Some years ago, when I was making my living as a writer and editor, a lot of people would come to me and say something like “I’ve written this book. Would you take a look and tell me what you think?”
It quickly became obvious that NOBODY wanted to know what I thought! What they wanted was for me, as a knowledgable “expert,” to bless them and their work.
Photographers have exactly the same need for reassurance, not critique. And that’s a pity, because effective critique can really help photographers do a better job.
But here’s a home truth: when a photograph is completed and released to the world, whether via Flickr, a photo competition, or even by cell phone, we no longer own it (legally, yes, but that’s a different topic). It exists independently of the maker and will be welcomed or condemned by whoever sees it.
Unfortunately, most of the time photographers, like writers, don’t see that their baby is now grown up. As long as they see the photo as a part of themselves,even constructive critique will be hard to take. And it’s too bad, but there’s far more bad critique than helpful critique, and this blog entry is intended to make the difference clear.
Ineffective Critique vs. Useful Critique
Critique is ineffective when it fails to give the photographer specific, concrete advice based upon commonly accepted quality standards.
The least effective critique is “I don’t like it” (or the reverse! “I like it” doesn’t give anything to help the maker do better).
The key thing missing is “WHY” I like it or don’t like it. And the “why” needs to be put carefully. It needs to be concrete, specific, refer to the artistic principle or technique involved. Above all it needs to tell the maker something he or she can do to improve the image.
Here are some examples of bad critique, along with improved versions that are more constructive:
Flat light and distracting.
The white tire is distracting
The lighting on the white tire pulls the eye to it instead of to the pipes. Burn the white down or re-crop to avoid the problem.
No central focus, and there’s a dark area which creates a hole in the scene.
Turn the picture upside down and you’ll see that there isn’t a central subject of interest and that there’s a hole pulling the eye away. Recrop to eliminate the hole and emphasize the icy tree. And remove the distracting power tower while you’re at it.
Too many distractions
Clone out the tree growing out of her head and remove the phone wires.
When you compose a picture, it’s easier to see distracting elements if you look at the corners of the viewfinder instead of at your main subject. Often just moving yourself or the subject a little bit will take care of problems like wires or tree trunks. In this picture you can clone out the tree, but it’s better to avoid the problem in the first place.
The blue jeans and knee on the right are distracting. Shoot it again without them.
There is no better for this one. It’s obvious that this is an event photo and there is no way to get a clearer field of view. When there’s nothing to be done to improve the shot, the critique is actually offensive. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do! At the same time, while you can’t move mountains or boulders, you CAN decide this shot’s either worthwhile despite the problem because it tells a compelling story or has a lot of impact (Wiley Coyote, look out!), or you can decide not to take it in the first place --- or keep it for your private pleasure.
So, to sum up – critique scares most photographers silly. As a receiver of critique, you have to be able to say it’s the work, not yourself, that’s being critiqued. (True, because you no longer “own” the work). On the critic’s side, try to give critique which is practical, do-able (unlike moving mountains), and based on sound principles. One-word judgments (bad composition, bad presentation, no subject) are not helpful!
Finally, critique can be the artist’s best friend or most dreaded enemy. It takes two to make a good critique!