Every Image is a Lesson — Elements of Practical Critique: Part II


“Marriage of Birch and Maple” – after applying suggestions from Gurushots.com critique. Copyright 2013 – Paul Vreeland

I submitted the image above, “Marriage of Birch and Maple” to the critiquing service of gurushots.com. Stay tuned. Below I’ll share with you the responses I received.

The title of this posting comes from Leslie O’Brien. Leslie and his wife Claudette had been members of the Montreal Photo Club before moving to Charlottetown. Recently they told me of their experiences with the club – a club that held weekly competitions. “We thought we knew about photography when we joined the club,” Claudette said, “but boy, did we learn.”

I suggested in part 1 that while we may want constructive feedback, and while we may devote ourselves to developing our craft, we may shy away from critique.  Perhaps we want to learn to take better ph0tographs, we want to learn the all the ins and outs of our camera bodies, lenses and lighting equipment, and we may spend hours learning all the hoops our image-editing software can jump through, but why do we shy away from learning to analyze an image? Membership in a community of artists, be it a writer’s group or a photo club comes with a price. There are dues to pay. And when we join such a community looking for help, we soon realize that we need to give as good as we get. If we ask for practical critique, we need to learn to give it.

Learning is at the heart of practical critique. I call it “practical critique” because I want to reinforce the idea that authentic critique is something the recipient can use. Critique can be nothing more than words that end in words, but practical critique would have those words leading to actions to improve the craft. It’s practical if a) the person critiquing the work gives specifics to the artist about what he/she can do to improve it, and, b) if the artists uses the feedback.

Learning to offer meaningful critique means learning to become a better photographer because the skill demands and understanding of how we see, how our eye responds to an image, and how we would want the eye of the viewer to respond. Having come to this understanding, how could we fail to apply it in the creation of our own work? Photographer Vincent Versace informs us of “the biomechanics of seeing”. He tells us that:

… the human eye scans a scene in a predictable sequence. It goes first to patterns it recognizes, then moves from areas of light to dark, high contrast to low contrast, high sharpness to low sharpness, in focus to blur (which is different than high to low sharpness), and high color saturation to low…

… when we view anything at all, there is both an unconscious and a conscious element involved. First, our unconscious eye, or the anatomical structure that makes up the eye, scans in the predictable manner I described above. Then, the conscious eye, the mind’s eye, interprets the image seen. It is how you control the unconscious eye that determines how the viewer interprets the image. ~ Vincent Versace

Another photographer, Katrin Eismman adds to the list. She suggests that the eye is attracted to warm tones, then to cool tones.

3 Questions Essential to the Critique Process

Keeping in mind the “biomechanics of seeing” we need to ask three questions when critiquing an image:

1.  What is the subject?

As a viewer, my impression of the subject may not be the same as that of the photographer. Another way of approaching this is to ask, “Why did you/I take this photo?” Or, “what is it that I as a photographer saw that I want you to see?/ what do I think the photographer wants me to see?”  The question is critical, because all elements within our control need to serve the subject. Having answered this, we can then ask how do the areas of light and dark serve the image, how does focus and blur (depth of field) serve the subject. How do all of the elements Versace mentions above serve the subject?

There may be several points of interest in the image, but only one is the subject. If the points of interest are not in service to the subject, they are distractions. However we need to consider how the subject may be the relationship between different points of interest—may be the story the relationship would tell.

2. What are the distractions

What are the distractions? Are there elements in the image that compete with the subject in unwanted ways? (Sometimes we may want a bit of tension and competition, but only when it serves the best interests of the subject.) Versace, in “The Lens is the Brush” – a talk he gave at Google  (check it out on YouTube  http://youtu.be/aiEuS5zX51E ) offered this:

“One of the ways that I look at my images is the way in which Michelangelo looked at sculpture. He viewed the rock as the living stone and what he did was freed the sculpture from the living stone by removing everything that was not his vision of the sculpture. Once I have the image – once the image has taken me, I look at the image and I view the file as the living file and what I am going to do is to remove everything that is not my vision of the way in which it felt when my feet were planted there. Again, my job is to create an image that moves the viewer the same way I was moved. That I don’t want to be in my photograph, that I want to be out of my photograph—I want to leave the photograph open to the viewer to be in there as well so that they get the same hit, the same buzz, the same rush that I got the moment the picture took me.

