Critiquing Photographs

Q. When you critique another photographer’s photograph, what do you look for? I am in a photography group where we critique each other’s photographs and no one has a lot of comments. How do you learn to critique photographs? Any suggestions?

A. There is no simple answer to this question since it entails increasing your “visual literacy.” By that I mean studying and learning the fundamental concepts of good composition and visual design. I’ve written and spoken about this at length, and I know it is the single biggest challenge we all face as visual artists.

You can’t critique or judge a photograph until you have an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t work, and why. I’m partial to traditional principles that have stood the test of time—I want my work to communicate with as many people as possible. These include things like the rule of thirds, establishing a center of interest, and the importance of simplifying all aspects of an image – including what’s in the frame and how you edit the image. In my opinion, sloppy editing is ruining more images today than ever, and can be avoided not by getting better at using your software, but by relying on good design principles to guide your editing.

Even if some possess an innate talent for seeing design, what is commonly referred to as having a “good eye,” developing a good eye is a skill that all of us can learn and improve with study and practice. That, my friends, is a fact that has been confirmed over and over again in numerous research studies and the biographies of many artists. Read books on composition and design (especially non-photo books), look at lots of photographs by photographers admired by other artists, visit museums and study great paintings. Once you do this for a while, you will begin to see patterns and start to recognize hallmarks of good visual composition.

This will not only help you judge work of others, but more importantly it will help you see deficiencies in your own work—just the thing we need most of all to improve.