The art of the critique?

Paul Indigo’s over at Beyond The Obvious this morning got me thinking about photo sharing (seem my earlier article on the subject!), and yet another endangered species in our little art world…

The critique. 

I agree with Paul – it seems like the whole idea of “critique” has turned into “leave me a comment to stroke my ego, and I’ll stroke yours”  – regardless of the actual work. 

Then there are the folks who fancy themselves “critiquers” and will simply lambaste any image they come across (“this is terrible, 0 stars, etc…”)

What ever happened to the art of the critique?  The simple art of giving *constructive* criticism.  Isn’t the whole point of a critique to give the artist feedback to he can improve his craft.  And moreover, do these “casual photographers” really *want* true critique? or just to have their ego stroked.

When I was in school I had a professor, who would absolutely *tear* apart our work, pointing out every flaw, every mistake, every “part that could be better”.  it was very interesting to see the class’ reaction.  Some absolutely hated the guy and dropped his class (too mean!), while others absolutely loved him.  I was in the latter camp – why?  Because I quickly realized that his critiques were incredibly specific and to the point!  he always pointed out exactly *why* something was wrong, and *how* you could do it better next time.  It was great – my skills grew exponentially in that semester, and I attribute all of it to receiving precise, informative, and yes harsh critiques. 

But it’s hard to actually find someone to give a good critique – someone with the knowledge of the craft to understand the technical aspects, someone with a good eye to understand the aesthetic aspects, and finally someone who can communicate precisely and accurately to covey the feedback on said artwork!

So, as a public service, and without further ado, here is my humble opinion on how to give a good critique: 

  1. (General) Study the masters of the craft.  Learn how they did what they did, and *why*.  Learn the techniques, understand the foundations and technical aspects.
  2. Look at the work as a whole – what was the artist trying to say, what feeling were they trying to convey.
  3. Look at the specifics – color, composition, light (note this applies equally to all media, not just photography).
  4. Does the work succeed in it’s intended outcome – ie does it convey what it was meant to convey emotionally and intellectually.
  5. If no, why not?  is there a technical flaw that detracts from it?  does the composition not work?  do the colors not evoke the proper mood? is the subject not presented well?
  6. If it *does* succeed is there anything that could have been done better – technically, compositionally, etc…?
  7. Communicate points 2-6 as precisely as possible – exactly what works and what doesn’t, and *why*.  What did you “get” from the piece, and how successful was each aspect in attaining it.  For most folks you may want to start with the good points, as they may not be prepared for the apparent harshness of a real critique!

And finally – if you find someone who can give a educated, honest, and constructive critique – hang on to them!  They will increase your skills far more than a whole bucket of ego stroking!

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6 thoughts on “The art of the critique?”

  1. Hello,

    I agree that nowadays rarely one can expect a good critique. But than, everybody fancies themselves an “artist,” who would spend time and effort on thoroughly analyzing others’ work, according to your format, for instance?

    but this is a different rant…


  2. I agree with you 100%. After reading Paul Indigo’s piece the other day I wanted to do an article on this subject but I got sidetracked with other work. I will now include your piece in my discussion as well!

    Sites like PhotoSIG (dot com) do a great job of using technology to force people to come up with useful criticism (*constructive* criticism) and I agree that critique is one of the most important parts of learning.

    You can spend your lifetime trying to get what *you* want out of your photography, but your horizons will only be broadened by interacting with others, be it other photographers or simply an enthusiastic audience.

    As I mentioned in a few of my posts about the design aspects of photography, having an artistic vocabulary will also do wonders for one’s ability to critique and to understand critiques made by others.

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