The Importance of Critique

As with any other pursuit, one of the most effective ways of improving is to learn from your mistakes. Sadly, I see quite a few people that are unable to do so. It’s not always because the person is not willing, but also because he is not in a position to do so. And in such cases, more often than not, they don’t even know it!


Let’s take a few examples for you to get an idea of how you are expected to critique picture. I’ll start with the bad flower picture showed earlier:

Batangas, Philippines (2003)

In a word, the picture is dull. As it was obviously taken on a cloudy day, the shot was underexposed. There also isn’t a lot of detail found in the petals. But perhaps the worst attribute I can pick on with this picture is its composition. Having the subject at the center, or rather, just a little bit off-center does not work particularly will in this instance. The subject itself isn’t very inspiring. There is also nothing noteworthy in the background either. It falls flat, overall.

Now, take a look at another yellow flower taken under much better natural lighting.

Yellow rose, Delft, Netherlands (2016)

The whole thing comes alive with a good mix of highlights and shadows on the rose at front. The thinner depth of field allows for even greater emphasis on it. Additionally, applying the the rule of thirds allowed for space for the purple flowers in the background and provide a striking contrast to the foreground. Not bad, no?

Next, is a somewhat decent shot:

Singapore (2014) As shot
Singapore (2014)
As shot

This temple along Singapore’s Chinatown was gorgeously lit one night I was in the area. Capturing that was easy. The architecture made it an obvious subject for a symmetrical shot. It’s not difficult to get something close. But to achieve something perfectly or nearly perfectly symmetrical shot is incredibly tricky. As you can see, at the bottom of the picture was already the entrance sign and roof. Why is that so? There isn’t a lot of space on the ground to work with. By the entrance is a narrow sidewalk along a highway with lots of people walking. It would have been ideal to step back, but it wasn’t possible with all the fast vehicles along the road. Those are things I can’t do anything about. What I could do something about is sidestepping to get good symmetry. As you can see in the picture, the corner of the first level roof on the right was included in the frame. But the one on the left was not. At first, I thought it was something I could solve by cropping, but after hours of trying, I found out it wasn’t going to work. I took the picture just a tad too far to the right and was exacerbated by distortion due to my lens being at its widest. I can attempt to correct the distortion and crop the entrance sign, and maybe crop a side off to get the subject to center. But I will not be able to achieve symmetry.

Edited version
Edited version

All in all, it’s not that bad of a shot, especially after some edits. I do show it to friends. But to be honest, there is more flash than substance in this picture. It’s not going to win any awards or accolades anytime soon.

Now, how about a picture that I really like?

Salzburg, Austra (2014) As shot
Salzburg, Austra (2014)
As shot

Composition-wise, there’s nothing I would want to change. The rule of thirds is prominently featured. The actual lines along the floor tiles and the implied lines drawn by the links on the ceiling directs your eyes towards the end of the hallway, which the two people are headed. The amount of negative space at the upper half of the picture also complements the lower half containing the subject well. But my favorite parts of the picture are the literal and figurative story-telling it provides with the two strangers looking sideways as they walk to the exit (or into the light, if you prefer). Some people might find the post for the cordon in the lower right corner, or even the cannon beside it to be distracting. I personally don’t mind. Besides, attempting to remove either of them would lead to taking away from the good parts of the picture as well.

Composition analysis
Composition analysis

My only reservation here lies with the exposure. It’s not awful, but I found that adding more contrast and darkening the whole picture just a bit brings significant change, as seen below:

Salzburg Fortress
Edited version

The darkening of the sides from increasing the contrast partially hides the potentially distracting elements on the right side, as well as the silhouettes of the two people walking. At the same time, it increases the intensity of the light from the exit. All of this make for a much more moody, if not dramatic feel in the picture.

Now, it looks like something I can be proud of.

Few MMS 173 students, not to mention aspiring photographers, are used to having their work scrutinized at this level. That is why it is going to be a given that some of you will dread this part of the course. But giving in to intimidation will get you nowhere. Do not look at the rest of the class as the enemy. Everyone should be out to help each other. And in so doing, everyone can have a deeper learning experience.

When you’re looking at your peers’ work, focus on the picture, not the person who took it. Do your best to make your comments fair and objective. If possible, also provide suggestions which you think can be helpful in improving your peers’ work.

To the person whose work is being critiqued, never EVER take anything personally. Focus on the comment or suggestion, not the person giving them. Take all which you believe is genuinely helpful and objective, and discard the rest. And do not, under any circumstance, retaliate out of spite when it’s your turn to critique other peoples’ pictures.

Good luck, and I hope this becomes a fruitful experience.