One thing I do with all my classes and workshops is image review (I’m not a fan of the word critique as it makes it sound like it’s being critical or criticized).
We look at what is working and what could be improved, and regardless of who’s image is being reviewed, the entire class benefits. The feedback I get is that image review is one of the most helpful things we do in class.
The idea is to learn by evaluating images, your own and other people’s, to find out the things that successful images do, so you can put more of that into your photos. So, in this article I’m going to give you 6 tips to help you review images, or critique them, and help you improve your own photography.
How to know when your image is good or not?
That is the question isn’t it?!
If you’re happily photographing away, caught up in your own little world, and you’re the only one that ever sees your photos – you have no means for comparison. Ideally you want to share your images and get feedback on how you’re doing, but if that’s a really scary prospect, you can also benefit by doing your own reviews.
Looking at other photographer’s images will help you get a benchmark, to see where you fit into the grand scheme of things.
You may feel that your photos are pretty good, not really in need of improvement.
But, looking at others’ work can give you a perspective – not that you ever want to compare yourself to another, but just wondering – can you do better? Push yourself a bit more? Are there things to be learned there?
On the other hand, if you’re constantly looking at images in books and online thinking, “Wow those are so good I wish I could take photos like that.” – then let’s get to work on moving you in that direction!
1. Replace the phrase, “I like it because” with, “This image works because”
When you start reviewing an image talk in terms of what works, and conversely what isn’t working in the image, your brain will see it in a different way. This may sound like a small, silly thing, but it works.
In regards to your own images, of course you like your own photos – you took them. But if you look at them more objectively, and think about what is working, and what isn’t working – you’ll be better able to see the images for its strengths and weaknesses. Thus helping you figure out how to do it better next time, or crop or process the one you’re reviewing.
Studying other photographers’ images using this phrase also takes away the emotions. When you see an image you have an instance emotional reaction to it – either positive or negative, that translates into like or dislike.
Think about this for moment – what if an image can be strong compositionally, have amazing lighting, and a clear subject, but the story it’s telling isn’t something you connect with, so you attach a dislike to it. But, can it still be a successful image? Can it still work? Yes. You may not like it, maybe it’s dark and depressing and that’s not your thing – but it can still work.
I used to be a judge with a photography association and a guy that was running it one year told us to use this technique when judging because like and dislike have nothing to do with whether or not the image works, and is successful in capturing the viewer’s attention. He was right and it stuck with me all these years. So start rehearsing these phrases now
- This image works, or is successful, because . . .
- This image doesn’t work, or isn’t successful, because . . .
2. Is there a clear subject for the viewer?
Now that you’re looking at images objectively, let’s dig in to some of the ways an image could be working, or not.
The first is to notice if there is a clear subject in the image.
When you see the image for the first time, do you immediately know where the photographer wants you to look?
There are many ways for an image to make the subject clear including:
- Use of shallow depth of field so only the subject is in sharp focus, perhaps with a blurry background.
- Use of lighting where the subject is highlighted, or spotlighted so it stands out.
- The subject is the largest, most prominent, thing in the image.
- There is a compositional element leading your eye to the subject – perhaps leading lines or through the use of framing.
- Keep it really simple. If there is only one thing in the photo, it makes the subject pretty clear.
Let’s review these images to see if there is a clear subject (Note I did not take the three photos below):
In the image of the boat above there is pretty much only one thing in the photo, so I’d say that’s a really clear subject. Simplicity is a really easy way to ensure that. Try not to over-complicate, or clutter your images, and they will be more powerful. Less is more!
Once again the subject is clear, and it’s a simple image. Let’s use the phrase you’ve practiced and look at what is working in this image? The opposite or complementary colors are very pleasing and help the subject to stand out. The light coming through the flower petals enhances the color and makes it feel warm, inviting the viewer into the scene. The background is simple and uncluttered. It works.
This image has a lot more going on, but the subject stands out because the girl is the darkest thing in the photo. Usually that would work against an image, but for one like this where it’s all light, it sets her apart from the background.
Without a clearly defined subject, the image will not be as strong, the message not clear, and the viewer may be confused or totally uninterested. Start to see which images are strong in this area and how they accomplish it, then learn how to replicate that in your photos.
3. Does the image tell a story?
Another important word you want to think about when reviewing photos is – WHY.
Why did the photographer take this photo?
What does it say to the viewer?
Is there a message or story that you can see?
Think about concepts – it could be that the story is love, or sadness, or peacefulness.
Then when you’re photography, try not to take the subject too literally all the time – meaning the subject can be an idea or a feeling, not a thing or person. Sure you will need to feature something physical in the image, but an empty bench for example, may convey the message of loneliness, tranquility, or peace.
What is the story in the image below?
The bench is featured, but is it the subject? Or is it something else? When I show this image in my classes, I hear a variety of words and messages that different people perceive from it. That can be good too, as it allows the viewer to add their own interpretation. This image has been very popular for me when I did art shows and sales because I think it speaks to people, and says different things to each individual.
What story does the image above tell? I took this in Cuba. Do I need to relate what happened or can you figure it out? If I’ve done my job as photographer, I don’t need to explain it.
What stories do the images below tell? You may see something completely different, but this is my interpretation of them (Note: I did not take the photos below).
The image above certainly has more in it than the simplified ones we reviewed above. But, there is a clear subject, it is highlighted in golden light. The story I see is one of a foreign land (India), where it appears that some sort of ritual happens at this place, at dusk. My guess would be that the highlighted building is a temple, and there is a washing of sins in the water happening here. So I see a story of faith, culture, and devotion. I could be way off base but that’s my interpretation, based on my experiences and things I’ve seen. Do you see a different story?
