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Submitted on
March 2, 2010


80 (who?)
Never be afraid to say something critical and never be eager to do so either.

Grab yourself a nice cup of tea, get comfortable in your chair, and let's talk about how to critique a photograph.

What is an art critique? Well.. it's a critical analysis of art... but that just the phrase alone sounds intimidating. With the fancy (not-so) new critique system on dA, it can seem even more daunting. After all, when you post a critique it will go to all of your watchers, it'll be the first comment anyone sees, and you have to come up with at least 100 words!

Writing a critique doesn't need to be intimidating though.  If you have a spare 15 minutes, you can write a critique. But first, it's important to understand the purpose of critiques.

The Purpose

What's the point of writing a critique when the photo is already taken? Sometimes the photo was taken years before you came upon it, so what is the value of telling an artist that the exposure or color choices have affected the quality and/or impact of the work? If the artist doesn't go back and retake the photograph based on your recommendations… why even bother?!

The feedback that you provide contributes to the overall knowledge that an artist takes to their next shoot. Try to make your critique not just about the specific photograph you're writing about, but take a step back to discuss how well/poorly photography principles were used. This will be something the photographer can take with them to the next shoot and improve their overall skill.

Sounds a bit esoteric? Here are some concrete examples:

OK: "Nice colors here"
Better:   "I really like how the background contrasts against the model's eyes, it really makes the colors pop"

OK: "Nice, but too bad it's blurry!"
Better:   "Looks like you were shooting on a cloudy day. If you increase your ISO you might get a tiny bit more noise, but then you can shoot faster and that can help get better focus"

The Cheat Sheet

Ok, so now you've decided that you want to write a critique. But… what do you say?!

The dA critique system asks you to rate a photograph in the following areas: Vision, Originality, Technique, and Impact. Ok, we're off to a great start… but still.. what do you actually write about the photo?!

Here's a cheat sheet that you can copy and help on your next critique:

1. LOOK and READ

Before you even start typing, spend a few minutes looking at the photograph. I mean, really observing. First, glance over the entire piece to get an overall impression and then start scanning until you've noticed all of the details. If it's a portrait, look close enough to see a hidden freckle. If it's a landscape, look to see if you can see a tiny animal or bird hidden in the brush. If it's a macro, look close enough to see if there's a trapezoid in the natural geometric patterns.

Next, if the artist wrote something in the description… guess what… read it. Artists often reveal a lot of information if they write something and if you want to understand a photograph enough to critique it then it's your responsibility to read the description. A lot of artists reference songs and lyrics… if you know the song, play it in your head or see if it's handy on your playlist and play it to get the full impact.

If you don't bother to really look and read, you cannot properly critique because you didn't actually experience the photograph well enough to comment on it. Yes, this means a greater time investment than usual… but it's significantly more fulfilling for everyone involved.

2. What you first noticed

This is the easiest and, often, the most useful part of the critique. Tell the artist what was the very first thing you noticed about the photograph.

Was it something you liked? "The first things I noticed are the really vibrant colors, they contrast and complement each other for a really strong effect" or "The first thing I noticed is how perfectly you exposed this. This must have been tough to light, but you balanced the light really well."

Was it something you didn't like? "The first thing I noticed was that you forgot to take the tripod out of the shot. It really stands out and breaks the mood." or "The first thing I noticed is that this looks flat to me. You might need to increase contrast to really make something like this stand out."

3. Technical Aspects

This is where you look critically and unemotionally at the photograph.
Is the focus and DOF in the best place?
Is it over/under-exposed?
Is the light coming from the best angle?
Does the composition work even if it breaks all the rules?
Is the color scheme appropriate for the purpose of the photo?

4. Interpretation

This is my favorite part. What is the photo saying to you? What does it make you feel?

What do you think the artist was trying to say or accomplish? Is what you see similar to what you think the artist tried to do or is it different? A couple examples:

"From your title and description I think you were trying to show a portrait that expresses the regrets that we have when we look at the past. Looking at this, I actually feel a calm acceptance of past mistakes and the strength that gives us to move forward."
"I think that with this landscape you were trying to show Mother Nature as a dangerous opponent, but I actually feel a connect and awe at the power."

If there is no deep message with the photograph, then this is the part where you can talk about how the choice of colors/composition/etc affects your perception:
"The blue colors of the snowflake in this macro really help increase the feeling of 'cold'. Makes me feel like I'm outside in the snow."
"You've framed this shot to really give it great impact. All the interesting elements are included and the unnecessary ones are left out. It really makes me feel claustrophobic as if the world is closing in on me just as the frame is closing in on the model."