How often has the eye of another seen the distraction that I failed to notice?

3. How can I manipulate the image so as to accentuate the positive and minimize the distractions?

It is the third question that tells us how the image can be improved. The answers to this question are the essence of practical critique. Because every one of the elements listed by Versace can be controlled in pre and post production, and there is no reason why anyone with a basic tool like Lightroom cannot take the suggestions of a practical critique and make a better image.

Armed with this information, it helps to have a framework for critique. (See the Gurushots “Photo Critique Marriage_Summary
Summary” below.) I would recommend studying the critiques at gurushots.com. I have learned a great deal from the professionals who post to gurushots. What I most appreciate about their service is a focus on how to improve. But note as I wrote in the previous blog, “There is no such thing as gratuitous critique,” there is a fee for the gurushot service.

When I posted my first image to gurushots, I received an immediate response. My critiquer wanted to know what photo-editing software I was using, because he wanted to give me very specific instructions about improving my photo. Below is a portion of the critique of the “Marriage of Birch and Maple”.


5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It sucks.” – Elements of Practical Critique: Part I

Rain on Wright’s Creek (after applying the judges’ suggestions) copyright 2013 Paul Vreeland

I entered a version of the image above in the 2013 PEI Photo Club Annual Show in the Black & White category.  The judging of the show took place a few days before the exhibition was installed at The Guild in downtown Charlottetown.   Three competent professional photographers, invited to serve as judges, had been given access to the digital images well in advance and had been instructed to give ample comments –critiques intended to help photographers to learn how to improve their craft.  The evening of the judging was the first time they had seen the actual prints, all about 8 x 10 mounted on foam core. The images were laid out category by category on tables for their assessment. I was among the club members in attendance, listening closely to the judges’ comments. (The judges, by the way, had not been given the names of the photographers.)  My image, “Rain on Wright’s Creek” was eliminated  early; it was one of the first to be put aside. “Nah. It’s been sharpened. It’s over-processed,” said one judge answering the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Another judge agreed. “A softer treatment would have served it better,” answering the question, “How can it be improved?”

I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed.  I liked the way my eyes would not settle, but jumped from raindrop ring to raindrop ring, much in the same way as they did when I had stood on the banks of the creek. And while I was disappointed—a disappointment that was heightened when the image that I had submitted in the next category was also quickly eliminated,  I was also heartened by the comments. I knew I could go back to the image and work to improve it. In less than a minute, I had learned something.

Learning is at the heart of critique.

If you want to learn how to write, you have to learn how to read. You learn from reading, reading, reading and from writing, writing, writing. You cannot improve your craft without continual learning, and the best, most relevant source of learning is from the skilled critiques of trusted fellow writers. If you want to learn the art of photography you have to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot, study the photography of others, and learn to give and receive meaningful practical suggestions.

Before discussing the elements of practical critique, I’d like to discuss two things I have learned about the nature of critique:

  1. Practical Critique is neither praise nor condemnation

Several years ago when I took up my pen and dedicated myself more seriously as a writer I joined a writer’s group. Since that time I have been a member of a few different groups. In each of them, however, the members took time to study the work of another member and to offer comments to help the writer improve. But when I joined that first group, I was looking for praise.  I wanted others to ooo and ahh say things like “wow!” and “Hey, that’s great.” When I moved beyond the need for praise, I wanted the comments and plenty of them. I took the critiques home and re-worked my pieces.  I may have moved beyond the need for praise, but I have not overcome it; I’d be lying if I said I don’t want praise.

