Photo Critiques

The Portfolio Review (The Basics)

Pozos y Casas. Dacono, Colorado, 2016
Pozos y Casas (Holes and Houses). Dacono, Colorado, 2016

 

As one of the participating artists in the current “Landscapes” show at the Ft. Collins Center for Fine Art Photography, I received a free portfolio review from the C4FAP curator, Hamidah Glasgow. That experience–plus the mutual sharing of our portfolios among the ten or so photographers who were present this weekend–turned out, for me, to be quite an exercise in right brain implosion, immolation, and expansion.

In case you have never done a portfolio review, here are some basics:

What is it? Someone, usually a museum curator, gallery owner, publisher, or very accomplished photographer, sits across the table from you for a mere 20 minutes and looks through your work. Some reviews can be very informal and low-key, as was mine with Hamidah. Other reviews can be pretty high-stress with national and international-level reviewers (see, for example, this list from LensScratch).

What do I bring to the review? Bring somewhere between 12-20 finished prints (in a convenient case) that can be easily handled across a tabletop. Also be prepared to summarize/explain your work and what exactly you hope to get out of the review in a 1-3 minute spiel. After that, be prepared for a discussion of your work that can range anywhere from soft and easy to sharp and pointed. Finally, bring something to leave behind with the reviewer. This could be something as simple as a business card to something as elaborate as a foldout flyer or miniature publication containing your imagery. I personally like the idea of a postcard-sized card with all your personal info and website on one side and one of your iconic images on the other.

–What DO I hope to get out of a portfolio review? First, for me, it is all about improving as an artist. The feedback you get can be extremely valuable. In a first time review, you may simply want general feedback on your print quality, the conceptual framework of your portfolio (does it make sense?), whether you are communicating your message, and so on. More advanced artists may be seeking gallery representation or a book contract. A secondary effect of a portfolio review is the networking aspect–those looking for new work get to know you and you them. And, of course, you get to know the other participating artists as well.

Just the process of editing your work and preparing for a 20-minute portfolio review can be a difficult and, thus, growing experience as an artist. Knowing that an expert will be closely examining the artistic objects of your blood, sweat, and tears has a way of forcing you to think much more deeply about your work and where you might be going with it.

If you are just beginning, consider an informal portfolio review with a local, experienced, photographer, then work your way up to the higher level reviews.

This is yet another excellent way to improve as an artist and photographer–don’t miss out!

POSTSCRIPT: For some additional images of me with my selected image, the opening itself, and our portfolio sharing session… CLICK HERE!

How to “judge” an image

Barcelona Dawn, #1. Barcelona, Catalunya, 2015
Barcelona Dawn, #1. Barcelona, Catalunya, 2015

 

Whether you like an image or not is often a very personal affair. One person’s elegant Louis Vuitton purse can easily be another’s shit-covered sow’s ear.

Still, there are certain key ingredients which tend to be found in all the very best works of art, including photographs.

The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) has identified 12 such ingredients.

EXERCISE: Before you read through the list that follows, pick out a few of your very best prints and set them in front of you in good light. Now, as you run down the PPA’s master list, try to objectively “judge” each of your prints based on these criteria. How do they measure up? Purse or sow’s ear? Or something in-between?

The 12 Elements of a Merit Image

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lighting —the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light in an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

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.

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.

You can find more information about Professional Photographers of America, as well as the “12 Elements” at the website: www.ppa.com

Wednesday Critique #18, 10/22/2014: On Personal Artistic Growth

Hornecker for Sheriff. Home On the Range (Jeffrey City), Wyoming, 2014
Hornecker for Sheriff. Home On the Range (Jeffrey City), Wyoming, 2014

Yes, this is related to the idea of “critique”. In today’s case, sort of a personal, introspective critique…

At one time or other, we all wonder where we might be on that long, seemingly endless spectrum that is OUR ARTISTIC PROGRESS (yep, it likely is endless!). Are we getting any closer to realizing the art we really want to make? Just exactly where are we on this creative journey?

