picture critiques

Critiques, appraisals, assessments, portfolio viewings, call them what you will: at their best they are invaluable, and at their worst, they are an embarrassing waste of time.


Girl on phone in bus shelter, Arles

A fair question here is, 'What are you trying to convey?'. On its own it's a snapshot -- and to be honest, that's all it is. It's a moment grabbed on the street. To be part of an exhibition or portfolio it would need to be matched with other grabbed street shots -- and they'd need to be colour, too, because mixing colour and black and white is seldom successful. It's somewhat in the style of Martin Parr, though perhaps more formal. But be brutal: ask yourself why anyone is going to be interested in your version of Martin Parr when they could do a book by the real Martin Parr? Roger shot this with his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

Responsibility for success and failure is equally shared between the critic/appraiser and the photographer. It's true that some critics are inherently better than others, but it's also true that some photographers make the critic's job a lot easier. Here are a few guidelines which should help you get the most out of any critique, based on our own experiences in giving critiques at the Leica stand at Arles and elsewhere.


i   know what you want

Are you asking if you have the right material for an exhibition? Or a book? Or for seeking a bursary? Or do you want advice on how to tackle a theme? Or how to present your pictures? Or how to approach a publisher?

Obviously, some critics can give you better advice in some areas than others (see ii below) but unless they have some idea of what you want, they will have considerable difficulty in helping you. Putting your portfolio down and saying "What do you think?" is no help to the critic -- and if he is going to help you, you have to help him.


Bicycles, Paris

Another entirely legitimate street shot, but completely different in mood and technique from the picture of the girl in Arles. Again it would be perfectly all right to produce a set of pictures of Paris (and indeed other cities) at night, using the same sort of sepia imaging -- but just because both this and the previous picture are street shots, it doesn't mean that they hang together as a set. It's a sort of sub-Aget or sub-Brassai; enough for an exhibition, but not enough to get a book unless you already have an established Fine Art reputation. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus with our Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and 35/1.7 Ultron; Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned in a home-made sulphide bath.


ii   be aware of your critic's prejudices

A newspaper picture editor is going to give you different advice from a picture librarian, and an advertising photographer will give you different advice from a photojournalist. Any of them can probably give you good advice, but you need to be aware of their biases.



Drummer, New York City

Yet another legitimate street shot, again shot at night, again in black and white, but so different in style from the bicycle that once again it doesn't hang together. Frances shot this with a 15/2.8 Sigma fish-eye on a Nikkormat FT3, using Kodak TMZ P3200 at EI 12,500 -- this was before Ilford Delta 3200 came out. Without being immodest, we'd say that Frances was well enough known that at least some of the people turning up for a print critique should be familiar with her work. She's happier critiquing black and white than colour; other photographers may be happier with colour and may actually dislike black and white.


If the photographer is well enough known, this shouldn't be a problem: you'll know what they do, and what their likes and dislikes are. If they are either obscure or humble, you should be able to ask them about their own photography without any problem. Only if they are obscure and proud, as sometimes happens at camera clubs, can you encounter difficulties. More than one local professional is so full of himself that he assumes all his listeners are in awe of him and will hang on his every word of wisdom.



Javits Center, New York

Okay, so it's fish-eye and New York and black and white, but you would have to pedal quite hard to tie this in with the previous picture. This is quite formal and full of light. It's very different from the grainy grab shot of the drummer. If there were enough NY black and white fish-eye shots -- maybe a dozen -- you might just about be able to justify a theme, but this is a case where you don't want to have too few pictures on a specific theme (see iv, below). Same camera and lens as above, but shot on Fortepan -- Fortepan 400, as far as we recall, but we're not sure.

iii   have a theme

...Or two. Or at most three. Don't show a random selection of your best pictures: a portrait, a flower study, a couple of sports shots, five landscapes, two still lifes and three reportage shots. A single theme is usually best but if (for example) you want some guidance on the direction you should be taking, then two or even three themes can be all right. But it is impossible to form any sort of judgement on a mish-mash of different pictures. Take a look at some of our galleries to see how themes can be created -- or indeed, follow the pictures through this module.


New York City

Something that is not necessarily immediately obvious is the role that film can play in unifying a theme. Like the interior of the Javits Center, above, this was shot on Fortepan film, and both the tonality and the 'airiness' of the subject serve as a link between the two, even though this was shot with a 90mm f/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 instead of a fish-eye. It's still Frances and her Nikkormat, though.

