There’s always room for improvement: self-critique of my popular images

One of the things I’m perhaps a bit infamous for is being quick to offer critiques on other people’s work. I’m going to remedy that with today’s article by turning the spotlight on myself by critiquing some of my own images, and encouraging readers to do the same in the comments. The only way a person can continue to grow and improve their skills is through constructive feedback and performing self-analysis; I’m a big proponent of both.

Determining popularity is a tough thing to do – so I’ve let Flickr do the work for me. I’ve picked a small selection of images by number of favorites; interestingness is something which nobody outside Flickr really understands, and number of views is also somewhat meaningless because photos of equipment and test shots tend to score highly due to being used in other posts. I’ve worked my way down the ranks, ignoring images that have no photographic merit (e.g. product shots for reviews, setup shots) and just focused on the ones which I would consider ‘proper’ images. Note that even this method of selection is bound to be slightly imperfect as older images will have had more time to accumulate favorites than newer ones – borne out by the fact that there are only three of the ten images were from 2011 or later. This means that there are going to be older images in there which are probably not as good as the work I’m producing now. Interestingly, almost all of the highest ranked images are watch photos – even though there are far more ‘reporting-on-life’ type shots. I suppose that’s my niche…

It’s also important to remember that criticism is subjective, and biased by one’s own point of view and photographic stage of development. This means what I find ‘works’ now isn’t necessarily the same as at the time the image was shot.

I will not be holding back. So, without further preamble, here we go.

#1. Water droplets (2011) – 2,067 views, 85 favorites
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An attempt to capture some texture with the (then new to me) D3100. Two things bother me about this image: one, the truncation of some of the droplets at the edges (understandably unavoidable given the nature of the subject) and the depth of field; it’s only just enough to cover the two droplets at center. Not immediately obvious that this is the best choice of focal plane. Processing may be a little bit overdone, too – tones appear heavy and there isn’t enough highlight pop at the top end.

#2. JLC Master Minute Repeater, titanium (2011) – 759 views, 63 favorites
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Again, two major criticisms in hindsight – firstly, the warm color tone doesn’t reflect the actual warm-gray color of the watch; however, I can excuse it as an attempt to create a mood. The bigger problem is that you can’t read the manufacture’s name printed on the crystal; it just doesn’t stand out from the dial, which happens to be almost exactly the same tone and luminosity. There isn’t a lot you can do about this due to the physical nature of the object, other than shift the camera to have something dark behind the printing…but that would also change and imbalance the composition, which at the moment feels equally weighted left-right.

#3: Lemania monopusher chronograph (2007) – 2,920 views, 58 favorites
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The ‘heaviness’ and darkness of the processing lends suitable gravitas to the subject given its age; however, it does seem a bit too contrasty in some areas, with clearly blown highlights around polished parts (e.g. the screws). In hindsight, I find the crop a bit too tight, and the lighting uneven; the lug areas – especially the top portion – is too shaded relative to the movement and doesn’t bring out the shape of the watch case enough. Furthermore, the right hand side just feels cut off.

#4: Ferrari 599 GTB (2008) – 2,567 views, 48 favorites
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If I hadn’t posted the lighting setup, it seems that people would have mistaken this for a real car. I like the mystery of it, but I find the overall composition a bit imbalanced; the main shape of the car and light pool around it doesn’t really match the shape of the frame. Furthermore, the light pool around the bottom of the car is too well defined and not diffuse enough; it feels a bit like a cutout. There are also some odd fine reflections along the top edge of the bodywork (specifically, the back) which look unnatural.

#5: Lange 1815 (2007) – 4,005 views, 47 favorites
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This remains one of my favorite images for sheer ‘pop'; however, the color is atrociously awful. It’s not accurate, too saturated in some places and not saturated enough in others. Although the image pops contrast-wise, it perhaps pops too much; there are harsh blown highlights in various places and ungraceful mid tone transitions. The lighting could use a little more diffusion, or fill, or both. The bottom right loop of the regulator is truncated, but there’s empty space at top right – rotating the camera clockwise slightly would have helped balance this out. Finally, there’s clear sensor dust on the balance rim and near the numbers that wasn’t retouched out…

#6: Jaeger LeCoultre Duometre (2012) – 1,071 views, 46 favorites
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This is actually a very similar image to the previous one in subject and lighting style – but with five years of lighting experimentation in between the two; to make things more challenging, it was shot with a Leica M9 and huge frankenrig. Note how this image maintains the same contrast, but has much better highlight transitions and mid tone gradation; there’s also nothing obviously cut off and no empty areas in the frame – it’s a balanced shot. Color is also much more accurate. I think if anything, the top left portion of the image needs work, though – more depth of field, more brightness, and more pop in general.

#7: Sinn 757 (2007) – 1,401 views, 35 favorites
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The form of the image is nice, and the strong lighting helps delineate the contours of the watch well. However, the truncated text and curvature on the left feels incomplete; less exposure on that side of the case would have helped better maintain balance in the image. Aside from that, compositions like this need perfect geometry; the watch is leaning left slightly and not perfectly in plane. Finally, there’s a lot of rather obvious dust that hasn’t been retouched out…

#8: Seiko SNZH53 ‘Fifty Three Fathoms’ (2011) – 1,054 views, 34 favorites
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Firstly, the lighting in the image suits the subject perfectly; it lends a degree of transparency and luminosity to the textures in the image that make it clear you’re looking at metal, water, and glass/ crystal; colors are bang on, and it’s clear what the subject is. There are only two issues here – firstly, the upper left portion of the frame feels empty; I should probably have added another water droplet there to fill out the emptiness. Secondly, you can’t read the name of the watch, and the case design in itself isn’t distinctive enough to be able to tell. This is only a problem of course if it’s a commercial image, which this wasn’t.

