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.
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:
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:
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...
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?
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.
When I critique a photograph or a work or art of any kind, I start with praise of something I like in the work. If I see something that I feel needs adjusting or worked on, I will mention what I think might work better, and then at the last of my critique I will end with a positive praise. This is how I would want my work to be critiqued, with a genuine intent to help me get better and to see what others see.