Objectively critiquing images: a primer

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The ephermeral idea of sushi. Does this image work? Why? Why not? Read on to understand and come to your own conclusions – leave your thoughts in the comments, and let’s start a discussion. For the original essay featuring this image, click here: Sushi, and the philosophy of photography

A reader sent me a great email a couple of weeks back with some suggestions on how to improve the reader Flickr group.

Since inception, it now has 400+ members, tens of thousands of submissions, about 2,500 that have made the cut – and continues to grow every day. Whilst you do get some indication of what constitutes a good image and what doesn’t based on my acceptances and rejections, it doesn’t really provide a structure for objective critiques and feedback from a wide audience – something I’d always wanted to have. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of Flickr isn’t that conducive to this – there’s no real way to tell which comments were left by a member of a particular group without having badges etc. What I propose instead is that anybody who wants to solicit feedback on an image posts it in a new thread on the attached discussion board; if you’d like to weigh in, go ahead – but remember to be objective and civil. (If the volumes get silly, then we’ll deal with it later.)

This brings me to the second problem: what is objective? How does one deliver an objective critique? Hell, what do you even look for in the first place? How do you set a benchmark and what do you compare it to? The aim of this article is to cover these bases, and provide both a structured simplified assessment/ critique framework. Its usefulness of course goes beyond the Flickr pool comments: it’s also a quick way for you to assess your own images on the fly. (The challenge there is of course stepping out away from the personal attachment that every photographer has to their photos – they’re like our children – and learning the art of detachment.)

First up, if you haven’t already read my article on What Makes An Outstanding Image, I highly recommend you do so first and then come back here afterwards. Part one is here, and part two is here. (Both open as links in new windows.)

Boiling everything down, there are only four things I look for in every image. The first three are fundamentals. The last one is a bonus. (In fact, I’ve said these things so many times at so many events and workshops that I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody decides to engrave them on my tombstone.)

1. Light
Every photograph needs light; no light, no photograph. Fantastic light can transform the most pedestrian subjects, and vice versa. I’m looking for light that isolates the subject, that shows off its textures and physical form and lines in a (preferably) unique way; a color temperature that’s either perfectly natural and accurate and puts you into the scene, or a color temperature that’s artfully shifted to elicit an emotional response in the viewer in a cinematic sense. The subject doesn’t have to be the brightest thing in the frame, but it has to be the most obvious.

2. Subject
Subsequent items get more nebulous and harder to define. In short, the subject is what the image is about. It can be a small part of the frame, or the entire frame itself; it can also be the idea. Basically: a viewer should be able to look at the image and know straight away what the focus is; who is the protagonist in the story? Timing is also a key element that affects both subject and composition – both positioning and expression. Abstracts are a little more difficult to assess, because they may not have a focus per se. In such cases, is the frame sufficiently well abstracted that you lose the sense of relativity and scale that provides the normal visual cues for identification of an object?

3. Composition
I like to think of composition as the way in which the elements within a frame relate to each other. It’s to do with positioning, balance and context; are the secondary subject positioned in such a way as to give priority to and not take away focus from the primary subject? Next, do the secondary subjects enhance the story, or take away from it? How are they relevant to the main subject? Would the image be stronger with or without them in the frame? Are any of them distracting? Next is balance; this is even tougher to define and probably should be the subject of an entire article in itself. In short, it isn’t symmetry, but it is about geometry. Are there things that make one side of the frame look heavier than the other? It isn’t a problem, but something that draws the eye in a particular direction – leading lines, for example – should do so in a way that supports the primary subject. Natural frames can also be used to help isolate the primary subject. You’ve also got to look for things that are distracting and not meant to be in the composition – edge and border intrusions are perhaps the most common example of this.

4. Bonus: the idea.
This is the hardest to define of them all. In its most concise form, does the viewer share the vision the photographer had in mind when he or she pressed the shutter? Note: it’s tough to communicate an idea if there wasn’t one to begin with, or it wasn’t well-formed in the photographer’s own mind. In fact, this is perhaps the toughest part in making a good photograph: you need to know what the final image should look like even before you take the shot. The best photographers do this consciously all the time; I know that if I can’t get what I want, I usually won’t bother taking out the camera. A lot of the time it’s because I don’t have control over the light, or because it’s not being cooperative; sometimes it’s because of technical limitations – I physically can’t get close enough, or I’m not carrying the right lenses to get the perspective I want, for instance.

