Glimpse of light

2010, Photography

A photograph from a week ago. An unknown place for me and it had rained the entire evening. We drove back when the clouds started to break up. I just knew I had to take a photograph. The light turned very special. I stopped, saw a field with curious sheeps, and just knew it that it was right for me.

But when is a photograph right? When do you think it is good? And how do judge someone’s photograph when he or she thinks it is good? Now this puzzles me. I joined a local photo club this year and they already asked me to be a speaker after the holiday season and give critics. Of course I feel honoured and I like to take the challenge. But how do you prepare for something like that? What do you say?

They all say you should be as objective as possible. To find a balance between negative and positive feedback. Be polite, but honest. Basically tell the truth, but to remain respectful to the photographer. Not to be rude, but not to make things too nice either. But how can you be objective with critics? The photograph feels right or just not. You like it or you don’t like it. The critics should be on level with the experience and capabilities of the photographer, but just how do you know that? From most of the members I haven’t seen any photograph in the last half year. I just don’t know how good or bad they are.

In the club it is a rule to show a maximum of five photographs. And it still kind of surprises me that many of those who show their work come up with five photographs. Is that because they feel all these selected photographs are right and good? Do they, because they wonder if something is lacking and are they truly seeking help? Or do they select five photographs, because they can show five photographs? Personally I tend to believe it is a combination of the latter option. There is an opportunity for five photographs so I take it and they likely think their selected photographs are good (enough).

I absolutely believe it is very difficult to judge someone else’s  photographs, but it is probably even more difficult to judge your own photographs. Why do these photographers necessarily have to select five photographs when maybe only two are realistically good? I think it is important to be more selective. Don’t think you can show five photographs, but only one. Challenge yourself to only select the best of the photographs you intent to show. And maybe it is good to counterbalance it and also select the least of the selected photographs. For good critics I think you need interaction. Interaction with the photographer, but also with other photographers (in this case for me the other members).

So I have been contemplating on this for some time now and I likely (and probably will) be thinking more strongly about it in a month or two. You know, I am no fan of the common critics’ examples on the Internet:  ‘It is either beautiful and the photographer is the best or it just sucks and is crap.’ But when I try to be polite and try to give formal and respectful critics, the photographer will soon realize that I like it or just not. The more words you use to be polite and to explain what setting you see, the photograph will understand the negative critics will follow. When you become enthusiastic the photographer will understand too what you think of the photograph.

I don’t want to hurt feelings, but I do believe sometimes it is better to be harsh with critics. At some point there will be a chance to praise the photographer too for his or her effort and progress. In the meantime I would love to receive any possible suggestions or remarks concerning this subject.

Photograph by Wouter Brandsma

17 thoughts on “Glimpse of light

  1. I don’t believe its possible to be objective with photographs. Whatever one says, no matter how objective a person may think they are being, they are still only expressing their own opinion that will inevitably be coloured (albeit unwittingly) by their preferences, their preconceived notions, and so forth.

    Best of luck with it though 😉

    Btw… I like the new theme.

    1. Thank you jumping in Mike. I personally believe that there is no objective form of criticism either. But somehow people tend to believe that when you give enormous amount of feedback on all details of the photograph that it would make it more objective. Kind of bizarre to me. By trying to explain what YOU see the photographer should somehow get the feeling that you are trying to be objective.

      Just think of it. I don’t really like vacation and travel photography, but after the holiday season I am sure I will see lots of it. That will definitely make it difficult for me to be objective.

  2. Sometimes, I will make several versions of the same photo and so them to a friend who is an artist. She almost always prefers the version that I like the least. She never likes the version that I prefer.

    I trust her judgement, she is an accomplished artist. But, sometimes I just need to do what works best for ME and develop my own vision. We aren’t trying to entertain others. We’re trying to record the world as we see it.

    1. Maybe I provoke a bit Dwight, but how true and honest is the comment of an artist? Isn’t there also the fear factor that the shown photograph is actually so good the artist had wished it had taken it herself?

      And isn’t it that we still hope we can entertain others by trying to record the world as we see it?

  3. Hi Wouter,

    Indeed, I think there is no chance of being objective when you’re commenting on taste. It is good to discuss though what was the intention or feeling of the artist/photographer. Maybe a picture is good when it brings the same feeling to the viewer as it was to the creator? I put a question-mark there because I do not know if my opinion is valid…

    From your intro text on the picture i expected for instance something different…More light.
    I think that the viewpoint to the sheep is a bit high, and the dark areas are overwhelming the light in the sky.

    But returning to feelings, after a quote “entire rainy evening’ your feelings must not have been that light and that comes across in the balance in the picture?

    Best, ronald (sorry too busy building…..)

    1. With regard to the photograph and the darkness it expresses the feeling I had that day. So your thought and feeling are right.

      But I don’t believe that the viewer should necessarily get the same feeling when viewing a photograph (or any piece of art). For me it is an achievement when it provokes a feeling, even though it may be differently from my feelings. If the photograph triggers your emotions I feel that as an even bigger accomplishment.

