On critiques and critiquing

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Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?

The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’

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Reader photo critiques

I have to admit, I totally underestimated the popularity of this offer after putting it up. I’ve decided to pick the first six images to critique, in a more brief fashion than the previous two – it does take time, after all.

A thank you to our generous donors is in order – you have sacrificed your images on the altar of photography for the education of the greater good, and that’s a commendable thing. Thank you to everybody who took the time to submit – I’m sorry I don’t have time to do a detailed critique of all of the images, but I will reply all of your emails – that’s the least I can do.

Here goes.

Untitled / Roland Tetenbaum

I’ll start with the good things. It’s a well exposed frame, has a clearly defined subject, and said subject is well isolated from the background. Kudos for getting the focus point right: for all living things, if there’s a face in the image, you should focus on the eyes. (I’ve tried to think of an exception to this rule, but I simply just can’t come up with any.) Similarly, well done for capturing some of the subject’s soul – great expression on the dog’s face.

However, there are thing thats that could use some improvement. The placement of the corners and edges is distracting: that green triangle top right is just odd. It should be a little more to balance out the empty squares bottom-left, or left out altogether. A square crop with the dog slightly off-center to the right might actually work better in this case; you wouldn’t get that feeling of emptiness which those particular bottom-left squares of lino suggest.

I can’t speak too much of the processing, because in many ways that’s to personal taste; I’m not sure I like the level of saturation that much, but it’s tastefully done and there aren’t any blown channels.

One final detail: the sliver of little blue tag on the dog’s collar is a little distracting – pulling it all the way out, or tucking it back in first or cloning it out (it’s not photojournalism, so it’s acceptable) would probably be better.

Untitled / Brad Radcliffe

For some odd reason I can’t put my finger on, this is a very familiar looking image. I can’t claim to have a photographic memory, so perhaps I came across it while browsing Flickr or something.

In any case, the first thing that hits you is the color – quite literally. I’ve never seen blue chocolate before (or at least I assume that’s what it is). The macaroon appears to be its native color, though; it’s an interesting counterpoint as the yellow macaroon stands out well against the cool blue of the background. However, with food photography, the point is usually to make the subject seem appetizing – I’m honestly not sure the photograph achieves that intention because I don’t really want to eat something blue; I suppose it must be human conditioning. If heavy hue shifts are to be used in one channel, you have to watch the other channels – colors are a mixture of channels, and you may land up having odd effects in other areas of the image if things aren’t masked off properly – note the slight green/cyan cast to the top right of the macaroon.

From a technical point of view, subject placement is good, though the in-focus area at the bottom of the frame feels cut off. Focus point for this image would be trick to select – it’s a smallish subject and relatively near, so DOF would be limited; if you pick the front of the macaroon, the edges won’t be well defined and vice versa; tough choice but I think the one used by the photography was the correct one. However, to avoid that awkward cut-off in focus area in the foreground, I’d try positioning the camera at a lower angle so the focus plane on the background chocolate is closer to the macaroon; this would work better with this composition.

Untitled / Choohaw Ding

I’m going to assess this one as a family snapshot – the subject looks pretty candid, and the positioning is somewhat casual – though the perfect straightness of the vertical elements suggests otherwise. Kudos for the latter, by the way. The telephoto perspective separates the frame into several distinct zones, which do not intrude onto each other, for the most part; the only area where this becomes an issue is the background tree that very nearly encroaches onto the head of the subject. The wire in the background to the top left of the subject is also distracting because it breaks the strong verticality of the scene – it’s fine if it’s part of your subject because the eye is naturally drawn to it; it isn’t if it’s just a background element.

Shifting the camera position down and to the right would have placed the girl nicely in the gap between the tree and the pillars, also conveniently blocking out the horizontal wire.

The only other odd intrusions into the frame are bottom right (should have been cloned out or framed slightly higher, or taken care of by the previously suggested framing) and an odd dangly immediately above the tree. Some shadow recovery on the door at right would have also removed the heavy blockiness from the right hand side of the frame, which would also reduce the confined vertical feeling of the subject and allow a bit more breathing room.

To be honest, however, the image as a whole appears flat – it’s the lighting, or lack of any strong dynamic to it. This is also the number one reason the shot doesn’t really work for me as a whole. Unfortunately, if you’re shooting available light, there’s not a lot you can do in a flat lighting situation like this other than move on and find another location to shoot in.

Untitled / Juraj Balaško

Although it doesn’t look it, there aren’t any truncated elements in the scene – the cranes just meet the edge of each side of the frame. And that’s a nice bit of framing precision – well done. The sky adds interest, though I personally think the color may be a little overdone – but it’s quite tasteful and works.

