The Art of Critique: Evaluating the Intangibles

The intangible parts of a photograph that we can look at during a critique include the obvious like light, color, and mood. There are also less obvious things like visual tension, light contrasts, the effects of linear and aerial perspective, subject matter-to-camera proximity, light and color reflections, angles and heights, light and color shifts, selective focus, subject matter translucence, emotional impact, beauty, and weather and its effects.

These things all have as much if not more impact on a photograph than do the tangible things that you can touch, arrange, light and pose. Following are the notable things to look for when critiquing the intangible elements of a photograph:

Light

Direction of Light: What direction is the light coming from? Should the subject or scene be lit from another direction? Does the light create shadows that darken or obscure important parts of the main subject?

  • Back light: Back lighting is often used to show a subject in a striking or unusual way, to reveal translucence, and to capture rim lighting around a subject. When evaluating the back light in an image, check to see if the subject matter a good candidate for that lighting scheme. For example, was it fuzzy or translucent? Is there something about the image that makes good use of back light? Was there a reason to use back light? Did they capture it well?
  • Front light: A good use for front lighting is an image that has a lot of bright colors or large flat shapes. Patches of color usually don’t rely on the capture of a sense of depth. And large flat shapes like storefronts or signs don’t have textures that could be captured using side light. Because front light creates few shadows, it’s not very useful in creating a three-dimensional effect.
  • Side light: Side lighting can 1) reveal the texture of an object, capturing a sense of what it might feel like;  2) create shadows and gradients; 3) reveal the depth or form(s) of an object; and 4) reveal the distances between objects that sit on different planes at different distances from the camera.

    When critiquing a photograph look to see if they used the sidelight effectively. Look at the textures of the objects and if they are enhanced by side light or should they have been photographed a different way. Elements at different distances from the camera can be enhanced or highlighted with side light. Look at the depth of field to see if the photographer used settings to that take advantage of this effect. Look for lens flare as a light source shining into the lens can create stray highlights that can be hard to see through the viewfinder.

Shadows

Light rays travel in a straight line and any object that gets in the way will block those light rays. This creates a dark area, called a cast shadow, the same shape as the object blocking the light rays, on the other side of the object. This shadow is usually much darker than the other elements in the scene and it can affect the visual weight in one area of an image. This can have an effect on the overall balance in an image. There are also shadows in the form of gradients that have light on one side and dark on the other.

Shadows can exhibit a cooler color cast than objects lit by the sun, and you should be sensitive to the impact that a shadowed area may have on the dominant colors or color scheme in the palette. Learn to inspect the shadows in an image as they can have an effect, intended or otherwise, on a carefully planned color palette or tonal range.

Reflections

Light rays will create either diffuse or specular reflections on a surface, and this is determined by the texture of the surface receiving the light and the strength and directness of the light illuminating that surface. Surfaces with little or no texture have nothing to scatter the light and will exhibit a defined specular reflection like the surface of a pond. Roughly textured surfaces will absorb and scatter light, creating a softer diffuse reflection as in the case of a burlap sack. The more texture, the more light gets scattered, the softer the reflection.

Types of Reflections

  • Reflections are natural attention-getters, usually because they’re captured as a secondary element rather than as the main subject, e.g., a reflection in a glass window or a mirror. We study these reflections carefully because we are curious about what is being captured in the reflection. Check to see if these reflections support or steal attention from the main subject. Was it captured well? Does it help tell a story? Would the image be better without it?
  • Reflections can also be captured as highlights, as in the case of a thousand twinkling reflections from a field of wet grass. This kind of highlight can be a distraction from the main subject. Or it can be purposefully included in the composition. Check to see that these highlights are not competing or overpowering the main subject. FYI: These are usually the types of reflections that people are referring to when discussing the bokeh (visual quality and attributes of the blurred objects) in a photograph.
  • Reflections can also be a main subject in an image, as when a reflection is captured in whole on the surface of a still pond. In this case study the reflection to ensure it isn’t too dark as water reflections will be darker than the original subject. You can also use a guide in Photoshop to compare points of the subject vs. its reflection to make sure the image was made straight, if that’s important.
  • Light can also be reflected from one object to another. This is called light bouncing and it can happen naturally or be orchestrated very carefully by the photographer. It’s up to the seasoned eye of the photographer doing the critique to notice and and comment if warranted.
  • Color can also be bounced from one object to another. If two objects are in close proximity their colors can be reflected onto each other if the light striking them is strong enough. For example an orange bowling ball on a blue marble floor. The ball will have a slight blue area near its bottom where the color of the floor is reflecting back up to it. And the floor will have a small orange bit of color just under the ball where the orange is being reflected down onto it. Color reflections should be examined to see if they positively or adversely affect a color scheme. See the example below.

