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The Simplicity Of A Photo Critique

As I walked into the hall and saw the 20 or so images beautifully matted and presented on the front wall, I thought “are you sure you can do this?”. The different colors, shapes, and subjects, as well as the feelings of the photographer who made each photograph became the obstacle course I’d have to navigate before the evening was over! So began the photo critique I was asked to do at the Ulster County Camera Club last night.

I must admit I had never done a critique of this scale before, only working with students in my workshops. When you talk to people individually, there is a certain intimacy that makes a critique more comfortable. But when you have to critique a photograph in front of 50 people, well that’s a whole different story! To begin, I made it perfectly clear that a critique is totally subjective, and should never become discouraged by failure, but instead rejoice in seeing how they can potentially  improve their work – this is how we get better!

Ultimately, I just did what I always do on my workshops, and that is to try to make every word count, and focus on providing the greatest benefit to the photographer whose image I am critiqueing. In other words, how can I best help someone with complete generosity and kindness? Only this way can I gain the trust and confidence of someone else, and the whole situation becomes a win-win for the student, always the best deal in my opinion.

Once I adopted that frame of mind, the critique actually became enjoyable as I noticed that often a photographer would nod in agreement with my particular comment, especially when it was about how they could improve their work. I felt more comfortable to speak with openness, everyone’s guard was down, and I genuinely wanted each person to walk out of the event a better photographer.

A Simple Way to Improve Your Photography

Now I want to briefly share my overall impression of what I saw and offer some suggestions that may be of benefit to your work. While there were many different styles and levels of aesthetic quality, there was one overarching issue with most if not all of the images to some degree or another. It can be summed up in a statement I try and drill into every workshop student: “what doesn’t add detracts from an image”. Over and over again I noticed images that were trying to say too much, which is another way of saying the photographer was trying too hard.

This is normal and a necessary stage along any photographers path to improvement. But it is important to be aware of it. Simplicity is the key to story telling, and this is what we all want to accomplish with our images. Sometimes it was a question of framing, or perspective, or depth of field. All of these play an important role in how clearly you express your vision – or not.

Every single part of an image is as important as every other part.

This means that the center is no less important that the edges, and the bottom as important as the top. This is something that I think almost every photograph I saw could improve upon. Perhaps there is a fear of not including enough, or wanting to capture everything we see in front of us.
But the most important thing to remember is that we use many of our senses to experience the world, and these all add to our perception, which is surprisingly pretty narrow when you think about it. We stand in front of the Grand Canyon in complete awe, but our gaze is on a specific point in the distance, while our other senses bombard our brain with sounds, smells, memories, and emotions. Unfortunately, the camera does not “see” this way, and captures everything with perfect clarity – not what we need in order to convey our emotions to the viewer.

This is where simplicity is our strongest tool, and making a clear statement will help a viewer see, understand, and feel what you felt and saw.

Evolution of an image in Acadia National Park

Cluttered and busy - point of interest is confusing.

 

Simple in statement and story - the beauty and serenity of nature.

I will be writing more about the role of simplicity in photography in the future, and I’d love your feedback on any other photographic topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog. Thanks as always for reading!

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RR Jr

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This Post Has 27 Comments
  1. Huge difference Robert… The simpler shot makes it look more beautiful, pleasing to the eye and in this case, soothing to the senses. I love reading your blogs because there is always something new to learn… gracias!!! Ana.

  2. Thanks for sharing. As a memberof the Rockland Photography club we are constantly learnig through a critique forum, in the form of competitions using different judges. We have gotten away from a first second or third aplace as each image is judged on its own (honorable mention or award no limits) Yes, I agree that “judging” it is often subjective, but sometimes I am “emotionally” atached and sometimes fail to see clutter or just try to say to much in one image. I find it difficult sometimes to balance between enough rythm or notes within the frame and just ending up with a single note song by over simplifying”. I also find it difficult to get my message across as I simply want to share the world around me that I am in awe of. I think as a musician, you fil the frame with full concert songs.

    1. Hi John – thanks for your feedback and very kind words – I appreciate it greatly. You make a good point about the difficulties we all experience in terms of simplicity, and knowing when you’ve gone too far. I would caution you not to think too literally about simplicity. A simple statement is not the same as a simple composition. Any of Mozart’s symphonies can become quite complex, and that complexity is what elevates it to masterpiece status. However, the mastery of the medium, Mozart’s complete control of his statement, is what gives it the clarity and simplicity we enjoy about it. My 7 yr old son can appreciate Mozart where it counts, in his heart. This is what I mean by simplicity, not that you limit yourself to one or two notes, but that you control the medium so that your statement is clear and direct, regardless of the complexity of the composition. For this we must consider harmony, balance, symmetry, and many other aspects outside of this discussion.

