How to critique a photo

Created date

January 5th, 2016
fall photo of woods and fence
fall photo of woods and fence

I’m often asked my opinion of a photograph. My answer depends on who’s asking. Is it a stranger, a family member, a casual friend, a photography peer? For most, it’s enough to say, “That’s nice.” A peer is usually looking for more of a critique. 

My answer also depends on the content of the photo, be it a snapshot or an attempt at fine art photography. All photographers welcome compliments. Some are thick-skinned enough to accept an honest critique.  The dilemma lies in how one offers a balanced analysis without causing ill will or hurt feelings.

On its own merits

It’s nearly impossible to assess the circumstances under which a photo was taken and, in all fairness, you can only be expected to appraise what you see. Don’t be tempted to compare what you’re looking at with a similar photo that you’ve seen before. Assess the photo on its own merits.

When I review a photo, I quickly examine its technical components such as sharpness and color accuracy, and then spend the majority of my time reviewing its esthetics. I ask myself, “What do I like about this photo?” Is the composition appealing? Is there a focal point of interest? Does the photo cause some level of emotional response? Does it tell a story? Does it have impact? 

After I’ve analyzed the photo and have an opinion on it, I refer to my trusted critique principles—be fair, be helpful, be kind. 

I say something of a positive nature. I start out by saying what I like in the photo. It’s rare that a photo is perfect, so be positive about what you find deficient. Say, “If this were my image, here’s what I would do to improve it.” This helps smooth over your negative assessment, rather than saying, “This is all wrong. You need to crop here and remove this structure because it’s ugly.” If I’m stumped and can’t find anything constructive to say, my response will likely be, “It’s very interesting.” 

Practice these principles if you’re confident enough. Your opinion has value regardless of your level of expertise in photography. We all have different perspectives and viewpoints and they are to be respected. What is not fair is bringing your prejudice to the critique.  At the least, simply rely upon your instincts that tell you what you like about the photo. Just remember, if you comment at all—be fair, be helpful, be kind.