Using Image Critiques to Improve Your Photography

by Bill Chambers | April 14, 2011

© Bill ChambersImage critiques are an important and essential element of photography and, as such, deserve a considerable amount of attention. Critiques can be especially significant for beginning photographers, providing many valuable lessons and learning points to aid in their growth.

Since critiques are so important, it is good to examine what exactly what a critique is and isn’t. The word critique means “the act or art of criticizing; a serious examination or judgment of something.” However, it’s important to note the word criticize was once used in a more impartial sense, neutral between praise and censure, while today it’s more commonly thought of in a negative context. What’s even more important though, is what a critique isn’t. A critique is not an exercise used to belittle, to impose one’s will upon another, or to avenge a previous perceived slight by the person being critiqued. It’s also not just a quick “atta boy” or “atta girl” either. If used correctly, the critique can be one of the best learning tools we photographers have at our disposal. It can be a method of helping others grow while, at the same time, providing as much, if not more, growth to the person giving the critique. Certainly a win-win situation for all concerned.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right. You’ll be criticized anyway.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt

Now that you know what a critique is, how do you obtain one that will actually help you? Obviously you can’t control what another will write, but it is possible to steer a critique in the direction you want. Simply spell out for what you’re looking for. When you post an image, be specific about what type of feedback you would like to receive. Do you want general comments or do you want opinions about specific areas within the image, such as composition, processing techniques, or color management? What are your concerns? You need to state what type of feedback you are looking for. This is especially critical for beginning photographers, but also of great value for more experienced photographers as well.

Now comes the important part: when someone actually responses to your request, you have to LISTEN. That does not mean you need to take their opinion as gospel, but you do need to treat it with the respect it deserves. You asked for help and someone has taken the time to respond in an effort to actually lend a hand; be appreciative of that fact and respond as such. If you get several opinions, post a quick response to say thank you perhaps, or if a reply is particularly helpful send the poster a private email. A simple thank you goes a long way the next time you might want an opinion.

Basic transitions © Bill Chambers

When you request opinions concerning your image, you also have to remember another key component of receiving critiques – don’t be thin skinned! We all want to receive accolades but that’s not the purpose of a critique. We want to learn and grow. If you have questions about a response, that’s fine, ask them, but you do not need to argue. The person responding is entitled to their opinion, just as you are entitled to yours. What you do with that opinion is your choice. You can either accept it in the spirit it was intended, or if you find it unhelpful, you can ignore it. When you receive comments or opinions, give them due consideration. Try them and see if they might actually improve the image; if not, you haven’t lost anything but a little time. If they do help, you may have gained a whole new insight that will help you in the future.

One word of warning – be careful not to allow someone to force their style on you. It is still your image and you should not allow it to become someone else’s version of your image. You are asking for help, yes, but you still want to retain “ownership” of your style, even if it may conflict with another’s opinion. Having an image that reflects your vision is more important than having one that might be more widely accepted.

Receiving critiques can be helpful but, in my opinion, the real growth comes from critiquing others work. The reason for this is simple – you’re in control; you know what you like and dislike, what you respond to and what turns you off. You get to see many ideas, and pick and choose among those ideas what works for you and what doesn’t. Critiquing others work has another advantage as well; you can critique (and learn from) anyone’s work, anytime, anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a formal written critique on an image critique website or forum; you can still gather tidbits and distill them down to usable information. So, is there a “correct” method for critiquing an image? Yes, it’s called “whatever works for you.”

River of fire © Bill Chambers

There are some general principles that seem to work well when formulating an effective critique. First, study the image carefully. It doesn’t really matter if you like the image or not, you can learn much either way. Study it – REALLY study it. Look at the composition, shutter speed, depth of field, the light, metering, lens choice, time of day the image was taken, perspective, processing, color management, everything. What do you like and what do you dislike about the image? Now think about WHY you like or dislike a particular image or part of it. Seldom do I see an image which is entirely disagreeable with me. Even images I don’t care for will generally have some positive aspect about them, just as an extraordinary image may have a point of irritation within it. What are those negatives or positives and how can you use that information to positively affect your photography? Images of icons can be particularly useful sometimes. Why do you prefer one image of a popular view over another? Figure these small things out, and use that information to shape the way you look at and photograph future images. This is where the real growth occurs. Studying, analyzing, asking questions, and probing deeper will encourage far more growth than just glancing at an image and thinking, “Hmmm, that’s pretty.”

