Someone telling you they like your photograph is easy, but “Wow, that photo is fantastic” or “What a great image” means very little. Someone telling you why it’s fantastic or great is more difficult, receiving useful feedback on a subjective matter is something that requires training.
Getting feedback is easy – but getting useful feedback is a more difficult matter. As a photographer learning to listen to a critique of your work and not being defensive can sometimes be difficult.
This being said, photographic critique is a very important element in the development of every photographer.. By subjecting our photographs to objective critique we put ourselves in our viewer’s shoes, and have a chance to explore our photos from a different point of view.
I had the honor of studying under Ben Lifson for a period of time, it is from him that I learned the principles of photographic critique (among a great many other things).
Mr. Lifson’s background in criticism began in 1977, when New York’s Village Voice invited him to become their photography writer. Five years and over 150 critical articles later he left the Voice having published on almost every major photographer of his time. Independent of theory, favoring no style or school, he has written positive appreciations of works from “straight” and “documentary” photography and photojournalism through post-modernism and beyond, and of such dissimilar modern and contemporary photographers as Laurie Anderson, John Coplans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Frank Gohlke, Jan Groover, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucas Samaras, Cindy Sherman, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, and Garry Winogrand.
I will attempt to convey the basic tenets of what he taught me here…
1) Technical points
The first thing to evaluate, are the technical points. Is the photograph technically okay? Is it free from imperfections, is the exposure okay, is there any unintended blur (wrong focus, motion blur, zoom blur etc)? Are the colors accurately represented? What’s the contrast like? Could the photographer have used lighting differently? Would a bigger or smaller aperture have been beneficial?
2) Artistic points
What do you think about the crop and aspect ratio? Is it composed properly? If the photo is in black and white, should it have been in color and vice-versa? Is there a good balance between the foreground and the background? Does the image have visual appeal and impact?
5) Good points
This is where you decide what you like about the photograph, and why. The “why” bit is most important: If you can’t tell why you like X, Y, or Z, there’s no point in evaluating it. “I like the sky” is useless. “I like the color of the sky” is better. “I like the deep blue color of the sky because it contrasts nicely with the yellows and reds in the photo” is perfect. Some thought has to be put into this.
6) Points worth improving
These points are saved for last.. It is still important to remember that the photo has been taken, and can’t really be changed to a substantial degree anymore. As such, there’s no point in deriding people for their efforts. They need to know one or two specific points that could be improved on this particular photo (‘clean up imperfections’ and ‘turn into black and white’ are useful suggestions, as they can done in the post-processing), and perhaps one or two points that you would have done differently.
The Philadelphia Photo League offers contributing members an annual critique, given by a select panel of our most experienced photographers. It is a great benefit and something that should be take advantage of.