We were using the Forte, kindly given to us by the late Charlie Satter of Satter Omega, because we had run out of our usual Ilford films. It is quite coarse-grained and not outstandingly sharp, but it delivers wonderful tonality. The prints are of course on our usual Ilford paper.

iv   keep the numbers down

If you're showing a single theme, probably the absolute maximum number of pictures to show is 18 or 20 and indeed a dozen may be more appropriate. With two themes, you can get away with slightly more pictures overall, maybe ten or a dozen per theme. And with three themes, which is the maximum we would recommend, you really do not want more than about ten pictures per theme, and you could have as few as six or eight.



v   don't show too many similar pictures

...unless you know someone well and are asking for their help in deciding which is best. This is not the normal purpose of a picture critique, and there are few things that are guaranteed to make a critic's heart sink faster than six or eight substantially identical images. Part of your job is to decide which pictures you want seen. Make that decision, even if you're not sure. If you really can't decide, choose two and ask the critic's opinion -- but no more than two.

vi   show good-quality images

This should be so obvious that it doesn't need saying, but alas, from our experience, it does. The very worst portfolio we ever saw consisted of low-quality colour photocopies, several images to a sheet, with severe (and variable) colour casts. The photographer wanted our advice on how to get these published in a book. When we pointed out that the first thing she needed to do was to make the presentation a good deal more attractive, she airily said, "Oh, they can clean that up at the printing stage." Possibly; possibly not. There was no evidence in her presentation that the quality ever could be anything other than abysmal, and besides, why would anyone bother to clean up rubbish?

Thirsty, Miserable, Always Wanting More

Yes, it's yet another street picture, this time in New Orleans, and it doesn't hang together with any of the others. You may or may not like it -- fairly obviously, we do -- but the print is clean with a good tonal range, and the wide white border helps differentiate it from its surroundings. You can make two technical criticisms. One is that the face of 'Mr. Natural' on the left is not really visible. This is however a bit of a 'camera club' criticism: does it actually detract from the picture? We think not. The second, the lack of differentiation of the head from the background, is arguably more serious, but still not quite serious enough (in our view) to stop the picture 'working'. It succeeds because of the vertiginous perspective -- as we recall, a 17/3.5 Tamron on a Nikon F or Nikkormat -- and the counterpoint of the graffiti on the one hand and 'Mr. Natural' and the full-sized American car on the other. Frances shot it on Ilford XP2 and printed it on Ilford Multigrade IV.

The pictures don't need to be huge. Indeed, 12x16 inch/30x40cm may even be too big to handle comfortably, so unless you are looking for an exhibition and big prints are an essential part of your vision, we'd suggest a maximum size of around 10x12 inch/25x30cm or A4. On the other hand, even if the images themselves are quite small, you do not want to present them on anything much smaller than 8x10 inch/20x25cm, or they just look like snapshots. Mount them if you have to.

We prefer to see loose images (i.e. not in an album) without lamination or sleeving, both of which make it hard to judge the quality of a picture. Most critics feel the same way. See also viii below.



vii   make sure your portfolio is in order

It takes only a few minutes (or even seconds) to make sure that your pictures are in the order in which you want to show them, and it makes the whole session go much more smoothly. It is very irritating for the critic if you are constantly scrabbling around, reading the backs of your prints, and generally presenting an air of disorganization.


Skyscraper, Washington Square

Still another street shot, and (once again) New York City. And, once again, pretty much unrelated to anything else in this module. It is in colour (the first colour shot since the girl in Arles); it is in New York, like three of the other pictures; it has a skyscraper in it. But it's still not related. In its graphic composition it most resembles the New York waterfront picture, but the fact that it is colour, together with the absence of people -- to say nothing of the much more sharply converging verticals -- makes it different again. Roger took this picture on Fujichrome RF/RFP ISO 50 using an M-series Leica and 35/1.4 Summilux.

It was quite interesting, incidentally, trying to put together a collection of street pictures, none of which really quite matched the others. Look at the Gallery in general, and the gallery of Chinese street pictures in particular, to see how pictures can be made to hang together.

viii   don't get too precious about your pictures

Some photographers expect critics to put on white cotton gloves before they allow them to touch their precious prints. This may or may not happen. If it doesn't happen, and this really worries you, consider offering them a spotlessly clean pair of gloves yourself -- but make sure they are spotlessly clean, because few things are less appetizing than distinctly second-hand gloves. And accept that if you are too queeny about how your prints are examined, the critic may not be too keen on examining them. If this is the case, waste neither his time nor yours. Gather up your pictures immediately, explaining politely that if they won't wear gloves, you'd rather they didn't handle the pictures.



