Is it possible or fair to critique photos other than technical points in photos?

This is a discussion on Is it possible or fair to critique photos other than technical points in photos? within the Photography Discussion forums, part of the PHOTO FORUM category; I have very recently gotten into photography. I've been studying in photography school for a few months. I've been in the very basics so far, ...


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Thread: Is it possible or fair to critique photos other than technical points in photos?

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    Is it possible or fair to critique photos other than technical points in photos?

    I have very recently gotten into photography. I've been studying in photography school for a few months. I've been in the very basics so far, camera parts, photography terminology, history, lighting, lighting equipment etc.

    Well I've been physically practicing for about 3 weeks now. I have completely immersed myslef into photography. I wake up, I'm studying and researching until 4 am some nights. And I have learned SO much from so many people. My view on photography is completely different. And a conclusion I have come to is "what makes a good photo" is extremely subjective. It seems a lot of photographers, and I'm actually not reffering to people on this forum, I find people on this forum are actually quite nice, fair but honest. But it seems like a lot of photographers seem to base a lot of a quality of a photo on creative and personal taste alone. I hear a lot from other's photos "this photo does nothing for me" or " It doesn't mean anything". I mean I believe there are basic compositional rules that everyone should generally follow (sometimes rules hsould be broken) such close attention to background, rule of thirds, pleasing lines leading to the main subject, framing etc. But to judge creativity and what a photo "does" for someone seems so subjective. What really brought this to my attention is today for school was the first in studying "communication". Basically, the lesson spoke about about what makes a good photo completely depends on the photo successfully communicating the desired message from the author and osberver. For example, someone who is taking a macro photo needs to communicate fine detail, a wedding photographer has to communicate certain emotions, memories etc. Again, obviously there are basic rules we should pay close attention too, but what determines if the photo means anything? Doesn't it for the most part come into personal taste? Unless someone gives us a description we don't know what the partiuclar goal was for that photo. For example, a person might need to take a picture of cups for a magazine, now if we ask someone to critique the photo for technical reasons, it would be like "why'd you photograph that" but THAT person knows what it meant. The communication was a success because it's what the job/client called for. And also, art is art. Who really has the authority or right to judge what is creative and not. I have a photo of some trees lined up. I pid close attention to composition. To most, it may a boring subject matter, but I was photographing for a nature enthusiest, so the communication is a sucess.

    Basically, I'm just wondering if photographers should judge on technical merit alone, and not on communication because there may be a communication with the photo you don't know.
    ChicagoJohn likes this.


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    The question of giving and receiving criticism is a bit like peeling an onion: there are lots of layers to get through and it can make your eyes water at times.

    My feeling is that constructive criticism is a good thing but should always be supported with reasonable arguments. It is not enough to say that you don't like something that someone has taken the time and trouble to create and publish without saying why. There is never any excuse for ignorance. Often when I don't like a photo or fail to see any points of interest, I put it aside for a while and then return to it later and try to consider what it is that I might be failing to see. If I still don't enter into a discourse with the piece then, I consider it as much my failing as the photographer's.

    Art, though, cannot exist in a vacuum and there really ought to be more consideration by the creating photographers that their published works will be judged and that not everyone will receive them in a positive way. I think most of us like being told that we did a good job; having our eyes opened to our shortcomings isn't for everyone and putting your work on display involves a certain risk of this.

    I think you may have opened a can of worms here...
    Photography is a portal through which we are transported to other worlds

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    I have no problem having my work critiqued on a technical level. I'm mores speaking of when people call a photo a
    Fail because of subject matter or personal taste.

    I mean I don't think there is anything wrong with calling a bad a photo anything short of that. Of course short comings should be pointed out. Like if a photo has too much noise, out of focus, overexposed, compositionally bad, looks like a snapshot, then by all means, call it a bad photo.

    Like I said before, you can have a compositionally perfect picture of a tree, but a lot of people may think its boring. But if the picture was intended for someone who loves nature than the photo may be a success. Im just wondering if its possible to judge successful communication of we don't know the circumstances or context to which it was created.

    Like I dont care too much for people photography (unless its in an urban enviroment or silhouettes) too much. Unless I know the people it really holds no interest to me. So would it be fair for me to call it a fail because it's not for my personal taste even if technically its perfect? It doesn't make portraits a photo fail, just means its not my personal taste.
    Last edited by blackrose89; 12-02-2011 at 10:22 AM.

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    Well, art will always generate some sort of emotional response and this can be positive, perhaps I feel inspired or get goosebumps, but can also be negative - it leaves me cold and or confused.

