It has been said that the most challenging thing to do is to judge your creative work objectively. Be honest. Can you tell when your work seems to be missing something? More importantly, do you know what it is that’s missing? You can only improve your photos if you set a high photo standard to compare yourself against.
In general, photographers are very good at deciding how much they like someone else’s photo. It isn’t hard — your first reaction to a shot is either positive or negative, and it typically doesn’t change much after that. Things get more complicated, though, when you’re talking about your work.
One of the best ways to improve your photography is to look at your pictures with a positively critical eye. You are viewing the photos you have made and deciding which ones you like and do not like and why you will build your photographic style.
Having a more experienced photographer critique your photos for you will help you grow more quickly. It is important to only seek review from someone who offers it constructively without putting you or your efforts down. When you critique your photos, do so with a positive attitude. So many creative people are too hard on themselves. Be optimistic about seeing things in your photographs you want to improve on.
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Photography is very much a left-brain and proper brain art form. It is also the combining of the two as a whole.
The left brain, our more analytical and technical side, needs to take control of the camera and manage it’s settings well. We must know and understand our cameras to create photographs of a technical standard we are comfortable with.
The right brain is our more creative and artistic side. It needs to have the freedom to innovate and express how we experience the world around us through the pictures we make. The more our photos can say how we experience and feel the life around us, the more they will appeal to others and captivate imaginations.
Sandwiched between these two aspects of photography are your choice of subject and five key elements:
Incorporating all five elements into a single frame is not easy; we must pursue and achieve as often as possible.
The subject is so subjective! (even more so than other aspects of photography.) It is up to you what you want to photograph. There is no right or wrong. If you’re going to photograph your dog, that’s up to you. Who are we to tell you your dog is ugly or unphotogenic? To you, it’s your dog, and you love it no matter! Photographing what you love will bring deeper meaning to your pictures.
Some subjects can be technically better than others, so thoughtful choices need to be made. Issues such as flowers or fruit are not so attractive if the residents are damaged. However, the style of photo you are making, whether the flowers are old or faded, may be irrelevant. But definitely with some issues to attain a particular type, you must choose carefully.
Characteristics of a Great Photographer
The first factor was the intent. What did the photographer have in mind when they took the photo and did they achieve it? For example, did the photographer successfully make the viewer feel empathy when taking pictures of survivors of a major natural disaster?
The second factor was technical skill. Did the photographer show a thorough understanding of composition, light, exposure, and design?
The final factor was consistency. Did the photographer have just one or two great shots, or did they produce success time and time again? One great photo—or even several—does not a great photographer make.
Intent, skill, and consistency are the same three factors that will determine your greatness. Study the masters like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham, and Diana Arbus, and you will see these three factors again and again. But the question remains, how do you get from where you are now to that level?
Have you ever heard the phrase “being your own worst critic”? Most people tend to think of that as a negative phrase when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. To learn and grow in photography, you have to be strong enough to admit what does and does not work in your photos.
To that end, here is a strength and weakness checklist for you to use when reviewing your photographs. It’s not complicated. Just look at your photo and mark whether it is strong or weak. There is no middle grey; your image either succeeds or does not. Once you know your weaknesses, you can work on improving in those areas.
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Initial Questions To Answer When First Viewing for a Constructive Photography Evaluation
- What about this image makes it stand out from other similar types of images?
- Is there something about this image that makes you wonder, “how’d they do that?”
- What about this image caught your eye?
- How is the eye lead around the image?
- What gives/causes the emphasis?
Emphasis is the resting place for the eye. The eye will return there. Having an emphasis creates a centre of interest.
Photography With Your Left Brain Hemisphere: The Technical Stuff
In answering the photo, analysis questions don’t be too concerned with the formal elements of photography. A lot of the technical aspects of photography are very subjective. There are no universal technical principles that can be applied to every constructive photography evaluation.