On this basis, an image that scores a 2 is reasonably strong, but maybe lacking in one or two areas. Grade 3 images are excellent, and grade 4s are outstanding. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but at least you could say something along the lines of ‘3, composition is a bit loose around the edges of the frame’ and that would be implicit that the rest of the aspects of the photograph are strong. In the reader Flickr pool, I don’t admit anything less than a 2.5, or a 2 if the idea is very strong. There are a good number of 3s, but very few 4s. It might be an interesting exercise for you to go through the pool of images again to see what qualifies.

Of course, this is all relative; and that’s why it’s important to view and consciously assess as many images as possible to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t; that was one of the reasons to set up the flickr pool. There’s a lot to be learned from looking carefully at famous images: there’s a reason why they work, even if some aspects of the capture may be weak. And it’s almost always because ‘the idea’ is extremely strong, to the point of overshadowing and dominating the any potential shortcomings. (Robert Capa’s Normandy Landing series is a fantastic example of this).

Here’s the proposal – if you’re going to start a thread in the Flickr group putting your image up for critique, then give it a number (rating) – objectively, of course – and talk about what you think is missing, or what you think is exceptionally strong. That provides a good basis to begin discussion.

Even if you don’t put your images up for critique, keeping this framework in mind when viewing and assessing your own images can help immensely: you will land up with a much stronger raw material, and more times to postprocess them – which of course in turn results in an even stronger final set of images. Iterating this process has two positive consequences: firstly, you land up making ever stronger images, and not being tempted into keeping ‘not bad’ images; secondly, you will find you have a heightened cognisance of your own artistic style. This is of course a good thing – and one that’s extremely difficult to achieve. In the end, the greeks had it right: know thyself. MT

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Comments

  1. Paul Watkinson says:

    I am a novice but really working hard to get better. SO, if it were mine I would have binned it. Maybe I will learn to be wise and appreciate it, maybe not. Trying to be honest as to what I feel now after having read the other comments and no real idea how to comment other than my gut feeling. Objective critique – I just don’t see the point, sorry. There are so many images of yours that I have seen and think ‘I wish I could do that’.

    One thing for sure, I will keep following your blog – thank you

  2. As an art deco type of shot it works. However it was titled “eating sushi” I’d be scratching my head and wondering what I’m not seeing.

  3. That is definitely an interesting image, falling nearer to the harder ‘art’ realm than “straightforward” photo category, so much harder to appreciate. When I see it with a sort of blurred, vague vision, that is with an open mind and “not especially looking to see something” it has more appeal than otherwise, I can feel the anticipation of the subject ready to eat “something”. If that makes sense. There is an interesting dissonnance in that my eye wants to focus on the face which is blurry – it is clearly the main subject and less brightly lit than the background. The four points of light are OK compositionally, but I don’t get the overexposed and sharp white teacup. So it is a mixed cup of tea here. If you were to shoot a whole series with that same look -or if this had a consonance with some artistic style I’m unaware of, I would be more convinced.

    • To be honest, I wasn’t over the moon with it – I don’t think I’d shoot a series like this – but I liked the way it turned out because it captured the idea I envisioned at the time. Lack of context for an external viewer is the weak point here. But, most experiments tend to be misses, so I’m not too worried :)

  4. Are your scores 1-4 for each of the four categories (lighting, composition, etc) for a total max of 16? Or is it 1-4 in total. Peter F. (Sorry, obviously I haven’t gone to the Flickr site)

  5. Great read as always! As for the picture, it doesn’t work for me (which is a first in your articles :)). To follow your categories:

    Light: The orange table with the unidentifiable teacup is where the light leads the eye. “Orange table with unidentifiable teacup” is a rather unusual subject and not the one you stated the picture is about. Also the highlighted patch next to the persons upper lip is quite disturbing.
    Subject: see light. There is also not context indicating “Sushi”. Could be any restaurant, or even a table at home, with any food.
    Composition: (as long as we forget about the subject) good. Corners are well covered, the selection of colors works really well.
    Idea: don’t see a strong one. Sensation of finger food? Hm, maybe.