There are filters and other tools that can be used to calm the brightness of a reflection. Shades can eliminate highlights. Polarizers can virtually remove the reflection of the sky off the surface of the water, as well as from other objects. It can also help saturate colors. Were any of these techniques used?

Color

Understanding the fundamentals of color can greatly enhance the critique experience. You will notice color contrasts, color harmony, color continuity, mood created using color, and the effects of distance on color. Following are some of the ways photographers capture color in their photographs and how you can study and evaluate it their photographs.

Color schemes: Color schemes create mood. Pastels are softer, muted colors that remind us of flowers, children and all things innocent. Red, white and blue will create patriotic color schemes and this can also create a mood for Americans. When evaluating the color in a photograph look to see if there is a noticeable color scheme and if the photographer captured it well. There are dozens of color schemes that can be used. Most books on basic color theory will have pages of various color schemes. I suggest you get one to familiarize yourself with them.

Color continuity: Color continuity means the main color is distributed throughout the image, unifying the photograph with color. For example, a photograph of a mountain landscape will have blue flowers in the foreground that are the same color as the sky on top, which is the same color as the lakes in the middle of the image. This is a photograph with good color continuity.

Color continuity is not a requirement for a good photograph. Very often it’s not even applicable to the scene being recorded. It’s one of those techniques that painters use to unify the composition of a painting. Photographers can use this technique for exactly the same purpose. Having good color continuity in a photograph is not obligatory but it certainly adds to the viewing experience, and it should be noticed and appreciated by someone who is knowledgeable enough to be conducting an in-depth critique.

Color Contrasts: A color contrast means that a color is not in harmony with the others. It is not from the same family of hues, e.g., greens, blues, reds. To find out what colors contrast each other, use a color wheel. Colors opposite one another on the wheel are colors that contrast each other.

Colors that contrast each other can also highlight one another and this can create striking color palettes and effects. For example there are two fields of yellow roses. In one field you plant a red rose bush in the center. In the second field you plant a white rose bush in the center. Which newly planted rose bush would you notice more, the contrasting color or the harmonious color? Most likely you would notice the red because it contrasts the yellow flowers more than white does. Photographers can use color in this way to draw a viewer’s attention to a certain area of the image.

Color Complements: Contrasting colors can also complement each other, depending on how the photographer used the colors. For example: there is a big field of orange sunflowers and next to the field is parked an old blue truck. Blue is opposite orange on the color wheel. They are contrasting colors and in this case the smaller contrasting blue was used as a complement: something that’s not the same but it looks good in contrast to the rest of the image. It highlights the main subject the way the color of a pair of earrings will set off the color of a woman’s eyes. It complements them. In the sunflower example, the blue truck is highlighted because it contrasts the orange flowers, but it’s small and will not overpower the flowers. Because it’s blue it will stand out and be found by the eye faster than an earth colored truck in the same scenario.

Color Harmony: Colors that reside next to each other on the color wheel are harmonious colors, also referred to as analogous colors. They are related and they all look good together because they are similar.There are several reasons for having contrasting or harmonious colors. Often photographers use color harmony and contrast techniques to create mood or otherwise enhance the subject matter. When evaluating the colors in an image, check to see if they are harmonious or if they contrast each other or if they’re a jumble of both kinds of colors.

It’s not obligatory to have color harmony or colors that contrast each other to have a good photograph. But if you know and understand these color theories it will make the image evaluation richer for you, and you will be able to offer the photographer receiving the critique a more thorough, educational critique by sharing this understanding. I suggest getting a book on color theory and become familiar with the basic terminology.

Perspective

The main effects of perspective that photographers are concerned with are 1) angle used; and 2) the effects of linear and aerial perspective. The lightening of objects as they recede is a function of aerial or atmospheric perspective. That which causes objects to appear to diminish in size the farther from your camera they are is a function of linear perspective. Some photographers make great use of depth of field settings when they have many elements sitting on different parts of the ground plane. Large format cameras with their perspective controlling abilities can make an interesting perspective opportunity downright fun.

Included in the discussion about perspective is the ground plane. This is a horizontal plane that stretches from the camera to the background. On this plane resides the foreground, middle ground and background parts of the photograph. When evaluating a photograph check to see how the photographer used these parts of the photograph. Were all elements on the ground plane in sharp focus or were they blurred purposefully. Would the photograph be more effective captured with a different setting?

Aerial or atmospheric perspective reveals the particles in the air that, when photographed, create the beautiful, rich colors we see in the sky in the early morning and late evening. Thick air can mute colors, especially colors in the distance.  When evaluating a photograph with a great distance between foreground and background, check to see if the view is obstructed by particles in the air. Do the particles add value to the photograph or does it obscure a clear view of the subject or scene? Is that good or bad? Also check to see which lens was used. Super telephoto lenses are notorious for causing the space or distance in the image to appear flat. Check to see if the right lens for the job was used. Also check to see if any filters were used to correct the hazy view that air particles can sometimes create.

