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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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