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How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

By Kevin Landwer-Johan

I believe that being able to analyze a photograph well helps you improve your photography. Are you wondering why this is?

Giving critique to your own photos, and other peoples, brings a deeper understanding of photography. Both to the technical and creative aspects. You need to approach any photography critique openly, thinking beyond what you like and dislike. Photography is very subjective. In this article I will show you how to analyze a photograph giving consideration to technical and creative aspects of the art form. I will also teach you how to balance your evaluation and critique so your photography will improve.

One of the best ways to improve your photography is to look at your own pictures with a positively critical eye. Viewing the photos you have made and deciding which ones you like and do not like, and why, will help you build your own photographic style.

Having a more experienced photographer critique you photos for you will help you grow more quickly. It is important to only seek critique from someone who offers it constructively and without putting you or your efforts down.

Kevin’s Critiques

On our Youtube channel I offer photo critiques to subscribers. Take a look at some of the videos I have already posted. If you are interested in me critiquing some of your photos, send me three photos.

 

Self Photo Critique

When you critique your own photos, do so with a positive attitude. So many creative people are too hard on themselves. Be positive about seeing things in your photographs you want to improve on. I figure it will be time to stop if I can not find anything in my pictures that I am not entirely satisfied with.

Photography is very much a left brain and right brain art form. It is also the combining of the two as a whole.

The left brain, our more analytical and technical side, needs to take control of the camera and manage it’s settings well. We must know and understand our cameras to create photographs of a technical standard we are comfortable with.

Girl with a camera for How to Analyse a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

The right brain is our more creative and artistic side. It needs to have freedom to innovate and express how we experience the world around us through the pictures we make. The more our photos can express how we experience and feel life around us the more they will appeal to others and captivate imaginations.

Sandwiched between these two aspects of photography are your choice of subject and five key elements:

  • Light/Exposure
  • Composition
  • Tone/Color
  • Timing
  • Relationship

Incorporating all five elements into a single frame is not easy, it is what we must pursue and achieve as often as we can. For more details about this please take time to read my essay Qualities of a Good Photograph.

You may have noticed I have made no mention of subject. Subject is so subjective! (even more so than other aspect of photography.) It really is up to you what you want to photograph. There is no right or wrong. If you want to photograph your dog, that’s up to you. Who am I to tell you your dog is ugly or unphotogenic. To you it’s your dog and you love it no matter! Photographing what you love will bring deeper meaning to your pictures.

Some subjects can be technically better than others and this is where thoughtful choices need to be made. Subjects such as flowers or fruit are not so attractive if the subjects are damaged. However, the style of photo you are making whether the flowers are old or faded may be irrelevant. But definitely with some subjects to attain a certain style you must choose carefully.

Still life dead flowers for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Have A Questioning Attitude

When you look at your photos with a critical eye you must have a questioning attitude. Ask yourself ‘How can I improve my photography?’ Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t only dwell on the aspects of your photos you are not happy with. Remember to pat yourself on the back when you are pleased with the way you have done something.

It is helpful to write a self critique down. Keeping a journal so you can look back will be beneficial to your growth as a photographer. You could include self constructive photography evaluations. You could also have others critique your photographs and include their comments as well.

This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of every aspect of photography. You don’t have to touch on each one of these categories. Use this document as a guideline.

Below are more of my thoughts on constructive photography evaluation and critique. There are also questions on how to analyze a photograph. Here is a down loadable .pdf of the lists of questions separated from my ramblings.

Kevin landwer-Johan teaching a photography student during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Initial Questions To Answer for a Constructive Photography Evaluation

  • What about this image makes it stand out from other similar types of images?
  • Is there something about this image that makes you wonder “how’d they do that?”
  • What about this image caught your eye?
  • How is the eye lead around the image?
  • What gives/causes the emphasis?

Emphasis is the resting place for the eye. Eye will return there. Having an emphasis creates a center of interest.

 

Photography With Your Left Brain Hemisphere: The Technical Stuff

In answering these photo analysis questions don’t be too concerned with the formal elements of photography. I believe a lot of the technical aspects of photography are very subjective. There are no universal technical principles that can be applied to every constructive photography evaluation.

Good photo critique example will always include technical considerations. Sometimes a photo just does not work because of poorly chosen camera settings. Very rarely do photos which are technically precise yet lack any creative expression or emotive values stand out.

Exposure

  • Is the photo overexposed or underexposed?
  • If so, can you say why you think that happened?
  • How could you prevent this problem in the future?

Exposure is subjective but it is a technicality significant to the photo. If too much or too little light has reached your camera’s sensor for the result you want, you have an exposure problem. A photograph can have areas where the highlights or shadows contain no detail yet still be well exposed. Technical purist photography critiques will disagree with me on this point.