I just ran into an interesting article on the Luminous Landscape website (LuLa, as some say) by the noted landscape photographer, Alain Briot, that might give us all some needed personal perspective. The article, Critiquing Photographs, is worth the read just for that specific topic, but what nabbed my eye was Briot’s diagram which he calls The Alain Briot Photographic Skills Pyramid (scroll down to paragraph 18 on that previous link). If you recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from your college sociology and psychology classes, then you have an idea of the Khufu-like format.

[If you want to follow along, you’ll have to open a separate window to the LuLa link cited above. For copyright reasons, I don’t want to post Briot’s actual diagram here.]

I find that I actually move up and down Briot’s Pyramid, depending on the subject matter I am working on and where my head might be on any particular day. For example, if I am trying to do a portrait of a friend–just a headshot–in a jury-rigged studio in my home, I will definitely find myself on the first two steps of the climb–those pertaining to using equipment properly and developing basic technical skills. This is because such photography is out of my comfort zone.

On the other hand, if I am working on my 14er landscapes, my monochrome nature abstracts, my rural Americana portfolio, or my Barcelona street photography, I may find myself somewhere in-between the middle and top steps of the pyramid–that is, designing and completing projects and creating a unique body of work.

Ideally, within a few more years, I will have focused in even more sharply on specific genres and a defining personal style, and the bulk of my effort will go into individual projects that reflect more completely my unique vision.

So, take a look at Briot’s Hierarchy. Where are you on the steps of the pyramid? Have you progressed? Where is it you want to go? The view from the top might be quite rewarding!

[Alain Briot is a fine art landscape photographer, and teacher currently living in Arizona with his wife, Natalie. Both Natalie and Alain offer seminars, print reviews, and personalized instruction. You can visit his website at Beautiful-Landscape.com.]

Wednesday Critique #17, 09/05/2014

Hidden Chairs. Estes Park, Colorado, 2014
Hidden Chairs. Estes Park, Colorado, 2014

Again, today’s topic is not actually a critique of a particular photograph. Instead, it is sort of a partial summary of places you could go to get feedback on your images–or, I suppose, to look at feedback that has been given to others. (This is one half of a discussion I will moderate tonight at the Photographic Frontiers Study Group meeting.)

So, how do you get critiques of you work? Here are some ideas…

1) The Facebook Method – Just see how many “Likes” you can collect! Yeah! But, wait. Hold yer horses, Buckwheat…There are at least two problems I see. First, you will almost never get educated, in-depth, intelligent feedback–“Wow, that’s really cool!” might be one of the more profound comments. Second, your Facebook friends and the Facebook masses are not necessarily very educated about art in general and photography in particular. Hallucinogenic sunsets get piles of “Likes” but post a relatively unkown but superb image by Henri Cartier-Bresson as a test and…crickets. I suppose FB might work to gauge what will sell on the WalMart postcard and calendar rack, but that’s about the limit. (Perhaps one caveat: There are some FB pages dedicated to photography and critiques–these could be exceptions.)

2) The Cole Thompson Method – Basically, this means no critique at all. He says: “I’m unqualified. All I know is what I like and what I don’t like, and that should be irrelevant to you.” As far as he will go will be to suggest that your image is successful only insofar as it accurately captures your vision–so a personal vision is a prerequisite. For a more in-depth explanation and defense of his philosophy, see his article, Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work.

3) The Photo Club Method – This can be hit or miss. If they have contests or judging, the quality of such can vary like a rooster wind vane in a tornado. In some cases, there are cliques, or a mothball-ish philosophy that has been imposed on the club by the more vocal or senior members. Other clubs, though, are outstanding in their desire to encourage the newbie. Learn to filter what is said, consider the sources, consider your vision and goals, then mentally accept or not the critique offered. Many, many a neophyte photog has launched from the gantry of a local photo club, so don’t be afraid to give it a good ole junior college try.

