Photography 101: Self Critique

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Photography 101 posts are primarily for “newbie” photographers who want to evolve beyond using their cameras in automatic mode.  These are my personal opinions only, and are not meant to be the last word in photography.  They are not detailed tutorials, rather they are designed to impart a bit of information, provoke questions and interest, and to encourage the new photographer to pursue further study.  I have professional, and serious amateur, photographers who follow this blog—I know you guys know this stuff already.

Are you the best judge of your work?  If you’re not you probably should be.  To stand outside of yourself, your work, and analyze it in the third person can be difficult.  I’ve been watching a number of fStoppers videos on YouTube lately, where two professional photographers review and evaluate 20 submitted images per episode.  It’s good online training to help you understand how to evaluate your own work with a critical eye.  The program is geared more towards the professional photographer, but the serious amateur and photography enthusiast can really benefit too.  Their rating system is straight forward and practical, but it takes some thought and a good eye to really appreciate it.  It is a 5-star system as follows:

1-Star = Snapshot

2-Stars = Some thought involved but needs work

3-Stars = A solid shot good enough for your portfolio

4-Stars = An outstanding shot

5-Stars = World Class

These ratings are applied to professional level photographs, and by implication should always be at 3-Stars or more.  But you might be surprised to find out how many photographs in the 2-Star (and even 1-Star category) find themselves included in professional photographer portfolios.  As a photographer you must be ruthless in selecting your best work, and it’s really difficult to be that self-critical.  But until you’re able to do that your work, and reputation, will suffer.  After careful consideration I “think” my portfolio contains mostly 3-Star images, with a few 4-Star images tossed in.  Have I ever shot a 5-Star, World Class, image?  Possibly.  Maybe one.  It’s titled Señor Cigar and was captured in Trinidad, Cuba.  I will illustrate this post with some examples (including Señor Cigar) with my ratings (how I feel about an image), and let you make up your own mind.

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3-Star Rating

I shot this sea lion pup in the Galapagos about two months ago.  I think it’s a good solid wildlife shot.  The focus is critically sharp (tack-sharp), the exposure is just about perfect and it’s well composed.  I think it deserves a place in my 20-image online portfolio as an example of my wildlife photography.  Why doesn’t it rate a 4 or 5-Star rating?  And what would put it in that category.  The sea lion is static (standing still), and not exhibiting any natural behaviours.  Eating a fish, interacting with another sea lion, or doing something else that was interesting could have boosted the rating.

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4-Star Rating

I would rate this wildlife portrait at 4-Stars.  Why?  To start with I think it’s technically perfect. The focus, exposure and composition are all spot on.  I even have catch-lights in each eye. The post processing is well done, and gives the impression of a well lighted studio shot (even though it was captured using natural light).  Although the subject is static, and not exhibiting any natural behaviors, I think the shot is unusual enough to elevate it to 4-Stars.  It was photographed at a very close distance, at 280mm, which allows for the extraordinary image detail.  Not many people get this close to a lion, so that in itself makes the photograph unique.

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5-Stars? 

Is this image deserving of a 5-Star rating?  Maybe.  It’s certainly a solid 4-Star shot in my opinion.  Again, I think the focus, exposure, composition and processing are all spot on. What elevates it to World Class status?  This shot is all about the subject.  Señor Cigar is very unique, I spotted that right away when I found him in Trinidad, Cuba.  The hat, the glasses, the wife beater t-shirt and for sure the unlit stogie clinched between his teeth.  Man, you just don’t see that everyday.  There’s a story here, we may not know what the story is, but it’s there nonetheless.  This is one of my most popular images, and gets remarked on all the time.  People just gravitate to it, it speaks to them in some mysterious way.

I invite you to visit my website Indochine Photography at www.IndochinePhotography.me, and view my 20-image online portfolio with a critical eye.  How many 3, 4 and 5-Star images do you see?  Do you see any 1 or 2-Star images?  I hope not, but one can never be sure. Then go to your own portfolio and run the same exercise.  You don’t have a portfolio?  Then shame on you.  Every serious photographer, professional or amateur, should have a portfolio of their best work (10 to 20 images maximum).  You can create one for free, so there’s no excuse.  At the very least the process of selecting your very best work will help you to develop a critical eye, and that can only lead to improvement.  Finally a professional tip:  only share your best work, and that might only be 2 to 5-percent of what you shoot (professional photographers end up tossing the majority of their shots).

Antigua Steve WEBStephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Huaraz, Peru

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