Hand folded flowers made from leaves at a Chiang Mai market for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Focus

  • Is the main subject in focus where it need to be?
  • The point of your composition you decide is the most significant should usually be where you have focused your lens.
  • Is the focus appropriate for the situation?

Focus does not always need to be on what is closest to your camera. Photographing anything with eye, your point of focus is usually best on the eyes, )or one of them.) Sometimes photographing a person you may want to focus on their hands and have their face blurred. You point of focus should be very intentional.

Dahlia flower for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Depth of Field (DOF)

  • Is the DOF shallow or deep?
  • DOF should also be intentional. Does you photo contain enough of your subject in focus?
  • Is there too much or too little that is sharp?

When you have used a narrow aperture and have a shallow DOF consider the amount of blur.

  • Would your photo be better if the background were more blurred or less?

Chiang Mai Iron Bridge at night for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

White Balance

  • Is the white balance correct?
  • Is there a yellowish, bluish, or greenish cast to the photo?

When the white balance is off the photo will generally look odd. Sometimes an alternative white balance choice can give an attractive result. The ‘right’ camera setting may not produce the most creative result. A ‘wrong’ camera setting may have produced notable image.

Market samlo for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Photography With Your Right Brain Hemisphere: The Creative Stuff

  • What Do You Feel About The Photo?

Try not to use words associated with photography when writing your analysis. Answer the questions in pain terms. There may be better ways to express you constructive photography evaluation than by using basic photography terms.

Ask yourself these questions to help you think about your feelings:

  • What mood do you see in the photo?

Photographs can convey emotion. This is not only related to the expressions of people in the photograph. Color, tone, exposure choice and other subject matter can infuse a photo with emotion.

  • Is this mood is what the you intended?

I am always encouraging my photography students to know their cameras so well the do not have to pay so much attention to them. The more you can concentrate on your subject the more you will connect. Being present in the moment and mindful of your subject the more feeling you can express in your pictures.

  • Does it make you happy? Sad? Angry? Scared?
  • Did the you succeed in telling your story with the photograph? Why or why Not?

Telling a story with your photos will be strongest when it is your story. Not someone else’s story. Your photos are best when they radiate your experience.

  • Do you like the photo or not?

Write down why you like the photo, or why you don’t.

Be kind to yourself answering this question. So many creative people, myself included, too often tend to be negative about what they produce. Before telling yourself you don’t like a photo make sure to consider the positive elements of the photograph.

  • What am I feeling when I view this image?
  • Would you hang this photo on your wall? Why or why not?

This for me is one of the ultimate tests of whether I really like a piece of any visual art, not only photographs. It is my best constructive photography review question. Putting action to a positive response to this question requires far more commitment than clicking ‘Like’ on a Facebook photo or giving a ‘Heart’ on Instagram. If you really like you photo, get it printed, have it framed and hang it on your wall or someone else’s.

feet of a chicken for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Whole Brain Photography: Balanced Constructive Evaluation and Critique

I have talked about the technical left brain and creative right brain aspects of photography. You might still be wondering how to balance these points. How do I do this in an overall constructive photography analysis and critique?

There are five qualities of a good photograph. Each of these are elements that ideally will comprise of a technical and creative balance. These are:

  • Light/Exposure
  • Composition
  • Timing
  • Color/Tone
  • Relationship

Kayan girl with a parasol for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Light/Exposure

Light is the substance and essence of photography, not of photographs, but of photography. Where there is no light it is impossible to make a photograph. Light is the raw material of photography.

The relationship between the light and the subject is highly significant. Some subjects will photograph better under hard light, others will not. Some subjects will photograph well under either hard or soft light. They will render significantly different images.

In your constructive photography analysis study the light. Hopefully you will have done so already before you made the photograph. Consider it again now.

  • Have you achieved what you wanted with the light?
  • Is your photography exposed well where you need it to be?
  • Does this bring balance to the mood the light creates in the photograph?

Variation in light between the hardest and softest is immense. It’s within this range and variation we must find the most pleasing light to create our photographs. This variation can greatly affect our exposure choice and the feeling in the photo.

  • Were you using available light or did you introduce a reflector or light source, (a flash or an LED panel etc)?
  • Are you satisfied?
  • How could you have improved the lighting and/or exposure in this image?
  • Does the lighting enhance your subject?
  • Is it too soft or too harsh?
  • Would your be improved image by lighting the subject from another angle?

Thai Girl with a Parasol for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Composition

Composition is how we arrange the elements within the frame of our photograph. It’s about what we include within our frame and what we leave out. We can control our compositions by our choice of lens and our point of view from where we take our photograph. Sometimes we can alter a composition by moving the physical elements we are photographing.

Rules of composition can applied rigidly in our photography evaluation. They can preferably be considered as guidelines in our constructive photography reviews. Applying these rules as you critique a photograph does not always encompass your emotive or creative expression.