4) The Scott Kelby Method – Brief and harsh. You can submit a small portfolio and, if your number is drawn, have it critiqued by Scott, Matt Kloskowski, and maybe a guest, on one of the video episodes of The Grid. Try THIS LINK for some examples–look for the “Blind Critique” episodes. Worth watching just to see what they say about the work of others.

5) The Photo.net Method – Or any other photography forum on the web…Often these are just barely-disguised mutual admiration societies. Some are better than that. Some will indeed have a specific critique forum. Even so, the ratio of images submitted for critique to the number of images that receive a well-done critique is often around 10 to 1 (my guess). Shop around. Hint: You’ll find that you are more likely to get a good critique when you take the time to participate in the online community and give a few well-reasoned critiques yourself.

6) The Shark Tank Method – This may be a “better than that” type forum (Click that Shark Tank link). The name helps adjust the expectations of the participants. Join up, don your scuba gear, and give it a whirl!

7) The Craig Tanner / Mindful Eye Method – I learned a lot from Craig’s 6 to 10-minute videos on his website, The Mindful Eye. Look for the Daily Critique–you’ll find a few on YouTube as well. He is positive, encouraging, knowledgeable, and speaks the language of the artist. His format: “Here is what I really like about the image…” Then, “Here is what I might do in a perfect world to improve it…”

8) The Trusted Mentor Method – Find a friend with good judgment, a fellow artist (better–a painter or sculptor!), or a photographer you admire…and latch on for the ride. Ask them for honest feedback. Don’t complain if they give you some negative comments–this will make them reluctant to be honest with you. If you can find a photographer doing work that might be similar to yours, that could be good–but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Maybe try various mentors as opinions and taste can vary widely.

9) The Portfolio Method – When you think you are ready, this may be one of the best ways to see how you fit into the rest of the weird, wide, wonderful world of photography. Prepare to be humbled. Try the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops on for size. They will place you in a workshop commensurate with your demonstrated level (images submitted a priori). Expect some humble pie on your plate with that initial step. Then, during the actual 20-minute portfolio reviews, expect even larger portions of said pie. Cole Thompson told me it took him two years to recover emotionally from his personal portfolio review. But, in the end, it was a key experience in his development as a superb artist. (Cole’s issue? If I understood correctly, something about imitation versus pursuing a unique personal vision.)

All of these places, in combination, might be a good way to have your work critiqued and/or to see how the work of others is dissected. Anything to keep up that relentless forward motion!

POSTSCRIPT: During our discussion at the Photographic Frontiers Study Group meeting, a few other interesting critique and learning sources came out. Try these:

Nevada Weir – Extremely accomplished photographer and teacher. Try one of her National Geographic or Santa Fe workshops.

The Picture Perfect School of Photography (PPSOP) – Some worthwhile online courses with excellent instructors who will give you honest feedback. (Bryan Peterson, Scott Stulberg, et al)

500px – The best images rise to the top as members rate and critique them. Some really excellent work here.

 

 

Wednesday Critique #16, 01/22/2014

A Glimpse of the City. Barcelona, 2014
A Glimpse of the City. Barcelona, 2014

Today’s post is not really a critique. I have put my critiquing glasses on the shelf for now until the mood strikes me to pick them up again. It might be awhile.

What I would like to do instead is point you to a weekly online discussion that I find interesting and enlightening–discussions that border on photo critiques (so I’m not completely off the subject!) but also include small munchy morsels of history (often, the “rest of the story” type thing), philosophy, the art of seeing and catching the moment, and so on.

What I refer to is the weekly discussion on Photo.net in which an iconic photograph is presented–sometimes one we are all intimately familiar with–and an open exchange of comments, perspectives, opinions and ideas ensues. It is helping me expand my knowledge of the history of photography as well as my understanding of it as an art form. You might find it does the same for you.

