How to critique your own photos

In this blog post I’m going to take you through critiques of three photos, so you can learn to assess your own work. You’ll also be better prepared to enter photo contests.

As a judge for the Calgary Stampede Western Showcase photo contest for the past few years, it’s become apparent to me that people do not know how to pick out their own best work. Often they submit similar shots, which dilutes their overall presentation, making all their photos seem mediocre.

I’m basing my critiques on three values:

  • Emotional
  • Artistic
  • Technical

I’m not covering the deeper meaning, or metaphorical side of things in this post, as that is very personal and opinion based. I’ll leave that up to the fine art schools.

Quick overview

Emotional

  • I call this the puppies and babies reaction.
  • When I teach in a live classroom, an audible gasp, ooh, or giggle is often heard in reaction to photos that I show my students.
  • Note your emotional reaction, if any, to a photo.
  • It can be anything from laughter to disgust.

Artistic

  • Is this image unique? Does it use composition and light in creative ways? Good composition is key to getting people to notice your photo at all. With so many images bombarding us every minute of the day, ask yourself, what catches your eye in this photo?
  • Light– was this photo lit in such a way that captures the subject in the best way possible? Was it shot at the best time of the day?
  • Timing – If you’re shooting moving subjects, you need to capture their peak moments. This is something that needs lots of practice (or a camera that shoots 4K photos). Study your subject’s movements and form, and get to know what the best timing is. You may have to ask for help if this is not your sport or activity.
  • When I started shooting skateboarding, I asked the skaters which shot of the sequence was best. Over time I’ve learned to look for those shots. It’s better to plan than to spray and pray.

Technical

  • Photos must be technically perfect if you plan to enter them into photo contests. And if you want to stand out from the sea of crappy cell phone photos, get your most technically perfect photos onto social media as well.
  • Some things to look for: Is the photo in focus? Is the exposure correct? Proper white balance used? Was it edited in a pleasing way? Was it over-edited? Over-filtered? What about shutter speed? Too blurry. And Depth of field? Too little or too much DoF.
  • Raise the bar! If you’re a serious photographer, don’t post any technically bad photos publicly.




Okay, let’s get started with the critiques.

I’m going to critique three of Ruth Bergen Braun’s photos.

If you’re a reader of the ImageMaven.com blog you’ll have seen Ruth’s blog posts. She’s currently doing a 365 Project and I’m going to take a couple of her photos from that and one from her previous blog post on hybrid photography.

First photo – Portrait on the prairie

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Emotional: A teenager with a guitar on the prairies sitting on a junked VW Beetle, definitely conjures up some nostalgia for me. This photo has a timeless quality. It shows mood and a moment in time of a teenager’s life. It is relaxed and un-posed and invites me into the story.

Artistic: Composition is this photo is very good. The horizon is above the middle. Nick is positioned using the rule of thirds as a guide. The overcast lighting gives it a soft look. The angle of his posture and legs, keeps us “in” the frame. All the action takes place on the right half of the photo, but the expanse of the prairie and negative space of the left side, balance it beautifully.

Technical: Ruth gave this photo a nostalgic editing treatment as well. The warm tones give it an aged quality which could put this photo in a time period of today, or back into the 1970’s.

Second photo – Blue flower

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Emotional: Flower photos tend to be bright and cheery. In contrast, this is a very calming photo.

Artistic: There is not a lot of light in this shot, and in fact the light is not particularly bright on our main subject, which is placed pleasingly along the rule of thirds. But the subtle back light of the fuzzy/hairy area below the bloom, helps it to stand out by separating it from the back ground. The stem on the right side of the picture adds a lovely frame. And the colours green and indigo, have similar brightness values but are also different enough to add contrast.

Technical: Shallow depth of field is very important element in this photo. Had it been more “in focus” it would have been far too busy and the simplicity of the composition would have been lost.

Next – Foggy morning

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Emotional: I just realized I chose all moody photos. This is an exceptionally moody and dark photo. I can imagine myself walking through this park and possibly being a little frightened. But it also has a very peaceful feel to it.

Artistic: The nearly monochromatic tone of this shot really add to the moodiness. The composition is perfect. Horizon is on the lower third and the largest tree is on the right third. I love the triangle shape that the street lamps produce. There is very little colour, but the shaft of yellow light brings you into the frame and adds focus and warmth. I’m glad it’s not black and white because that warmth would have been lost.

Technical: Not only is the photo naturally soft in the background due to the fog, but the depth of field in this photo diminishes the closer you get to the streetlamp in the back. I like that it’s not too shallow.

See how easy that was?

If you need more help with critiques of your photos, you can read this previous blog post I wrote. And it also has a video.

It gets easier if you practice

If you’re not sure where to start with your own photo critiques, practice on other people’s shots first. Magazine photos are a great place to practice. Look at photo contest winners and try to pick out the things that the judges saw.

If you liked this, please share or leave a comment. Thanks so much!

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