There are three things I’d change with this composition, none of them major. The first is the position of the central crane – I don’t know if it would have been possible to wait for it to move, given the time of day and probably rapidly changing sky, but it would be nice if all three were aligned in a row. The second, is the slightly empty central portion of the frame; if the load on the third crane were in the middle and partially hoisted, that would also be ideal – however, I can imagine this would also be unlikely as it doesn’t appear that there is any reason to raise the load up. The final thing is perspective correction: keystoning with wide angle lenses is common; correcting it is not. There are two ways of doing this: tilt/shift lenses, or go a bit wider to leave room for correction at the edges of the frame, and use Photoshop to distort the whole image.

Overall though, nice job – especially considering the equipment choice (Canon S95) – compact cameras are not really suited for capturing tonal subtlety in skies; the color gamut required is far beyond what the sensor can capture, and certainly beyond the range of the ADC converter when saving.

Klara / George Gravett

Nice strong colors and light; there’s a nice variety of texture in the wood of the ship’s hull, the sea in the foreground and the buildings in the background. Exposure and focus are both good. Overall, this is a competent snapshot. What prevents it from being a great shot – the critical elements of clear subject and dynamic lighting are all present – is the framing. The image feels weighted down at the bottom left; the right side and top portion are both quite empty and simply do not balance what’s going on in the remainder of the frame. Furthermore, there are odd intrusions at top left (leaves), top center (cut off rope ladder horizontals) and right side (buildings on the hill?).

An alternative framing that would have been stronger would be to aim the camera to the left and down slightly; this would show some of the dock and sea in front of the boat to better frame it. I can see hints of a reflection at the bottom center edge, too; a lower angle would definitely have captured this and further improved the overall visual texture of the image.

If you wanted to push it a bit further, I’d go in closer and with a wider focal length to emphasize the ship a bit more; I’m guessing this would have been possible because the EXIF data reports an odd focal length and aperture (38mm f4.4) which can only be the result of using a zoom lens – and since zooms seldom start at 35mm, there’s probably a bit more width to be had.

Rapeseed Runner / Christoph Papenfuss

I really like this image – the strong color and repeating geometry make it visually arresting. However, I suspect it’s one of those shots that is really best appreciated as a large print – you can’t really make out the runner at web sizes. Exposure and processing are both good, so let’s get that out of the way.

The framing is strong, with minimal intrusions at the edge to distract the viewer. However, the plow line on the left side of the frame that intersects the left edge feels truncated; I’d either crop that bit off, or move the camera to the right to frame the runner and only two plow lines. I suspect the hill probably sloped to the left a little, but without the context of the greater landscape, the image feels like the camera wasn’t held straight. Although the orientation may be technically correct, sometimes we need to use a little artistic license; I’d rotate the whole thing to the left slightly to create the perception of a flat horizon. You’ll notice I don’t have a lot to say about this image – it’s really quite good.

Overall tip: Watch your perspectives. If you’re going to shoot something shorter or lower than you, come down. If it’s higher, move up if you can. Not moving results in a human but very standard perspective to your images – if you saw one in a pile of other shots, you probably wouldn’t stop to give it a second glance because the perspective is very familiar. Even if you have a strong subject, a change in perspective can only help. This is especially important when using wide angle lenses. MT

Shameless plug for Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography:
I would love to help you all improve your work by critiquing, but the reality is that if I opened up my email box for everybody, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else – and that includes commercial work that now pays the majority of my bills. However, I was asked by a couple of readers if I’d consider doing this on a more formal basis: the answer is sure.

Here’s the proposal: I will do a highly detailed, offline (i.e. individual over email) analysis of your image for a small PayPal donation of US$50, with of course personal follow up to any ongoing questions. I’ll also open up a bulk rate of US$350 for ten images, which you don’t have to submit at once – it doesn’t expire. I’m open to how people would like to learn; if you want me to do a detailed portfolio review, that’s fine; if you’d like me to set you a ten-image assignment which you do image by image and revert back for feedback/ tips etc., that’s fine too. Please drop me an email at mingthein(at)gmail.com if you’re interested. Thanks! MT

Open call for reader critiques

If you’d like to have your image torn to shreds in a very public (but objective) manner by yours truly – with the ultimate objective of sacrificing yourself for the greater educational good – I’m taking submissions again for the reader image critique. There are a couple of past examples here and here. Please send an image no more than 800 pixels wide on the long side to mingthein(at)gmail.com. Thanks! MT

Reader photo critique: Temples

Leica M9

Today is the second in the series of my reader’s image critiques. This images comes from Hilmar.

Once again, I’ll break down the assessment into three categories – composition, technique and other; the other category deals with things such as lighting, timing, subject opportunity, etc. Photography is subjective, so I won’t give points or scores.

The body of the composition follows classical rule of thirds division – 2/3 sky, 1/3 subject/ foreground. However, the intrusion into the sky of the tree at left both breaks up the monotony of the solid block of color, but also creates a bit of an imbalance, despite sitting neatly in the notch between the left hand temple and foliage. Lateral balance is good, with the architectural detailing mirrored somewhat in the plants and trees, as well as being roughly symmetric about the middle (again, except for the tree at left). It is a pleasing composition, but not a particularly strong or dynamic one.