To get there, go to the Casual Photo Conversations Forum and type WEEKLY DISCUSSION in the search box. The discussions are numbered…”WEEKLY DISCUSSION #9″, for example which is the most recent.

To save you some work, here are the links and the images chosen for the various discussions up until now: Click here for the links!

Creating A Workshop Portfolio

Sawhill Cottonwoods. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Sawhill Cottonwoods. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

This coming weekend we have a workshop with the accomplished photographer Cole Thompson. Among a couple of other things, he has asked each of the participants to bring ten prints. (That is PRINTS, not just an image on a laptop–I love the idea!) But…Aaaack! Talk about a most difficult difficult task! How do you edit down all the work you have ever done into an abbreviated portfolio of ten prints!?

You could…pick ten on the same theme…ten from a specific photographic project…ten from your latest trip to the world’s largest ball o’ twine…ten in color…ten in monochrome…ten portraits…ten that you think are your best overall…ten varied works that show your wide range of interests…ten random images…ten that a friend picks out for you…and so on.

The so-called “experts” always council that, when putting together a portfolio or a show of any kind, there be some uniformity of style and theme throughout and it should be designed with the intended audience in mind. It is not seen as a good thing to randomly throw together a still life in color, then an abstract monochrome, then images of wildlife, then sports car action, etc–it wouldn’t make sense to the viewer. It should be what they often call “a cohesive body of work”.

The experts also council that, editorially speaking, you should become a cruel and heartless Genghis Khan as you slice your digital scimitar through your image collection. Be absolutely ruthless about throwing out the bad stuff, they say–and even the good stuff that doesn’t quite make it to excellent. For a portfolio, keep only your very, very best.

So, what to do…what to do? How do I whittle down what I do with the camera into just ten images? Also, this is just a workshop–I am not trying to sell myself to a gallery or a client–so how might that affect my selection?

My personal problem related to image selection for a portfolio is that I am sometimes too attached to particular images to be able to judge them in a neutral way. I also sometimes don’t think I know what a good image is, at least when it comes out of my camera. Maybe it is that my emotional investment or even my physical investment (dude, it was a mega-epic hike to get there!) can confuse me about what is truly a good image.

Because of these issues, it is a great idea to enlist the help of a spouse, friend, relative, fellow photog, photography club, your cat, even a stranger on the street…as long as they are capable of telling you the truth! A different, honest, perspective can reveal things about your images that never would have occurred to you working solo.

So, I have picked my ten images. I went ahead and matted them, too, as I think presentation is very important in how one views a photograph. I have chosen pairs of images that relate to five different themes–sort of the mini photo essay idea. All are monochrome, except one which has somewhat muted colors (I am taking a risk here, mixing in a color with B & W!).

We will see how it goes. And it will be interesting to see the different ways in which the 15 participants have approached this assignment of bringing in ten prints. I will report back after the workshop.

Oh, and I completely reserve the right to change out my portfolio images right up until this Saturday morning!

Additional Information: For a great summary of the nature of a photography portfolio and how to create one, see 10 Steps for Building a Photography Portfolio to Be Proud Of by Simon Bray.

 

Sawhill Reflection #10. Boulder, Colorado, 2013
Sawhill Reflection #10. Boulder, Colorado, 2013

Refining an image based on a critique

Moraine Park Burn image with block print effect. RMNP, CO, 2013
Moraine Park Burn image with block print effect. RMNP, CO, 2013

Last Thursday night, at our monthly Colorado Nature Camera Club meeting, Stephen Weaver, geologist and pro landscape photographer, gave me some interesting feedback on the above image. As with all feedback from very experienced photographers, I listened carefully. Here were his key points:

1) He had a problem with the lack of detail in the snow–it is all pure white with no gradations of tone.

2) He had a problem with the blacks for the same reason.

3) He thought it was an interesting concept for an abstract.

