Critique is a Variable

Of Mice & Men. ISO 5000, 16mm, f/2.8, 1/160

Ryota of One OK Rock at Self Help Festival. ISO 200 24mm f/4.0 1/1250

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first ever guest post here at Picture Methods. Now that the site has been up for more than a year, and I’ve populated it with plenty of my own posts, it’s time to hear from some other voices in the community that I admire and respect. On a fairly regular basis, I hope to have more of these guest posts. If you’d like to nominate someone to serve as guest, send me an email. As for Steve, I am honored to select him as the first official guest poster. He’s a great guy and an amazingly talented music photographer. He just also happens to be someone who you should pay attention to as a thought-leader in our industry. He’s been around a long time and earned this spot. So with a hat tip to Steve, and a thanks. 

SBRAZILL_Headshot
Steve Brazill

Let me start by saying thanks to Scott for having me here on the Picture Methods blog. I have been aware of Scott Bourne for as long as I can remember. He’s one of the first photographers I followed on social media, or listened to on a photography podcast, but I actually first became aware of him on the TWiT show MacBreak Weekly. On social media Scott always shares great info, and I am not sure if anyone else does this, but when I see a tweet that has something I might want to remember I email it to myself. That way I not only file that info away for future use, but I also have a record of who I got it from. Well, I still have tweets from Scott Bourne going back to 2010. In 2011 I even won a Canon printer from Scott, and rather than have him ship it, I met him for lunch in Vegas to pick it up. Over this 10 years I have gotten to know Scott, and even managed to get him on Behind the Shot. So yeah, doing a guest post for him is kind of surreal. Thanks Scott.

What is a Critique?

I have been thinking about critiques a lot lately, so I decided to look the word up. Google, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary.com all have similar definitions, so for the purpose of this post I will paraphrase and combine a few and go with:

cri·tique:

a detailed analysis and assessment of something

evaluate in a detailed and analytical way

to review or analyze critically

For the sake of this post I am going to stay focused on critiques as they relate to images / photos, but feel free to apply this in any way that helps you.

I want to start with a theory…. there is no single critique for any given photo, there are many. In other words, “Critique” is a variable. If you and I critique one of your photos, the odds are pretty good that we will have varying opinions. Arguably, your self-critique would be more important (more on that later), but good third party reviews of your work can be invaluable in helping you grow as an artist too.

Of Mice & Men. ISO 5000, 16mm, f/2.8, 1/160

Based on the definition, a critique sounds pretty open ended to me. It’s a critical analysis or review, but that definition doesn’t specify any criteria. Are you analyzing the photo based on composition? Maybe technical execution or technique? I suppose it could be based on color usage or accuracy, post processing, intended usage, or personal taste. In fact you could critique an image on any one of those, a combination of a few, or all of the above. Most image competitions I’ve been involved with use the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) “12 Elements of a Merit Image”, which include:

Impact
Technical Excellence
Creativity
Style
Composition
Presentation
Color Balance
Center of Interest
Lighting
Subject Matter
Technique
Story Telling

That’s a pretty wide spread of options to base a critique on. Impact or Style? Those are completely subjective. And Story Telling, while often clear and obvious when done well, can be subject to the viewer understanding your subject. Competition judges are encouraged to consider all of these elements when looking at an image, but in practice I think most tend to favor only a few. One judge may be a stickler for technical execution, while another may prioritize individual creativity and style, and almost all are affected by impact. The result is multiple critiques, based on varying criteria – all for the same image. Understanding that can help you to better review your own work with a critical eye.

Let me try to tell a story with an image, and I will use image competitions as the example. Years ago I entered the image below in an image competition at my local photo group, and the result surprised me.

Gabbie Rae at the House of Blues, Anaheim. ISO 3200, 10mm, f/3.5, 1/125

One judge scored it in the high 80’s…. one gave it something in the low 70’s. The overall score of the three judges was 77. Let me state up front, my point here is not to argue if the image is good or not, but to focus on how different judges saw the same image.

