I’d like you to join me on a journey of learning to see and take better pictures. That is, learning to view our images critically before any one else sees them. Early in my journey, I was intrigued by a signature from a photography forum: “Please harshly critique my photos! Doing so helps me become better at this photography thing.” Since then, I have uncovered many hurdles to me taking great images.
My computer’s dictionary defines critique as “a detailed analysis and assessment of something.” I’m going to ask you to buckle your seat belt, put on your safety goggles, and leave your ego outside, as we explore my journey of learning to self critique the images I capture. Perhaps you will glean a tip or two along the way.
First, let me define my end goal. I want an image that tells a compelling story. It should have appropriate sharpness, appropriate depth of field, be well composed, and reflect my vision for what I witnessed. When I look at my own images critically, those that don’t make the cut have typically failed on one or more of these elements of the end goal.
So, let’s go back to the beginning, well, digitally speaking. Early on I shot with a consumer oriented bridge camera (camera and zoom lens all in one) and was the poster child for “you don’t know what you don’t know”. I almost wince when I look at those early images. Many failed in all four elements – but I didn’t know it – then. Now, I see and work better, and the images I now share reflect that. So, let’s explore the four elements we can work on, to produce images that inspire others.
Table of Contents
What do I mean by appropriate sharpness? Up front, let’s recognize that this will mean different things depending on the end usage. If your images are only ever seen as relatively small web images, then this element may not be important to you. If your images may be used for publication, as a large gallery print, or on the side of a truck, then you want every pixel to count. In this context, I mean the key part of the image should be tack sharp when viewed one-to-one. That is, one pixel in the image to one pixel on the screen – and hopefully a large screen; the back of the camera, or your phone will not do. On my camera, I have one button for checking an image in the field at this one-to-one ratio. I can do a quick check to see if what I’m choosing for settings or my technique is producing the results I intend. Ultimately, I rely on my computer screen to make this assessment.
Obstacles to Appropriate Sharpness
Motion is the primary contributor to softness in an image. That image compromising motion comes from two areas I needed to grow in: capture technique and camera/lens settings. In between these two areas, I also discovered why some lenses come with much higher price tags, and the impact that can have on image sharpness.
In the early days budget was the main driver for what I could shoot with. Being interested in wildlife meant I needed focal length, however I could get it. My first cropped sensor camera coupled with a long consumer zoom lens drove me nuts. I saw the sharp images other non-pros and pros were taking and all my images were softer. Shooting long focal lengths handheld and getting good results is nearly impossible, depending on the light and ones skill. So, I worked on getting better support (not all tripods, nor heads, are created equal). While good tripods and heads made a difference, equally important was learning good long lens technique. Good long lens technique includes extra support for longer lenses as well as using hands to minimize vibration that longer lenses are more prone to, especially when shot at greater distances between camera and subject. All this work and investment produced sharper images, but still softer than I observed better shooters getting. I wondered, could it be that I’m not all to blame?
The next key obstacle to really sharp images was lens quality. I saved for a long time and got my first long prime lens, a 400 f/2.8. Holy Yellowstone bison!! I had shot with good lenses before this, but this lens taught me what image sharpness was possible. In short, primes tend to yield the sharpest images possible, while a zoom lens can get close, depending on price range, lens manufacturer, and distance to subject.
What about camera or lens settings? These obstacles can be found in two areas: user error and technical issues from camera or lens technology. User error can be using inappropriate shutter speeds for the light/distance to subject/motion of the subject. Many lenses have different vibration reduction (VR) settings, optimized for different shooting scenarios. The key is it takes practice and testing to determine what VR settings will work best for the gear you are using, for the different kinds of scenarios you shoot in. Using VR when it isn’t needed, or with inappropriate settings can contribute to in-lens vibration that can soften a shot. If you are shooting in lower light and using slower shutter speeds, then you may need to shoot mirror-up and use a cable release, or wireless remote to trigger the camera.
Appropriate Depth of Field (DOF)
The depth of field (DOF) in an image guides the viewer’s eyes as to what you want them to see in the shot. It can be the main clue as to what is the hero in the shot. If the whole frame is sharp, then I have to use other clues as what that capture is about. Each photography genre has different guidelines, so DOF should be appropriate relative to the genre. What is important is that what should be sharp has to be sharp. No exceptions, no excuses.
Obstacles to Appropriate Depth of Field
The three key areas I observe weaknesses in this element have to do with camera distance to subject to background, camera/lens choice and challenging shooting conditions. The first area of challenge impacts DOF but also overlaps into composition. Ideally, we would like to be closer to the subject than the subject is to the background. Sometimes this is possible and sometimes not. The goal is to have in focus only what needs to be in focus to support the story. More on this later.
