Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Give and get a critique

Since a PJ is only as good as the last shot, I should change my portfolio more often.

After saying this, I've recently had a few inquiries about giving critiques for newer PJs. I like to look at images and evaluate them. As anyone would, I evaluate them against images I've made and those I've seen (ie. in newspapers, magazines, online and as competition winners).

What is a critique?
A critique is a critical evaluation of a piece of work. It allows a non-involved observer to give improvement advice and ideas. The analysis can be positive (this was good) and/or negative (this needs work).

In both cases, it reverts images back to images rather than an emotional incident the PJ experienced. It's an evaluation of the image itself with detached fairness.

What is a cut?
Most pro PJs ask other PJs for a "cut" when preparing submissions for competitions or a job bid. A cut is a critique of a set of images to eliminate excess. It's a non-binding edit of a set of images. The strongest and weakest images are identified and explained.

Typically, the requesting PJ gives the reviewer a number to cut and a definition (contest, job, etc.). An example might be, "I need to cut 10 images for a Pictures of the Year portfolio." This lets the reviewer know to eliminate the 10 weakest images, and it also tells them the quality of the competition and the parameters of the contest.

Additionally, a cut may also include an order. Portfolios and photo stories/essays require the images to be presented in a sequential order. The PJ sets the order with typically the strongest image first and the second strongest image last. The remainder of the sequence is dictated by the story and occasionally by layout (depends on format). Often, the order can determine the winner of the contest or job bid.

Why get a critique
A critique is an important tool for a PJ. It lets PJs know how their images have progressed and what they must address to become better. A good critique often hurts newer PJs' feelings. Since the point of the critique is to highlight successes and failures, the newer PJs focus on the flaws. If they learn and correct the flaws, the critique was successful. If they ignore the feedback and take the information as personal, it was unsuccessful. Either way, the responsibility remains with the PJ getting the critique.

How to give a critique
Before I give anyone's images a major critique, I explain that my comments are about the images and not the photographer particularly. It keeps me from hurting people's feelings. Please consider this as the caution.

Be honest
If anyone likes an image, say so. If anyone doesn't like an image, say so. In both cases explain why. It does no good to comment about an image without explaining the reason for the comment. "This is cute," is a comment about the subject matter, not about the image. "This is out of focus," is a comment about the image. "The eye is out of focus, but the ear is in focus," is an exact, constructive critique.

Address concerns
Explain the areas of concern about a particular image: focus, exposure, timing, lens selection, lighting, composition, depth of field, shutter speed, tonal range, crop, balance, contrast/flatness, color balance, foreground/background, juxtaposition, mood, space, etc.

Subject matter can also be addressed, but images should be considered as assigned and the subject matter questions should be addressed as such. For example, a portrait is a given – the subject was assigned, the background is flexible. However, a large country fair or football game gives the PJ more options on subject matter.

Give constructive ideas
Without a constructive idea, a comment is simply an opinion. The PJ learns how to make better images by having flaws explained and getting information on how to make the image better.

For example, a tight portrait may be shot horizontally. I might suggest it would look better as a vertical shot if it only has one or two subjects. Likewise, if background items inadvertently dissect a person's head, I might suggest it would be better to find a neutral area in the background to place the person's head.

Evaluate the cutline
In photojournalism the cutline is an important part of the image. With very few exceptions, cutlines are displayed with the image. This is the PJ's opportunity to explain why the image was created in the first place. The question posed to all PJs is "who cares?" The answer should be found in the cutline. The answer should evoke "you care because..." (without saying these specific words).

Although the cutline helps explain the image, it shouldn't simply be a reiteration of the image. I've discussed cutlines several times, so it should be understood.

Understand personal preferences
I like images of people and/or animals. Personally, I think PJ work is about the struggles and accomplishments of living creatures (mostly humans). If the image has no people, there should be a darn good reason in my opinion. There are some truly beautiful news photographs without people, but they also tell stories of their own (often weather or seasonally related).

Similarly, different PJs have different opinions about light, mood, crops, and almost every other aspect of photography.

