How to receive and give photo critiques

Early in my career, my friends and I used to judge our work on a two-step criteria -- Sucks or Doesn’t suck. It was our way of poking fun of the way our bosses reviewed us. We could never hope for great. The best we could aspire to was ‘doesn’t suck.’

These days when I poke around the web at photo critique sites and communities, they seem to have the same mantra. Amazing work gets labeled “nice pic.” And stuff that needs work? The artists get skewered.

Here’s what bugs me. Neither is particularly helpful for photographers who want constructive criticism to help improve their work. If you are specifically looking for feedback to help you improve, here are some tips to consider.

It’s better to receive than to give

When you have received a number of critiques that are helpful for you, it sensitizes you to what might actually be useful to give. Here is what I’ve found helpful when I am receiving a critique.

Know the reviewer -- I never pay attention to anonymous reviewers. I could care less what “User265shooter” thinks. If I entrust my work to you, I need to know who you are. I consider the person’s experience base -- working history, education, and photos. I want to know her philosophy. I’m interested in focus areas or niche. In some cases, it's enough to know you have a good eye.

In all these things, I’m looking for someone who has proficiency or insights in an area in which I am trying to improve. I’m not asking an HDR specialist for advice because I have no interest there.

I prefer to find someone with whom I have I have some kind of relationship. I like to know or feel that their motives are to be helpful and not just to make themselves feel taller by standing on my head.

Have clear goals to guide the conversation -- If I have a clear reason I am seeking feedback, often that helps improve the quality of the conversation. 

“Bill, I’m thinking of applying to Getty Images to sell my travel photos. Do you mind taking a look and giving me some feedback on what might make the cut?” Or...

“Bill, will you take a look at these photos and tell me what you think?”

Which question do you think will yield the most valuable discussion?

Ask ‘why?’-- I like to be able to ask probing and qualifying questions. If someone says, “this photo doesn’t do anything for me,” I’m going to ask “Why?” I’ve found that’s when I get the most useful information. Pressing someone to qualify their opinions helps them dig deeper and often gets to the real root of the feedback.

Freely you have received, freely give

If you are giving feedback, a thorough analysis of any photo should cover some very specific points:

Exposure -- Is the photograph exposed correctly? Is the subject well lit? Is there the proper amount of light to create the mood or tell the story? Are there any blown highlights or overexposed areas that are distracting? Are the darker or shadow areas so muddy that you lose detail?

Composition -- Is there a clear and compelling subject? Does everything else in the frame work to complement or lead the eye to the subject? Does the action lead my eye on a clear path around the photo? Are there any distracting elements in the photo?

Focus -- Is the subject or main part of the image sharply in focus? Is enough of the subject in focus? Is too much in focus? Is the image free of camera shake?

Impact -- Does it pass the ‘so what’ test? Is it clear what compelled you to take this photo, to save it, to share it? Is there a story?

Emotion -- What do I feel when I look at your photo? What are the subjects of your photo feeling? Can I sympathize? Empathize? What’s my reaction?

In the end, remember that while we can agree on technical hurdles that all great photos must clear, a good bit of your evaluation will be subjective. I was recently looking at photos with a friend and was discussing how I might re-crop it for better effect. 

“I don’t know... I like it just like that,” he responded.

Hard to argue with that. We all know what we like. We know why we create, or whom we try to emulate. Don’t discount that advice goes through the filters of our personal preferences.

Constructive criticism can be a useful tool in helping us grow as artists and works to complement the discipline of constantly creating new work. As we strive to create better photos, our ability to receive and give better critiques will also improve. Create first, then be critiqued and critique others.