Do not expect the critic to examine your pictures as you hold them up. First, this makes it hard for them to get the light right: pictures always seem to flare when someone else holds them. Second, they cannot easily control the viewing distance, which is always uncomfortable. Third, the critic may want to linger over some pictures while merely glancing at others, rather than letting you control the time for which they are seen.


Doorway, Paris

Now we are beginning to see the beginnings of a theme. Black and white night shots. This tripod-mounted Ilford XP2 shot by Frances (15/2.8 Sigma on Nikkormat) has enough in common with Roger's bicycle shot and Frances's drummer that an exhibition might be on the cards. A good question at this point is whether it might be possible to unify the theme more, or alternatively, which approach (hand held/tripod, fast film/ultra fast film) works best.

We would strongly suggest that while your prints should be as good as you can make them, all the same size (or all mounted on the same size cards), you do not necessarily need true exhibition-quality prints for a critique or review. The critic should be able to see whether there is a real 'eye' there, even if there is further scope for dodging and burning -- and indeed, you might ask them how they think your prints could be improved.

ix  don't get hung up on equipment and technique

If it's a picture critique, equipment and technique shouldn't matter. You should have used whatever will best give the effect you want, subject of course to your budget, and you should have done it as well as you can. It's OK to say "This is a soft-focus series" or "I shot all these with the same 200mm lens and orange filter" but no-one really cares whether you used Leica, Nikon, Canon or Periflex; or Tri-X, HP5 Plus or Maco Cube 400. Answer the critic's questions about equipment if need be: he may be about to say, "Well, I'd have used a longer lens" or some such, or he may just be interested. But don't force it on him.



Storm light, rooftops, Monsarraz, Portugal

This is still arguably a street scene, but it's something different again: more graphic, like the New York skyscraper, but also subtler and more complex. It almost ties in best with the first shot in the module, the girl on the telephone in Arles. Why? Because both have a quality of something glimpsed. It's the same film, too, Kodak Elite Chrome 100EBX, but Roger has forgotten which camera and lens he used. It was before he got the Leica MP so it was probably the Voigtländer Bessa-R2, but the lens might have been one of three Voigtländers he had with him: 35/2.5 Color-Skopar, 35/1.7 Ultron, 50/2.5 Color-Skopar. From the perspective it was probably the last -- but the photographer's eye matters more than the camera. 

x  listen

Again, you'd think this was so obvious that it didn't need saying. After all, what are you there for? Their advice. If you think their advice is worthless, thank them politely and leave as quickly as possible. If you think they are addressing the wrong questions, then ask them the right questions, but again, do it politely.

If they say something you disagree with, by all means say something like, "I understand what you are saying, but what I was trying to do was..." That gives them the choice of addressing the question from your point of view, or saying something like, "Well, in that case, I'm sorry, I can't really help you because that's not the way I'd do it." or "Ah, yes, I see what you mean, but..."

But there are people who argue. They say bluntly, "No, I meant to do it this way," or indeed, like the woman with the photocopies mentioned in vi above, they argue even with well-reasoned opinions "No, the quality doesn't matter." At that point, the only response left open to the critic is, "If you already know all the answers, why are you asking me?"

the bottom line

Many photographers genuinely enjoy doing print critiques. Most people enjoy helping others, especially when it is with something that they themselves care passionately about. There's also the chance to see see good pictures; maybe even to help launch the career of someone who will one day be famous. Foillow the ten guidelines given above and there's a very good chance that both you and they will come away from the critique feeling better. Ignore too many of them, and you'll be wasting your time and theirs, and no-one will get anything worthwhile out of it.


Painter, Honfleur

Some people call our photography old-fashioned. We'll cheerfully put our hands up to that. One of the great things about old-fashioned photography is that it ages well. Frances took this a long time ago, maybe in the 1980s. Today, this picture is the way that we (and most people) either remember Honfleur or would like to remember it before it became quite so crowded and commercialized. It's a very simple record shot, XP2 in a Rollei B35, printed on Ilford Multigrade 4. 




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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks