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.
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?
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.