Good photo critique examples will always include technical considerations. Sometimes a photo just does not work because of poorly chosen camera settings. Very rarely do images that are technically precise yet lack any creative expression or emotive values stand out.
- Do you always shoot at whatever the camera says, or do you take control of the light?
- Can you see the details in your shadows?
- Have you ever used a reflector or bounced a flash as opposed to straight on?
- Is the photo overexposed or underexposed? If so, can you say why you think that happened?
- How could you prevent this problem in the future?
Exposure is subjective, but it is a technicality significant to the photo. If too much or too little light has reached your camera’s sensor for the result you want, you have an exposure problem. A photograph can have areas where the highlights or shadows contain no detail yet still be well exposed. Technical purist photography critiques will disagree with me on this point.
- Is the main subject in focus where it needs to be?
- The point of your composition you decide is the most significant should usually be where you have focused your lens.
- Is the focus appropriate for the situation?
- Do you choose where the viewer will look?
If the background is just as sharp as the foreground, things can become very visually confusing. Focus does not always need to be on what is closest to your camera. Photographing anything with your eye, your point of focus is usually best on the eyes, )or one of them.) Sometimes photographing a person, you may want to focus on their hands and have their face blurred. Your point of focus should be very intentional.
Depth of Field (DOF)
- Is the DOF shallow or deep?
- Would your photo be better if the background were more blurred or less?
- Have you used framing, balance, contrast, and other art concepts to make your image jump off the page, or does it just sit there?
DOF should also be intentional. Does your photo contain enough of your subject in focus? Is there too much or too little that is sharp? When you have used a narrow aperture and have a shallow DOF consider the amount of blur.
- Is the white balance correct?
- Is there a yellowish, bluish, or greenish cast to the photo?
When the white balance is off, the photo will generally look odd. Sometimes an alternative white balance choice can give an attractive result. The ‘right’ camera setting may not produce the most creative work. A ‘wrong’ camera setting may have made a striking image.
Photography With Your Right Brain Hemisphere: The Creative Stuff
- Can this photo be described with words of emotion, like peace, calmness, anger, rage, joy, or sadness? Does your image make an emotional statement?
- What do you feel about the photo?
Try not to use words associated with photography when writing your analysis. Answer the questions in pain terms. There may be better ways to express your constructive photography evaluation than by using basic photography terms. Ask yourself these questions to help you think about your feelings:
- What mood do you see in the photo?
Photographs can convey emotion. This is not only related to the expressions of people in the picture. Color, tone, exposure choice and other subject matter can infuse a photo with emotion.
- Is this mood is what you intended?
Know your camera well, so you do not have to pay so much attention to them. The more you can concentrate on your subject, the more you will connect. Being present in the moment and mindful of your issue, the more feeling you can express in your pictures.
- Does it make you happy? Sad? Angry? Scared?
- Did you succeed in telling your story with the photograph? Why or why not?
- Is there a feeling of movement within your image, or does it just sit there?
- Does it leave anything to the imagination, or is it just a statement of what is?
If your image doesn’t tell a story, there is no reason to give it a second glance. Great photos make you want to look again and again. Telling an account with your images will be most potent when it is your story. Not someone else’s story. Your photos are best when they radiate your experience.
Ansel Adams was known for the powerful illusion of depth and all planes in very sharp focus. Jim Zuckerman is known for vibrant colours and simplified subjects within their natural setting. Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”
- How will others describe your unique approach?
- Do you like the photo or not?
Write down why you like the photo or why you don’t. Be kind to yourself answering this question. So many creative people, myself included, too often tend to be pessimistic about what they produce. Before telling yourself, you don’t like a photo, make sure to consider the photograph’s positive elements.
Center of interest
- When composing your images, do you successfully direct your viewer’s attention to a specific point?
- Would the viewer know where your centre of interest is?
- What do you feel when you view this image?
- Would you hang this photo on your wall? Why or why not?
