At its base, a critique is an examination of a piece of work, be it writing or art or potato chips, and a reasoned response to what is examined. I’ll be talking mostly about ‘soft’ critiques in this post as they are the ones that examine content in a less mathematical way. Not that math doesn’t apply to photos, but examining a photo is more subjective than objective.
1. Make Sure The Photographer WANTS A Critique
Most importantly, ensure the person receiving the critique actually desires a critique. While your intentions may be pure and the information you have may benefit the recipient, if most people aren’t open to the idea of hearing about their work, they won’t hear a thing you say. And it may backfire. Before launching into, “There are some things about this image I want to comment on…” start out with something as simple as, “Would you like an honest critique of your image?” If the answer is, “No thanks,” then move along and don’t’ say a word. If someone is not open to receiving, they won’t. (I know it sounds obvious, but it is often overlooked.)
2. Be Honest
This is hard for many of us. Some of us are being desensitized to the “Nice work!” we see on Facebook and Google+ and think all the world need be rosy. This is not the case. But (as long as point #1 is followed) we need to make sure we are honest from the start. If you just want to tear someone’s art apart, say so (that is not at the heart of a critique, by the way). If you want to help them improve, say that too. If you just want to spout your opinion, ditto. Hearing yourself talk or trying to gain more exposure on certain sites by ‘joining in on the conversation’ has its place, but just be honest about why you are speaking.
3. Realize Your View Of The World Is Incomplete
Most people jump right over this concept. We all have egos that enjoy thinking they have the accumulated knowledge of the world, or at least some specific subset. But the truth is, no one does and we, as a society, are learning new things about the world around us all the time. So it is with art. Any art revolution was confronted with detractors; people who thought it was rubbish, based solely on person, past experiences. Knowing you don’t know everything will help lead to an open discussion rather than a one sided, “You did all this wrong,” point of view.
4. Educate Yourself
Before getting started, in hand with knowing you don’t know everything, learn a little about the subject being critiqued; both the subject of the photo and the subject of photography. There’s no need to take college level courses to learn some art history and different photographic techniques. Often this education can come from the photographer by asking simple questions about why they shot what they did and what they were attempting to portray (some will tell you to not ask these types of questions as it may alter your critique, but I find it can be helpful in guiding the conversation).
5. Examine And Highlight
Examine the body of work, set it down, walk away, and come back. I have found this process helpful personally to shake my thoughts up and then let them settle. If time is not available, by all means, jump right in. Look to what works and doesn’t work in the image. Look for technical merit (and here our very own Christina Dickson gives some examples of: Exposure, Focus and Composition and look to more subjective areas such as story telling and emotional impact. Highlight what works and what doesn’t work. And most importantly; why.
The ‘Why’ is at the heart of the critique. It will help the photographer more than anything. “Her hair is all wrong,” is not a good critique, even though it might be accurate. “Her hair is bothering me. See if you you darken the tone to lessen its impact in the shot, or remove some of the stray strands to cause less distraction,” is a far better statement that gets out the bad with leading the photographer in a direction to improve. And that is at the heart of the critique, wanting to help the other improve. Anything less is simply complaining or touting one’s own mastery of the art, neither of which really help anyone (except the reviewer’s own ego).
6. Delivering The Critique
Lastly, deliver the critique when the photographer is ready and in a way that works for them. Listing a long diatribe as a comment on a Google+ picture might not always be the best forum, especially if the critique was unwanted. But emailing the person privately and first asking them if they wish for an honest critique is a good first step. Follow this up by another email with the critique if they are amiable to receiving. That way they can read it when they are ready, instead of having it crammed down their throat when they are tired and hungry and working a long day. Delivery is just as important sometimes as what is being said.
These days, across the miles, most critiques are given in email and it’s a great medium as people in France can comment on a Vietnamese artist’s work with never leaving home. it also allows a slower conversation which is often preceded with carefully thought out comments, rather than calling someone at 2am, a little drunk, to tell them why their sunrise picture, “sucked”. I’ll pretend this never happened to me. And I hope it never happens to you. Email helps bring a bit of reason into a conversation. It should not be shunned over an actual in-person meeting if location isn’t a problem, as body language can tell you a lot about what a person is thinking.