Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Photography: The critical importance of feedback and how to give it to yourself

"Good photographs are quantum packets of understanding;
they allow ideas to leap from one person to another, almost magically."
— Jeff Wignall, National Geographic photographer

From an early Instamatic with film the size of my little fingernail, my life has included a long series of cameras. However, it wasn’t until digitals arrived, that I started getting better. Not that the cameras were that much better; it was the instant feedback. I could see what i was doing wrong and play with other ways of shooting.

For the past couple of years, I was a member of the Nevada County Camera Club and every month we had about ninety photos submitted for critique by various judges. I made sure I had my allotment in every batch of those critique sessions. Some months I walked away bruised or confused, some months I floated away on sweet words. However, viewing and listening to the critique of ninety images every month ground some fundamentals into my psyche, but also left me wanting a more in-depth critique of my own work.
Black Ebony by Gabriel Olude
Now, I’m in Mexico with a new camera club that hasn’t grown into the capability of NCCC, so the question becomes how do I get the feedback I need to keep improving?

I need a set of criteria. But, which criteria? I started making a list and then decided there must be lists online. There are, of course ... dozens of them. A lot of the lists mention technical excellence, clarity, composition and so on. However, I liked an interview with National Geographic photographer Jeff Wignall who said that a photo could be technically beautiful but still not touch someone’s heart.

I definitely want to create photos that create a feeling, have an impact and “allow ideas to leap from one person to another.” So, impact has to be on the list. Let’s call it “Wow!” This photo art by Gabriel Olude is one that makes me say “wow!” every time I see it. It will be my benchmark for a rating of 10.  (From Issue 27, May 2017 of “Living the Photo Artistic Life.)

Wignall also said, "One of the best things you can do to improve your photography is to get your pictures in front of other people where you can see their reaction."

Dune Dancer by Ann Lavin
Something that several of us from NCCC did was print 50 of our favorite photos and have a “speed dating” session where we silently passed them around and let each person rate each of the photos of the others. It takes awhile but the results were enlightening. For one of my favorite images, it turned out that some of the reviewers didn’t even know what the subject was! Somehow, I have to make sure that the subject or the intended feeling is transmitted with power and “clarity."

This image above, "Dune Dancer" by Ann Lavin is a beautiful role model for clarity.

Tulip in Blue by Nancy Brizendine
Today’s cameras are excellent and even an average photographer can produce technically excellent photos. And, now there are dozens of apps that will transform ordinary photos into unique works of art. When I asked Google how many photographers there were in the world, the answers ranged from 75 million to 2 BILLION. A major question becomes: how to stand out from that flood of images?

The answer that surfaced for me is what in writing we call “voice,” a striking personal style, fresh viewpoint, or a unique way of seeing the world and capturing it in an image. Each image should give the viewer something he hasn’t seen or felt before. 
Obviously, with all the photos being taken today, it is not easy to find a novel way to capture an image, however, it is a criteria to strive for. “Uniqueness," became one of the criteria, spurring an intent to make images that were uniquely mine. 

It takes a lot to make a photo of a flower pop. "Tulip in Blue” by Nancy Brizendine has it all: style, voice, color, movement, light. It’s a great example of taking an overworked subject area to a higher level and is a role model I would like to live up to. (From Issue 29, July 2017 of “Living the Photo Artistic Life.)

Breaking the Pattern by Evelyn Elwan
I am currently in an online training and community focused on photo artistry and led by Sebastian Michaels. Dozens of artists are posting their images on a private Facebook group every day and top images are published in the “Living the Photo Artistic Life,” magazine. One thing I’ve noticed in looking at hundreds of works of art from this group is that some create a unique mood through a blend of light, subject, color and movement. It’s a bit difficult to describe, however, you feel it when it’s done well. So, add “mood” to the list. 
 An amazing  example of mood comes from Evelyn Elwan’s “Breaking the Pattern” (From Issue 27, May 2017 of “Living the Photo Artistic Life.)

Something Missing
After looking at so many images and reviewing all the criteria I could find, it seemed like there was still something missing: a quality of depth where there were constantly new things to be discovered, that kept attention roaming around the image. I decided to call this illusive quality, “abundance.”   
When I looked at the images that seemed to offer this abundance, I found two and couldn’t choose between them, so here they both are:

Artist: Doris Seybold
A Promise by Carol Entin
Both of these images offer a satisfying feast of details.

So, to recap, the five criteria I have chosen to critique my own photos with are:

Wow! - images that pop, giving you a feeling of having seen something new, felt something at a deeper level, connected with the essence of the artist and the subject.

Clarity - focus on a subject or intended feeling in such a powerful way that the viewer knows deeply what the image is trying to convey.