This, for me, is one of the ultimate tests of whether you like a piece of any visual art, not only photographs. It is the best constructive photography review question. Putting action to a positive response to this question requires far more commitment than clicking ‘Like’ on a Facebook photo or giving a ‘Heart’ on Instagram. If you like your picture, get it printed, have it framed and hang it on your wall or someone else’s.
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Whole Brain Photography: Balanced Constructive Evaluation and Critique
We have talked about the left technical brain and creative exemplary brain aspects of photography. You might still be wondering how to balance these points. How do we do this in an overall constructive photography analysis and critique?
There are five qualities of a good photograph. Each of these is elements that ideally will comprise a technical and creative balance. These are:
Light is the substance and essence of photography, not of photographs, but photography. Where there is no light, it is impossible to make a photograph. Light is the raw material of photography.
The relationship between the light and the subject is highly significant. Some issues will photograph better under hard light; others will not. Some topics will photograph well under either hard or soft light. They will render significantly different images.
In your constructive photography analysis, study the light. Hopefully, you will have done so already before you made the photograph. Consider it again now.
- Have you achieved what you wanted with the light?
- Is your photography exposed well where you need it to be?
- Does this bring balance to the mood the light creates in the photograph?
Variation in light between the hardest and softest is immense. It’s within this range and deviation we must find the most pleasing light to create our photographs. This variation can significantly affect our exposure choice and the feeling in the photo.
- Were you using available light or introducing a reflector or light source (a flash or an LED panel, etc.)?
- Are you satisfied?
- How could you have improved the lighting and exposure in this image?
- Does the lighting enhance your subject?
- Is it too soft or too harsh?
- Would your image be improved by lighting the subject from another angle?
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The composition is how we arrange the elements within the frame of our photograph. It’s about what we include within our frame and what we leave out. We can control our compositions by our choice of lens and our perspective from where we take our photograph. Sometimes we can alter a design by moving the physical elements we are photographing.
Rules of composition can be applied rigidly in our photography evaluation. They can preferably be considered as guidelines in our constructive photography reviews. Using these rules as you critique a photograph does not always encompass your emotive or creative expression. Do not disregard the limitations of photographic composition. They can be helpful. Look carefully at how you framed your chosen subject material.
- Is everything in your frame meaningful and balanced?
- Does your composition comprise a totally of elements meaningful to your photograph?
- Or are there too many distractions in your frame?
This is far more important than following the rule of thirds, looking for solid diagonals or leading lines, or any other photographic practices of composition.
The technical, compositional rules should be considered in balance. This will ensure you have captured every aspect of your subject, which was relevant. If you’ve left out vital visual information or included elements that are meaningless to the story, you have room for improvement.
- Should you have gotten closer? Farther away?
- Should you have chosen a more plain background?
- Would a shallower DOF enhance the subject?
- Does the horizon placement improve the image?
- Do you feel a sense of balance?
- Are all the elements in the image working together?
- Does the perspective help with the spatial relations of the subject and the other elements in the image?
- Would change your perspective have made the image stronger?
- Does the perspective distort the subject? If so, does it work?
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous term (and book title) ‘The Decisive Moment’ sums up what is regarded as another essential element in creating good photographs.
In your constructive photography evaluation, ask yourself if the moment you choose to open your camera’s shutter was optimal. Timing has a significant influence on the quality of photographs. Depending on your chosen subject, this could be a split-second decision, or it may even take weeks and months of planning to reach the right moment finally.
Timing is not so much about the shutter speed you used as when you used it.
- Did you make your photograph at the peak of the action?
- Was this the optimum moment?
- Would it have been better to wait longer?
- Could you have taken a better photograph earlier?
- Would taking the photo at another time of day produced a more exciting result?
Light is the essence of photography; colour and tone (tone only when we work in black and white) is the expression of reflected light captured by our cameras. If the light is the raw material of photography as flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and water are the raw materials of bread, colour and tone are like the baked loaf of bread. Colour and tone are what we see when we look at a photograph. In reality, we do not see the light, we know what light is reflecting off, and this is represented by colour and tone in our photographs.