This shot grabbed my attention when I was searching for storytelling images.
To me it says mysterious, moody, reminds me of a murder mystery, or haunted ghost story (or maybe I’ve been reading too many books of that kind!).
The subject is the mood, created by the fog and the dramatic lighting, and further enhanced by the photographer’s vision to convert it to black and white.
What does it say to you? Does it work in your opinion? Why or why not?
Is there a clear subject to direct your attention? Use all the points you’ve learned so far to review it.
4. Is the lighting appropriate for the mood of the image?
In a previous article: Quality of Light – What is it? How do you use it? – I explain the difference between hard and soft light, and the characteristics of each.
Soft light is lower in contrast, helps you hold more detail in the shadows and highlights of an image, has less defined shadows, and produces images with less drama and more mystery.
Hard light is higher in contrast, tends to cause loss of detail in the shadows and highlights, has well-defined sharp shadows, enhances textures, and produces images with more drama and impact.
As mentioned in the article above, there is no such thing as light that is right, wrong, or bad. But, there is an appropriate kind of light for the subject, and the story being told in the image.
So, when reviewing images, keep this in mind:
Is the lighting adding to the image’s success, or taking away from it?
Could the light be used better to highlight the subject?
Is there light in the background that takes the viewer’s eye away from the subject?
In the image below the light is hard and contrasty. I’ve chosen to convert it to b/w to further simplify and make the focus be the shadows.
Do you think the hard light and well-defined shadows add to this image?
Does it work to convey a sense of the city?
More fog! What’s the mood in the image above? Once again has the fog added an air of mystery? Do you want to know what’s hidden in its depths? Does the lighting fit for the mood and story of this image? You tell me!
5. Look at the edges of the image
This goes along with point #2 above, having a clear subject. One of the mistakes beginners often make is trying to put too much into one image. They want to show everything in a scene, the subject is lost, and the result ends up showcasing nothing for the viewer.
Read: 5 Mistakes Beginners Make Using a Wide Angle Lens and How to Avoid Them
So, for this review tip, look around the edges or border of the image. Ask yourself if there is stuff there that doesn’t need to be in the image, stuff that isn’t adding to the composition, or the story.
There may even be stuff that is drawing the viewer’s eye away from the subject, or even cutting into it.
The infamous tree growing out of a person’s head, or the horizon line cutting them in half, are examples of not looking at the edges.
Unless there’s something being used to frame the subject (overhanging tree branches, or an archway), the edges of the image should be relatively uncluttered. Review the image and you decide if it could be better if it was shot closer, or was shot from a higher camera angle, or a little to the left.
This is something you can also do in the camera, as you shoot!
Get in the habit of looking around the outside of your image. If there is stuff there that’s extraneous, take another shot and remove those bits.
Get closer, zoom in, or change your camera angle – whatever it takes to simplify and get the unnecessary stuff out of your image.
6. Look at the image upside down
Say what? You heard me correct – look at the image upside down.
There’s actually a physiological reason for doing this – it takes your brain off of the subject, and reduces your vision to see only light and tones. In viewing an image upside down, your eye will immediately go to the area that will most draw your viewer’s attention, when it’s right side up. You can do this in camera, or on the computer.
There are four things that naturally draw the viewer’s attention, they are:
- The brightest area of the image (if it’s not obvious, squint your eyes and all you’ll see is the bright areas as blobs).
- The area with the most contrast (where dark is against light).
- The are of sharpest focus (so if you shoot at f/16 and the entire image is sharp, you need to make sure the subject is clear and highlighted another way – this is why I often shoot wide opened at f/2.8 or wider, to make my subject be sharp, and the rest of the image blurry)
- Bright colors, especially warm ones like: red, orange and yellow.
So if any of those four things appear in the background, they will draw the viewer’s eye away from the subject (as in the image above)
If you’re doing image review on the fly as you’re out shooting – do this if you aren’t sure you have a clear subject. Turn the camera upside down and see what draws your eye. If it’s not the subject, think about what you can do to solve that issue, and take another shot.
Sometimes just moving over a foot or two makes a big difference, but you can’t do that sort of thing in post-production on the computer later. Hence why I’m a big advocate of getting it right in camera. You can only enhance what’s there – you can’t fix inappropriate lighting or a distracting background (well you can sometimes, but it takes some crazy Photoshop skills, and way too much time).
Doing image reviews later on computer, use the same upside-down method to help you know how to process your images. See if there are bright areas that you can tone down, or things you can crop out, that will improve the image and put the focus more on the subject.
How to use these tips and action plan
Go through each of the tips explained here and apply them to some of your images. Then look at other photographer’s images this way too.
Look at award winning images on Photo Crowd (like the contest I judged – you can also read all of the image reviews I did for entrants), the Editor’s picks on 500px, and any others that grab you.
Visit your local library and browse the photography section – they are likely lots of gems in there.
Going through this process of image review will give you some tools, to not only be able to recognize good photography when you see it, but see how your own images can be improved.
Step one is knowing that you want to make your images better.
Step two is knowing what that looks like, how to actually do it.
You can then learn from the best photographers and start applying your newfound knowledge to your own photography.
If you’re up to the challenge, and want an image reviewed – please share in the comments below. Remember it will not only be me doing the reviews, but other readers as well. If you are adding a review to someone else’s image, please remember two things:
- Keep your comments positive and helpful (Saying, “your image sucks” isn’t helpful, but this is, “the bright area in the sky takes my attention, perhaps if you cropped it out that might work better” – please use the latter style for your comments.
- Say at least one nice thing (one thing that’s working)