An Image Critique Primer

An Image Critique Primer

There’s been a lot of talk lately about growth. One of the components of developing as a photographer is seeing the areas where we are lacking in growth. We are often blind to these areas and it takes someone else to point them out for us. This can be achieved by quality image critiques. But how do you know you’re getting a good critique? Certainly someone who says your image is nice and that they like it, just won’t do. Even the converse would be useless. Someone simply saying they don’t like it isn’t very helpful either. So what makes a good critique?

To some degree all critique is subjective, so I’ll absolutely try not to write in absolutes–I promise. Image critique may be boiled down to its simplest form by first identifying the attributes of a good photo. What makes up a strong photo? Here’s a very short and incomplete list of some of the attributes (so don’t tell me I forgot something…).

Composition – Are there strong lines in the image that lead the viewer’s eye to the subject or around the frame? Is the image composed in such a way that the subject is not static and your eye simply sits in one place? Are there strong graphic elements at play? Is there foreground and background interest? Is the Rule of Thirds used to bring out or underscore visual dynamics in the image? Is there an awareness or use of visual weight within the image? Is there balance or imbalance?

Light – Is the photograph lit well? What kind of light is there–harsh, strong, soft, flat etc…? Is it a High or Low Key image? Did the photographer get the right angle to ensure the best light? Was fill flash used? Did the photographer use available light or did they bring the light to the scene? How well did they use their lighting? How is the exposure? Is the image exposed to the highlights or the shadows?

Balance – Are all the elements in the image balanced? Is there visual balance? How is this achieved? Is there imbalance in the image? If so, why?

Movement – Is there visual movement? Do your eyes move around the image? Is there implied movement within the frame? How is this achieved? Is the movement stopped or blurred? What do you think the shutter speed was to achieve this? Does stopping or blurring the movement add to the image’s story?

Emotion – When you look at this image, does it evoke an emotion or feeling? Why is this? Was it created by the photographer? How did the photographer achieve this–camera angle or juxtaposition of subjects? What emotion does the subject project? Did the photographer catch it or just miss it or maybe even capture the moment too soon?

Moment – Does the photograph capture the “decisive moment” or as mentioned above, did the photographer just miss it? What does this moment communicate?

Voice/Communication – It’s very popular these days to call ourselves “visual storytellers” but is the image really saying something to you? Is there even a subject in the image? What is the story? Conflict, anger, love, hate, joy, loneliness, struggle, or innocence? What adjectives come to mind when you view this image?

Technical Execution – How well did the photographer execute the photo? Is it underexposed or overexposed? Is there camera shake or poor post processing? Was the depth of field or shutter speed used properly?

There are many other things that we could add to this list. For the sake of brevity though, I have tried to keep it limited but broad enough so the list encompasses as much as possible.

Now use this list above and ask yourself “Does this image have these elements and to what extent?” Did the photographer do this out of skill or was it just dumb luck? In asking these questions you might find there are several “polar questions” in other words, a question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Don’t stop there though. Always follow a polar question with a “why” or “how”.  The whole point of this exercise is growth, right?  So a “Yes, the photograph is lit well” or “No, it doesn’t move me” won’t help. The point is to dig deeper and find out why or why not. So if the image has nice compositional elements, what are they? Why do they work? What do they bring to the image?  The idea is to explore these elements. When you feel you have explored each element above fully, move on to the next element and ask the same sort of open-ended questions.

Another technique to try is deconstructing an image. This is something we did on past Lumen Dei workshops and I think each participant found it helpful. It may not be as helpful to do with your own images but it can be a great tool in a group or when looking at someone else’s images because you think through the choices they made when creating their image. To do this look at the image and ask how did the photographer make it? Try to guess all the pertinent EXIF data[1. EXIF stands for Exchangeable image file format and is comprised of the ISO, the aperture, the shutter speed, the lens focal length and more, all embedded into your image.] In other words, look at the image and see if you can tell what aperture and shutter speed was used? What lens focal length was used, etc…? When creating an image, all these settings are choices a photographer makes to communicate his or her vision. Do this enough times and you will begin to understand how and why each setting and lens choice communicates in a different way and then you will make the right decisions for yourself the next time you go to create an image.

This post is not meant to be a complete treatise on image critique. It’s meant to serve as a good starting point. Poke around sites like The Mindful Eye, where Craig Tanner does a daily image critique or view David duChemin’s video series where he critiques submitted images from his Within the Frame Flikr site. Get people to critique your images. Don’t just settle for an “Aw, that’s such a lovely image!”

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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