Composition & Critique© Lon J. Overacker
|This article is intended for the beginning photographer or new members of camera clubs and other organizations such as online photography forums, where their work is critiqued by outside, independent judges; or perhaps even by peers. However, even if you're not a member of a camera club, the lessons learned here just may help improve the images you capture in the field. Remember, there are no hard rules in photography; the following are only meant as guidelines.
For the beginner, perhaps entering a competition for the first time or even joining an online critique forum, one of the most important things to remember about critiques and judging is that it is very subjective. Ultimately, it's the reviewer's or judge's opinion and response to an image; nothing more. For most of us, it's hard to take criticism, but we must remember that we're all here to learn and enjoy each others work; so welcome the judges comments as a chance to improve your photography. Criticism, specifically constructive criticism, can be a healthy means of learning and growing. If you don't agree with their opinion, that's ok too. After all, the most important thing above all, is how you feel about your image.
So how does one critique their own work? Of course this process actually starts before you capture an image; with good composition and being able to recognize light, form, shapes, patterns, and even mood, drama and emotion. But even after the fact, when you're reviewing your files or slides, what is it about an image that makes it a strong photograph and one with impact? The following are some conventional tips on how you can critique your own work and even perhaps critique other's work as well.
One final important note: These tips have been compiled thru "conventional" thoughts on critique and what makes a good photograph. But don't let yourself get boxed in to these "rules," guidelines or conventions. Strive to be different - step out of the box and try something out of the norm. A centered composition?, negative space?, no focal point? - so what. But also understand that outside of the box, you should have purpose; make it mean something. Regardless of your approach and review of your work, hopefully these tips will help you along the way.
Emotional Attachment: One of the first things one must learn is to understand is your emotional attachment to an image will never be the same to someone else viewing your work. When we capture an image, we experience all the senses that for the most part can not be transferred to the viewer; the warm light of a setting sun, or the freezing cold temperatures making your fingers go numb - or the gentle breeze bringing scents of spring or the salt air to your nose. Most of that wonderful experience we have capturing moments in nature are not transferred to the final image; whether it be in a print or an online forum. So, if you pull yourself away from the emotional attachment of your image you may be better able to objectively evaluate your image.
Does it have Impact? Will there be an emotional response from the viewer? What is the message you're trying to convey, or does the image make a statement? Does it have impact, mood, or emotion? Images that critique well or are successful in competitions are most likely the ones that get the "oohs" and "ah's" during judging or are able to translate some kind of emotion or message to the viewer. If a judge has to think too long about the photo or is slow to respond, that sometimes means he or she is having a hard time deciding if they like it and probably won't pick this one as a winner.
Technical Elements: Proper Exposure is a must for a positive critique. Generally speaking, over-exposed slides or prints will not do well. The exceptions would be with "high-key" images where over-exposure is intentional. So much depends on the subject matter, but in general, slightly under-exposed images are better received than over-exposed images; and ones with "hot spots." Exposure for black and white prints is again quite subjective, but you will commonly hear:"The print has black blacks and white whites." or "This print has a good tonal range from blacks to whites."
Perhaps equally important is Sharpness & Focus. It's not necessarily important to have everything in sharp focus. But for those elements that you've chosen as your main subject, they should be in focus. A broad scenic landscape should have everything from the foreground to the far background in focus. On the other hand, a soft-focus portrait may be okay with only the face or eye with sharp detail. Selective Focus is a tool utilizing sharp focus on a main subject while using a narrow depth of field (wide lens aperture) to bring emphasis to the subject. This is often used to selectively blur, or put a background out of focus.
Color and saturation is yet another technical element that should be considered when critiquing your work. Out of the previous topics, this is of course the most subjective. Your intent may well be vibrant and highly saturated colors - OR - you may prefer softer, more subdued hues. In either case, you need to ensure that your camera, film and/or white-balance settings match your intended results. Additionally, it's very important to have your monitor calibrated; otherwise, what you see on your monitor may be different from what others are viewing on their monitor.
Composition: Once things like emotional impact, great lighting, or a compelling story are considered, composition is probably the easiest to plan and control. Below are a few traditional elements of strong compositions. Please keep in mind that these are guidelines. There are no hard and fast rules that say you must follow them. But in the absence of some great dramatic story or compelling subject, utilizing these tips may greatly increase the odds of creating a strong image. And in no particular order:
|In summary, there are many, many tools and techniques used not only in the capture of an image, but later on in the review and presentation process. Consider this information as a foundation; learning to compose great images and understanding how others might critique are the building blocks in developing your own style and vision; Also realize that there are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines and techniques. Don't be afraid to step out of the box once you've learned to master the basics.
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