Every camera/lens system has strengths and weaknesses. A key strength of a camera phone is that it is light and for most readily available. A key weakness is that the sensor is so small, it’s nearly impossible to have much control over the DOF – almost every image is relatively sharp corner to corner. So, if I want as much control over DOF as possible, then I may not look to my phone to accomplish the task. Sensor size comes into play, as does the native aperture range of a lens. So, whether I choose a small consumer oriented camera or a full sized camera and lens system, these choices do impact the DOF flexibility one has.
No matter what camera system a person is using, available, or added light, is always a factor in what can be achieved in the capture. That means that if I am working in lower light, I may have to rely on good camera support, optimum camera settings (ISO, shutter speed), or lens choice (lower base aperture) to accomplish the DOF I desire. One of the great benefits of the relatively less expensive f/1.8 primes is they tend to allow great flexibility for low to full light and great DOF flexibility. The man caveat is with a single focal length you use foot-zoom to adjust what is included in the frame. So, here too, it is a matter of understanding the capability edges of your gear and working within them. That takes practice.
Achieving a Well-Composed Image
There are whole articles on this topic, so I don’t intend to go into much depth. But, as the saying suggests: “If it were easy, more would be doing it.” And, in fact, it really isn’t that easy to compose a shot well. It is an important part of the journey, but it takes time and personal development to achieve. In discussing depth of field, I stated I would bring it up later. A well chosen composition uses subject placement and framing, along with depth of field to produce an image that is strong.
Obstacles to Achieving a Well Composed Image
There are three obstacles I have experienced in my journey to achieving a well composed image: Ability to see it, the crutch of cropping, and missing key detail before I take the shot.
Learning to frame a compelling composition takes time and understanding. We must invest the time to really understand the guideline of thirds, color, leading lines, etc. I have found articles and books useful, but time in the field is also key. It is one thing to intellectually understand what makes for an inviting composition. It is another thing to see it and capture it. It takes time to develop confidence around your skill to capture a well composed image.
One of the biggest hindrances I see and have had to wrangle with is the option of cropping. I can be lazy and get things close in the field, since I can always crop it, to get it right on the computer. Don’t do it – or aim to do it as little as possible until you don’t have to. None of us have perfect sight. And the more fleeting the moment, the more challenging it can be to get it right in the camera, but it’s a worthy goal. And, if there is a chance your image will end up on a wall or the side of a truck, you want every pixel possible. Aim to get it right in the camera.
The last suggestion I would make centers on paying attention to detail. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, it shouldn’t be in the shot. Period. Sometimes things happen fast and we take a shot quickly, but in review, it’s not the shot. So the key is to anticipate, pre-plan, and pre-plan again. Think through the potential things that could negatively impact the shot. With wildlife, there may be a branch, a cast shadow, or the rear end of another critter close by. Learn to see these things and move, re-frame the shot, or rotate the camera. It is amazing how many camera shots could have been improved simply by using our feet. Distracting elements can also interfere with depth of field, which is why it is so important to see and eliminate/minimize them. It is valuable to develop the discipline to look critically through the camera’s viewfinder and notice what is hindering the shot and addressing it, as best you can – or not taking the shot. Don’t lean on post processing to fix images. Again, aim to get it right in the camera.
Notice the many details in this image that are problematic, including the branches right behind the head and body of the eagle, the shadow across its breast, and the angle of the shot makes it impossible to know that it is actually holding a salmon tail in its talons.
Finding and Reflecting My Vision
This last element is the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. We have wrangled through all the technical and setting stuff. It’s taken time, but with determination, discipline and practice, these parts have become second nature. And, we’ve been working on composition all along, so now it’s time for the secret sauce of discovering and reflecting our personal vision. This is the element that starts to separate our images from others.
Obstacles to Finding and Reflecting My Vision
The two big hindrances I have found to finding and reflecting my own vision in images are: other peoples shots, and laziness on my part.
We live in a world that is saturated with images. There are fewer and fewer original images. It can be tough to not settle for taking me-too images, or reporting shots, “See, here is proof I was here.” Taking pictures that mimic those of others simply because we can misses a key part of the privilege of getting to experience or witness a critter, or a place, and engage with it. What is it that intrigues or awakens our curiosity? Do we invest the time, before going, to understand all we can about our subject, or location. Do we allow ourselves the time to investigate and be taught and inspired by the place. That is, what does it look like, from different locations or angles? What kind of light and what angle of light really brings out what is inspiring to us? Are we so inspired that we think a couple of quick snaps captures what we have experienced? I hope not. It takes time and effort to really invest ourselves into a subject, or the understanding of a critter we hope to capture in pixels. But, I promise you, the best images come from such an investment. If you are invested enough to be inspired, your images will reflect that, and those are the images we need a lot more of.
