How to Offer Effective Critique

How to Offer Effective Critique

Last week, we looked at how to evaluate your own images before seeking critique. This week, let’s look at that process from the other side and consider how we can best offer critique to those who seek it.

If you haven’t already, please head over and read last week’s article about evaluating your own work before seeking the advice or critique of others. That article gives the foundation for what we’ll be looking at today. 

One of the things we do at the photography tours I co-host with Pics of Asia is to critique the work our participants create as the tour progresses. The images I have included are my own from our most recent tour. I chose these as they are some of the images we opened our critique session with. At that time, both Etienne from Pics of Asia and I critiqued our own work before starting with the participants work. It is a great experience to offer your own thoughts about the work of others. It gets you thinking critically about photographs and how to best articulate what you feel about someone else’s work. So, let’s jump right in and consider how we can be of help to others.

Ascertain the Photographer’s Intention

If someone asks you what you think of their photograph, it can be hard to know where to start at times. Perhaps it is in a genre you know little about or doesn’t resonate with you at all. This can make it difficult to give useful feedback to the photographer. A great way to start a critique session is to ask the photographer to describe their image and the process of making it. This can give you several clues as to the type of feedback that will benefit them. 

Asking questions about why they chose to make the picture, why they chose the settings they did, and why they made the postproduction decisions they did will give you an insight into their process and enable you to make suggestions or offer your thoughts based on why they did what they did rather than your assumptions. You might also find that they answer many of their own questions just by being forced to articulate their decisions. Start simple with something like, “Tell me about this photograph.” That gives the person a chance to explain how and why they made the photograph without feeling like they're on trial.

The positive points about this image, from my perspective, are the shallow depth of field that separate the man from the background and his expression. The composition, however, could be cleaned up by raising the camera higher to eliminate the strip of sky at the top of the frame.

Evaluate

After this process, you should have a good idea from listening to the person just what sort of critique they're looking for. Consider that when offering your thoughts. If they seem to be struggling with the technical execution of the image but you offer advice on the artistic side, there's a good chance you'll be wasting both of your time. Try to focus your critique mostly on the elements you feel they are looking to hear about. 

Do you feel like they achieved their intention? Was the photograph a success in that respect? Offer this first as it will serve to validate that something was done right. If not, find something about the execution that was well done. Even within poorly executed photographs, you can find at least one thing that was done well. Let's take a look at how we can do that. 

Begin Your Critique

Before you get started, make sure you remind them that this whole process is subjective. Just as with anything, 10 people will give you 10 different critiques. They’ll look for different things and find varying strengths and weaknesses. It is important for them to know that you are only one person offering one point of view that may differ from their own.

You don't want to only offer advice on the negative side without compliments, it can sound a lot like you're berating a child. You also don't want to offer only praise as it can sound insincere. I have had critiques like both of these and neither was a worthwhile experience. By offering both affirmation and advice, rather than one or the other, you're both supporting and providing the hard-to-hear words that deep down they came to you for. This will make both easier to digest. 

Now that you’ve got both positives and negatives about the image ready, it’s time to back those up. If you like something about the image, tell them why. If you don’t like something, explain why and perhaps offer an alternative way of doing something that may have made the image stronger in your eyes. Again, don’t give your critique as fact. Offer it as your personal opinion. Give that person the option to agree or disagree with what you’re saying. 

I love the colour and moment in this photograph. I feel like stepping to the left slightly and making a geometric composition with the walls and blue doors behing the barber would allow the viewer to focus more on the action of shaving rather than everything else in the frame.

In Summary

Always begin the critique of someone’s work from the place of trying to understand what their intentions were and if they achieved those. From there, you can offer an informative critique that will actually benefit the person asking for feedback. Be sure to always offer both positive and negative so the person can gain as much as possible from your words. I hope that this has been helpful to those of you who get asked for critique and those asking for it. Let us know below about a time that you’ve received critique and how what benefited you the most. If you have offered critique before, how was it received? What considerations did you take into account before starting the critique?

Lead image used with permission of Etienne Bossot, Pics of Asia.

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4 Comments

Magnus Hedemark's picture

The worst people are the ones who offer unsolicited critiques.

Though on photography websites/groups (I mean the ones aimed solely at photographers), in absence of explicit indication, it is usually pretty unclear whether or not critiques are expected.

Jordan McChesney's picture

For me, an effective critique is when the recipient leaves feeling better about their next attempt, rather than discouraged. My only real rule is “don’t be a dick”.

I also make it clear that most of my critiques are subjective (there is no right way to take an image, only right ways to take an image). I try to separate the concrete things (focus, sharpness, exposure, etc) and the subjective stuff (mostly processing).

I like your suggestion of asking them about the photo. It is harder to critique a photo without knowing their intent. I try to keep this in mind to make my critiques appropriate and nuanced. Nothing is worse than being asked “what do you think of this picture?” with no context.

Julian Ray's picture

This topic is very complex and it is so good to see someone start to address it in a meaningful way. Thanks Dylan for delving into a much needed area.