    For me, photography isn't only about technical ability and prowess. To understand how and why people respond the way they do to any particular work requires some psychological and even philosophical considerations surrounding or concerning the liberal arts.

    What makes a photo good or bad is not easy to pinpoint. You mention certain points that, for you, constitute a bad photo. Over or underexposure might in fact be the desired effect; some snapshots are sensational; the conventions of composition might deliberately have been (seemingly) ignored. The list goes on.

    If you take a photo of a chair and it is received as a photo of a chair, then this is not a failure. If your chair is perceived as an iconic image, makes the viewer want to sit down on or in it and contemplate the answer to life the universe and everything, this is also no failure.

    The difference is........42

    Seriously though, if you produce an image for a client, say, and it meets their requirements and gets the job done , then to be too worried about the possible negative response of people outside the target group seems a bit of an ego trip.

    If, on the other hand, you create an image for general consumption and it is misunderstood and or fails to get the message you intended across (or else is simply ignored), you can either stand by your convictions (and go on a justifiable ego trip) or rip it up and start again.

    Once you produce and publish an image it will be received how it will be received and has to stand or fall by itself.

    Interesting thoughts you put forward.
    Photography is a portal through which we are transported to other worlds

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    There's a few schools of thought:

    1) There is some basic technique in terms of getting the exposure right, getting the focus right, having a depth of field that "works" based on what you were trying to convey (topics such as "subject isolation", etc.)

    2) Then there are some slightly less basic techniques in terms of how to frame a shot. Sure there are things like "rule of thirds" and when to break the rules. But there are certain techniques that fall into patterns which classically work or don't work. One example is "fill the frame" -- if you want to show off a subject then by all means SHOW it... don't set the subject so far away that it's not possible to see detail. I mentioned some guidelines in what classically works when shooting B&Ws on your last post. In a nutshell this is about keeping a viewer's interest. Everybody does this... you flip through a magazine and pretty much just keep turning the page and glimpsing the photos. But THEN you come to a page with an image that really captures your attention. The folks that are saying "this photo does nothing for me" are basically saying that the photo didn't capture their attention (we often call this "stopping value" - meaning the photo made the person stop and linger at it.)

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever received when I was just starting out was that, when YOU come across a photo that makes you stop... STUDY IT! STUDY EVERYTHING about it. Study the poses (if it's people). Study the lighting & shadows. Study the composition. Basically the photo impressed you and will probably impress others. What you want to know is not the mere fact that it did impress you... but more importantly WHY it impressed you. You'll start to notice some traits and this will help you develop your own technique and artistic eye for how you set up shots.

    3) There are some artistic parts to technique that get a bit more advanced... posing subjects or NOT posing subjects (whichever the case may be... wedding & portrait photographers pose people, photojournalistic photographers DON'T pose people but they look for genuine emotion and they're not above provoking the emotion from time to time in order to get an interesting shot (I'll have some photo challenges on this in the future.) There are some rules (btw, every time you see me type "rule" you should substitute the term "guideline" because all rules are made to be broken) that generally apply when posing a shot.

    When giving critique, it doesn't help if people don't support the critique with reasons. My personal beliefs are as follows:

    When giving critique, I try to limit the critique to just 2 suggestions. Even if I think there are 10 things I would like to see them change, they'll never remember to do 10 things differently. I can probably get someone to try one thing differently and 2 tops. So I limit the critique in the hope that it'll be something that helps the photographer. There's always time to learn to improve the next 2 things and the next 2 things after that. Citing 0 things wrong other than "it does nothing for me" will only discourage people and isn't very helpful because if you really did something wrong, you still have no idea what was wrong and/or how to change it. Citing 10 things wrong is overwhelming and also discouraging. For me... 2 is the number I go for.

    I also believe that I should reinforce critiques by giving examples of what the photographer did right. That way they know when they're on to something worth repeating vs. just getting lucky. Showing what someone does right helps build confidence.

    If you're submitting a photo to a contest, you'll find it needs to have that "stopping value" and support a lot of core values that judges will look for. Apart from that, the art gets very subjective and some things that one person WANTS to see, another person specifically wants to AVOID seeing. Keep in mind that on a given day, you can do everything right and still not come back with a prize-winning photo. Sometimes the prize winning photo is based on circumstance... and you can't necessarily force the circumstance. This is especially true in photojournalistic styles of shooting... where you don't control what's happening around you and just hope that not only does something interested happen, but when it does happen, you hope the light, angle, and framing all line up so that you capture an interesting subject AND in an interesting way.