Visual Tension

Tension is what you feel when you view objects that are not in harmony or at rest. When used in image construction, tension refers to the positioning of the elements in the frame and the feelings that their relationships to each other and to the frame create within the viewer. As such, tension is a powerful design technique and should be used with care.

One of the most famous examples of a photograph loaded with tension is one of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Because it is leaning, you feel that it may tip over at any moment. The sense of anticipation mixed with the sense of unrest from the lean creates tremendous tension when looking at the image. When examining a photograph’s visual tension check to see if it was purposeful, or if some composing or subject placement technique accidentally created this sensation.

The lines going in opposite directions creates a sense of visual tension. If the reeds had been going the opposite direction this would have a calmer more relaxed feel.

Angles and Heights

A common reason for manipulating the angle captured is to offer a unique or interesting perspective on the subject. It is also a great way to capture the intimacy of a moment, or to involve the viewer in the scene. Using the alligator photograph below, photographed from above the viewer is just an observer. Photographed at ground level, however, there is more of a connection with the animal and the viewer is more involved in the scene. This adds an element of emotional impact to the image, good or bad depending on how the viewer feels about alligators. When reviewing a photograph, check to see if the angle used was effective in capturing the sense of distance the photographer desired: personally involved or observer status? Were they successful? Should the scene have been captured from a different height?

Using interesting angles and perspectives is a trick some photographers use to spruce up an otherwise boring subject or composition. Sometimes a little twist of the wrist can put an everyday scene in a whole new light. Did the photographer try anything creative like this? Could they have?

Selective Focus and Depth of Field

Often referred to as selective focus a photograph’s depth of field is the area in the photograph that is in focus. Near-far compositions will have everything from foreground through to background in sharp focus. But some macro shots can have everything blurred except something the size of a bee’s eye. They selectively focused on the bee’s eye.

The most common way to highlight or emphasize a main subject is by ensuring that it is in the desired focus, that is, the sharpness from front to back. When looking at the depth of field settings used in a photograph check to see if all the important parts of the photograph are in sharp focus. Wide open apertures will create blurred backgrounds and foregrounds. Closed down apertures will render everything from foreground through to the background in sharp focus. Check to see if the photographer used settings to highlight or de-emphasize certain areas or elements.

Subject Matter Translucence

Elements that are translucent often look great captured in sharp focus and in back or side light. When evaluating images with translucent subjects check to see if their settings were appropriate to capture the light through the translucent object. Should it be in sharp focus or should it be blurred for some reason? Explain the reason if offering this suggestion in a critique. Often with these kinds of photographs the translucent element becomes the main subject because it is so striking in the light. At the very least it will be examined carefully by its viewers, so it should be rendered technically as the photographer intended. Check to see if they were successful.

Emotional Impact

The emotional impact in a photograph doesn’t have to be powerful to be effective. It can be subtle and just as effective. When looking at the emotional impact of a photograph check to see if it stirs any emotions within you. Does it make you sad, happy, does it remind you of something? Does it tell a powerful story? If so, it was successful in creating emotional impact in the image. Maybe you didn’t have the same emotions as the photographer wanted you to have because you don’t have his or her life experiences and visual associations as they do, but photographers often love when the viewer uses their own interpretations to read their images.

Beauty

It is thought that regardless of what a person considers to be visually beautiful, beauty originates in one of two ways: 1) beauty is found in the object; or 2) beauty is found in the viewing experience. Because this is true there can be no consensus on what is to be deemed beautiful to everyone.

This is a main reason that many photographers don’t strive to capture beauty in a photograph. They will fail because not everyone will or can find their image beautiful. It’s up to the reviewer to identify the beauty in an image, if there is some, and keep in perspective to the importance of the image. It may not have been the desire result at all. When looking for beauty, don’t let it distract you as you may miss the photographer’s intended message.

Weather

The effects of weather that photographers need to be aware of include: particles in the air (smoke, fog, smog) rainbows, rain, ice and frost, glare, high contrast highlights, color temperature shift, ambient light shift, clouds, pale, de-saturated skies and objects.

There is a filter or a camera setting to handle every one of the above scenarios. Critiquing the way the weather was captured in a photograph calls into play the reviewer’s technical acumen. Were the right tools for the job at hand used or could the photographer have executed the image more competently? Did they appear to have a good understanding of the tools they had to capture the weather in the image? In this image a graduated filter was used to save detail in the clouds.

Coming soon: The Art of Critique: Evaluating the Tangibles

Text and Images ©Gloria Hopkins. All Rights Reserved.