    As for the presenting pictures for critique in a discussion thread – I support that. I also don’t mind seeing a justified critical comment in the regular picture comment section. It’s worth way more than the usual “nice shot”.

  6. Even if you are ‘objectively’ evaluating an image I think in the main photos are meant to illicit an emotional reaction. So even if technically its not quite there, the impact it has can still make an image ‘outstanding’.

    For me, the image above lacks that clear subject – even with the idea of sushi it still looks as if someone about to eat just something/anything which is also hard to see as it blends with the fingers – maybe a clear ‘rice blob’ would help with the showing the sushi.

    I also find the white thing distracting from the image and would be better off removed. But looking at the focus, was this the focus point of the image? I get the blur is intentional, but would still have like a slightly more ‘interesting’ point where the focus has been captured. Composition is good, have the space in front of the person has this ‘feel’ of inviting/anticipation of taking the next bite. Actually the image is a little disconcerting as its so up close and personal, though I’m undecided if that is a good thing or not!

    Anyway thats my $0.02 :)

    • The point is there IS no focus point, and the white blob is a teacup – perhaps too abstract. In any case, I deliberately selected this image to provoke some discussion – it looks like it worked :)

      • Well agreed, looking at it bigger the cup is also not in focus :) – though I’ve come to be ok with images not in focus if the idea is conveyed ok!

        I guess one point you mention below – it works for you and others find it less intuitive with regards to the context – you need to work more on conveying the idea across :p

  7. I’ll take a crack at it. Am I supposed to use a numerical system? I’d rather give it the old’ art school spiel.

    I think the image works in the sense that it portrays the motion and the feeling of eating with one’s hands. The nose and lips hovering on the center line make me empathetically think about my own nose and lips, which combines with the expectation of the senses i get from the white-hot hand moving in the lips direction. (I didn’t notice until later that the hand is retreating)
    The swimming texture of blurred colors makes the image more emotional and less specific, allowing me to empathize with the experience without obsessing over the minutia of the scene.

    My one criticism is technical rather than conceptual. I think that a little too much sharpening was used, and it attacked the periphery of the face, which turns what I expected to be a soft roll-off of color into a somewhat nervous transition. I find it a bit distracting in an otherwise dreamlike image. On the other hand, this lens (whichever one it was) seems to produce some donuts in the background blur, which might be responsible for the foreground blur I just described. Either way, I feel like the border of the face could have been softer.

    Other than that criticism, the photo works for me on all the 4 levels mentioned above. I especially like how the image forms almost a Star of David diagram when I stare at it. One triangle is formed by connecting the black corner in the upper left, with the glowing yellow light on the upper right, and the sharp white cup in the bottom middle. Then the opposing triangle is formed by the hand, nose, and border of the table connecting the hand to the chin.

    It would be nice to see this image printed on a small scale which one could view intimately, as opposed to a large print viewable by a crowd.

    • Good job! Yes, it was deliberate that I used this image. No, there’s no sharpening at all here – what would be the point of sharpening an out of focus image? – and yes, the lens isn’t perfect – I don’t like the donuts either, but we work with what we have handy at the time.

      Out of focus areas render very different depending on scale, as you’ve rightly pointed out – I think it would actually work better as a large image where it’s clear that the blur is deliberate, as opposed to a small print where it’s not necessarily obvious.

      • Oh interesting. We shouldn’t get bogged down in technical details of an image like this anyway. It’s not a postmortem.

        Question: If you printed this large, would you use ink-jet or lambda? Why?

        • Inkjet, simply because I have a master printer here whom I’m 100% confident can deliver what I see on-monitor. Even if the underlying process/ equipment might be superior, I’ll always pick the one with the better operator.

  8. While I really appreciate the group critique method, Flickr as a platform has lost me in general. What was engaging 5+ years ago is now tired and frustrating. The yahoo buyout of what should have been THE premier digital image community online has killed any hopes of future progress – it’s just counter intuitive. Sites like 500pixels have over taken and started to the own the space that was rightfully flickr’s.

