In general, photographers are very good at deciding how much they like someone else’s photo. It isn’t hard — your first reaction to a shot is either positive or negative, and it typically doesn’t change much after that. Things get more complicated, though, when you’re talking about your own work. For me, at least, I find it tough to judge the quality of some photos I’ve taken. Sure, I know when a photo is awful, but what about the other shots? This article covers some tips for looking at your work with a better critical eye.
1) Separating the Event from the Photo
Do you ever find yourself at an incredible location for sunset, camera in hand, after an incredibly difficult hike? Or, maybe you’re photographing a basketball game, and you captured the exact moment that the ball left a player’s hand to score the winning point.
In both of these cases, the situation surrounding the photo is incredibly powerful. In the first example, you feel like you have accomplished something — it took a lot of effort, but you made it to an incredible landscape in time for the best light. In the second example, you managed to capture the defining moment of a basketball game, timing the shot exactly right.
Unfortunately, neither of these cases actually means that you got a good photo.
Maybe, in the first example, your composition simply doesn’t do the scene justice. That’s certainly happened to me; even at a beautiful landscape under the right light, I don’t always come back with a good shot. Or, in the basketball case, there may be other distracting things happening in the photo that take away from the moment you captured.
In situations like these — where the experience of taking the photo is strong — it is very difficult to judge your images objectively. Perhaps you did capture everything that you wanted. But, sometimes, that won’t be true.
Quite often, I take a photo that requires a lot of effort to capture, and then I immediately think of it as my new best shot! That happened with the photo below. To get here, I spent a full day hiking up a mountain, then climbing on a glacier. The whole hike was beautiful and memorable, as well as exhausting — the perfect recipe for a photo that is difficult to judge accurately.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad photo, and that’s the point. It isn’t awful, and it took a ton of effort to capture. That combination — hard to take, and not immediately worth deleting — made it very difficult for me to judge it accurately.
In hindsight, I can look back and tell that there are some problems with this photo. There isn’t a clear subject, for one, and the foreground is empty. These issues should have been obvious at first, but my memory of taking the shot was so strong that I overlooked them. (Obviously, this is all subjective — you may hate the photo or love it, and that’s fine. This is just my own perspective on the shot, which will be different from yours.)
A month or two later, of course, it became easier to critique this photo accurately. A lot of times, that’s how it happens — you need to wait a little while before you can see things with an unbiased eye. That’s also why I try to wait at least two weeks before posting a new photo on my website or on Facebook.
Sometimes, of course, the opposite is true: your opinion of a photo actually improves over time. Generally, this will happen when one of your quick snapshot photos turns out surprisingly well. Since you don’t have a clear memory of taking that photo, it may be a while before you can judge it accurately (a good reason to revisit your archives).
Again, the best way to solve problems like this is just to wait a bit. Over time, your memory of taking the photo won’t be as strong, and you’ll be better at judging a photo based on its internal qualities. I know of some photographers who, for this exact reason, actually refuse to look at their photos until a month after they’ve returned from a trip. Although I don’t have that much self-control, I certainly understand why they do it.
2) Dealing with Ambiguous Photos
Even if you wait a while, it still isn’t always possible to judge your photos accurately. This is especially true when a photo straddles the line between “decent” and “worth displaying.” One day, you may decide that the photo merits a spot on your website — the next, you might decide that it doesn’t quite make the cut.
Photos like this are always very difficult to judge, and there’s no easy way to tell how good they really are. Still, you have a few ways to try.
To start, as mentioned above, you can give yourself a better perspective if you wait a few weeks before critiquing the shot. If you’ve already waited, though, consider showing your photo to other people — your social media followers, or, ideally, a photographer whose work you respect.
If you decide to put an ambiguously-good photo on your Facebook page, see how many interactions it gets compared to your normal posts. More? Less? The same? This isn’t the best gauge for the actual quality of a photo, but it helps you judge how other people like it. If one of my photos gets half as many interactions as usual, it’s easy to tell that people don’t think it is as good as usual.
For a more accurate critique, though, it’s better to show your work to professional photographers. This could be online or in person, but the goal is to see how another photographer sees the photo. That said, you have to make sure that you talk to someone who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’ve taken a bad shot — although it can hurt at first, it ultimately helps to be as accurate as possible.
Another tip, one of my favorites, helps after you’ve been editing and looking at a particular photo for a long time. When an image is strongly ingrained in your head, flip the photo horizontally. You can see a mirrored version of the shot, and it tricks your brain into seeing the photo as if it is completely new. (Only do this for photos that you have looked at for a long time — otherwise, the effect doesn’t work.) I covered this tip in more detail in an earlier article.
The best way to critique your photos is simply to look at them as objectively as possible. You should have extremely stringent standards — you don’t want to show anyone a bad photo that you took, unless you work for a photography website and are doing it to illustrate a point :)
Most of your photos will be pretty easy to critique, and you’ll generally have a good idea of a photo’s quality after you’ve taken it. However, there will be cases that are more difficult to judge. Typically, this happens because you have a strong emotional response or memory of a particular photo, making it tough to see the image for its actual quality.
When this happens, the best option is to try waiting a while. The longer you wait, the easier it is to separate your memories from the photo itself. If that still doesn’t work, try showing your image to other photographers or flipping it horizontally in post-processing.
Although it’s not easy to critique some photos, it’s always worth the effort. You shouldn’t show your audience mediocre photos, but you also want to display a good shot when you get one. Perhaps these tips can help you make the final decision.
Hopefully, you found this article useful, and you’ll be inspired to go out and critique your photos more accurately after reading it. Still, improving your critiques — as well as many other areas of creative photography — can be a very tricky process. There’s no perfect answer, and the best thing you can do is simply to keep practicing. But if you want to go more in-depth on some of these topics, I strongly recommend our eBook, “Creative Landscape Photography: Light, Vision, and Composition.” It is true that, in general, eBooks do not have the best of reputations, but my hope is that you’ll give this one a chance and see what it has to offer. All the information it contains is designed specifically to be as accurate and tangible as possible, in a field where accurate and tangible tips can be difficult to find.