Uniqueness - a striking personal style, fresh viewpoint, or a unique way of seeing the world and capturing it in an image. Giving the viewer something he hasn’t seen or felt before in an image.

Mood - a blend of light, subject, color and movement that creates a definite feeling or sense of time or place.

Abundance - a quality of depth where there were constantly new things to be discovered, that keeps attention roaming around the image.

Now I’m off to see how my photos and art images match up with these qualities. Feel free to use these criteria for your own work … or explore the source materials below to choose the ones most appropriate for you.

*******  Source Materials:  *******

1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.
2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.
3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.
4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.
5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.
6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.
7.) Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.
8.) Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.
9.) Lighting —the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.
10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.
11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12.) Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.

Five Factors That Judges Consider in Reviewing Photo Contest Entries  - National Wildlife Federation
  1. Originality
  2. Technical Excellence
  3. Composition
  4. Artistic Merit
  5. Overall Impact
Came up with lists of possible criteria before homing in on five:
  • Adherence/Appropriateness to Theme
  • Uniqueness of Concept
  • Originality
  • Clarity of Expression
  • Humor
  • Creativity
  • Innovative Means of Delivering Message
  • Entertainment Quality
  • Visual Design
  • Overall Artistic Impression
  • Composition
  • Clarity and Quality of Submission
  • Color, Lighting, Exposure and Focus
  • Audience Appeal
  • Marketability/Commercial Appeal
  • Newsworthiness
  • Inspirational Power
  • Expression of Theme
  • Usage of Brand to Reinforce Theme
  • Overall Impression/Impact
  • Current/Potential Social Impact
  • Level of Detail
  • Inspiration to Others
  • Wow! Factor
  • Memorable
  • Technical Execution
  • Visual Appeal
  • Artistic Merit

Rather than have a one word criteria, MKD suggested defining the criteria, for example:
    • Impact– what you feel when you first view the Entry. Does the photo evoke an emotion from the viewer?
    • Creativity– how the Entrant was able to convey their idea, message or thought in an original and imaginative way through their lens.
    • Style – how the Entrant is able to showcase their personal originality and technique to influence how the image is presented and interpreted.
    • Subject Matter– was the subject matter displayed in the photo appropriate to the story being told in the Photo Entry submitted and does it fully represent the Sponsor’s promotional theme?
    • Story Telling– how the Entrant is able to let their Photo Entry evoke the viewer’s imagination, which may differ by each viewer. Is the story being told the right story for the Sponsor and their brand?
    • Technique–the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.
    • Composition– how all the visual elements harmoniously express the purpose or intent of the image. Does the photo draw the viewer in to look where the creator intended?
    • Presentation– having that finished look. Was the Photo Entry truly ready to be entered or were some finishing touches still required?
    • Color Balance– can bring harmony to a photo. Do the tones work together, effectively supporting the image? However, Color Balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.
    • Center of Interest– the point(s) in the photo where the Entrant wants you to view the image. Does the photo draw you in? Does it have more than one center or interest or none at all?
    • Lighting—how the Entrant was able to use and control light. Was the lighting applied in the photo (manmade or natural) properly used to enhance the image?

excerpted from Winning Digital Photo Contests, by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.


  1. Great article and all very good to know


  2. The Professional Photographers Association, National Wildlife Federation, MKD, and Jim Richardson from Natl. Geographic, put forward 56 criteria that they collectively suggest for how to judge a photograph.

    You put forward five.

    Except for the first item put forward by the PPA (“Impact”), all of their 56 criteria are focused on or pointed toward for examination not the viewer viewing the picture, but the picture itself.

    Your five criteria on the other hand, are almost all focused not on the picture, but on how it affects the viewer.

    When I studied poetry in college, I came up with a definition of what good poetry is. A good poem is one that moves the reader.

    Bravo to you, for pointing all your criteria toward the viewer of the picture, instead of toward the technicals of the picture itself.

    Good pictures are, IMO, the ones that move us. Regardless whether they have matting, print quality, identifiable genre, or any of the other 56 qualities that the professionals identify, what makes a photo judge-worthy, (again IMO), is whether it moves the viewer.

    That’s why I like your list of five criteria better than theirs.


    1. Thanks, Hugh, for synthesizing ... and counting. I actually hadn't thought of it in the terms you use about being viewer oriented. I like that.

    2. Sharing insights together is what life is really about, yes? :-)

  3. Love your thinking on this Joyce! I'm definitely going to utilize your list!

  4. Awesome write up.
    This is a classic piece and it will help photographes step what their game. It's a timely piece.

  5. Original thinking on the part of an artist re: her own criteria for excellence-- good for you, Joyce!

  6. http://blog.frangipaniphotography.com/2014/03/nassau-bahamas-children-photographer.html?showComment=1560672400731#c9113114403969067520