At the end of the scoring the image didn’t get a merit, which is an 80 or above, and the judge that scored it the highest challenged the score. When that happens the judge that challenged is allowed to argue why he or she feels the score should be higher (or even lower). The judge proceeded to say, very passionately, that the image reminded him of “every concert he’d ever been to”. He related to the subject, and the story. And clearly the image had an impact – based on his memories. The second judge, the one that scored it really low, obviously saw the image differently. His comment was enlightening: “All I see is the back of a bunch of heads”….. that’s it. I don’t remember what the third judge said, only that he didn’t like it either.

So let’s examine what this means…. neither judge was right or wrong, and if anything they were both right. They critiqued my image, they judged it, based on criteria that ended up being different for each of them. The one that didn’t “get” the image was an older gentleman that had zero experience with going to a modern rock concert. The younger gentleman, or at least relatively younger, clearly had a lot of those experiences in his life.

In that moment so much became so clear to me. One image and two exact opposite interpretations. This experience is one of the reasons I suggest people join local photography groups and enter these local competitions.  You can sit in the audience listening to comments and learn a ton. You can even scream at the judges in your mind as they talk about your images (yes, screaming outside of your mind is frowned upon), but hearing what other people really think about your photos can be very educational.

Context Matters

Staying with the competition analogies for a bit longer, one of my key takeaways from these image comps is that an image critique varies based on the goal. My good friend, Troy Miller, is the one that got me to start entering these competitions years ago. He later convinced me to start judging, and he taught me pretty much everything I know about being a judge.

Bruce Watson of Foreigner. ISO 1600, 16mm, f/2.8, 1/1000

When my images would score poorly Troy would usually say that I had “entered the wrong images”. When I explained that these were images that I loved, shots I was very proud of, he explained that “just because an image is good doesn’t make it a good competition image”.

Think about that for a second… intended use matters. There is not just one critique possible for an image. I may judge your image differently for a competition than I would for a portfolio. In an image comp we will assume you had full control of the lighting and posing in a portrait, so if there is any clipping of the highlights we will lower the score. If the iris of the eye touches the inside edge, meaning the iris doesn’t have white on both sides, we may lower it more. But both of those in the real world may never be noticed. I see images in advertisements breaking these guidelines all the time. It’s even possible that an image you wouldn’t be caught dead with in your portfolio is the one shot your client loves. That’s a scenario I have seen or heard of many times. It seems clients always choose our least favorite shots.

The bottom line here is that with a critique context matters.

Here’s one more quick example. For each episode of my podcast Behind the Shot I invite a guest to dissect one of their images. We examine it in detail, looking at all aspects of the shot from conception to completion, and all the stories and challenges that happen in between. I want to better understand why they made the choices they did. Picking the image is rarely easy. On occasion an artist wants to use a photo that, while wonderful, won’t work for the show. The image we use needs to be more than a great shot, it needs to be one I have questions about. If I look at the image and have no curiosity the episode won’t work, even if the shot is amazing.

Consider the Source

We have all seen, or gotten, the “Social Media Critique”. Sometimes it’s just a “Nice shot”, while other times you’ll get the “you need to do X to save the image”. Neither of these is helpful.

When one of your images is critiqued, it is most helpful if the person doing the critique understands your genre, and better yet is someone whose work you like and whose opinion matters to you.

I’m a music photographer, and yet I wouldn’t put the same weight on a critique from a random music photographer I don’t know as I would from Christie Goodwin, David Bergman or Danny Clinch. The source matters.

Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant. ISO 3200, 15mm, f/2.8, 1/200

What about cross genre critiques, like a landscape photographer critiquing my Cage the Elephant shot above?

It depends on the photographer. If I know that photographer’s work, and believe his or her experience can be helpful, then why not? More importantly, I can learn from any input. As we discussed above, the judge that didn’t like my photo still made me “see” my work differently. Any viewer that sees your image will have a different reaction, and that reaction, no matter how positive or negative, can help you improve your craft. It can help you better understand an audience.

