How to critique a photo without crushing the photographer
Giving feedback to a photographer about their work is much harder than it might seem, if you are going to leave them with their dignity intact, and even send them on their way fired up to try again.
This post is based on the advice given to the Emma Davies Photo School Camera Club members. Membership is restricted to people who have finished the first 5 modules of A Year With My Camera, and you can find out how to join AYWMC at the end of the post.
How to critique a photo:
What is a critique?
Critique means "give specific feedback based on your experience, with a view to helping the photographer improve their photography", not "list the things you don't like about an image", nor "tell the photographer how you would have taken the shot".
The "based on your experience" part is key here. No one expects someone at the beginning of their photography journey to critique as if they were a competition judge. Your opinion is valuable whatever your experience.
What is being critiqued?
A critique is all about the photo being critiqued, it's not about you. Can I say that again: it's not about you. Leave your ego behind. This is where lots of photography Facebook groups get it wrong - they become platforms for people to show off about how much they know rather than genuinely trying to help the person posting.
Anyone can list 10 things that are "wrong" with a photo. That's easy. It's much harder to look at the photo as a whole, decide what you like, what has been well done, and then pick just one or two things that you think could improve it: and then justify your opinions. This is how critiques should be done.
eg. "The road leading through the valley is an effective way into the photo, I find my eye travelling right to the back of the photo. It would have been more satisfying to have a definite focal point to settle on - maybe if you had moved a bit to the left, the lighthouse would have been more clearly visible?"
What's a lazy critique?
It's easy (and lazy) to say "great shot", or "I love this!". But that's not a critique, that's a simple opinion. We need to know WHY you think it's a great shot, and what it is about the shot that makes you love it. If you find yourself saying "Great shot", always add, "because..." on the end.
Subjective or objective?
A critique could be very subjective and opinion-based, ie very personal, or it could be more objective. Either is fine, as long as you make it clear if you are being opinionated rather than factual. eg. "I don't like the dark tones of this graveyard photo because it is bringing up unwelcome memories" is a better critique than, "This photo is too dark." It enables the photographer to appreciate the effect an image may have on a section of their audience that they may not have considered. They don't have to change the way they work, but they have more information.
This statement is factual feedback: "I think this photo is underexposed - if you look at the shadows you have lost all detail". This is a good example of how to give factual feedback, rather than just saying, "This photo is too dark."
If all you can find to say is that the photographer needs a bigger sensor, or a sharper lens, then please don't say anything. Assume the photographer is happy with the camera they have, and needs to work within its limits.
What do you need to know?
It's easier to critique a photo if you know what the photographer was trying to achieve, and even easier if you know something about their progress so far. So don't be afraid to ask for more details about their aims with a particular shot before you wade in with your thoughts.
In summary, all information given to a photographer is useful. If in doubt, the critique sandwich is never a mistake: something you like (and why), something to improve (and why), something else you like (and why). If you can't see any way to improve the shot (it happens), you could suggest alternative viewpoints, or ask if they considered a different composition or lens.
How to receive a critique:
It's not about you
You are not being criticised. It is your photo that is being analysed, not you. Don't take anything personally.
Pay attention to your reaction
If your first reaction when you hear a critique is anger, or negativity, or irritation - sit with it for a bit. There is probably something in it even if you don't want to hear it.
Find the truth in every comment
Every single photographer on the planet can take a better photo next time they go out. You will never take a perfect shot. This is art, not science - it is arrogant to think you can be perfect. The purpose of a critique is to help you think around your shots, come up with new ideas, and new perspectives. You don't need to follow every suggestion, you are free to disagree with what people say, but there will be truth in every piece of feedback - you just need to find what is helpful to you right now.
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