How Critiquing the Photography of Others Improves Your Own

How Critiquing the Photography of Others Improves Your Own

Asking for feedback on your own images is a healthy practice and can help improve your work. Learning how to give quality feedback to other photographers not only contributes to the community and helps fellow image makers, but it can also improve your own photography.

Easily the most valuable thing I learned in going through 4 years of art school wasn't how to pose a model, how to properly compose for the golden ratio, or how to expose a sheet of film. In fact, it really doesn't have anything to do with the act of making an image at all. The most valuable thing I got out of my BFA was the practice of analyzing images and providing feedback; learning how to critique. And it has permanently changed the way I shoot.

It makes sense, right? If you’re training and conditioning your brain to analyze imagery to the Nth degree after the fact then you’ll automatically be doing so when it really matters: before you even press the shutter. Looking at images longer and with greater intent has a side effect of improved decision making and contemplation both in the planning and shooting stages of making your own work. And the best part? It doesn't cost a dime.

I’ve lost count of how many times that I’ve adjusted a composition or changed my light during setup because of something said in a critique, sometimes even years prior. On occasion the statement rattling around in my memory wasn't even about my own work — it may have been something said about someone else’s work that I’ve become more aware of in my own photography. Or it could be feedback that someone else was receiving while I was a bystander caught in the crossfire, soaking in the different perspectives of the audience.

When out in the field shooting or planning images I find myself in a different mindset after recently providing criticism or reading an insightful critique about mine or someone else’s work. I find myself being more careful, thinking corner to corner, and doing my best to measure the image in my mind before even bringing a test shot into existence. I believe that actively being a part of a photo community with a heavy participation in critique and analysis can’t help but make one more mindful, and subsequently more efficient, in the creation of work without conscious effort.

Asking for critique of your own photography is automatically helpful. You get honest opinions about what was successful and what wasn't. That’s great. Use the the new information to improve upon that work. It’s fairly straightforward. However, I argue that providing critique is almost as — dare I say just as — helpful in improving your own work as receiving criticism directly.

Your Point of View Can Help

At first, providing critique can be intimidating, especially if you’re just beginning and aren't confident in your own work yet. If someone is asking for a critique they want to get better, and you shouldn't feel shy about trying to help another photographer out. You’re the only one capable of providing your personal perspective. And even though you’re critiquing their image, you’ll be doing yourself a favor in the process.

Go Deeper Than Likes and Dislikes

Its important to remember that in-depth critique is more than looking at an image and picking apart the things you like or don’t like. Phrases like “the light is dull” do not a good critique make. Go deeper... way deeper. If the light is dull, describe what is making it dull. What is the dullness of light doing to the image overall? Is the light muting colors in an unattractive way? Is it doing something positive for one part of the image but negative to another part? Before you suggest what equipment to use or where to place the light for a better image, explain what you think the light should be doing for the image to make it more successful. Dig deep.

Stop Beginning Phrases With “I Would Have…”

You were not the photographer. The person making the image isn’t trying to shoot like you (or at least they shouldn't be). This is their image/vision/style/art, not yours. Tell them what could have made it more compelling to you. Tell them what about the image does or doesn't interest you and why. Could something in the composition have been focused on or removed to make the image more interesting to you? That information is more useful because allows the photographer receiving critique to make an informed decision and solve the problem themselves without you taking the camera and doing it for them.  That being said, considering what you might have done differently may be a good thought experiment for you that could benefit your own work.

Talk About More Than Just the Visual

Critiquing an image or body of work is about looking at it from every vantage point, considering everything the image is capable of saying both aesthetically and otherwise, stating how it makes those statements, and describing what else it could have said. What does it make you think of? Why does it make you think that? Does it remind you of anyone else’s work? And on and on…

Obviously in-depth critique is (and should be) a time consuming process. It’s understandable that you might want to provide feedback to someone asking for it without spending your whole afternoon doing so. Still, I would argue that practicing in-depth critiques when possible in the above context and practicing some of the below tips will help improve the quality of feedback overall, and in time, your own work.

Providing Quality Critique

If you’re new to providing critiques, or if you’re running dry in feedback, trying some of the below items may help. You might also try the below items on some of your favorite images from other photographers. It's a good exercise!

  1.  Start by viewing the image and taking note of your initial feelings towards the photograph. What’s your gut reaction? How does it strike you? How does it make you feel?
  2. Look at the image for at least 30 seconds straight. Move your eyes around the frame from corner to corner. Where do they go naturally? Why? Where do you find your eyes resting for longer periods? Where do your eyes not want to go? Do you find any elements particularly distracting from the focal point?
  3. Pay attention to the different elements in an image. Do the elements add interest or not?
  4. Consider the purpose of the image if the photographer provides it. A fine art portrait probably shouldn't be critiqued as if it were a professional headshot. Is it a test image? Then perhaps more technical notes are warranted. Does the image communicate its desired message? Why or why not?
  5. Consider the elements of design: Line, shape, form, value, space, color, and texture.
  6. Lastly, think about how the image could be better technically. This is typically the most straightforward consideration, and so its one I like to think about last. Is the image too soft? Too crisp? Over or under saturated? Over or under exposed? Etc.

If you really want to get good at analyzing images and/or providing feedback, choose an image from another photographer (not one who’s work you especially admire), and write a full page of text about the image. Once you fill the page, try for two. Filled two? Try for three, and so forth.

Dig deep. Once you run out of observations, try for one more; your work will thank you for it.

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David Wild's picture

Most critics on Fstoppers too!

Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT, take another person's work and re-edit it for them unless you have their specific permission and blessing to do so. Don't tell people to crop a picture. Tell them, instead, you'd like to see X feature larger. Cropping a picture destroys quality. If they have a chance to re-do a picture, let them re-do it right, not with cheap fixes. A lot of new photographers take a lot of umbrage at any critique of their work, and will look you up and attack your work, if you do critique their work. Soften your critique with praise of what they did right.

Good article, Zac. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

Zac Henderson's picture

Thanks Tom. I'm glad you liked it.

Lars Daniel Terkelsen's picture

Congratulations Zac! You have just written the most important and universally useful article on Fstoppers.
I do hope, that many, over time, will realise how much truth lies here.