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Analyzing & Critiquing Photos For Growth | Know The Rules Before You Set Out To Break ‘Em

By Kishore Sawh on May 28th 2014

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I live in a place that can be terrifically exciting. Miami, is known these days as a vibrant, hedonistic, destination city of sun, sex, and exuberance. It’s basically the country’s G-spot. With its developing country weather combined with first world conveniences, it’s no wonder it has developed as such.

One downside to its boom is that a lot of people who come here, are all very similar. Walking around parts I love like South Beach or Brickell, you can tell with a single glance at some people exactly where they live, what their friends look like, that they have a subscription to the NYT (though only read the Huffington Post), and have no carpets. What I’m seeing a lot of now in photography is that it’s becoming similar. There’s a lot of the same stuff. 

Now I should interject here that similarities aren’t necessarily bad, and that’s not the focus of this post. Hey if something ain’t broke…

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But there’s a noticeable amount of criticism, or at least poor critique, on styles that don’t fit a typical mold, or popular trend. I won’t get into what the typical molds are, but if you’re reading this, you’re likely informed enough to know. Either way, this is terribly destructive to our field; to the creative facility, artistic license, and individual growth. If there exists an inability to approach critique constructively, then this also proves a major hinderance to personal development. The fact is, if you can’t appreciate, let go of your ego and be objective, your own work will stagnate, and you could very well end up one of those mall photographers who still think a muslin backdrop is the absolute height of sophistication. Don’t be that guy.

Getting Schooled

I understand the vast majority of new and up and coming photographers have never set foot inside a scholastic photography class; with the development of digital, everyone can have steep learning curves on their own, and most do. I wasn’t a photography major, but it was part of my study in university, and photo critique was woven into the blanket of instruction every day, and was truly the most eye opening part.

We can all be drawn to images we like, but understanding why, and learning what things warrant appreciation, is clutch to becoming good. Like anything else, reframing how you think about something is as valuable as how to do something. The two are different sides of the same coin.

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I could spend days engaging you in the formal ideas; touching on how to see a photograph’s meaning as it’s been shaped and guided by subject, medium, matter, process, and context; discussing the visual grammar of a photo. We’d then lead into photographic historical periods, not limited to post-modernism and pictorialism. This would involve looking into some of the photographic ‘greats’ and also photos that fall into a more typical vernacular, and then discussing why some photos are ‘art’ or ‘fine art’ and others are not.

These are all really stimulating and useful topics to educate yourself in, and there’s real value to be had from their understanding. I just don’t have the space or medium to do it here. Though if it’s something you all would like more of, do let us know.

[REWIND: How Haters are Destroying the Photography Industry]

Distilled

Since we can’t or won’t get into the above here, It would be my suggestion to think about photographs in two less formal ways, from a technical critique, and a personal opinion. Simple, but making the distinction between the two in your mind is crucial. Certain things like focus or remnants of camera shake (when it appears clear it wasn’t intended) are technical, but things like framing and subject matter are more apt to be an artistic opinion.

What are the technical facets to question? Here are a few:

Exposure: does the light or darkness of the piece have a purpose, and does it seem sensible and deliberate? Is it too far on either end, and are there any significant under or overexposed areas? Leading to…

Contrast: Is the contrast too striking; is the photo clear; are there hot spots? Is the photo too soft?

Focus: Is there adequate focus on the subject, or would a sharper or softer focus been more appropriate? (Think movement)

Symmetry/Layout: Is there any? Should there be?
Does the color temperature seem sensible?
Are there any evident spots, or dust or stains apparent?
Is the horizon level?

More Subjective:

Composition:

  • Does it seem as if adequate attention was given to framing? Do the particulars within the frame seem to be there on purpose, and is their purpose sensible? Are leading lines apparent or effective?
  • Is there consideration of the rule of thirds?
  • Is there a pattern or circular flow into the center or subject of the photo? Is it a different shape?
  • Does the composition give a sense of energy, or tranquility, or tension?
  • Has the shooter missed issues such as branches seeming to come out of people’s heads?

Emotion:

    • Does the photo make you think and or feel? Or is it empty?
    • Does the photographer seem to have tapped into a moment, or connected with it?
    • Is there a story being told?

At the end of the day, these are really just broad rules or guidelines, and sometimes all of the questions and answers will be posed and found immediately, without going through the list. A list such as this shouldn’t override artistic expression though, mind you, you should know the rules before you set out to break ‘em.

And a quick word on actually GIVING a critique. Do not confuse the word critique with criticism. Be constructive, and most of all keep in mind that what you think is simply an opinion and should be delivered with care, and understand that artistic license is everyone’s so there’s no point in trashing or only being negative about someone’s work, without being helpful.

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

8 Comments

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  1. Kurk Rouse

    Excellent read thanks for sharing

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  2. Tyler Friesen

    good article and great reminders

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  3. Rory Alcantar

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, thanks so much for putting out such a real view of creativity, stagnation, and critique. I completely agree, people too easily criticize work that doesn’t fit the mold. That just goes for life in general, I believe. Recently I’ve been believing in myself and really getting creative with my shots & edits, and it’s amazing, the more I believe and put action to, the more my “pathway” is “illuminated”, so to speak. I just discovered this website after a quick google search and I’m so happy I discovered such a positive source to grow from. Now that I’ve discovered this website, I will be coming back often. Thanks brother!

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Rory, hi there, and apologies for the delay in responding. I’m entirely glad you enjoyed the article and were able to do so and find in it some use. It’s very kind of you to write as you did, and it’s much appreciated. It’s funny you should mention believing in yourself, as I think I am at a crux where I need to take a leaf out of your book, and do the same. If you’ve only recently found us, that’s a shame, but we are glad you have you join us here; our team here overs a wide gamut of subject material and we are always looking to hear what our readers would like to see more of. If there is anything you would like to learn or see, don’t hesitate to drop us a line on our Facebook, or contact us directly. Thanks again Rory. Cheers!

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  4. Mr W

    An interesting, if brief read – good work. Articles like this are so rare now on photography websites, this is the kind of thing I would expect to find, but instead we just keep seeing the same old content being regurgitated over and over not to mention the endless bloody plug-ins to be downloaded rather tutorials which actually explain the how and why of post processing!
    sorry for the rant, and more of this kind of writing please :)

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Mr. W, thank you very much for the kind words. I do agree with you on some of what you said, and I hope I, and the rest of us here on SLRL continue to provide reads and posts that you and the likes will value. If there’s anything in particular you would like to learn, or learn more about, or anything you would like to see covered, please do not hesitate to let me know. Again, thank you, and apologies for the delayed response. Cheers Mr. Immaculate Photons -K

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  5. Gonzalo

    It seems that words are free and responsibility-free these days, which make them loud and abundant, but meaningless and empty of any value. Anonymity has turned opinions into screams.
    So yes, I agree with you, and as the famous proverb says: “don’t speak if your words are not going to be more beautiful than silence.”

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Gonzalo, “It seems that words are free and responsibility-free these days, which make them loud and abundant, but meaningless and empty of any value.” I may shamelessly steal this line. So concise, and so precise. I think you and I are very much on the same page here. Now if only there was a way to effectively sway the masses to a more civilized way to think, and to approach conduct. Cheers man.

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