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Composition & Critique

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© 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:
  1. Rule of Thirds.  Perhaps cliche and over used at times, this technique will almost always produce a solid image.  Please see the article on this subject for more information.
  2. Focal Point.  Generally speaking, it's important to have a main subject or at least a place for your "eye to rest."  In most cases, the scene you are trying to capture will have a main subject;  try and make sure the composition emphasizes it.  An image that is cluttered or seems to busy, causes the viewer's eye to roam aimlessly around the photograph;  interest is quickly lost.  By emphasizing your subject or eliminating unnecessary elements, your photograph becomes much stronger.
  3. Format.  Don't be afraid to turn that camera to the vertical position!   Try shooting both horizontal and vertical.  Many subjects may be more appropriately shown in a vertical format such as tall trees, buildings, sailboats with tall masts in a marina, or even people.  Conversely, rolling green hills, pastoral, peaceful scenes or grand scenic's might suggest a horizontal format.  In general, the vertical format emphasizes strength, power and is a good choice for near/far compositions.  The horizontal format is generally safe for broad views and sweeping landscapes.  But as always, these are just simple guidelines.  Try and remember to shoot both and see which one works better.
  4. The 50/50 Dilemma & Centered Subjects.  "The subject is too centered" or "The photo is split in half" are two very common criticisms.  In general, avoid centering your main subject or splitting the scene in the middle with a horizon.  Try putting your subject just off-center or try using the "Rule of Thirds."   This basically means dividing the photograph into imaginary equal thirds, both horizontally and vertically. The intersections of these imaginary lines suggest the most prominent location for the main subject.  But please remember, rules are made to be broken and sometimes scenes like reflections are begging for a split image.  Ask yourself, are the two halves of the image competing for the viewers attention?  If so, then perhaps a crop or re-shoot to emphasize the portion of the image that attracts you will work better than a 50/50 split.  An image can just as easily be successful if split in half - just make sure that one half "supports" the other and that they don't compete or leave the viewer confused.  Be flexible, vary your angle of view and be creative!
  5. The Tilted Horizon.  Unless you're going for an extreme perspective and view, it's usually advisable to make sure your camera is level.  Even after the fact, make sure your horizons are level and correct them in your photo editing software.  
  6. Tighten it Up.  It's fairly common when you're reviewing your own, or other people's work to feel like you should have moved in closer.  Moving closer or zooming in to isolate a subject is an easy and effective way to simplify a scene.  Not only can you emphasize your main subject better, this often results in eliminating distracting objects near the edge of the frame.  Of course this is another subjective aspect and the effectiveness of moving in closer so greatly depends on the scene before you and subject matter.  Being mindful of this during capture and presentation just might help improve your picture taking.
  7. Reverse or Rotate.  Many images, especially generic nature scenic's and close ups, can be viewed reversed.  At least in Western civilization, our eyes have been trained to read from left to right since Kindergarten, so it's only natural we view photographs in the same way.  For example, a strong vertical element on the left-hand edge might mentally stop us from going any further into the scene.  Flip the image around and now the eye is free to "enter" the photograph from the left.  This of course won't work with recognizable landmarks, but something simple like a field of flowers or leaves floating on water are great subjects to try different orientations; reversing or even rotating to get a better composition.
  8. Lead-in lines and the "S-curve."  Many of the successful compositions make use of strong lead-in lines, an S-curve, or both.  Pretty self-explanatory, but this simply means making use of lines, patterns, paths, or some graphical element to lead the viewer in to the scene.  Images making good use of lines and curves will generally hold the viewer's attention much longer.
  9. "K.I.S.S."  Keep It Simple, Stupid.  More times than not, the cleaner and simpler you can keep your image, the more impact and presence it will have.  And like anything else discussed here, you should consider how these techniques effect your intended outcome.  It's entirely possible that a random, chaotic scene of say leaves and tree branches could actually come across as very simple. And on the other hand, a blank sky which is quite simple, just might come across as boring.  Learning how to recognize these situations and how they effect you and those who view and critique your work, will go a long way in taking you to that next level.
Watch for Eye Catchers:  Always double-check your work looking for "eye catchers," distracting elements such as dust spots, branches or leaves intruding along the edges, etc.
  1. Bright spots.  Bright spots and highlights will normally pull the viewers eye away from the main subject and in most cases, simply distracting.  With the use of cloning/healing tools and/or selective masking layers in your photo imaging software you can reduce or eliminate those hot spots.
  2. Dust spots.  You should always review your own work for dust spots and imperfections.  Presenting an image that hasn't been "cleaned up" tells the reviewer that you didn't take the time to remove things like dust spots and consequently tells the viewer you don't care about your own work.
  3. Tilted Horizons.  Another important check and easily corrected.
  4. Clutter.  This goes back to "K.I.S.S."  Too much clutter makes for a busy photograph.
  5. Border Patrol!  Remember this one as it's a good habit to get in to.  You simply move your eye around the edge of the frame looking for intruding or misplaced elements; elements merging with the edge of the frame, etc.  In addition, if you are going to clip or chop off an element in the scene, make sure it looks intentional rather than an accident.
  6. Out of Focus.  In general, blurry, out of focus elements anywhere in the frame can be a distraction.  This is more often true when these elements are in front of or near the main subject.  But using select focus and/or blurring elements intentionally can also be a very effective technique.  Understanding the difference is key to a successful image.
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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