no one involved and does little to endear you to your colleagues. Critiques are no place for ulterior motives.

6.) Remember the Context

Don't just look at the photograph, think about the environment in which it was taken. Sometimes, there are variables we simply cannot control (i.e. lighting at an event that doesn't allow flash). Critique the photographer on how well they worked within the environment they were given; however, if they had some control over the environment, such as introducing their own lighting, you should absolutely address this.

Similarly, try to place the current critique in the context of the photographer's past work. Have you seen their work before? Comment on how they've improved or how their style has evolved over time. It can be very hard to see how your work has improved or changed over time, simply because you're too close to it. Having an outside perspective is invaluable.

My friends' recent wedding.

7.) Be Polite

I'm generally a fan of being considerate of others all the time, but I think it's particularly important in this context. If someone has shown the requisite bravery to put their work and creative mind in front of you, reciprocate that with respect for their courage. There should be no reason a photographer walks away from a critique with lower self-esteem, even if that critique was mostly negative. Be sensitive to how you say things and remember that we all experience the words of others differently. A little kindness can go a long way.

8.) Stop, Look, Understand, Critique

So many critiques I've read were very clearly knee-jerk reactions and as such, showed a superficial understanding of the photograph and the processes involved in its making. People often spend 5 seconds looking at an image and 10 minutes writing a critique, when really, these numbers should be much closer to one another. Look at an image, think about it, then look again. You'll see and understand things that simply won't be evident upon a cursory examination.

9.) Start a Dialogue

Critiques are great opportunities to start conversations. These conversations can help you understand the photographer's intentions, further your own knowledge, or simply make a friend. After all, when we ask for or give a critique, we are drawing on the community, so why not use that community to its fullest?

10.) Too Positive? Too Negative? Ignore it.

It's rare that a photograph is so mind-blowingly spectacular or so jaw-droppingly bad that it truly deserves an unequivocally positive or negative critique. And when I say "rare," I mean "exceedingly unusual." You should have a good general sense of the quality of execution of a photograph; if someone's critique is rather out of sync with your intuition, it's probably because they're biased. Of course, we're mostly used to the exceeding viciousness on the Internet; don't let the keyboard warriors of the world undermine your desire to learn and grow. Unfortunately, some people feel a sense of superiority by finding ways to put down others. Don't let this common schoolyard behavior demoralize you. On the other hand, don't be taken by unfettered praise; it's certainly nice to be lavished in, but it does little for the purpose of growth.

Critique is a strange beast. Given properly, it can facilitate both technical and artistic growth, but given improperly, it can derail development, damage self-esteem, and undermine the strong sense of community that makes photography such a group pursuit. Taking time to understand a photograph from all angles: technical, artistic, motivational, contextual, environmental, etc. can facilitate a full and deep critique, one that truly addresses an image in a way that is beneficial to both the critic and the requestor. You might find that practicing articulating full critiques also helps you to examine your own images in an increasingly beneficial manner.

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18 Comments

Dilettante = Be Nice
Artist = Total War

Dilettantes generally need a light hand in guidance because they are only playing with photography as a leisure activity. They get their feelings hurt easily and don't want to be too bogged down with controversies or what they perceive to be trivial details. These folks tend to want to believe that "everything is relative" and that "there are no rules" so that they don't really have to invest much energy in justifying or defending their own work against criticism. A dilettante is usually an individual with an interest in making friends and joining a group of people that share similar interests. Consequently, he's not competitive and feels most comfortable around people that agree with him or at least "agree to disagree."

Artists are in photography because they are driven with a passion to express their own unique vantage point through the medium. Passion is another word for suffering and these people are not making or taking critiques as a leisure activity. On the contrary, their desire to be original inevitably leads to tension with the consensus of the crowd and any attempt to be different is perceived as an attack on group cohesion. Whether he realizes it or not, the artist is always the individual at war with the group. His hidden talents will only be revealed through brutal competition and conflict with convention.

In my experience, most photographers don't want to admit to themselves that they are not really serious about it as an art. Many photographers claim to want to be original and develop a unique style, but how many of them are willing to really suffer for it? It's possible that a photographer's view towards criticism is partially revealing of just what kind of photographer he's on the path to becoming.