5. What's done really well… What can be improved?

Generally, by this point, you will have already mentioned most of the things that you think are done well and can be improved upon. If there was something that you feel was left out or you want to summarize then this would be a good place to do it.

Saying Something Negative

With the exception of haters who wouldn't even like sunshine on a winter day, dA is a community of lovers and we all want to make each other feel good. This is a great strength of this community, but sometimes it can mean that we're too hesitant to say things that could help an artist grow if it's anything other than praise.

As a community, we need to be comfortable with telling one another when we didn't do something right. The only way that ANY artist can grow is by constantly trying to improve on what they've done before. To do this, we need honest feedback. Just like medicine, it can be hard to take sometimes, but if we honestly accept criticism it can help us grow, learn, and make us better artists.

Let's be clear: saying "this sucks!", "this is a terrible photo", "I just don't like this", etc is not constructive. Those types of comments do nothing but express your dislike and, quite frankly, no one cares if you don't like something. It's completely and entirely meaningless unless you can explain why.

Wrong: "This is a terrible photo"
Better:   "I think this photo isn't exposed properly and that takes away the impact for me."

Wrong: "I just don't like this" (If this is your first thought, perhaps you shouldn't critique the image unless you can explain exactly why. Or if it's not your genre, try the below approach)
Better:   "You know, I'm not into landscapes/portraits/macros/etc but this is clearly well executed. I'd be curious to see if you've done something in my favorite genre."

Exploit Your Strengths

ANYONE can write a critique, regardless of their skill level. Whether you are an amateur that first picked up a camera last week or a seasoned professional, you are qualified to write a critique. This is because you can focus on the aspects of art that you are most comfortable with.

If you aren't comfortable with ISO and aperture settings, you can discuss the emotional impact and color gamut. If you are a walking light meter and can see that the photo would be better just one f-stop up, tell the artist exactly that. The artist will benefit most when you share with them the best you have to offer and there's nothing wrong with sticking to your strengths.

There's much that we can learn from each other.. so let's share.
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Tenchi8 Featured By Owner Oct 6, 2010  Hobbyist
Awesome! I love interpretations! That's what I do! This is a great article you wrote. I usually interpret drawings, and only recently started interpreting photography. I always find allot of meanings in every image. Art is a visual form of communication. For me, I have a gift to read art like a stop sign. XD It's fun to be able to explore the world of that artist and find stuff that speaks to me through shapes, colors, expressions, and symbols. It keeps my mind sharp and active, and it's allot of fun! When ever I'm not drawing or writing my stories, or just taking a break from my projects, I take time to find a pic, study it and share what it means to me, what I think the artist is trying to communicate and conclude my interpretations with a compliment. I've never really critiqued before, but always assumed that the artist did something a certain way purposely to make a certain point, or to express their feelings. Guess I didn't think there would be a correct way to draw anything unless the artist is trying to make it look a certain way. Hehe...

It's good to know that I'm not the only one who likes to take time to appreciate art work. Interpretation is also my personal way of showing my appreciation for the artist's hard work. They put in enough time to draw, write, shoot, or paint, it's only fair to reward them with acknowledgement to their work. And besides, it's a great way to keep the art community strong. I really value that allot.
Lou-in-Canada Featured By Owner Mar 29, 2010   Traditional Artist
Katerina, what a very helpeful, friendly, lovely and especially educational piece you've written here. Thank you so much. I'm not close to daring to critique anybody, but this is certainly helping me to learn to look at people's art, in a different way. I used to only let feelings and emotions and colours grab me. This was great reading to highlight all sorts of other things too. And although this is about photography, I think it applies to traditional art as well.

Loved reading this, and am sure I'll come back to read it again once the first impressions sunk in..

It pays to learn how to step back from our feelings and emotions, and how to look at something, and be simply objective and observative, without being drawn in.

