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How to critique a still image

Sharing work and critique is an essential part of a creative practice.

It is very easy to get so involved in your own practice that it becomes difficult to see confines that you have placed on yourself or other ways that things can be done that may be better.

Photographers often have groups of ‘critical’ friends that they meet with on a regular basis to discuss photography, the work that they are currently engaged with and to support each other to develop what they are doing.

Informal critique on social media

You will most likely be aware of a form of critique that occurs within social media networks. Images will be posted by photographers and other people will add their comments and views of those pictures. On the whole this type of critique has a limited benefit in terms of developing your work as it tends to be people’s personal opinions of the images. These opinions can range from brief, positive comments about the subject within the picture or slightly more usefully comments focusing on technical issues. There are of course some upsides to this, as on the whole you will receive positive comments about the work you have produced, which is always nice.

In order to offer a critique that really helps to develop ideas and images further it is vital that you engage with the photographer’s intentions. It is more useful to understand what someone is trying to achieve and make comments based on that, rather than your personal opinions, after all what you like and what you are trying achieve will very likely be different to the person whose images you’re looking at.

Critiquing objectively

So, how do we find out what a photographer’s intentions are? We could ask them, however, this relies on their ability to clearly articulate what they were trying to achieve. It may not be very easy to do this as the idea they are exploring may be very complicated and nuanced, or they may not know exactly what it is they are trying to achieve; part of making images is working out exactly what it is we are trying to say.

Perhaps the best way is to look at images they have used to inspire or inform what they are doing. Hopefully the images they are looking at will evidence a visual approach they are trying to take within their imagery. When looking at images that others are using to develop their own practice, it is important not to concentrate on the subject of the images, after all if you wanted to take fashion images and you only ever looked at fashion images, they wouldn’t be different. Ultimately you would end up making fashion images that looked like the fashion images you had looked at.

Things to focus on

It is far better to look at the way in which the images have been controlled. This could be identifying things which may seem really obvious; things like:

  • Is the image black and white or colour?
  • Is the image high or low contrast (or somewhere in between)?
  • What is the lighting on the image like?
  • Is there a lot of light - is it bright?
  • Is there little light - is it dark?
  • If the image is colour is it brightly coloured or desaturated?
  • Is it made up of lots of colours, or few?
  • How is the image composed?
  • Is the main subject the only thing in the frame?
  • Is the main subject a small part of the frame?
  • Is there more than one main subject?
  • Is your eye led around the image - is there a distinct focal point?
  • If there is a distinct focal point, how is this created? (usually it is the brightest part of an image and/or the most in focus part)
  • Is there shallow depth of field or is everything in focus?
  • Do you have an emotive response to the image? If so, can you describe how it makes you feel?

Once you have looked at a person’s inspiration, you can then compare and contrast it to the image(s) that they have made. Ask yourself what has worked well (this is really important when you are looking at other people’s work and giving them feedback), but also ask yourself what hasn’t worked so well. Are there any discrepancies between the inspiration images and the ones that have been created? This aspect is even more important than the strengths, as it’s this that can help develop images further.

Once you have identified any discrepancies you need to try and work out what can be changed to improve the images. Does the lighting need to be changed – for example to make it more contrasty with heavier shadows – and if so, how might you achieve this?

In the next step, you are going to have the opportunity to critique one of my images (so please be nice!) There are some issues with it, which I (and others) have already identified. It is work in progress and whilst I am reasonably happy it is moving in the right direction, it can still be improved…

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This article is from the free online course:

Commercial Photography: Still and Moving Image

Norwich University of the Arts (NUA)