An additional step would be to put your own images to the same scrutiny you put others to. A strong self critique is equally important for growth. Try to see your images as others might see them – be harsh, really tear in to them and find out what makes them tick. What are you trying to reveal to others with your work? Another way to expand your knowledge base is to emulate those photographers whose images you steadfastly admire. Again, discern why you like what you like, and incorporate those things into your own photography. Be careful here though! I’m not promoting or suggesting copying someone directly or placing your tripod in their tripod holes. However, for example, if you discover a lower perspective works nicely in some instances, you can use that tidbit of understanding in future shoots. Your desire should not be to become a cookie cutter copy of another person or style. Instead, strive to increase your knowledge through observation, reflection, and study, and to more quickly develop or stimulate your own individual style. Notice that everything I’ve talked about critiquing another image so far requires no writing. This has all been an “internal” critique, for your use only, to grow and shape your craft.

Sunrise and two pines © Bill Chambers

Writing a critique can be, and usually is, an entirely different matter. It’s not your goal to become a professional critic, only a proficient one. Most written critiques only involve writing a sentence or two, commenting on composition or sky color, etc. If the poster is requesting more specific information you may write something a little more in depth. When you do write comments, there are several things to remember. One, remember the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you,” and don’t make your critique abusive or ugly. Certainly honesty is important, but you can be honest in a tactful and respectful manner. Also, just like you don’t want someone forcing their style on you, you should be careful not to force your style on anyone else. You are free to make suggestions, but making a declarative statement that implies there’s only one way to do something will be construed as being terribly presumptuous, that your vision is somehow the only true and correct vision. If there’s something about an image that you don’t understand, feel free to ask the person why they did it in such a fashion. There’s nothing inappropriate about doing that. Either a quick post or a private email works well and again, you’ve gained another morsel of knowledge.

All of this sounds good; however, it’s been my observation that many, if not most, beginning students of photography are very reluctant to critique images, feeling unqualified or that their opinion is somehow “unworthy” to be shared. So, how does one become initiated into the game of writing critiques? It’s actually pretty simple; it just takes a little push at first, kind of like a first parachute jump. The easiest way to start is just by making some plain generic comments on images, getting your feet wet. It’s easy to begin with a “nice image,” “beautiful sky color,” etc. This gets you introduced into the game and gets you talking with people. Build up from there with an “I like…” statement, then “I like [blank] because…” While building up your confidence through this process stay busy working on “internal” more in-depth critiques that don’t involve writing. Soon, your comfort level will increase to where you feel relaxed enough to start sneaking a critique or question in here and there. Just because a person is a beginner doesn’t negate the worth of their opinion. Perhaps a novice doesn’t have a full understanding of photographic principles and processes yet, but they still know what they like and dislike, and they’re entitled to those viewpoints. Many times, I feel novices give the freshest critiques of all, as they’re unencumbered by so many preconceived notions about what is right or wrong. There’s another axiom within image critique forums too – if you want people to comment on and critique your images, you also need to be willing to comment on and critique theirs. Common sense, yes, but it works amazingly well. If you make it a habit to comment on just five images for every one you post, you will find people will reciprocate. We can’t be hermits if we want to hear what others have to offer.

Streetwater Lake © Bill Chambers

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, critiques are essential to growth and, as with anything in life, you get out only what you put in. Actually, if you make good use of “internal” critiques, you can get more out than you put in perhaps. By using critiques wisely and conscientiously your technique will improve, your “eye” for scenes will improve and, more importantly, your artistic vision can, and will improve. Critiques offer benefits to all concerned, the contributor and recipient, and to the photographic community as a whole. In addition, it can enjoyable to boot. As they say, jump in, the water’s fine.

Foggy morning © Bill Chambers

About the Author

Bill Chambers is primarily a landscape photographer based in Gulf Breeze, Florida. He enjoys shooting the swamps and marshes of northwest and north central Florida, as well the beaches where he lives. His work is exhibited in local galleries and establishments in Florida and Alabama. To see more of his images please visit www.enchantedlightphotography.com.

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