There is all manner of rules and guides regarding what good colour or tone in an image is. I believe all analysis is most subjective. Purists will tell you a good black and white photograph will display a wide tone range with detail in the darkest and lightest parts of the composition. They may also try to tell you specific colours should not be placed next to each other in a document.
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There is some merit to applying some of these academics, but you must decide if you have achieved the look and feel you wanted. You can put whatever colours you like in a composition if it supports your intention for that picture. You can choose a very narrow tonal range or have only blacks and pure white in your photo.
The most crucial aspect of your evaluation of how you have used colour and tone in your photograph is that it was intentional.
- Do the colours/tone in your photograph emotionally and visually express what you desire?
- Do the colours work with or compete with each other?
- Does the contrast help you to focus on the subject? Or detract from it?
- Do the colours complement one another?
- Do the colours help to convey the ideas and emotions you want them to?
This element cannot be considered technically yet is present in all the most compelling photographs. This makes photos original and different because no one else sees the world and relates to it as you do.
Good photographs tend to reach past visually obvious clichés and will stimulate a response from the viewer. I believe achieving this quality in our photos depends very much on the relationship we have with our subject, whatever our issue may be.
Often it’s easier for beginner photographers to photograph what they love. (This can become increasingly difficult if we continue to produce a body of photographs of the same subject.) Making photos of a topic you are passionate about gives you an advantage.
You are at first interested in your subject. You will know about your topic. Maybe you are passionate about it. You have some existing feelings of connection.
Photographing a subject, you are unfamiliar with can be more challenging to integrate emotion into your images. Depending on the subject and circumstances, it can be easier to take emotionally charged photos of a topic you know little or nothing about.
- When you view your photos for analysis and critique, try to think of words to describe photography from a relational perspective.
- How do you feel you connected with your subject? (yes, you can have a relational connection to a location or object, I do not just mean about the relation to people or animals.)
- Were you too focused on your camera or something else to connect with?
- How could you have experienced the situation in a way which could have positively impacted your photo?
- Is there unity and harmony or tension and stress in your photograph?
- Is the idea or feeling you wanted to convey clear?
- Is the story of the photo straightforward?
- Will people be able to form a connection with the subject of my photo?
There are many more aspects of photography and questions that will arise as you press into constructive photography analysis and critique your photographs. Share the love with your friends. Offer to critique their pictures, and you will both grow and notice your photography improving and your enjoyment increasing.
When you look at your photos with a critical eye, you must have a questioning attitude. Ask yourself, ‘How can I improve my photography?’ Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t only dwell on the aspects of your photos you are not happy with. Remember to pat yourself on the back when you are pleased with the way you have done something.
It is helpful to write a self-critique down. Keeping a journal so you can look back will be beneficial to your growth as a photographer. You could include self constructive photography evaluations. You could also have others critique your photographs and welcome their comments as well.
This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of every aspect of photography. You don’t have to touch on each one of these categories. Use this document as a guideline.
The best way to critique your photos is simply to look at them as objectively as possible. You should have highly stringent standards — you don’t want to show anyone a bad image that you took unless you work for a photography website and are doing it to illustrate a point.
Most of your photos will be pretty easy to critique, and you’ll generally have a good idea of a photo’s quality after you’ve taken it. However, there will be cases that are more difficult to judge. Typically, this happens because you have a strong emotional response or memory of a particular photo, making it tough to see the image for its actual quality.
When this happens, the best option is to try waiting a while. The longer you wait, the easier it is to separate your memories from the photo itself. If that still doesn’t work, try showing your image to other photographers or flipping it horizontally in post-processing. If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.
Although it’s not easy to critique some photos, it’s always worth the effort. You shouldn’t show your audience mediocre photos, but you also want to display a good shot when you get one. Perhaps these tips can help you make the final decision.