the art of the critique

The Critique

The critique process is one of the most underestimated learning tools available to photographers. Coming from an original meaning of "critical examination or review of the merits of something," this provides and understanding of what makes compelling artwork attractive, both from the perspective of the artist and that of a broader audience.

However, the process may not be for the faint of heart; requesting a critique can leave an artist feeling vulnerable, the critic on the other hand may feel unqualified or afraid to face the possible disagreement of others. However I feel it important to overcome such reservations as the process provides so much opportunity for growth.

But what is the process of critique, and who should participate?

A good critique should provide an artist feedback on all aspects that strengthen or diminish a requested image, and include the emotion/story the artwork evokes. All of this is on the understanding that art is extremely subjective and that the contributor has the ultimate decision in following their own artistic taste.

The Process

First off I want to dispel any feeling that you have to be an expert to provide feedback on images. In my book as long as you have a set of eyes, an opinion and a willingness to help others that is qualification enough. In fact feedback coming from a perspective free of preconceived ‘rules’ can be just as valuable as that provided by a seasoned critic.

Following is my view on how an evaluation should work, and the feedback that should be presented to the artist. In ALL cases this should be done both with sincerity and with the intent of helping the artist.

Feeling

Enlarge the image to full screen - take at least 10 seconds to view and ‘feel’ the image (no analysis at this point). Acknowledge that initial reaction - describe an overview of what you see overall, how the image makes you feel.

Seeing

Start with identifying the positives in the image. What do you feel strengthens the image (composition/processing etc). Be sure to include a number of positive elements to balance the perhaps easier to spot flaws.

Move on to the negatives. Identify key elements that diminish the image. If these vastly outweigh the positives above focus on one or two of the most obvious flaws, consider those where you can offer correction steps. If in doubt show restraint with negative comments.

Thinking

What changes do you think can be made that might make the image stronger (eg cropping, color correction, removal of distracting elements etc)?

Closing

Finish the critique with an overview of the key points you have covered. Be sure to state that your critique reflects your own artistic taste and that this may differ to that of the artist/others. Other suggestions include thanking the artist for being open to critique, indicating that you are looking forward to seeing a re-edit of the image, or future works by the artist etc.

The Benefits

So now we understand the critique, where is the payback for the time that has been invested?

Benefits for the artist

  • like it or not, our personal images contain an underlying emotional element. They capture a snapshot of the environment and experience we felt at the instant the shutter was triggered and can have a strong influence on how we feel about an image. Other viewers are decoupled from this emotional element (unless perhaps captured adequately and included in the image) and are free to analyze on the basis of what is presented in front of them.

  • we learn how a broader audience reacts to our work, the resulting feedback can aid growth

  • through experience we become better critics of our own work, thus promoting growth both technically and in our confidence

Benefits for the critic

  • offering critique forces us to not simply react to an image. This require us to to pause and investigate, dissecting and understanding the elements that strengthen or diminish images.

  • performing critiques subconsciously influences our own work in a positive manner

  • we become better critics of our own images, resulting in a higher quality output

  • we learn the ability to decouple the emotional attachment to images, to stand back and view artwork as others would.

The Guidelines

With such growth potential I would recommend that all embrace the critique process. Here are a few brief guidelines to help make each participation successful;

  • respect the viewpoint of others and be open to disagreement - there is no right or wrong, only opinions

  • all comments should be well-intended, clear and sincere - remember the goal is to help one another grow

  • consider the feelings of those you are critiquing. If you are unable to comment on any positive aspects within an image then don’t comment at all.

  • invest the time into providing a meaningful critique. Help others understand what you feel and see in an image - brevity such as “I like it” is little help to anyone without understanding the ‘why’..

I guarantee that being involved in the critique process will result in significant growth and provide a better understanding of the diverse viewpoints we all hold.