I respectfully disagree. Artists are filled with self doubt, the same as everyone else, but especially if they are in an environment that does not value art. You should always be honest, but be kind. You are talking about someone's work, which in an artistic/creative field is their identity. In short, when talking about their work, you are talking about them... you need to remember that.

Artists of all caliber struggle. Kindness goes a lot farther than making them feel they are losing that struggle.

Also, calling people who might be more sensitive or insecure a "dilettante" is probably not the best way to approach a critique.

In "The Prince," Machiavelli tackles the problem of how a ruler should be able to receive advice without losing his honor in the process. A bad ruler only accepts advice that he wants to hear and surrounds himself with flatterers, or he takes everybody's advice no matter how derogatory it might be and loses the respect of others. A ruler must learn to walk a fine line in order to avoid flatterers while simultaneously keeping his dignity when being advised with honesty. Machiavelli proposes that a prince should always listen to advice no matter how negative it may be as long as he asks for it first. In other words, he should never take unsolicited advice, but once he asks for it then he must respect the honesty of the people that answer.

If a photographer asks for C&C then he's actively soliciting the advice of others. He'd better be ready to hear negativity as well as praise and should be looking for honesty rather than flattery. However, in photography there is more to soliciting advice than just directly asking for C&C. Anytime a photographer puts his work on display then he is entering it into the public domain. Once it's in the public domain, then the public has a right to form an opinion of it regardless of whether or not he directly asked for it.

You're correct to say that artists are often filled with self-doubt. In my previous post, I claimed that their passion drives them into uncomfortable situations. The difference between an artist and a dilettante is that an artist doesn't run away from negativity. An artist, like Machiavelli's prince, values honesty and keeps his dignity by deciding when and how he shows work to the public or asks for advice.

The bottom line is that if photographers don't want to deal with negative C&C, then they shouldn't ask for C&C or put their work on public display in the first place.

It's not about what advice you give or what you find right or wrong with the image. It's about phrasing it in a helpful way. Harsh negativity is off putting and causes even the most serious artist to stop listening to what you have to say.

Being kind or nice is not the same as not telling someone what you actually think of it. It is about how you tell them. It's the difference between working with someone and working against them.

Another way to put it is to say that you should be incredibly respectful of those you are critiquing and offer positive/constructive criticism. i.e. tell them what you think the image could use rather than what it is lacking.

Having said that, you may have a different vision for the image than the creator, and you need to keep that in mind, too. Your choices may not be his/her.

There's a difference between the message and it's delivery.

You seem to be mostly discussing the delivery while I'm mostly talking about the message. In a perfect world, messages would always be delivered with politeness and kindness and that approach is certainly the most appropriate for people that are pursuing photography as a leisure activity. But people that are pursuing photography as an art should focus more on the message rather than how it is delivered. Politeness and kindness aren't going to help a bad photographer get any better, but honest C&C certainly can even if it's mean and nasty.

Please don't think I'm advocating that people should be rude to one another. That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm just saying that photographers that are serious about the medium as an art should be willing to get dirty, jump into the ring, and fight.

Zaira Aleman's picture

I disagree. As an art student I'm speaking solely of my experiences in having my work critiqued. Whenever I get my work critiqued, other artists emphasize what they liked while politely saying what needs to be worked on. The key here is respect. Other artists know that you are trying to make it in the world where art is not as respected as it used to be; they don't want to add your frustrations. The message could be the best in the world but let's not forget we are still people. People with feelings and emotions that extend through their work.

Thanks Kahleem

Anonymous's picture

Hi Alex. Another great article and from my personal experience of having you critique several of my photos you practice what you preach so to speak. Thanks!

3) Have a Purpose
Absolutely! Provide suggestions for improvement.
4) Speak to Your Audience

3 and 4 go hand-in-hand. Be encouraging. Maybe you can't be a mentor to them, but provide resources, such as web links, books, and photographers to follow.

I would add two:

1) Read the book Art and Fear by David Bayless before you talk about anyone's work to them. Read it for your own insight, too.

