This is a synthesis of my thoughts and a couple of idea’s I gathered (ok stole) from the net. The real crime is that I drafted this ages ago, moved it around, lost my notes and now can’t find my references. If any reader ever says “hey that’s mine” please let me know and I’ll get references and links in as fast as I can.
This is also Version 1.0. Since writing this down I’m finding there are bits that work, bits that don’t, bits that might go away and bits that need more detail. All in all there will be a version 2 (one day).
First of all, shut up and look. If there is a collection of photos start with the collection as a whole, what’s its aim, what’s its point, establish a frame of reference for the photo you are critiquing. Then start at the whole picture and work in. Don’t judge the photo, just try and “read” it. If you do find something sticking in your head, note it but try not to get distracted by it.
Well this depends on the forum – is this the net/magazine with just a photo or a gallery style showing with the photographer standing next to you.
If the guy or girl is there, have a chat, talk about the photo for a bit. Do a bit of Q&A, what were you intending? I feel this, was that planned? Even in net reviews people will often say where they were heading, what they were thinking.
If you are alone with the photo with no guidance I recommend at least trying to think what the photographer might have been trying to say.
3) Artistic points
Start simple and get more complex. This is my checklist:
First look at the composition or content in the photograph. What is the centre of interest in the picture? Where did the photographer place it in the frame? Did the photographer get close enough to the subject to include only what is important, or are there wasted parts of the picture with elements that do not add to the message of the photo?
If the photo is in black and white, should it have been in colour and vice-versa?
Is there a good balance between the foreground and the background?
Would the photo have worked better with a different prop / model?
Next, observe the background in the photograph. How did the photographer represent the background in regards to focus and depth of field? How does the background add or distract from the message of the photo?
4) Technical points (these need to be read very carefully in light of the photographers artistic choices discussed above).
Did you spot dust - thats almost always bad.
Is the exposure okay for what is intended. A properly exposed photo will have some texture in the shadows if that texture is missing is it detracting from the overall picture? Are details missing because of over or under exposure - always returning to the question, are the missing details important to the image.
Is there any unwanted blur (wrong focus, motion blur, zoom blur etc)? Now take a look at the technical camera work involved in the photograph. Is the subject sharp and clearly in focus (if that was the apparent intent of the photographer)?
Are the colours accurately represented? Or if the photographer wasn’t aiming for accuracy did the colours help the image or hinder it.
What’s the contrast like?
Could the photographer have used lighting differently to better achieve the aim they stated (or we’ve assumed).
Would a bigger or smaller aperture have been beneficial to portray the scene effectively?
Photoshopping – has it been done well? Are there artefacts, smudges, obvious cloning, over smoothing etc.
Last of all I look at the craftsmanship the photographer exhibits. Does the physical photo have spots, stains, or scratches? Is it placed nicely in a frame or elaborately displayed? Is there evidence that the photograph was made with care in the process? I also apply this (with some reservations) to shots on the net when considering framing, watermarks, captions, added text etc.
5) Good points
Point out what you like about the photograph, and why. The why bit is most important: If you can’t tell why you like X, Y, or Z, there’s no point in mentioning it. “I like the sky” is useless. “I like the colour of the sky” is better. “I like the deep blue colour of the sky because it contrasts nicely with the yellows and reds in the photo” is perfect. Put some thought into this.
6) Points worth improving for next time
This point is saved for last, because you’ve made the photographer more confident about their photograph by now. It is still important to remember that the photo has been taken, and that this photo can’t really be changed anymore. As such, there’s no point in slating people for their photographs. Tell them one or two specific points that could be improved on this particular photo (’clean up dust’ and ‘turn into black and white’ are useful suggestions, as they can done in the darkroom), and perhaps one or two points that you would have done differently, if you were the one taking the photograph.