#9: Before blowing (2007) – 497 views, 33 favorites
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One thing I’ve noticed is that images from my earlier 2006-7 period are much darker than what I produce today; there are deep, black blacks and shapes/ objects defined solely by highlight outlines. There isn’t a good or bad to this, it simply is what it is. I find the balance a little off; shifting everything slightly to the left would probably help, and reduce the impression of odd hairs sticking into the image at right – seeing the continuation between hair and face would help define the subject better. Finally, the gray background intersects the dandelion exactly midway – it should be lower, achieved by a higher camera angle, to avoid this.

#Lucky Last: Omega Dynamic Chronograph (2007) – 3,293 views, 32 favorites
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One of the test shots from my first encounter with the D3, I was trying to figure out how full frame dealt with macro work; quite well, it seems. One of my first experiences lighting to give the illusion of a particular orientation and rotating afterwards rather than getting everything perfect in camera. I got the illusion I wanted, but the lighting still clearly needs some refinement as there’s a hugely obvious hot spot in the case, and odd bit of flare off the crystal. Color is better than previous images, but there are still casts in the dial and case. Finally, there’s also a general lack of retouching and large amount of dust.

One interesting observation out of all of this – what people favorite definitely does not correspond with what Flickr thinks is interesting, or what gets the most hits – I have images with over 40,000 views, but very few favorites – these tend to be the demonstration or illustration kind of image, rather than any with intrinsic artistic merit of their own.

Time for me to go practice now. MT


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  1. Ming, just curious how do you make those images pop.kind of plug-ins in the market .Thanks

  2. Reblogged this on Photography Re-Blogger.

  3. Great idea for a post, why so few do this? Thanks for sharing, great work

    • Because a lot of bloggers and ‘experts’ are afraid of looking less than perfect – especially more so when their images are weak and writing mediocre?

  4. The main critique I have with your work is sometimes you try too hard to nail perfect composition. I think slight imperfections add character rather than taking something away. The same also goes applies with your comments on saturation and colour. Sometimes something a little too contrasty/harsh makes the shot pop like 3 & 5.

    No doubt however you can convey emotion very well and agree with the above, you watch work is brilliant but you may also be getting to limits on how to present new pieces.

    For me where you excel is how your lighting and also despite what I said in the first line, your composition :) . Hopefully also you can keep enjoying your photography which is rather important!

    • Yes, this is old news: already realized and taken care of, here. These are older images, not newer ones. And you have to have that degree of control before you can regulate just how much abstraction and randomness makes it into the shot.

      However, for commercial work and architecture – especially product – perfection is what is required and expected.

  5. Wow. There’s much here to learn from, Ming, maybe as much or more by your example as from your analysis. This is a big clue to your skill, IMO–your willingness and ability to look at your own photos critically, and the drive to learn and improve, and to practice. Yet you also seem to avoid the pitfall of rigidity, too, unafraid to experiment and fail and to see in new ways. Kudos!

    There’s not much I can add to your critiques–they are spot on, as usual. Regarding the first image of water droplets, the way I look at the DOF issue is that the image would be better either with more appealing and interesting out-of-focus rendering and illumination, or, as you conclude, with a higher ratio of in-focus area. Ideally, perhaps, both. I know we like to say that equipment doesn’t matter, but we seldom finish the thought–that what does matter is knowing and exploiting how the equipment at hand sees things. In this case, the bokeh is not great while the sharply rendered drops are worthy of more attention and real estate.

    When I first started printing in the darkroom, I tended to print dark–very, very dark–and I preferred low-key images. I now believe that I was infatuated: with the deep blacks of fully developed silver, but perhaps even more with the sheer drama of dark and light. I wonder if this is a typical phase for photographers, perhaps with certain people gravitating to the mysteries of shadow while others are dazzled by light and it’s effects. Or perhaps these are two phases we must go through and learn from?

    • I think it would be difficult for me to attempt an objective critique of my own images without enough distance between myself and the image – which is another reason I didn’t choose anything recent to analyze. Perhaps in another year or two once I’ve had the chance to develop further. I don’t there’ll be as much of a difference between 2012 and 2014 as 2006 and 2008 or 2008 and 2010; the learning curve gets shallower and it’s more about refinement and perfection rather than finding a defining new style to move into.

  6. That was a very interesting post. Nice to get your detailed opinion about the images, which gives a lot of useful information on how to look at images and what to improve. Thanks a lot.

  7. Another informative post. Glad I was able to see a few of your comments coming. Very helpful for evaluating my own issues. Like to know where to find your infamous critiques of others to enjoy as well. Thanks.

  8. With the exception of 3, 4, and 5 i found the images pretty unexciting (though technically excellent) and i’ve seen better from your collection. “Better” for me is defined as being able to invoke an emotional response. #3 evoked grittiness. #4 evoked curiosity. #5 was colour blindness (oh my eyes!) — still good in a weird way. The rest was just… ok nice shots, period.

    The challenge with watches (and any still/object shoots imho) is that it’s difficult to find new ways to present it. You’ve shown creativity and talent in figuring out how to display the character of the timepieces with lighting and simple props such as water droplets.

    • Which is precisely why I think these are an interesting bunch to evaluate: for whatever reason, they were seen as good or interesting by a large audience. That doesn’t mean I think they’re my best work (far from it, actually). Still, what’s useful to understand is which specific elements of goodness one can separate out to retain and apply in other images.


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  2. [...] One of the things I’m perhaps a bit infamous for is being quick to offer critiques on other people’s work. I’m going to remedy that with today’s article by turning the spotlight on myself by critiquing some of my own images, and encouraging readers to do the same in the comments. The only way a person can continue to grow and improve their skills is through constructive feedback and performing self-analysis; I’m a big proponent of both.  [...]

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