Image Critiquing: A How-To

This is a repost. It’s long, but if you read it & take it to heart I guarantee you will be a better photographer – or you get your money back ;)


Summary – There are lots of ways to critique. Regardless of how you do it – learn to critique. If you don’t know what is & isn’t a good image, how can you hope to ever make one?

I Critique using the “4-C’s”


Do you know how to critique an image? No, not –

WOW! I like that!“.

That’s not a critique. That’s a Flickr comment.

Supportive but not useful if better photography is the ultimate goal.

Even the most well-intentioned critiques can be hard to take – ego’s need to be put aside.

One of the most common reasons given by newbies for not entering club competitions is fear/embarrassment because of criticisms.

A typical image has both good and bad points. Both should be recognized – the good acknowledged and constructive criticism offered for the bad. To be useful, the praise and criticism must be specific, not general – even more specific than

“There’s a problem with the focus”

What & where specifically and why do you think this happened so the maker can avoid the problem in the future

“The background is more in focus than the subject’s eyes. Your focal point was wrong for the shallow depth of field you used.”

Knowing how to critique images is a key step toward becoming a better photographer.

If you don’t know what makes an image good – and bad – how can you hope to make good images?

If you can’t recognize problems when viewing a displayed image, how do expect to see them when looking through your viewfinder?

The most important critique is self-critique of your own images


I use a structured method for critiquing images built around what I call the 4-C’s.

Take a look at this blog’s subtitle at the top of the page

The subtitle is there because I firmly believe that

Mastery of these four elements is key to Photography Improvement.


The 4-C’s

  1. CRAFTSMANSHIP – Using your camera to control exposure, focus and color for a technically perfect image or for the creative image that you want. Key message – putting you in control of the camera & not vice-verse.
  2. COMPOSITION – Making aesthetically pleasing two-dimensional images
  3. CREATIVITY – Making your images YOUR images (and not like everyone else’s) by building on craftsmanship and composition skills
  4. COMMUNICATION – Inserting emotion and feeling into your images. Great artists believed that art sprang from emotion. (A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Paul Cezanne)

The list above is in the order that the C’s should be applied in an a critique.

The list begins with the most basic skills and progresses to the most difficult to master

Good craftsmanship should be a given even for a relative beginner – especially with today’s cameras

Communication on the other hand is very difficult – especially since it’s so viewer dependent

In another sense the list progresses from “objective” criteria through to “subjective”

Craftsmanship elements, color for example, are very objective. Unless the maker is making some artistic statement (see creativity & communication) we all know what color the bride’s skin and gown should be – it’s not a subjective thing.

Communication, on the other hand, is nearly 100% subjective. What “sings” to me may be “nails on a blackboard” to you.


To round out the story, the list is exactly in the opposite order I use when making an image rather than critiquing one.

Making an image begins with Cezanne’s quote – A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. If I can see the potential for an image that sings to me, I’m 90% of the way home toward making a good image.

We can’t begin with an everyday scene, craft & compose it in a creative way – and then “glue emotion” to it at the last-minute. It doesn’t happen that way.

Note – “good image” here means one that is good for me. I really don’t care about what others think. Depending on where you are in your photography development journey, you may (or should) care.

Now that I’ve found my singing image, the rest is straight forward. Starting with creativity I try not to make the presentation of my “song” routine & predictable – I want to be creative. My ingredients for creativity are the first 2-C’s (and treating them as the “RULES” of composition and craftsmanship probably won’t get the creative job done – but you do have to know them before you can break them).

The final two steps are relatively easy.

Usually the most difficult composition task is simplifying the image.

Craftsmanship is easy (or it damn well should be else it’s back to the drawing board for you). You HAVE TO reach the point where craftsmanship (using your tools – camera/lens) is instinctive and your camera is an extension of YOU.

If you have to think about it, even for 5 seconds, you’re not ready to be the best photographer you can be. This where practice, practice, practice comes in….

Craftsmanship errors are inexcusable

This is one reason that Craftsmanship comes first in a critique (especially in judging where 75% of all entries must be eliminated; if you can’t do the basics, there’s little reason to go further)

Craftsmanship is essential in terms of making your camera do what your vision requires for this singing image, including bending & breaking rules in the name of creativity


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What Makes an Image Popular?

Yesterday’s post took yet another look at two MIT image-related algorithms. It showed results in the form of a scatter chart. Today’s post translates that chart’s data points from dots to actual photos. What makes an image popular? Who knows. Depends on lots of subjective factors – not to mention the viewing audience. Shoot for yourself!

Yesterday’s post featured this chart

It included one example photo for each quadrant. Today’s post shows all 68 photos.

xls pop-vs-mem chart

4 quadrant images

Click on the above image for full screen (once doing that you may have to reduce it to fit your screen, “Ctrl -“ on a PC). Within each quad, the most popular image is at the top left and the least is at the bottom right.

Memorable, quads 2 & 3, vs. not as predicted by the MIT algorithm, is heavily biased by whether the image is a landscape or not.