Praise may feed my ego, but it teaches me little. Similarly condemnation teaches me nothing,  but it is much more dangerous. It serves no useful purpose and can kill my creative spirit. (See 5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You It Sucks below.)

I had an idea of how to critique a short-story or an essay and I did my best to offer constructive criticism.  My first writer’s group met every week and I was blissfully happy with it for the first few sessions. Then a member brought poetry. While I had written the occasional poem, I had no idea how to critique poetry. I fumbled. I didn’t give the poet her due. She gave me her skilled and considered suggestions, but I was unable to reciprocate. I signed up for a course in poetry writing with Sue Goyette ( http://writers.ns.ca/members/profile/87 ) through the Writer’s Federation of Nova Scotia. I became a better poet, and I began to learn to critique poetry.  As much as I wanted the writer’s group to help me to become a better writer, my experience with it taught me that I had to give as good as I got. In other words, if I wanted help in becoming a better writer, I had to learn how to give a better critique.  Which leads me to point number two.

2. There is no such thing as gratuitous critique.

Writers and photographers and unnumbered artists of other media post their work on the web. I’ve cruised the communities on Google+ and I’ve looked at sites promising forums for photo critique. I have posted my work to Picasa, Flickr and 500px accounts. I have seen many fledgling artists upload their work begging for feedback. And what I find, in the case of photographers, is an abundance of dim praise and a dearth of positive and/or negative criticism.  When it comes to writers posting on-line, I’m sorry. but I’m not about to give freely of my time to read the work of a stranger, let alone take the additional time to compose a thoughtful list of suggestions. My time is not that free. And so it is with most other artists. The posted appeals for critique go unanswered.

Writer’s groups work, or at least the most of the ones I’ve been associated with do (okay, my first group was a disaster, but that’s another story) because it takes face-to-face time to build knowledge and, more important, trust. Knowledge of the others’ competence as writers will determine the credibility I give to their critiques. If I truly admire a person’s craft as a writer, it is most likely I will give his/her comments about my own work more serious consideration than the comments of a person whose writing is, for me, questionable. There  have been times when I have gone to accomplished writers in my community and have asked for more detailed critiques, and writers have come to me for the same.

It takes time as well to build trust.  The writer’s group to which I presently belong (TWiG—The Writers in Group), is a safe, comfortable environment in which I feel free to reveal myself by sharing the drafts of my precious creations. And I am comfortable with the feedback I receive, because I trust the other members’ intentions to help me.  I dare say, there is a great deal of love among us; we share a sense of common vision and purpose, and we are aware of ourselves as a community. I doubt that this can be accomplished among on-line strangers.

If you want serious critique, you have to pay your dues. You have to earn trust and credibility, and you have to give as good as you get. For these reasons, I believe the face-to-face meetings of photo clubs can be the greatest resource for practical critique.

There is no such thing as gratuitous critique, and outside of a well-groomed photo club, gurushots.com is the best place I know to learn about the art of practical critique. If you want detailed critique from the professionals at gurushots, you pay a modest fee.

And, as promised, here it is:

5 Reasons Why I’ll Never Tell You “It Sucks.”

  1. “It sucks,” is a form of condemnation and condemnation serves no useful purpose.
  2. The desire to create is a spiritual gift mirroring the impulse of the divine. My job is to enkindle the flickering flames of that desire with a kindly tongue and practical advice. What right do I have to extinguish the fire.
  3. Condemnation does not build trust or contribute to a sense of community and common purpose. If you want to lose your membership in the artistic community, offer condemnation. The reciprocity of the Golden Rule applies.
  4. Condemnation does not accept the pursuit of artistic development; it does not accept the potential and possibility that my work can/will improve.
  5. Saying “It sucks,” reveals more about my ineptitude than it does about your craft.

Coming up: Part II – “Every Image is a Lesson.”