Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I often read about giving and getting critiques on a photograph or series of photographs. Specifically how do I go about giving a critique? What do I say, what points do I want to hit, etc.

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excellent question! –  AJ Finch Jan 31 '11 at 12:04

2 Answers 2

Jay Lance's answer is great but I would like to suggest a slight modification in the ordering of items. Specifically, our natural tendency is to deliver the good news first, and the bad news last. While this approach has the advantage that the recipient will consider the negative feedback more seriously, it has the disadvantage that ending on a negative note leaves him/her discouraged.

If it is important to you to keep things motivating and exciting, try reversing the order. Start with the negative feedback. And end with strong positive feedback.

Which of the following would you prefer to hear?

  • "You've done a great job with the texture on the fabric, as well as capturing the motion of the clouds in the sky. However, you really need to work on posing, and the background is too cluttered for my taste."

  • "The background is too cluttered for my taste and you really need to work on posing. However, the texture on the fabric is great! You've also done a great job with the clouds and capturing their motion."

The second phrasing leaves you with a sense of optimism for the future. You feel like you're on the right path and you now want to go out there and work on fixing those two other issues.

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The classical technique in rhetoric is the Sandwich: Good-Bad-Good. This is the one that hurts the least. Two downsides: In this case you disturb the logical ordering provided by Jay. Also the "Bad" might not be registered. –  Unapiedra Feb 13 '13 at 11:32
up vote 41 down vote accepted

What a critique isn’t:

There’s no better way to say it… A critique is rarely short, because it is specifically designed to provide the artist with detailed, constructive feedback. It’s primary purpose is not to make the photographer being critiqued feel good (though that’s not to say that it can’t be a side benefit), or bad (though again, this can happen as part of a tough critique). With this in mind, it becomes clear why most photo sharing websites aren’t good places to get critique… A one-sentence ego-stroke “that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” or mean-spirited “that’s the worst piece of trash I’ve ever seen!!!” on a forum somewhere isn’t capable of providing anything resembling feedback that is either detailed or constructive. While a critique doesn’t have to be written, many critiques are. The main reason for this has to do with what a critique is…

What a critique is:

A critique is the giving of feedback after a considered and measured evaluation of a photograph. When giving a critique it is valid to like a photograph, and it is also valid to not like it. It is not valid to not be able to explain why you reacted the way you did to the image, and it is not valid to not offer detailed feedback to the photographer to whom you are giving the critique. A written critique allows the 'giver' plenty of opportunity to both consider what he or she wants to express, and measure his or her words before presenting them to the artist. Generally speaking this is considered a ‘formal critique’ and is a carryover from the art world, where such critiques are often published in a similar manner that a wine reviewer would publish his or her reviews of a bottle of wine. A spoken critique is considered to be an ‘informal critique’ because it is harder to be considered and measured in the giving of the critique verbally (and often 'on the spot').

With that out of the way, it is important to consider a couple of things:

  1. Does the photographer want a critique? Usually it’s best to only critique where you’ve been asked to critique. If you’re doing a ‘real’ critique this isn’t too hard of a guideline to follow, because critiquing takes a fair amount of time, and who wants to spend that time where it’s not going to be appreciated?
  2. Can they handle a critique? Some people, even if they ask for one, aren’t ready for critique. It can be hard to tell if someone is ready (mature enough) or not, but I often start with an informal verbal critique in order to see how the person will react. If the response is anything more than a ‘thank you’ and maybe clarification on any of my points that weren’t fully understood (e.g. instead their response includes arguing, debating, general crankiness, or lack of appreciation at the critique) then I won’t go more in depth with more formal critique. As an aside, as an artist being critiqued, it is not necessary that you agree with the critique for it to be valid. A grateful acknowledgement for the critique is not the same as an agreement with what was said. As I often tell my students: take what is helpful, discard what isn’t. Be a gentleman or a lady throughout.

How do I give another photographer a critique?

Whether written (formal) or verbal (informal) I recommend using a system so that you’ll look at and critique photographs similarly each time you do. The system I use includes the following specific steps:

  1. Take It In Examine the photo as a whole. Take in the details of the photograph. If something stands out (either good or bad) take note of it, but don’t say anything at this point.
  2. Interpret This is your first ‘broad brush’ opportunity to respond to the picture. It’s a chance to talk in general terms about what the photograph makes you feel, what it says to you, what the photo is about (in your opinion), themes, symbolism, etc. Remember, it’s art, not something with a ‘right or wrong’ answer, so even if you see things that the artist didn’t intend, or feel things about the work that are unexpected (to the artist) that’s OK! (and can be extremely helpful for the artist to hear as well)
  3. Technical Here you’ll want to address the technical side of the photograph. Is it in focus? Do you see dust spots (more relevant to film)? How’s the contrast? Would the picture worked better with a smaller or larger aperture? Etc. Essentially if it has to do with the technical side of the photograph, this is the place to address it.
  4. Artistic And the other side to the ‘technical’ coin is to address the artistic. How’s the crop? Is the picture composed well? If it is in color would it have worked better as a B&W (or vice-versa)? Etc.
  5. Good Points It’s important to find some good in the photograph… This is easy when you like it, and harder when you don’t. The truth is that no photograph is irredeemable, and even if it’s a challenge to see it, there is good in there and you need to find it! The more specific the better. “I like the clouds” isn’t helpful. “I like the way the clouds draw the eye across the frame diagonally and pull me more into the frame” is much better. Put some thought into this section, but especially put some thought into this section if you have a lot of things you want to say in the next section…
  6. Areas for Improvement It’s important to remember that for the most part it’s difficult or impossible to ‘go back and do it again’ when it comes to photography. This means that it often isn’t very helpful (and can be quite frustrating) to provide criticism that can’t be acted upon (“I sure wish the tree was on the right side of the frame instead of the left”) I generally try to provide a couple of things that the photographer can act upon (crop the frame differently, and B&W would be better than color) and try to couch things that can’t actually be implemented as ‘things you may want to take into consideration for other pictures in the future.’

Final Notes

Whether you use the above steps specifically or not, the goal of a critique should be as mentioned at the top: to give a considered and measured evaluation of a photograph or series of photographs. To give a critique is a real privilege, and should be treated as such. I rarely walk away from having given a critique without having learned something (sometimes a whole lot!) myself, and as such I believe that both giving and getting critiques are some of the fastest ways to improve as an artist...

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+1 Excellent advice for critique in general, not just photography. The points about making a preliminary private evaluation of the photographer's ability to receive the critique and about finding some good in the photograph speak of wisdom and experience. –  whuber Jan 30 '11 at 17:20

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