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”.