  9. Wonderful article Ming. Thank you!

    1) The picture has interesting light available however sadly it is not used well.
    2) The subject seems to be a white intrusion from the bottom of the photo. I am not sure what it is.
    3) I like the composition in the upper right hand corner in the out of focus area.
    4) The idea is stated as sushi. However no sushi appears in the picture.

    Distracting elements:

    1) The beautiful light highlights a yellow distracting object and some light is highlighting an out of focus hand.
    2) The table is bright and seems to intersect with her neck almost as if it were a sharp object.
    3) If sushi is in her hand it is hidden and the hand is out of focus as are her lips where the sushi would be headed.
    4) The black napkin (with white object on it) distracts from her chin. This forms a very high contrast object detracting from the intended subject. The dish next to the napkin also distracts.
    5) I am not sure why the table changes color from one side of her arm to the other.
    6) Leading lines from the cabinet and bar are available in the background however they intersect with her face.

  10. For me, it is a “what the flick” picture that I did not expect. Why?

    Lighting is not all that constructive to the mood or setting, it brought back memories of poor and destitute kitchens from my childhood; of which I’m sure was not the intention.

    I can’t tear my eyes off the sharp object in the picture and since it so non-descript, it’s not your subject; and even after a time of looking, do not see one.
    Perhaps the idea of a non-apparent sushi is the subject. If so, the idea could have been better executed.

    In a painting, for example, a subject must become apparent and unmistakeable even though it may not be the most eye-catching or apparent at first look. J.M.W. Turner (British painter) was a master of this composition device.

    So we have a sharp non-subject “subject”, which is unevenly balanced by a large chunk of out-of-focus “subject” (for discussion sake, I assume the sushi-eating face and hand is the true “subject”); both of which makes for a disconcerting image that makes for a ho-hum experience for the viewer.

    I hope this qualifies as an objective critique, I have no positive comments to make as I see none in respect to this particular picture. Perhaps the closest would be ” an attempt to evoke the senses and smell of a non-appearing subject (the sushi in the hand)” as the title implies.

    It’s like an exhibited 4′ by 8′ white canvas with a small red dot placed by a brush right at the golden section and titled “Zen”.
    Rumoured to be done by a Zen monk who after meditating for days, opened his eyes and placed it there with a deft touch of his brush.

    Good idea.
    Good process.
    Good execution.
    Sold for US60,000.
    What the flick?

  11. Yes, it’s objective. Do I agree? No. That means a) I haven’t communicated my idea well enough, and b) something is lost in the execution. More importantly, c) I should charge more. :)

  12. Haha. Everyone should charge more, even hawkers get it (charging more); but no, not photographers.

    Going to meditate with camera in hand now, see you in a few days…
    BTW, im great admirerer of the way your photos look; the colour, the mood, the cinematic feel, the sharpness, ouch!!

  13. Just because we don’t doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. The problem is always education: willing buyer, willing seller…

Trackbacks

  1. […] they will no longer look different from the rest of the pack. This brings us back to a focus on the fundamental things that make an image work; I’ve said this so many times I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody decides to engrave it […]

  2. […] The ephermeral idea of sushi. Does this image work? Why? Why not? Read on to understand and come to your own conclusions – leave your thoughts in the comments, and let’s start a discuss…  […]

  3. […] Since inception, it now has 400+ members, tens of thousands of submissions, about 2,500 that have made the cut – and continues to grow every day. Whilst you do get some indication of what constitutes a good image and what doesn’t based on my acceptances and rejections, it doesn’t really provide a structure for objective critiques and feedback from a wide audience – something I’d always wanted to have. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of Flickr isn’t that conducive to this – there’s no real way to tell which comments were left by a member of a particular group without having badges etc. What I propose instead is that anybody who wants to solicit feedback on an image posts it in a new thread on the attached discussion board; if you’d like to weigh in, go ahead – but remember to be objective and civil. (If the volumes get silly, then we’ll deal with it later.)  […]

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