So when you get back from your latest jaunt, and are looking at the images you have taken, be respectfully tough on what you see. Are the images sharp where they should be? Is the depth of field you chose working with the composition to tell a story strangers will be sucked into? Do those images reflect your vision, literally your experience of the subject or place? When they don’t, it just means more practice – and informed practice can make perfect. Informed because you know what you are working on and why. And, when you sit back in your seat, thankful for the privilege to experience a great subject or place, and thankful you got a shot that passes your own critique, then share it with all who will look.
This guest post was submitted by Mark Winchester. Mark has been capturing and working with images for more than three decades. He really enjoys celebrating the wild critters he finds in nature. He has had the privilege of doing so all over the United States, and a handful of international destinations, including three trips to Africa.
This was helpful and in the comments really helped too. I got that vibe from this piece. I’m a DoF kinda gent but I do cityscapes sometimes and noticed sharp sharp sharp is where it’s at where that’s concerened. I think I have an idea of what to look for now….i will be publishing less on my portfolio but keep my growth portfolio open to show change. Great article!
Thanks for the information and suggestions. Excellent article.
Thanks a lot Mark for sharing these aspects and your journey towards perfection. The photographs of course are a delight to watch.
A good discussion starter, but I do think it is important to realise that one man’s journey does not reflect the one road to take. The aspects on which to judge a photo do depend a lot on the intent of the photo. Sure, in wildlife photography, I realise that adequate sharpness will take an important role, but for many other types of photography – not so much. While composition always plays a serious role, and in my view, should take a much higher priority in judging the photos. A perfectly sharp, perfect exposed image with a crap composition will not work. A perfectly composed image with mediocre techical execution may still work fine.
Maybe a very first initial question is missing: what do I (as photographer) want to tell with this photo? What technique does the photo require to adequately convey the message I want the photo to have? Getting perfect sharpness and DoF in a journalism/documentary image isn’t the most important, while the composition and vision are everything.
So, as said – this article is a good discussion starter, but I do hope each and every photographer asks the question which elements are most important to his/her style of shooting, vision and visual language-dialect, and start the self-critique from there.
I believe that your question was answered in the first part of the article:
“First, let me define my end goal. I want an image that tells a compelling story. It should have appropriate sharpness, appropriate depth of field, be well composed, and reflect my vision for what I witnessed. When I look at my own images critically, those that don’t make the cut have typically failed on one or more of these elements of the end goal.”
He also makes it clear that sharpness is dependent on the type of photography one is shooting. I know as a landscape photographer, sharpness is critical, and you want sharpness throughout your frame. If you are shooting portraits, then the eyes and face are critical for sharpness. I think we all get that sharpness is dependent on the type of photography you shoot.
This is a good basic article, and it was a pleasure to read how a nature/wildlife photographer sees the art of photography, while similar to landscapes, it is still very different.
Sure, I did not say the article was wrong in any way, but that it merits discussion. My post wasn’t a question, just a different take on it. The way the article is structured, the first two items in the self-critique are the technical points, then the composition, then the actual end goal. Now, even if the author did not mean to imply this is the order in which to judge your images, the way is written creates that suggestion. So, I didn’t intent to say the article is wrong, but my opinion is that it could be clearer on the fact that defining the end goal also defines the parameters on which you judge the photos.
In my experience with a good number of beginning photographers, the self-critique goes wrong not because people cannot judge themselves, but because they’ve not defined that end goal. That’s why I felt compelled to post to underline the importance of it.
Wouter & David,
Thanks for the thoughtful comments! And, honestly, I think you each are hearing what I intended. My intent was to suggest that, to the degree it is within our power, what should be sharp *should be sharp*. I shoot a wide variety of photography genres and I’m not one of those guys that worships at the sharpness altar, as if as long as it is sharp it’s good. That’s bison dung in my world. Composition really is king, in terms of telling a story.
The order I placed them reflects my own preferences and style – regardless of the genre I’m shooting. For me, composition is a compound goal – a marriage, if you will, of the technical aspects that can detract when poorly executed, and the ability to see that something special and unique begs to be captured. There are plenty of examples of great documentary images that aren’t great technically. I was just aiming to suggest, that to the degree it is within our power to think ahead and be prepared, we can minimize the technical distraction, which makes it that much easier, in my world, for the story to really come through.
Thank you Mark. I appreciate how you expressed the same sense of things that I have about my journey to photo nirvana. The clarity and sharpness of a lens has been most important to me. Most of the technical stuff comes with time, then maybe the final step the vision in our creative endeavor.
I shoot mostly dinner events and my challenge is getting everyone in a round table perfectly in focus.. I am still working on that.