2) Avoid value words (i.e. good, bad, ugly, pretty, nice, etc.) as well as your opinion of the work (I like it, I don't like it). The most important thing to tell a photographer/artist is what works or doesn't work for you and why. Then THEY get to decide if the image was successful or not. Critique is less about evaluating someone's work as offering outside analysis of it.

Example:
Not a valuable critique: I like it. The red is very pretty.
Valuable critique: The red really stands out. To me, it brings a sense of drama to the image that contrasts well with its setting.

i agree with most of your article, i hate it when someone asks and if anyone doesn't give the "oh i love it" answer than they get slammed by the rest of the group. if the pic is not right i think that they should know it. i'm not saying tell them it sucks but give them pointers on how to make it better. i don't think it does anyone any good by fluffing it up. and people have to understand that if they ask then they should be prepared for honest answers. i guys i know didn't tell me what i was doing wrong i wouldn't get better

Richard Lee's picture

Photography is art?

"You wouldn't put a new student driver in a race car, would you?"....please don't make another question like this one...because i would LOL I would put the kid, inside a Koenigsegg Agera R and make him go around Nordschleife, just for the thrill of it.
Now, about the article, there are a lot of obnoxious people out there on the interwebz, they seem to know it all, and there are some of those people around here too, but then, you check out their folio and "damn...why do you even talk". Well, some people, even if they can't shoot properly, they actually have a really good taste, and know what works and what doesn't, so yeah, judging someone's opinion based on folio and or technique is not the right way of doing things.
Sometimes I feel like teaching more, but people act like bricks and think they don't need to evolve, that's one of the things that keep me from commenting and helping other people who i feel that lack the technique I have and can provide them with (let's be clear here, i'm not like the best photogapher on the block, but i know some cool stuff).

Jeff Rojas's picture

This should be re-titled to: How Not to be an A-hole. :P

I spent several years in art school listening to people trash each other's work. Critique day was the one day you couldn't miss but they were the days I dreaded the most. It was rough listening to several hours of people trashing each others work, even when it wasn't mine on the chopping block. We should be a community rather than every man for themselves.

I've actually come to the conclusion that it's better to seek out a critique from certain valued individuals than to put work out for anyone to comment on, unless you're trying to master a technique. That doesn't mean send everything to your mother, just find someone who maybe understands your way of thinking. I still communicate with some former professors and even some well known photographers in my area who have similar subject matter.

One thing to be careful of is to not try to change the artist into your own vision. I had a professor who wouldn't look at any figure work unless it was abstract and would grade low (not to mention rip the pieces to shreds). He ultimately lost his job, then lost another job, because of it. Right here on this website, the last critique I watched told me that a certain person was stroking his own ego and his critique was to change everything to his style. That's basically useless advice.

Michael Rapp's picture

As a rule of thumb: if you're going to spend less then 5 minutes on critiquing, then you really shouldn't bother at all. Better 10 minutes.

Always begin with what's good in a picture, what strikes you. If you can't find it, then go away.

Mind manners: Use tone and language you'd use in a New York subway car telling the other guy his shoes don't go very well with his shirt. Without catching a bloody nose.

Don't point out flaws without suggesting an actual improvement. Otherwise, you're not helping the photog to get better, just pointing out how bad he/ she is. And that can be a downer.

Use language like your granny is watching over your shoulder. With a huge kitchen implement in her hand.

When giving a personal opinion, stress the fact that it is a personal one (Color- key may be dated, but actually some people do like it. And Jeez, sometimes it *does* work like in Sin City)..

Jacques Cornell's picture

Not a critique, just a comment regarding "We seem to witness quite the gambit of behavior":

A gambit is "a device, action, or opening remark, typically one entailing a degree of risk, that is calculated to gain an advantage".

The word you were thinking of is probably "gamut", which means "the complete range or scope of something".

I was a translator & rewriter before I became a professional photographer.

Clinton Green's picture

I appreciate your article, I am one of the many creative thinkers, you spoke in your article, who has not obtain their skills they need to achieve their creative vision. I wanna express my passion through photography, learning how to deal with critiques is going to be a challenge, and open my passion for photography.