How I learned to critique photographs

I was reviewing another photographer’s work recently. Left and right, I was tossing off suggestions for improving the images. Though I was thinking intensely about the work, I was largely unaware of my own process, as I critiqued the work. When she asked me how I had learned to critique images so fluidly, I was stopped in my tracks.

I reminded her I had studied the history of photography in college, so I felt I was pretty good at understanding how the viewer’s eye moves through a photograph. I had also worked as a photographer for decades, so I understood how a camera sees. But as I explained my self, I realized it was not until I taught photography in India, that I really developed my skills at critiquing images.

In 1999 and 2000 I was honored to be working on a Fulbright fellowship at Mysore University in Southern India. I was teaching photojournalism to Indian graduate students. These 30 men and women were the “cream of the crop,” yet they were expected to share one camera with one lens and two rolls of film between all of them for their final “portfolio.” You do the math. That meant about 2 frames of film per student. I have to admit, I used to waste two frames on one roll of film just loading my old film cameras.

In this situation I was lucky that I had a friend who worked for Ilford, the film and paper company. She got her company to generously donate 120 rolls of film. But this was not enough either, since this left each student with 4 rolls of film to use for all of the photography that was supposed to be their final projects for graduate school.

Before they went out and used their respective four “final” rolls, they needed to practice and to learn a lot more about photographing. But how could they do that? Facing the obvious limitations of living in India and the realities of life in the third world, I had to be creative.

I remembered the elementary school process of diagramming sentences, where we used to breakdown a sentence to its components and identify the subject, verb, noun, etc. I wondered, why couldn’t we do the same with existing images?

So we started doing that, as a group. I would project a transparency of a master photographer’s work. The students would have to say what they thought was the lens the photographer used, the position they took, and their film format. They were also asked to estimate the photographer’s choice of aperture, shutter speed, point of focus, etc. They had to articulate what aspects of composition, framing, light, etc. were helping the photograph succeed.

My job was to help them learn to do this. I may have instinctively understood what happens in an image when the photographer works from below their normal height, but now I had to articulate that. I similarly knew why I used a given aperture to achieve a certain effect, but now I had to help the students recognize that effect in an image, without them ever having photographed. We slowly developed a language for critiquing photographs built on the idea of diagramming them, like I once diagrammed sentences in elementary school.

These days, when I look at an image, not only can I deconstruct the photographic tools the photographer used, but I can also explain what I am seeing and what I saw in the image that shaped my analysis. Now, I am not encouraging others to deny themselves the clear benefit of taking lots of pictures to improve as a photographer. Clearly, the best way to get better is to make many photographs and try to evaluate their reasons for success or failure.

But the next best thing is to look at the work of others. Not just to “ooh” and “ah” or say “cool” but rather to deconstruct the photographic tools the photographer used to make the image successful. Then of course, take what you learned from others and apply it in the images you make in the future.

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