Learn to Self-Critique

And all of this brings me to the main point of this post. The most important person to critique your work is…. drum roll please….

You!

If you don’t think you can critique yourself, then you need to tweak your outlook a little. You should know your genre, and if you don’t it’s within your reach to learn, and you should like your own work. I’m not saying you need to think you’re the best out there – as “the best” is not really a thing. Recognize where you are in your career, and acknowledge your current skill level. Be honest with yourself. Whatever level you are at you can always learn more, and improve.

Mike Hranica of The Devil Wears Prada. ISO 200, 78mm, f/2.8, 1/400

It’s a good time to review the definition of “critique”. You need to learn “to review or analyze critically” when looking at your own work. When you do, you may find yourself comparing your work to others, and that’s OK, as long as you keep the proper perspective.

Try to avoid comparing all of your work with someone else’s hits, and instead of trying to emulate those people, use the comparisons for goal setting. It is OK to aim to be as good as someone else – as long as you are using your own photographic voice. Finding your own style can be hard, and it takes time, but it will happen naturally. Let it happen, and help it by critiquing your own work, and not superficially, but in depth.

Self-critique applies to selecting images you share online as well. If I photograph a concert I could end up with hundreds, or even thousands, of images. I see every one of them, the 5 star shots and the horrible mistakes – like the shot below of the bassist for Pierce the Veil jumping out of frame – hey, it happens. Comparing my hits and misses with the images some great photographers post on Instagram is unrealistic. Don’t compare all of your work to someone else’s highlight reel.

Jaime Preciado of Pierce the Veil. ISO 100 24mm f/4.0 1/800

When you do social media posts, and I tell people this often, only post the work that shows you the way you want to be seen. If you post ten photos and 3 are great (I’m rooting for you), 5 are good, 1 isn’t good, and 1 is really bad, then people will see you “the photographer” as the one that’s really bad. Potential clients will wonder which photographer will show up to do the job – The Good, The Bad, or the Oh Please Not That One.

Choosing images for your portfolio may be the most important self-critique you will every do. Picking the right images, and putting them in the best order, can be the difference between getting a call or not. Select the shots, and then edit the selection, before you edit it again and again and again. Be critical.

As we have discussed, self-critique requires an understanding of what the images will be used for, and then critiquing them without emotion. Looking at your own photos can bring back memories. You were actually there, on that mountain, at that wedding, on stage for that concert, but the viewer wasn’t. They don’t have any emotional attachment to the shot. Without that emotion does the image still tell the story? Does it create its own emotion? Does your image create a reaction in the viewer – a smile, discomfort, happiness, sadness, love, hate, wonder or whatever? Does it have IMPACT?

Let me finish up with this, one of the most important areas of critiquing images – like yours – is understanding the tried and true norms of the art. Composition matters. I hear people say “it’s ok to break the rules’, but looking at their work it sometimes feels more like an excuse for not knowing those rules. Yes, it is 100% OK to break the rules. Please, break the rules, since they are more like guidelines anyway. But, know them first. Understand the Rule of Thirds, or the Rule of Odds. Learn the Golden Spiral, also known as the Fibonacci Spiral or Golden Ratio. Study the old painting masters, and look at how they use these rules, and how they use light. You should understand the common lighting patterns, like Rembrandt or Butterfly lighting to name a few.

Once you understand that these “rules” have been around for a lot longer than you’ve been photographing, and that they are used because they are proven techniques to guide the viewer, make the subject more flattering, or improve the story, then by all means break them… create with your own voice.

Just be sure to honestly critique your work when you are done.

Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach. ISO 1000, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/640

Thanks again Scott for having me here on the Picture Methods blog!

Follow me online at:

Instagram: @SteveBrazill
Twitter: @SteveBrazill
Facebook: @SteveBrazillPhotography
Podcast: Behind the Shot

All Images Copyright Steve Brazill, All Rights Reserved.


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