    Keep shooting. Keep having fun.
    Tim Campbell

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    Competition photography in the advanced amateur and pro section is critiqued on the basis of technique and composition. Technique is the technical side and composition is the artistic/creative manner in which the photographer deals with the content of the image.

    Cameron

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    This is a fun and thought-provoking question and thread. Going back to the OP's intent, together with the comments made in response thus far, it seems to me that questions like this are often posed sort of generically and outside of a specific context.

    With respect to photography critique, I think that to the extent details of the critique context are provided, answers tend to become self-evident; i.e., photography critique is merely a special case of the larger scope of language games and meaning: There is no overarching, universal, single and fundamental answer, only an open-ended set of context-dependent answers sharing similarities and differences, but each rather self-evident when its context is fully known. The OP actually hints at this in the examples cited.

    One context, for instance, as is often the case in this forum, might involve learning the basics of composition, how various camera settings can be equated in the concept of "exposure value", how dynamic range, depth of acceptable focus, or color can be used to advantage in drawing attention to the subject, and so on. So that would be a context of mastering basic digital photography techniques.

    Another set of contexts might center around various objectives, as is alluded to by the OP. These might be more or less purely representational, as, for instance, in making an image of a plastics part cross-section to communicate failure analysis to a technical team or again, as mentioned, making pictures of cups for a magazine ad.

    Or the objective might be to communicate a feeling, simple or complex, or an abstract thought, well-formed or yet fuzzy as an artistic expression.

    If the intent is to produce a work that one would hang on an office, home, or hospital wall as a decoration, the criteria of critique will perhaps be quite different from those of an image taken in a photography class intended to demonstrate mastery of a technique or one taken in a materials science laboratory to communicate a failure mode. Perhaps in all cases, though, the question is one of how well the result serves the intended purpose for a particular individual and/or social context. And perhaps problems arise in this regard when the intention and/or the contextual situation becomes ambiguous, or rather when it's allowed to remain ambiguous: Yet in some cases, success may entirely rely upon that ambiguity!

    That said, there is yet another aspect of photography as we practice it, and perhaps to art in general, as Fred Berg alluded to, that is transcendent. The term "critique" implies an ability to deconstruct and analyze a work within some context and yet we all well know that without the creative process that transcends not only all analysis but us as individuals as well, photography would lose its magic, fascination and power and become just another mundane, routine activity hardly worth our efforts.
    Last edited by ChicagoJohn; 02-11-2012 at 11:26 AM.
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    Quite the contrary, Chicago John, context is irrelevant when it comes to critiquing a photograph. No matter what the purpose for taking the photo, an image with good technical quality: sharpness and colour for example will accomplish that task better than one that is out-of-focus with inaccurate colours. In terms of composition you are still trying to direct the viewer's eye toward the subject/centre of interest of your photo.

    As a matter of fact, when I studied television production a large part of television camera technique that we learned, dealt with composition even when the program was an interview or speech by a celebrity. The director would also cue camera operators to correct poor technique or composition.

    So, since technique and composition are expected in any camera work: photography or television, then critique is equally irrelevant to any particular context of the photo or television program.

    Cameron

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    Quote Originally Posted by Cameron View Post
    Quite the contrary, Chicago John, context is irrelevant when it comes to critiquing a photograph. No matter what the purpose for taking the photo, an image with good technical quality: sharpness and colour for example will accomplish that task better than one that is out-of-focus with inaccurate colours. In terms of composition you are still trying to direct the viewer's eye toward the subject/centre of interest of your photo.

    As a matter of fact, when I studied television production a large part of television camera technique that we learned, dealt with composition even when the program was an interview or speech by a celebrity. The director would also cue camera operators to correct poor technique or composition.

    So, since technique and composition are expected in any camera work: photography or television, then critique is equally irrelevant to any particular context of the photo or television program.

    Cameron
    Good, Camron! (By the way, I noted that you mentioned a reference group in making your point; viz., your training in television production, a very particular context. :P)

    So as a practical exercise, I present two photographs to you. Both are in-camera images without significant post processing. How would you critique these independent of any context? After you've given me your answers, I will provide you with the context in which I decided to take them.


    Let it Bleed by ChicagoJohn, on Flickr


    overserved by Chicago John
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    Quote Originally Posted by ChicagoJohn View Post
    Good, Camron! (By the way, I noted that you mentioned a reference group in making your point; viz., your training in television production, a very particular context. :P)
    I am not sure that I even understand you. Television production is as broad a context as photography but where they relate is that both have technical and compositional standards and critique is simply a method of communicating the success or failure of the image or television production to meet those standards.

    So, now, I am not even sure what your definition of context is...."a very particular context" (you) "a broad context" (me).

    Cameron


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