However, these are often issues of opinion and/or subject matter rather than image quality. So, I must clarify at least once during my critique if I take issue with a consistent lack of an element. The PJ being critiqued must know how this comment about subject matter relates to the overall image (and future images).

How to defend work
The defense of a piece is equally important as the critique. It's a rebuttal of the critic's comment. Often a defense is simply, "OK." However, sometimes the PJ may need to explain the reason for the photographic decisions made.

During a cut, the PJ is defending why an image should not be cut. Since the PJ is the final arbiter of a cut, they're often required to face their own emotional attachments to images during the cut. If the image can't be defended, cut it.

Some valid defense examples are:
  • Yes, the subject blurs, but it shows the action of the shark ripping his leg off.

  • The subject may initially look out of focus, but it was dead for several days and catchlights don't appear on dry eyes.

  • The red dot is important because it represents the Japanese flag. It's the reason this fish costs thousands of dollars more than the other fish.

  • I chose this angle because I didn't have a helicopter in my camera bag. (OK, maybe this is a little too defensive, but we all get the point).

  • Critiques speed improvement
    A critique isn't meant to hurt anyone's feelings. It's about improving images. If PJs only seek feedback from friendly sources (family members), the advance toward a desired goal is much slower.

    In college, the critiques in our Environmental Portraiture class were heated. Often voices would be raised over differences of opinion. Most of those students now shoot for national magazines, large newspapers and multi-national corporations. Our critiques were passionate because we were all passionate about the medium of photography.

    If nobody had anything to say – good or bad – about a set of images, the shoot was basically considered a failure and not worthy of a comment.

    Raw critiques are best
    Although a portfolio critique is useful, a raw take critique is best. Trust me, a frame-by-frame edit of a raw take by someone with four Pulitzers is NOT fun. But, it's an excellent learning experience and makes better images very quickly.

    How to get a critique
    NPPA critique program
    If you haven't had a real critique, then I'm probably not the right person as a starter. I'd suggest considering the NPPA critique program first. They hook PJs together for cooperative relationships. It may still sting, but they're probably less blunt.

    Another way to get critiques is to start your own (free) blog and list with PhotoBlogs.com. Then, PJs can get immediate feedback via a comment section from potential readers of newspapers and magazines. It's also a way to let others learn from the PJ's successes and difficulties. It'll also motivate PJs to find new images and display how they're improving.

    If a PJ wants a critique or cut, send me an e-mail with a Web site or blog and a level of critique desired (advanced amateur, pro) as well as a deadline. I'll list the site as a separate "Critique of the day" entry with a link and e-mail address (for sites without comments sections). Please title the e-mail "critique of the day" so I can handle it properly. Pro critique requests get to jump to the front of the line.

    For pro critiques, I need the following information:

    If you have an online resume, please send me a link. It would be the easiest way for other pros to evaluate your experience level before they start ripping your work apart their critique. If it's not in English and you have a preferred translation program, please let me know the Web site for the translator. Otherwise, I'll use Google.

    If you don't have an online resume, I'll need your full name (credit line name).

    I also need to know your primary source of income (magazine, newspaper or freelance). If you're staff, please list the publication, city and state as well as a Web site address for the publication. If freelance, please list a few of your clients. If you've already won any awards with the images presented, please let me know.

    I'd also like a short paragraph or two describing what you expect from a critique or why you want one. If you prefer, you could write a paragraph about your motivation to be a PJ (it's different for everyone).

    The point of the paragraphs is to convince other pros to analyze your images for a few hours and give you feedback. If I simply post links without any of the information above, meaningful critiques are unlikely.

    This site is visited by many outstanding PJs from around the globe. I hope they'll share their views with newer PJs who want guidance.

    Please limit submissions to photojournalism only. Although other branches of photography (art, commercial, wedding, etc.) are valid fields, the critiques PJs would give would not be appropriate (PJs might get very indignant at set-up commercial or wedding shots, and be under-impressed by a portfolio of "Doorknobs Across America").

    Enough for now,

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