  • See this by comparing the number of landscapes on the left vs. right sides

What makes an image popular is less obvious. Especially since the MIT algorithm considered not only an image’s visual characteristics but, equally or more important, the social context in which it was viewed and by whom (in this case Flickr). Since I don’t shoot for a Flickr (WOW!!!!) audience, I’m not surprised that the MIT program and I don’t agree on a lot of its scores. That doesn’t say that either of us is right or wrong, just that we have different standards.

  • Can anyone hazard an opinion as to what may separate images in the top half from those in the bottom.

This is what happens when you give an engineer a camera ;)


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Image Popularity – An Analysis

For the past week or so I’ve tested two MIT image-related algorithms – one that predicts image memorability and one popularity. I was curious whether there was any correlation between the two. Here’s a chart with some preliminary results.

The tests were done on a sample of my photographs as described here

  • Tested were 68 of ~1800 images I posted daily over a five-year period
    • These 68 each got the most views in the month they were posted
  • Each image was “scored” by the MIT algorithms
    • A plot of the results is shown here
    • Note: the Views axis is for normalized views (actual was many times this)

xls pop-vs-mem chart

Some observations:

  • The Chart is divided into four quadrants separated by the median values (50% above & below) for memorability (green vertical line) and views (red horizontal)
    • Images in quads 2 & 4 support the thesis that memorability implies popularity; Quad 1 & 3 images suggest the opposite
    • An actual example image from each quadrant is shown for illustration
  • The broken red trend line shows that, in general, more memorable leads to more popular – but I wouldn’t take that to the bank.

An interesting exercise that yielded no surprises. If I were still exhibiting and competing, I’d still go with what “sings to me” (and to the likely audience; Instagram & Flickr viewers have standards that are way different from exhibit jurors and competition judges). My motto has always been – Shoot For Yourself!


This is what happens when you give an engineer a camera ;)


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Park Your Horse & Buggy Here

As mentioned over the past several months, I moved last summer. Did I mention that I now live in the middle of Amish country – with an emphasis on country?

In the U.S., reserved parking for the handicapped is a law.

How about a horse and buggy?

Seen in a local parking lot. Not law, courtesy (of Costco).

645 PRO Mk III for Apple iPhone 6 Plus_160107_101821_IMG_2588-1


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Image Popularity

The past week’s posts have considered “what makes an image memorable” based on an algorithm developed at MIT. It happens that there’s also a MIT algorithm that examines image popularity. The next few posts will take a look at it and ultimately consider what correlation, if any, exists between memorable and popular images.

 Preview of Coming Attractions

Spoiler Alert! A memorable image doesn’t guarantee a popular image – and vice versa. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We knew that without MIT’s confirmation.


The MIT image popularity algorithm, in a nutshell:

  • Is based on analyzing 2.3 million Flickr photos
    • To see which got the most views
  • The correlation between the color, composition and subject was examined
    • To determine an image’s likely (internet) popularity In terms of views

 

Memorable does not equal popular (necessarily)

The first image below is 5X more memorable (76% vs 15%)

but is likely to receive less than 1/2 as many views (7.9 vs 18)

Memorability: 76% Expected views (normalized): 7.9

Memorability: 15% Expected views (normalized): 18

Don’t take either of these algorithms too seriously

They may be indicators, but they’re nothing more

More to come…


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Memorable Images & Color

My previous posts showed that the orientation, vertical vs. horizontal, of the image’s main subject affects the image’s memorability. Today’s post examines the impact of color.

 Color Does Affect the Memorability Score

color grid

Several Observations

  • All else being equal, a light background provides a more memorable image
    • Compare the first two rows
  • Green seems to tend toward more memorable images than other colors
    • Even the 1st item in row 2, one of five perfect scores, is 50% green
  • The final six images reinforce both the orientation and color results
  • B&W does poorly in terms of memorable images
    • B&W photographs, in general, are highly regarded and liked
    • This illustrates that memorability is just part of the big picture (pun intended)
    • The 4-C’s – Craftsmanship, Composition, Creativity, Communication
      • Matter the most

About that green observation, why might that be? Maybe it has to do with the color green’s location in the visual light spectrum and the fact that a large number of the eye’s cones cover that wavelength. Just speculation for now.

cones vs wavelength


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Image Orientation & Color

Yesterday’s post examined the effect of line and shape orientation on how likely a viewer may be expected to remember an image. How about color?

 Vertical orientation has 81% probability of being remembered

Drops to 63% if rotated 90 degrees CW
D300_091102_182416__DSC9978_nx2 cep4bas brdr

Note: The orientation that matters is the orientation of the subject (i.e., the silhouette) and not the frame. This results from the visual design implications of horizontal vs. vertical shapes and lines:

  • Horizontal lines suggest tranquility and rest
  • Vertical lines suggest power and strength

The effect of orientation, for some images, is significant. How about color?

          87%                            68%

tree branch 1         tree branch b&w

The increase from the original image’s 81% to the brightly colored’s 87%, and the decrease to 68% with the grayscale, seems intuitive. I’d certainly be more likely to remember the left image than the grayscale on the right. But – are there general conclusions related to color beyond the obvious ones seen in this example? More to come….


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