Photographic Standard: How to Critique Your Own Photos

It has been that said the most difficult thing for man to do is to judge his or her creative work, objectively. Be honest, can you tell when your work seems to be missing something? More importantly do you know what it is that’s missing? You can only improve your photos if you set a high photo standard to compare yourself against.

how to take great photos

Photo by Miwok; ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/125-second exposure.

When Time-Life selected 250 photos for the Great Photographers volume of their Time-Life Photography series; they chose 68 photographers out of thousands. Those editors defined “great” photographers based on three main factors.

3 Characteristics of a Great Photographer

The first factor was intent. What did the photographer have in mind when he took the photo, and did he achieve it? For example, did the photographer successfully make the viewer feel empathy when taking pictures of survivors of a major natural disaster?

The second factor was technical skill. Did the photographer show a thorough understanding of composition, light, exposure, and design?

The final factor was consistency. Did the photographer have just one or two great shots, or did they produce success time and time again? One great photo . . . or even several . . . does not a great photographer make.

how to take emotional photos

Photo by Angela Larose.

Intent, skill, and consistency are the same three factors that will determine your own greatness. Study the masters like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham, and Diana Arbus, and you will see these three factors again and again. But the question remains, how do you get from where you are now to that level?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “being your own worse critic?” By the very nature of the words being used, most people tend to think of that as a negative phrase, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. To learn and grow in photography, you have to be strong enough to admit what does and does not work in your photos.

To that end, here is a strength and weakness checklist for you to use when reviewing your own photographs. It’s not complicated, just look at your photo and mark whether it is strong or weak. There is no middle gray; your image either succeeds or it does not. Once you know your weaknesses you can work on improving in those areas.

Photo Critique Checklist

1. Intent – Could any viewer look at this photo and KNOW what you had in mind?

2. Emotional Impact – Can this photo be described with words of emotion, like peace, calmness, anger, rage, joy, or sadness? Does your photo make an emotional statement?

how to take awesome photos

Photo by Olli Henze; ISO 100, f/5, 1/100-second exposure.

3. Center of interest – When composing your images do you successfully direct your viewer’s attention to a specific point? Would the viewer know where your center of interest is?

4. Illusion of depth – Have you used framing, balance, contrast, and other art concepts to make your image jump off the page, or does it just sit there?

5. Subject/background contrast – Shooting a portrait of someone with black hair against a black background in not usually a good idea. Does your subject stand out?

6. Personal style – Ansel Adams was known for extreme illusion of depth and all planes in very sharp focus. Jim Zuckerman is known for vibrant colors and simplified subjects within their natural setting. Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” How will others describe your unique approach?

7. Selective focus – Do you choose where the viewer will look? If the background is just as sharp as the foreground, things can become very visually confusing.

8. Composition – Do you consistently use the rule of thirds, formal or informal balance, and leading lines? Take control of where the viewer’s eyes are most likely to fall in your image.

9. Exposure – Do you always shoot at whatever the camera says, or do you take control of the light? Can you see details in your shadows? Have you ever used a reflector or bounced a flash as opposed to straight on?

10. Story telling – Is there a feeling of movement within your image, or does it just sit there? Does it leave anything to the imagination, or is it just a statement of what is? If your image doesn’t tell a story, there is no reason to give it a second glance. Great photos make you want to look again and again.

how to critique photos

Photo by Tim Donnelly; f/20, 1.3-second exposure.

Use this checklist A) to see where you are at the moment and B) to see where your work is going in the future. Having a photographic standard is like having a road map. It is possible to get from here to there without one . . . but it’s a whole lot easier with one. Knowing what areas you need to improve is the first step in becoming a better photographer.

About the Author:
Award winning writer / photographer Tedric Garrison has 30 years experience in photography ( As a Graphic Art Major, he has a unique perspective. His photo eBook “Your Creative Edge” proves creativity can be taught. Today, he shares his wealth of knowledge with the world through his website.

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  1. Charlie says:

    Really nice article and as usual I just found that there’s a lot of homework pending! =)

  2. Carlton Ward says:

    Thank you Tedric,
    A thorough & well written article. I have been with Better Photo since 2005 and had the privilege to go on a photo tour of Europe with Jim Zuckerman in 2008. Shooting side by side with Jim was fun & amazing. I am not a pro but aspire to shoot like one and as I improve the bar also goes higher. I find comfort in this as I know I have more to grow. While I enjoy my learning curve but I have also learned enough to know when the light is right & I have my exposure & composition set to my liking, I will get a good capture… I do sometimes wish I could shoot at f/94 like Ansel though :)

  3. Manish Sinha says:

    Hi Tedric,

    I must thank you for this great artcle. After having read the article I have started analyzing my photos. it’s really a great feeling. Out of 100 photos I have taken I could choose only 15 photos which I think are great ones. I’ll try to do better photography next time.

    Thanks again for giving a detail understandings.


  4. Don Butler says:

    “One great photo . . . or even several . . . does not a great photographer make.”

    Personally, I’d be glad to have just one – – or even several . . . that people would call them GREAT.

  5. A fabulous article. Very good points. A photo without emotions is like a car without wheels.

  6. Michael Nistler says:

    Refreshing article – very provocative and illuminating on steps to get the aspiring photographer to the next level. And regarding other comments about culling to get the best shots, it reminds me of the quip:

    Shoot 5 rolls of film and you’ll end up with 100 good photos – shoot 2,000 photos on a digital memory card and you’ll end up with 100 good photos.

  7. Paul H says:

    Hi Tedric
    While I was amazed at how many rules apply to multiple styles of photography, the rules given don’t always apply. For example If a landscape photographer applied #7 selective focus instead of the DOF rules, they would not produce great photos at all , #10 Story telling would also be different for Landscape photos. #5 For me a good clear photo of a raven haired beauty against a black background where you can still see the hair show the photographer has great skill with lighting portrait photos.

    And am I a great photographer? The answer would be no I am still learning, but I strive for perfection and do read articles on the types of photos that interest me so that I can get closer to a great photo.

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