However, the biggest question I’m left wondering is: what is the subject? The temple? Which temple? The tree? The sky? The scene in general?

The last point bridges into technique: clearly this image was shot with a wide angle lens; remember one of the golden rules of photography: select your perspective, THEN only select your focal length. I suspect that this shot was composed in reverse: get in whatever you wanted to get into the frame with the lens you’ve got. Although there is clearly perspective distortion and keystoning present caused by the perspective, there’s no clear foreground-background separation – which means the dynamic potential of the lens could have further been maximized. Yes, it would have resulted in a significant change in composition (as is the norm when moving the camera slightly with all wide angle lenses). However, it’s important to remember that the end goal isn’t to ‘get the scene in’ but to create a representative image which contains the key elements you wish to capture – in effect, the essence of the scene – not necessarily the entire scene.

I want to talk a bit about post processing. In a scene with challenging dynamic range, you’ve got three options: expose for highlights and lose shadows; expose for shadows and lose highlights; finally, HDR and retain all or nearly all tonal information. In my mind, only the former approach works well here; exposing for shadows would have resulted in a very washed-out image, with white sky (and lots of seemingly blank space). HDR looks unnatural, and should be avoided unless there’s no other way of retaining the desired tonal information – and even then, used with great care. In a nutshell: the exposure here is bang on, and the photographer deserves commendation for that. However, I feel a little more shadow detail could have been extracted through judicious use of ACR or the shadow/ highlight tool.

How would I have framed this shot with the same equipment? Assuming the key elements of the scene are sky, temple and tree (i.e. natural context/ setting), I’d have gone closer to the temple at left to place it in the foreground and lower half of the image; shot in portrait orientation and placed the tree silhouetted against the sky in the upper half.

In conclusion
One important takeaway here: choose your perspective then only compose, not the other way around.


Reader photo critique: KL Skyline

Canon 5D Mark II, Zeiss ZE 2/28 Distagon

By popular request, I’m now accepting an image or two from readers to critique every month. Today’s image was submitted by Aizuddin Danian, a friend and fellow photographer here in Malaysia. I’m going to go easy on him and say he’s in the keen amateur category; otherwise the assessment criteria would be much harsher🙂

I’ll break down the assessment into three categories – composition, technique and other; the other category deals with things such as lighting, timing, subject opportunity, etc. Photography is subjective, so I won’t give points or scores.

The main subject here is obviously the KL tower, dominating center frame. A diminishing row of buildings to the right of the tower, including the Petronas Twin Towers, creates a nice flowing dynamic to the edge of the frame. Unfortunately, it feels like this never quite gets to finish and is artificially truncated on the right hand side. The left side, is empty; there is nothing to balance out the right hand wedge of buildings. It doesn’t help that the last two buildings are dark colored and seem to blend into the background. Then there’s the intrusive pointy building at the bottom left edge of the frame – again, it’s intrusive and distracting. The composition overall is simply not balanced; something that could have easily been fixed by watching the edges of the frame – shifting the camera right and down a little would have helped immensely here.

I was told a 3-frame HDR technique was used for this shot – it’s fairly obvious, actually; you can’t get overlaps in luminance values without using it. There are also visible haloes around the darker buildings, which is not particularly pleasing and gives the impression of buildings masked out and pasted onto a background. The same can be said for the mountains in the background: they just don’t look like that in real life. I have never been a fan of HDR for scenes of normal contrast – I believe this scene could have been properly exposed for with a single frame and careful processing – and anything more tends to look very, very unnatural. The simple reality of HDR is that the display medium of a photograph is not capable of more than about six or seven stops (a good print) or perhaps eight to nine stops (LCD monitor) – by its very nature, trying to display fifteen stops is simply going to look odd. The other weakness of HDR images is that they tend to look flat, with no particularly strong contrasts leading the eye to the subject; I feel this image looks flat overall, and could be fixed with some judicious curve use combined with strategic dodge and burn. A couple of very obvious dust spots should also be removed.

When shooting architectural subjects – cityscapes included – care should be taken to ensure that building verticals do in fact look vertical; either by aligning the camera properly, or using a perspective control lens. This avoids keystoning (note buildings at edges; they have a pronounced lean). One exception is extreme perspectives, where leaning buildings/ tilting edges are acceptable as they create a strong visual dynamic.

HDR is not the only thing contributing to the overall flatness of the image; it’s also the time it was shot. By the lack of shadows or dynamic lighting (but obvious contrast in the sky), it’s fairly clear the image was shot around noon or thereabouts. It’s a bad time to shoot buildings because there isn’t enough tangential light to provide detail on the facades; when there are many buildings it also doesn’t create enough shadows to isolate one from the other. This shot at sunset or sunrise would be considerably more arresting.

In conclusion
Bluntly: it is a flat, ordinary shot; but there are several very simple fixes that would have turned this into a decent image.
1. Watch your edges.
2. Don’t HDR.
3. Watch the lighting: shooting at noon is like using direct flash only for your subject.



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