The Art of Critique: Overall Evaluation

PART ONE: Overall Evaluation

Peer critique forums exist all over the internet and they’re often free and immediate. There is no shortage of someone offering their commentary but very rarely do I see a complete critique that evaluates all areas of the photograph. People normally only comment on what they’re very experienced with. Whole evaluations are more time consuming but I have found that it can be done in a concise manner if we know just what to look for!

To form a complete evaluation of an image it helps to have an understanding of both the science-based, optics driven side of photography, and image design, that equally important but oft-misunderstood creative side of photography. I have found that most effective photographers have a solid understanding of both.

Temper that strong side

In online critique forums, it is instantly obvious to me where a photographer’s passion lies. They will spend more time commenting on the technical or design side of photography. They will usually have expert knowledge in that area because they have more passion for it and more experience with it. That’s great behind the camera when making images. But it is more helpful to those who receive an evaluation from us if we have expertise of the whole process of photography. It allows us to offer a more rounded, non-biased evaluation.

Artist’s intent

The clarity of our photographic voice is dependent on our ability to speak with the physical thing in our hands. We must learn to communicate without words and it takes more than today’s smartest digital camera to do this.

With the exception of experiments or comparisons, photographs always have a meaning or a message. It could be a documentary record shot, a beautiful portrait or a complex and though-provoking abstract. Whatever the image, I try to figure out why it exists. As someone who assumed the role of visual communicator, I look to the photographer to show me why the image exists.

Understanding why an image exists can facilitate a richer viewing experience, and it helps me decide to what degree the photographer succeeded in communicating their message. Did they achieve their intent by communicating it as effectively as they could have? Or could they have done better? If I can see how they could have done better, I am prepared to tell them. You cannot ever criticize an image without offering the solution. That will cause incredible confusion to the one receiving the evaluation, and make you look overly judgmental without having the skills or knowledge for the solution yourself.

Emotional impact

One of the most powerful aspects of a photograph is its ability to affect us emotionally. The effects of a photograph are immediate and thrust upon us with little or no warning. The first impression of a photograph is a critical moment in the viewing process as it can set the tone for the entire experience. Often photographs are designed to extract emotions from a viewer and some photographers are very good at what they do. At times they can be aggressive in their efforts to stir their desired emotion and other times they can be subtle.

It is important to remember that it is not necessary to be clobbered with emotions when studying a photograph. We need not wind up sobbing on the floor or flying above Cloud Nine for an image to be effective in stirring emotions. It is best to recognize the nature of the emotions experienced by an image and keep them in perspective. For example, a field of pale clover will not have the high drama of a field of screaming yellow sunflowers. However, the field of clover may have its own quiet qualities that can evoke emotions that are even more powerful. Both high drama and subtlety are well represented through the medium of photography.

Technical execution

One of the first things I look at when evaluating a photograph is technical execution. Did the photographer make the message they’re trying to make? Often the message and design is clear and potentially powerful but the image fails because the photographer didn’t have enough understanding of his or her equipment to pull it off. The wrong parts are blurred or the exposure was blown in the wrong areas, or some side-light snuck in and caused stray highlights, and so on.

When I evaluate the technical aspects of how an image was captured I generally look at sharpness, exposure and lighting. I look at how selective focus was used and for things like camera shake, blown highlights, blocked up shadows, filter use, lens flare, focal length, color quality and saturation and effects created by artificial lighting and reflectors.

Go easy – fragility abounds

Beginners in any artistic venture are incredibly impressionable and their egos can be fragile at this time. It’s the time when a hard review can break the spirit of an artist and this breaks my own heart. I always go a little easier when offering an evaluation, regardless of the person’s age or level of experience. They are asking for help. This is no time for snobbery or tough love or intimidating others with our vast knowledge base. Some beginning or learning artists are very sensitive creatures and it’s not going to be me who turns them away from art. Tough love is for tough folk, not sensitive image makers.

NEXT: Part Two: Evaluating the Intangibles
NEXT: Part Three: Building Blocks: The Tangibles
NEXT: Part Four: Sample Critique