      I do however wonder how many photographers take photographs to express their feelings or that they actually photograph to be more a sort of observer?

      1. That’s a very good question and one that’s a good intro for you ‘ as a speaker’!

        I do not know the answer to that, maybe often as a observer but observing brings feelings so they are bonded together? A good question to ask the next time I take a picture.. (i have the time for that using sigma cameras 🙂

        1. I suspect Manu don’t intentionally and consciously add the dimension of subjective personal feelings in their photographs. So when you deconstruct a photograph with regard to vision and expression you likely end up talking and discussing on completely different levels.

      2. Hi Wouter-
        I have read your reply numerous times as to be certain to not miss the point (sorry, quite tired but rarely miss your posts). After the third time it sunk in, I often feel emotions in photos I see, although it is rare (if ever) to know it is the same emotion as the photographer’s at the time of capture.

        At risk of sounding “creepy” the images I most find emotional are yours. This particular image is very emotive for me and i will only assume to know how you felt that particular day. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful images.

  4. I think its very difficult to sell-assess a photograph.
    When you look at an image you have taken, what do you think you see. I was careful to choose the word “think”, because what you are assessing is not the image, but a construct in your mind of an image. The imagined image is a compilation of:

    a) events leading up to taking the photograph
    b) the anticipated image you thought you were going to capture
    c) events as you take the photograph
    d) events following taking the photo.

    In reality while you are viewing a still photograph, your mind is thinking about a compilation of real and imaginary images.

    When I look at the photo of the field with sheep, I see a B&W photo of sheep in a field. But what do you see? The clue is in the wording of your first paragraph, “We drove back when the clouds started to break up. I just knew I had to take a photograph. The light turned very special. I stopped, saw a field with curious (sic)sheeps, and just knew it that it was right for me”. You are carrying those thoughts and emotions with you when looking at the photograph.

    A critique of a photograph has two elements, aesthetic and technical. Aesthetic is purely personal opinion, while technical comments can be objective.

    1. Very good commentary. It could be an option to ask what kind of critics the photographer wants on their work, aesthetic or technical feedback. But that is also why I would prefer to first ask the photographer a few questions.

      I think it is likely that the majority will understand the technical feedback, but for them there might still be the differences between understanding and eventually executing. I personally would like to lead the discussion to how, for instance technical, decisions can change the feeling and perception of their work.

  5. This is an excellent post Wouter and while doing my street photography workshop and going over the pictures people have taken during the assignment I stood in front of the same problem.

    So to answer your question, I believe there is no right of wrong in photography or whith anything that is considered art for hat matter. You can only be subjective and say why a picture works or does no work for you and in your opinion what could be done better/different.

    While givng critique about someone elses work it is important I think to be fair but also point out any problems you see with a picture. Don’t discourage people but do point put what works and most important also what does not work.

    So basically give your oinion to a picure and state clearly what works and what does not work for you as a viewer. Everyone has a different taste and expectations about what makes a good picture and what makes a bad pictures. Art is in the eye of the beholder and you as a viewer who gives his opinion about a picture can not be anything if not subjective.
    Sure, you can also discuss the technical side and give tips of how to improve the exposure and maybe what settings to use to make pictures beter but technicalities are just that an they don’t influence the actual picture as much as people believe.

    1. ‘Art is in the eye of the beholder’ is I think what matters to me. To understand how a photograph moves (or not) it is important for the photographer to realize and understand how the photograph is interpret and received by the viewers. That is in my opinion what I would like to try to emphasize.

      The technical stuff is probably what most will understand more easily, so I will try to stay away from that.

  6. A picture is a very personal thing. A photographer picked a moment, framed the shot in a way he or she liked the most, decided to keep or delete and processed the image according to personal taste.
    The result is a very personal interpretation of that very moment. That’s hard to judge. It’s almost like saying to a young mother, “I know you think your baby is the most beautiful baby in the world, but I tell you: the kid is ugly”.

    The best way to criticize is probably telling a person what YOUR interpretation would have been. A different angle? Black and white? More contrast? Then it becomes more like sharing a different point of view, rather than saying someone “sucks”.

    1. I don’t want to be judgmental. I want to express my feeling and try to understand what the photographer saw and felt. Not the basic objective things like time, whereabouts, and all, but more what happened at that particular moment with the photographer and how it affected their decision making.

  7. Perhaps it is easier to break down critique into two camps: technical and artistic/creative.

    I think we all might find it easier to assess the technical merits of a given photograph (exposure, depth of field, etc.), but find greater difficulty with the ‘feel’ of the image. And perhaps that is where one should leave it.

    As a friend of mine often says (and I paraphrase), “It’s about taking pictures that make me happy. Screw everyone else.”

    1. Interesting paraphrase Mark. Who are we to say how you could have improved it. When I request someone to comment on one of mine photographs I in particular like to understand the viewers feelings. For me a good photograph is a photograph that makes me fantasize. What do I actually see? What emotions do I feel? What was going on with the photographer? Did the photographer make it on purpose?

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