Do not disregard the rules of photographic composition. They can be helpful.

Look carefully at how you framed your chosen subject material.

  • Is everything in your frame a meaningful and balanced?
  • Does your composition comprise totally of elements meaningful to your photograph?
  • Or are there too many distractions in your frame?

To me this is far more important than following the rule of thirds, looking for strong diagonals or leading lines, or any of the other photographic rules of composition.

The technical compositional rules should be considered in balance. This will ensure you have captured every aspect of your subject which was relevant. If you’ve left out vital visual information or included elements which are meaningless to the story you have room for improvement.

  • Should you have gotten closer? Farther away?
  • Should you have chosen a simpler background?
  • Would a shallower DOF enhance the subject?
  • Does the horizon placement improve the image?
  • Do you feel a sense of balance?
  • Are all the elements in the image working together?
  • Does the perspective help with the spatial relations of the subject and the other elements in the image?
  • Would changing your perspective have made the image stronger?
  • Does the perspective distort the subject? If so, does it work?

cart racing at Hmong new year festival near Chaing Mai, Thailand qualities of a good photograph

Timing

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous term (and book title) ‘The Decisive Moment’ sums up what is regarded as another essential element in creating good photographs.

In your constructive photography evaluation ask yourself if the moment you choose to open your camera’s shutter was optimal. Timing has a significant influence on the quality of photographs. Depending on your chosen subject this could be a split second decision or it may even take weeks and months of planning to finally reach the right moment.

Timing is not so much about the shutter speed you used as when you used it.

Did you make your photograph at the peak of the action?

  • Was this the optimum moment?
  • Would you have been better to wait longer?
  • Could you have made a better photograph earlier?
  • Would taking the photo at another time of day produced a more interesting result?

Asian woman looking out a window while holding a newspaper for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Color/Tone

Where light is the essence of photography, color and tone, (tone only when we work in black and white,) are the expression of reflected light captured by our cameras. If light is the raw material of photography as flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water are the raw materials of bread, color and tone are like the baked loaf of bread. Color and tone are what we see when we look at a photograph. In reality we do not see light, we see what light is reflecting off, and this is represented by color and tone in our photographs.

There are all manner of rules and guides as to what good color or tone in an image is. I believe all analysis of is most subjective. Purists will tell you a good black and white photograph will display a wide tone range with detail in the darkest and lightest parts of the composition. They may also try to tell you the certain colors should not be placed next to each other in a composition.

There is some merit to applying some of these academics, but you must decide for yourself if you have achieved the look and feel you wanted. You can put whatever colors you like in a composition if it supports your intention for that picture. You can choose a very narrow tonal ranges or have only blacks and pure white in you photo.

The most important aspect of your evaluation of how you have used color and/or tone in you photograph is that it was intentional.

  • Do the colors/tone in your photograph emotionally and visually express what you desire?
  • Do the colors work with or compete with each other?
  • Does the contrast help you to focus on the subject? Or detract from it?
  • Do the colors compliment one another?
  • Do the colors help to convey the ideas and emotions you want them to?

Kayan long neck girl without rings for How to Analyze a Photograph: Critique Your Own Photos

Relationship

This element cannot be considered technically yet is present in all the most compelling photographs. This is what makes photos original and different because no one else sees the world and relates to it as you do.

Good photographs tend to reach past visually obvious clichés and will stimulate a response from the viewer. I believe achieving this quality in our photographs depends very much on the relationship we have with our subject, whatever our subject may be.

Often it’s easier for beginner photographers to photograph what they really love. (This can become increasingly more difficult if we continue to produce a body of photographs of the same subject.) Making photos of a subject you are passionate about gives you advantage.

You are at first interested in your subject. You will know about your subject. Maybe you are passionate about it. You have some existing feelings of connection.

Photographing a subject you are unfamiliar with it can be more challenging to integrate emotion into your images. At times, depending on subject and circumstances, it can be more easy to take emotionally charged photos of a subject you know little or nothing about.

When you are viewing your photos for analysis and critique try to think of words to describe photography from a relational perspective.

How do you feel you connected with your subject? (yes, you can have a relational connection to a location or object, I am not just meaning about relation to people or animals.)

  • Were you too focused on your camera or something else to really connect?
  • How could you have experienced the situation in way which could have positively impacted your photo?
  • Is there unity and harmony or tension and stress in your photograph?
  • Is the idea or feeling you wanted to convey clear?
  • Is the story of the photo clear?
  • Will people be able to form a connection with the subject of my photo?

I am sure there are many more aspects of photography and questions that will arise as you press in to constructive photography analysis and critique of your photographs. Share the love with your friends. Offer to critique their photographs and you will both grow and notice your photography improving and your enjoyment increasing.

Here is a down loadable .pdf containing the questions in this document separated from the essay on how to analyze a photograph.

Download the PDF

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