The other day, the topic of “Constructive Criticism” came up in a photography Facebook group. A few people voiced their opinions. Sometimes CC can be really useful and meaningful, but mostly, I find that the CC given online is too subjective and not specific enough. That may be because the photographer hasn’t asked specific questions, or given enough background to their image, or it may be due to any number of reasons on the part of the person giving it. Only the photographer really knows what they were trying to achieve with their image, so ultimately, I think it is more useful to learn how to critique one’s own images than have strangers give their opinion. Of course, it is a great idea to get input on individual pieces and portfolios from different people, but usually in a more personal setting than on FB or Flickr.
So, the purpose of this blog post, is to help you to generate a list of your own which will give you a starting point to critique your photographs. You can also use that list to ask others to help you analyze your images in a fairly objective manner.
The purpose of analyzing our work is so that we can identify strengths and weakness. Look for the strengths, figure out how you achieved those aspects of the photograph so you can repeat them and find the weakness and decide how you can improve on them next time.
1. CLEAR SUBJECT
This can apply to any picture, whether it is a portrait, landscape or abstract. Your subject needs to be defined. Is it the most important part of the photo? Is your eye led to the main subject? Is it in focus? Do you want all of it in focus, or only a small amount? Are you using the correct lens and aperture to achieve that?
In this photo, the focus remains on the subject, by coming in close, cutting out distractions and having the background blurred.
2. STRONG COMPOSITION
Composition is far more than the rule of thirds! In fact many fabulous compositions are not based on the rule of thirds. Consider the Elements of Design and Principals of Arrangement. Click this link for more on that. There are a million ways to create a strong composition. One of the most important questions to ask yourself, is, “What elements are unnecessary to the story?”. Is there anything brightly coloured, or light which distracts attention from the subject? Is there anything behind, in front of or very close to the subject that shouldn’t be there? So often, we can move closer to eliminate distractions and make a stronger composition. Common tools such as leading lines, negative space, repetition, scale, tone and colour all help to create a strong composition.
This location was challenging because it was messy and busy looking. Mirrors open up creative opportunities, but also present problems. In order to draw attention to the subject, I felt the image worked best in black and white to minimise the distracting elements in the background. The strong diagonal lines formed by the dancer's arms lead the viewer's eye across the picture into the mirror, then to the reflection in the mirror, giving the viewer something to think about.
3. DEFINED MOOD OR STYLE
Do all the elements of the photograph contribute to rather than detract from the mood or style?
Consider; colour, lighting, camera settings, expression, post processing.
To create this ethereal, image of the innocent, jilted bride, Giselle, I wanted an almost monochrome look, so I shot the dancer overexposed, with a white background and then desaturated the image in post. My aim was to create a still and quiet photograph with a ghostly quality, since the character of Giselle is a ghost.
3. APPROPRIATE LIGHTING
Is the lighting contributing to the mood you wish to create and story you are telling? Do you want soft light to enhance a gentle mood or does your image require strong contrasty light to show the texture of a rugged old man or create a dramatic, fashion style photo? Is it front, side or backlit? With portraits, I’m always checking for pleasing shadows, especially on the face and upper body as well as looking for nice catchlights in the eyes. Would the photo have worked better with a reflector, fill flash or flag to add or block some light?
Below - nasty lighting!
Recently, I was at a group photoshoot with some talented circus performers. The lighting was really horrid! You can see in the top image how hard and awful it is on the model's beautiful face, with nasty shadows on the mouth and bright patches on her nose, forehead and cheek. Her eyes look lifeless without good catchlights. So I asked the her to move into a better position where the light was softer and to hold a reflector so I could get add a little light into her eyes.
4. CORRECT CAMERA SETTINGS
This could be the million dollar question - is there really an answer? Probably not, but there are certainly camera settings which will help you to achieve the look you are trying to get. Some things to consider are:
This photo was taken in very difficult lighting conditions. We only ended up with 10 minutes to do the entire shoot because a huge storm came over and it was extremely dark. I placed the dancers at the opening of the colonnade to try to get as much light on them as possible. Using my 70-200mm lens, I had the shutter speed at 1/160th sec, which is about as low as I can go hand held. The ISO was up at 2500 and I had the aperture wide open. Still, there wasn't enough light and I didn't want to increase the ISO any further, so I under exposed by nearly 2 stops to avoid camera shake. Shooting RAW, I knew there would be a bit of leeway in Lightroom to bring out some more exposure. I added some pink toning in Photoshop and overlaid a macro photo of crystal beads to create the dreamy look I was after. The circumstances are often opposed to our ideas, but that just gives space for creativity.
6 SUITABLE FOCAL LENGTH
Did you use the most appropriate lens to achieve the style of photo you planned (landscape, interior, portrait, macro)? If you don’t have access to the most suitable lens, how can you work around it? Think about ways of changing the composition, camera angle and consider creative ways of using the focal lengths you do have.
Enormous arms, huge hand and tiny feet!
Another challenging shooting situation. I was limited by space - jammed up against a wall in order to get back far enough to shoot. The only way I was able to capture the full dancer en pointe, was to use a 24mm lens (on a full frame body), which is definitely not the recommended focal length for portraits. In the top photograph, you can see how badly distorted the hand and arms are and how much larger they appear, because they are closer to the camera than the body. I had no choice but to give up or continue shooting with the same lens. So, I had the dancer work more so that her arms, legs and body were closer to the same focal plane, which reduced the distortion effects of the 24mm lens.
Last but definitely not least, if the subject of the photograph is human, check the pose for posture, weight distribution, negative spaces, hands, facial expression, interaction between people within the photograph, connection with the camera etc. What about your camera angle? The closest thing to the camera appears largest, is there an awkward elbow, shoulder or leg demanding more attention than the face? Are the clothes dominating? If it is a fashion shot, that would be fine, but if it is a personal portrait, you’d want to avoid clothing, colour, pattern or jewellery being the dominant element. Check that the eyes are in a position so that the whites are not showing too much.
This girl was a delight to work with. She just loved being in front of the camera.
With all those things in mind, you can analyze your photographs and figure out what worked and what didn’t. Then, next time you shoot, try to overcome as many obstacles as you can. Often there are a number of things beyond our control such as light, location, weather etc, but if we can maximize the strong aspects of the shoot, hopefully they will outweigh the weak aspects. So shoot with purpose and with the end in mind!
I hope this post gives you enough ideas to create a list of your own so that you can analyse your photographs.