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Critical faculties

When appraising another photographer's images (which I only ever do if I am explicitly asked) I have to consider many things. First and foremost though (and requesting that he or she respond honestly) I will always ask the tog (because the answer, quite reasonably, might very well be: “I don’t know”… or “nothing in particular”…) what they were endeavouring to do or say with the image or sequence of images. I will enquire as to the inspiration, motivation or idea behind the work and ascertain whether they feel they have succeeded, as photographers, with the intentions and in the outcomes that they had in mind for it. This gives me an understanding of the method and the message behind their mission.

Without this consideration it is difficult, impossible even, to give any meaningful analysis other than on a purely technical/methodological level. Critique of an image’s rules of composition compliance or of the photographer’s abilities to handle his or her gear - for example to control focus and exposure, are far more superficially apparent and largely unequivocal than are the more abstract and subjective notions of personal vision and visual style.

Above: I recently supervised a group of togs from the very sociable, talented and enthusiastic Ealing and Hampshire House Photographic Society in London. I had previously arranged management permission and security clearance for us all to shoot in a new high-rise development in Paddington at dawn and sunset. Whilst I am by no means an experienced architectural tog, with the above I did my best to produce a symmetrical shot in the golden hour. I like it generally and it succeeds in several areas I think (colour palette, geometry and leading lines to focal point for example) but I would still appreciate some input from a properly qualified, accomplished buildings tog as to how I might improve the image and give it a bit more three-dimensionality.

Nikon D810, 14-24mm f2.8 Nikkor, ISO 64, 1/30 second at f11, tripod

17th April 2016

Many times I have heard critics announce “I don’t like this“ or “I don’t like that“ or, “I would do this" or "I would do that”. Such statements are entirely subjective and merely disclose personal tastes; they are ineffectual at best and demotivating at worst - and they reveal more about the critic than the photographer… After all, I could say that I don’t like the Rolling Stones or Coldplay, but the statement is completely meaningless in the context of constructive criticism and doesn't remotely mean that these bands are neither talented, nor accomplished, nor enormously refined, professional musicians.

Moreover, what I think, or any other critic thinks, is an irrelevance to The Rolling Stones or Coldplay themselves because, as creatives, they have nothing to prove. They - and thousands of other artists out there in hundreds of genres - just keep doing their thing because they adore what they do. The source of their continuous output is passion; they are relentlessly driven to create and perform. Going to them for approval and advice would make far more sense than asking a magazine critic or a competition judge.

Artists who are comfortable with their creative output do not seek approval, they just continue to produce bodies of work that bring them fulfilment and pleasure. If others like the material too, then this is a bonus for them.

If you are just starting out on your toggery journey and need encouragement, guidance and direction; if you are unsure about specific details of capture or composition; if you are experimenting in a new sub-genre and would like some advice or input, then of course it makes sense to seek advice from someone you trust.

Above: Another of my attempts at architectural toggery from the group workshop in London. This time I have abandoned wide angle in favour of a long shot with a telephoto and have tried to simplify the scene by making the image all about the juxtaposition of hues, contours, textures and materials. As in the previous image, having revealed my intentions, I would like to hear an architectural tog's opinion.

Nikon D810, 70-300mm Nikkor at 270mm, ISO 64, 1/13 second at f11, tripod

17th April 2016

Above: Intersecting vertical and diagonal geometry, receding perspective, golden ratio consideration and colour balancing were the intentions here. It works OK, but again I would like to know from a pro architog how I can improve on the three-dimensionality I was trying to convey.

Nikon D810, 14-24mm f2.8 Nikkor, ISO 64, 1/15 second at f11, tripod

17th April 2016

Before you think about requesting critique, do a whole bunch of head-scratching and consider your work critically yourself. Make a list of everything that you like and dislike about the material you have created. Note the things that you will or will not do to an image with similar characteristics next time you take a shot. If you don’t know how you will be able technically to achieve the intended result that initially eluded you, then this could be where and when you would benefit from some constructive guidance in the realisation of your vision.

And when you do seek instruction, remember that all photographers, from the noobiest noob, right the way up to Sabastiau Salgado and Annie Leibovitz, want the exact same things that you and I do… Namely to:

- Learn new skills

- Improve technique

- Create better images

- Refine personal vision

The above four are linked to the below four (the principle cornerstones of tog development that I have written about previously and you can learn more about here: Acquiring focus):-

- Composition – which is knowledge acquired through theoretical and practical study

- Technique – which is knowledge and also experience acquired through theoretical and practical study

- Visual Style – which is developed as a result of academic and practical study and refined over time - Vision – which is innate; is progressively developed and refined - and emerges over time with experience

If, after due consideration of these principles in relation to your work, you do decide that you would like another's opinion, remember, a photographer's most relevant credentials are his or her photographs. So make sure you engage the judgement of a tog you appreciate and whose portfolio you admire or aspire to.

So, what do I do if I'm asked?

When I deliberate on my analysis of someone’s work I would reflect on the following criteria (and depending on the level of competence the tog is at, I will choose just one or two, several, or all…):-

- At a glance, or on initial encounter with the image as a thumbnail, does it immediately compel the viewer to examine it further?

- Is the light dramatising, enhancing or flattering the scene?

- Has the photographer captured a unique, clever or decisive moment?

- Is the image carefully considered and much more than just a casual snapshot taken on a phone?

- Is the image provocative, disturbing, beautiful, redolent, sad, ecstatic or dramatic - anything but dull, obvious or mundane?

- Is the photographer aware of how to use, bend and flout the rules of composition?

- Has technical and methodological competence in-camera been demonstrated?

- Has technical, methodological and apposite skill in post-production been demonstrated?

- Does the image engage the viewer on an emotional, intellectual, mnemonic or subliminal level?

- Has the photographer demonstrated a clear personal vision and visual style?

- Would a printed and framed version of it be worthy of wall space at an exhibition?

Oh dear.

I've made another list.

But you get the gist.

Closing statement rhyming couplets are so in right now...


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