He was right on all counts. But here’s the thing…my goal in this image was to create something akin to a Japanese print effect. I deliberately made all the whites pure white and all the blacks pure black, or nearly so. You may not agree with my vision, but that is what I was after. Here is the original image so you can see what I started with:

Moraine Park Burn original image. RMNP, CO, 2013
Moraine Park Burn original image. RMNP, CO, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I did try a version in which I left some detail in the whites and blacks–and you can also see the shadows. This could actually be a better idea for the image and it does adhere more closely to what Steve had in mind, I think. Here is that version after some cropping and white balance and exposure correction:

Moraine Park Burn image with detail and shadows. RMNP, CO, 2013
Moraine Park Burn image with detail and shadows. RMNP, CO, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, the final “blockprint” version pictured at the top is the one I like the best (although the “shadow” version is growing on me). I like the combined abstractness and the simplicity.

So, when your images are critiqued, listen with an open mind. Listen thoughtfully. Especially if the one doing the critique has been around the block for many decades (as was my case with Steve Weaver). Then, filter what is being said about your image through the vision you had in your mind when you created it. You’ll naturally find some good advice you’ll want to take…and other things you may choose to ignore.

But always listen with an open mind!

Wednesday Critique #15, 03/20/2013

Robot Roundup. Barcelona, Catalunya, 2010
Robot Roundup. Barcelona, Catalunya, 2010

Once again, I am shying away from actually doing a full-up critique this Wednesday.

Instead, I thought I’d send you off to look at a specific image by John Crosley, one of my favorite, yet not widely known, street photographers. Below John’s image (“The Joy of Living”), you’ll find various critiques and comments related to his photograph, but the biggie is that at the end you will find an interesting summary of John’s street photography philosophy. As an artist who occasionally peruses a street photography portfolio or exhibit, you may be a bit confused about what exactly constitutes a good (or great!) street photography image. Or, you may be a photographer who would like to give “street” a try, but you are at a loss as to how to go about getting those really good images. You’ll find answers to all of this in John’s final commentary.

What you are getting today, then, is a little bit of a photo critique followed by a hunk of bonus material on street photography by someone with years of experience in this particular urban art form.

So here ya go…the link o’ the day is HERE! (After spending some time with the image, scroll down to the March 18, 2013 11:43p.m. entry for John’s summary. He tends to be long and rambling, but he throws out gems left and right, so pay attention!)

Wednesday Critique #14, 03/13/2013

Drifting Snow #3. Joder Arabian Ranch, Colorado, 2013
Drifting Snow #3. Joder Arabian Ranch, Colorado, 2013

For this week’s Wednesday Critique, I thought I’d throw you a curve and talk about the idea of NOT critiquing the work of others…Call this the anti-critique point-of-view. 

Why would anyone want to not critique the work of others, especially if they are widely seen as a master photographer?

Well, I know one photographer who has his very specific reasons:

People who give advice are generally well intentioned and oft times experienced.  However their advice comes from their vision and their point of view, not yours, which makes all the difference in the world. If I were to tell you how to process your images and you listened to my advice, then your images would begin to look like mine. That’s not right, they should look like your images that were created with your vision. Consequently I try very hard to not give advice to others about their images, how they should process them or how they should look.

This paragraph is from an interview with Cole Thompson in which he talks extensively about his vision and his creative process. You can read the entire interview HERE, and I highly recommend you do if you are a pensive artist. (Note his philosophy of “photographic celibacy” which is most interesting–the notion of deliberately NOT studying the work of other photographers in order to more purely pursue one’s own vision and style without falling into the trap of imitation.)

You might find some of Cole’s ideas a bit contrarian–I certainly don’t fully agree with him on all points–but his ideas work for him and that’s really all that counts. They may not–and probably won’t–work for you. And that’s the point: In the midst of all the noise of social media, art galleries and art critics, the mass media, peer pressure, photo club opinions, and so on, every artist must find that lonely path that works best just for him or her. It’s a very personal journey, this practice of the art of photography.