Critiques are extremely valuable experiences when conducted in the spirit of learning, teaching, nurturing, expressing and experiencing.

There are those who hear the word “critique” and immediately develop sweaty palms, and then there are those who think “what a great opportunity.” There is a real return on investment (ROI) in a sound critique of your images, which is this: you learn a lot about making better photographs.

As with life, there are good and bad investments. For photographers, a great investment is to take part in quality critiques with fellow photographers who have learned how to critique constructively with the mindset of a coach, not that of a judge. Critiques are not competitions, but rather learning experiences, not only for the one who made the image, but also for others participating in the critique. In the absence of constructive feedback, our journey to becoming better visual artists is hindered. 

When we (Les and Janet) critique workshop and photo tour participants’ images, our goal is to make the experience one of learning, growing and encouragement to move outside of one’s comfort zone. As we tell “first timers,” we use the experience to teach, not to make anyone cry. It’s not that kind of critique (though we’ve heard about that kind), but one of offering feedback on how to make the image stronger. 

What are the components of a valuable critique? Here are a few to look for:  

  • Those critiquing are photographers who have a passion for photography and know their craft, both technically and artistically.
  • You, the image creator, have a passion to learn how to become a better photographer.
  • Feedback is based upon technical aspects of the image (exposure, contrast, noise, crop, shutter speed, etc.).
  • Feedback is based upon the design and composition of the image (what is the subject?, what is the feeling?, where does the eye go in the image?).
  • Feedback is based upon the artistry of the photographer in conveying feeling and meaning; in our words “Does the image have heart?”.
  • Trust in your fellow photographers’ intent and abilities.
  • Defensive behavior was left at the door. 

Besides getting feedback on your images that helps you improve as a photographer, valuable critiques offer you the opportunity to learn how, and how not to, critique. Listen and watch. If you hear comments like “Great idea, bad execution,” understand that is not helpful feedback and watch how the person who made the image responds. Did that person learn anything, or were they shut down? 

Now if you hear feedback that’s something on the order of “As a viewer, I think I see what you are trying to show me in your image. Rather than causing uncertainty, would you consider cropping in tighter to emphasize the subject? Then as a viewer, I feel sure of what you’re showing me and I’ll spend more time here.”

In this case, you’re listening to someone who is trying to coach and teach, to expand the photographer’s vision. That’s how we critique. 

Critiques are extremely valuable experiences when conducted in the spirit of learning, teaching, nurturing, expressing and experiencing. Look for teachers and workshop leaders who offer critiques that are based upon experience (and reputation). Ask fellow photographers, whom you respect as peers, to give you feedback on your images, either singularly or in a group. An investment in critiques is an investment in yourself as a photographer and an artist. Look for the ROI in critiques – look for the opportunity, rather than the door.