      Hope that helps – thanks.

      RR

  3. Excellent post, Robert. I like where you come from when you do critiques. Getting yourself in the right space is of course paramount. Your advice there and conveyed here as well is right on. My father used to quote Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify.”

    1. Thanks as always David – I am honored that you would mention your father – a mentor for sure to myself an many others. The less our egos are involved in our photography, especially when it is of nature, the better we can see clearly, and become better communicators.

      RR

  4. As one of the presenters last night at our Ulster Photo Club let me first thank you for your most informative critique of all the photos and for giving up your time. I’ve always loved taking landscape pictures and now realize why at times the end results “just don’t cut it”. As you stated, the eye not only sees the image but ” our other senses bombard our brain with sounds, smells, memories, and emotions that the camera cannot capture”. Simplicity!

    1. Thanks Arlene – I always try to look at my failures as positives – if I learn what didn’t work, then I have a better mindset my next time out – I am one step closer to real improvement!

      RR

  5. I very much appreciated the time and care with which you critiqued our photos last night. You made a point of saying something positive about all our entries. Sometimes I find it hard to overcome my awe of nature (mine was the Glacier National park lake and mountain scene) and in wanting to capture the total beauty I am observing I sometimes do not simplify as much as necessary. Thanks for making the critique such a positive experience

    1. You’re very welcome Rae – appreciating what is in front of you is 90% of making a good image – that allows you to make it personal, then you try and share that. You’re on the right track.

      RR

  6. Donna and I went to this last night. What a great experience to be around such a gifted person. We loved his energy and compassion in passing along his thought processes and talent. 
    It was a little overwhelming to have someone of his caliber critique your creative work. However, his style was very pleasant and rewarding. Thank you for time and encouragement.

  7. On behalf of the U.C. Photo Club, may I express how valuable this experience was for all of us. It was more than a critique — it was a “class” and we were your dedicated, attentive students. Established from the start was the mutual respect and trust and passion we all shared in creating and presenting our landscape images.
    My only hope is that we can schedule another such session — those of us attempting to get it right could stand your continual watch and guidance. Let’s try to make it happen sometime in the near future, despite the already demanding schedule you have.

  8. This blog entry is a wonderful summary of the points learned and lessons taken from your valuable critique of our photos. Your example images illustrate the emphasis on simplicity and conveying a feeling in a way that is easy to understand. I tend to get a little lost in the technicalities of the photograph and do not pay enough attention to how the scene makes me feel. I also learned many years ago that a photograph should tell a story, but I’m learning that, by keeping it simple, you can tell part of a story and leave some to the imagination of the viewer and still have a powerful image. The story doesn’t have to be the whole book. Thank you for putting that into perspective for me.

    1. Tim – I’ve written here many times about the danger of getting blinded by the technology, it has happened to me many times. But eventually I realize why it is I do what I do – and that is to communicate. For that it really doesn’t matter how technically correct an image is, only that you put your heart and soul into the image – people will see that easily, trust me! Thanks for the comments.

      RR

  9. Thank you Robert for your critique of my photo last night. I was very pleased to learn that process of critique can be also educational and pleasant at the same time. You are well known nature photographer and get encouragement from you means a lot to me.

    1. Yes, it should always be positive in my opinion – we do this because we are passionate, and that should always involve experiences that push us to improve – we ALL need to learn and improve, no matter where we may be in our personal path. Thanks for your kind feedback.

      RR

  10. I too want to thank you for your time that you gave to our club. What a great gift! Your comments at the end – are you shooting in raw, if not why? – have given me a new direction to take. It seems difficult to take the first steps. Looking forward to new challenges.

    1. Hi Marion – It isn’t as difficult as you might think – more like changing your process for working with your digital files. I find shooting in RAW liberating – I don’t have to think about making sure certain settings are set correctly in the camera – white balance, sharpening, saturation. I know as longs as I have a good exposure, I can develop the image afterwards the way I want. I can focus more on composition and creativity, and leave the technical issues of post processing when I’m ready to tackle that- sometimes weeks or months later. Thanks for the kind words.

      RR

  11. Dear Robert,

    It was a pleasure to have you as a guest speaker at the Ulster Camera Club and also last Wednesday when you did the critique. You have a very easy gentle way about you that makes people feel very comfortable.

  12. Hi Robert, thanks so much for all the wonderful suggestions you made during the critique session. It was very helpful to me. So often I look at one of my images and know something is off, but I can’t tell what it is. Now I know… simplify the image. Thanks, Lynda

    1. That’s always a good way to approach any artform, especially photography. You can never go wrong with making your images simpler and clearer in message and content – 99% of the time, we are too complicated.

      RR

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