And I feel this really isn't only applicable when critiquing art, of any kind. I think this helps doing the same thing in our daily lives, up and downs, and helps grown as a person...
Your help with that is very much appreciated :)
Katerina423 Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
You've no idea how happy your comment makes me! I'm so glad that you found something useful in the article. :)

I totally agree with you.. this would apply to almost any form of art and it always pays to take a second and just analyze and absorb anything that you encounter in life :)

I'm glad you're considering writing critiques for ppl. I think that's fantastic! I think that actually the hardest part about starting is worrying about the response. It's sorta nerve-wrecking to spend all this time telling someone what you think and then they just reject your critique! If you want to practice doing it.. you can do it on my work. And no, i'm not just trying to get "free crits" out of you :giggle: but I'm pretty damned accepting of even harsh criticism and I could also tell you how to improve your critique and what you missed and what you hit dead on.. so if you want to.. the you have an open invitation for that. Feel free to practice on me :)
Lou-in-Canada Featured By Owner Apr 18, 2010   Traditional Artist
done~! Pfew *wipes forehead* ;)
hope that helps :hug:
Lou-in-Canada Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2010   Traditional Artist
hi Kat :wave:
your response surprised me, and first I thought maybe by accident you clicked reply to my post, while it was meant for another ;)
For I hadn't said I was considering writing critiques for ppl at all, I said I was NOT CLOSE to (same as FAR FROM) doing so haha.
But you know what, it was really nice you responded, because it made me look at this again, and re-read your whole article. I also copied it to my mail, so I can print it out later, and look at it and re-read it again. It was a nice reminder! I indeed have NO technical knowledge about painting, nor photography (heck, I started 2 days ago myself.. hehe). So that part, can't do. Still too much to learn myself.

But you know what.. it might be an interesting exercise nevertheless. To go take a look at your work, and see if I could write something about it, along the above lines. I won't do that as an official critique yet, I'll just post it underneath. Else it'll stick to my name forever. We'll see. If you ok the critique, I might.

ho gawd.. what AM I geting myself into in this place? eee lol

Ok then, I see if I can do one of yours. Will you pls see if you could do one of mine then? I have one, I'd LOVe to get some feedback on, the last one added to my gallery, called StrangerStrangerDay1Fail. hahaha.

and yeah, pls look at the pic and see what you think first, WITHOUT reading what I wrote under it. Then read and look again? :rofl:
ok, am going to do the same with yours now then :XD:
Katerina423 Featured By Owner Apr 18, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
:lol: i totally misread your comment, huh? Oh man.. that happens to me quite a bit. Perhaps I just wanted to see so bad you saying that you're considering writing crits that I didn't notice the important "not" in there!

:highfive: for changing the situation around and performing this little experiment! I saw your long critique in my messages but haven't read it yet.. so I'm going to go straight to your gallery and comment first on your work.

I'll see you on the other side ;)

And you know what? .. you're getting into an artistic community, that's what you're getting into. ;) We do stupid little exercises to push us out of our comfort zones on a regular basis... it's a good thing! as long as you do it within a cocoon of safety...

ok.. i'm off to comment. And i'll be sure to read a bit more carefully this time ;)
Lou-in-Canada Featured By Owner Apr 18, 2010   Traditional Artist
hehehe. yes. And yes, that was out of my omfort zone, very much. I hope I didnt do too badly. I know it was too long, but how can it not, with 3 crits in 1. I feel good about it though, cause this REALLY made me look at the photographs. I don't think all photographs could get that same amount of time from me, not anywhere close. But those deserved to..

I learned a lot! This was an interesting challenge and exercise.
Maybe it`s to be repeated some day;)

Maybe we should have.. a critique `school` - training camp ;) - on DA?
Katerina423 Featured By Owner Apr 18, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Haha.. you wanna hear the best part about all this? You put my critique to shame :lol: Not like it was a contest at all... but goddamn. Dude.. you're fucking good.

Here's what I've noticed... when you really, truly, connect to something you end up spending much more time immersed in it. With work that touches you less, the experience is the same.. just doesn't go as long or as deep :)

I highly recommend that you find other work that you connect to and comment on it as much as possible. Viewers of art like you are a very rare breed and I think it'd be so wonderful for other artists to benefit from what you've given me today.

You know.. there's actually critique groups on dA! I cannot remember what they are off the top of my head.. but let me go dig 'em up and I'll send you a note :)
Lou-in-Canada Featured By Owner Apr 18, 2010   Traditional Artist
haha, not at all. Thank you though, that makes me feel nice about myself, you saying that. :)
And yes, you see right through me too, that I can indeed immerse myself, and go really deep, which as you know, isn't always a good thing. Then again.. it's my life, and it does make things interesting, if not always easy. Sometimes that makes me feel very inadequate, and at other times, very rich and blessed indeed..

But often times, I wish I were more like a butterfly..

lajvio Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2010  Hobbyist Photographer
Since I love photograph, I think this is great! :D
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