How to analyze a photograph

Written by Daniel Gregory

October 17, 2014

DJGPhoto_critique-5406There are times when a photograph just fails. There are a number of reasons why the image fails to live up to either the expectations of the creator or the viewer. Many times, when we “critique” a photograph (as photographers), the process starts, and often end, through the lens of the standards/rules of photography concentrated on composition and technique.

Sure when we talk about these “rules,” we couch the conversation as if they are guidelines and ideas that help photographers understand their work and how to create “better” photographs. We spend countless hours in conversation, podcast, training, reading, blogging about how the better photographers know those rules and when to break them. Then when we are given the opportunity to talk about the work of others (or our own work at times), we harshly judge images using those same guidelines as if they were etched into stone.

We talk about how images are shot at the wrong time of day, with the horizon lines in strange proportions, and end with a slap to the off-putting depth of field. We might have a conversation about the impact of the decision to print in black and white versus color.  We might even talk about if we connect with the subject, but for the most part, it is more comfortable to talk about technique and where we fail.

I believe it is not in the technique where we should start to look, but rather the content, intention and meaning of the work. When we look at Robert Capa‘s classic image The Falling Solider from the Spanish War from a modern technique approach to criticism, the photo would not holdup to the savvy eyes of the technical critic. From that standpoint, the image would leave something to be desired. The feet are cut off; the gun is cut off the left side of the frame; the focus is soft, but is has a nice rule of thirds and use of negative space. When we talk about this image in the real world, we talk about the content, moment, intention, feeling and experience of the photograph. It pushes those technical issues way down in the evaluation of the image as it should. In this image and other images of his from D-day, it is in our critical understanding of the “being there” that we begin to understand the true nature of this work. We start to understand where he was in the war, and the images take on additional gravity because of the content, experiences and intention Capa had when he created the work.

DJGPhoto_critique-If we can push technical conversations aside as a starting point for a classic image, shouldn’t we do the same in the work we are reviewing today. Shouldn’t we start with the harder questions. Why was a photograph created? What was the intention of the photograph? What is the real subject? What bias does the photographer bring to the image? How do we connect to the photograph as an object? Once we have spent the time to understand some of the more meaning questions, isn’t it only then that we should we start to think about the technical aspects of the photograph. What if the intention of the photograph is to show how to not photograph your subject for a book or article on what not to do. If that was the intuition and your analysis was to start with why it was bad, you would have missed the chance to provide feedback that was directly related to the intention of the work.

I would propose that the reason we skip over those initial questions, sometimes even at the moment of capture and not just in the analysis, is that those questions require some real internal self-exposure and understand of who we are and our world view. Not just the part of the photographer to put themselves into their work, but also in the person doing the analysis. If we are to understand the true meaning or misunderstanding of an image, we will need to understand how that image impacts us on a personal level first. Only after that might we be able to see the images impact on a broader social level.

If you accept the premise that meaningful work and art comes from a willingness to put yourself into your work and/or your analysis, that self-exposure happens long before the image experience. It happens, when our own understanding of the world and our place in it, intuitively or knowingly, compels us to create and/or react to an image. When we are behind the camera and click the button, there is, or at least should be, the recognition of that valuable moment. When we view an image, we should recognize and understand some connection or lack there of when we see it. When that recognition fails, the photograph ultimately fails. So shouldn’t the conversation about the image start there? Shouldn’t we start with the who (photographer bias/personality), why (intention), and purpose. Doesn’t that tell us more about the photographs impact than the how (technique).

I was recently in a conversation with a photographer about some new work. In that process, we came across an image that was technically interesting, but seemed off in the broader body of work. When I asked about why they took the photograph. There was a long pause and silence. When I rephrased the question as, what is the subject of the photograph? The result was the same. Finally, I asked what caught your eye. Oh, it is that rusty metal on the side of the building. I said, but the subject of this image is a construction site, why didn’t you photograph the metal as the subject if that is what caught your eye? Again silence. In this analysis, the how (technique) was fine. The issue was that the who, why and purpose that were empty.

In my own work, I see the same issue. Where is the subject of this image?

DJGPhoto_critique-5119The image didn’t fail because I didn’t find a unique angle or find the time of day where the light is golden or for any of the other reason that are technically an issue with this bad photograph. I know how to take a good technical photograph. It fails first and foremost because I didn’t understand what caused me to pause and want to create an image. Because I didn’t lift my awareness to what matters, I failed to understand that the guy behind the car on the curb is what I reacted to, that should have been the subject of the photograph. Without that knowledge, I can’t move from a meaningless shot of a corner to telling a story and creating an image that mattered to my experience in the world no matter how technically accurate I get.  That who and purpose have to dictate the how.

I know that there are number of photographers who will disagree with me and focus on mostly technical issues as the reasons to why images can fail. I am not trying to say that there are not a lot of bad photographs out there that need a lot of technical help. There are A LOT. Nor am I attempting to convey that just because you create work that matters, a photographer should be getting a free pass on knowing and understanding their craft. They are both required. In fact, I am trying to say is real work starts before technique. It is when you find that technique alone is not enough what’s left. When you look at your own work and don’t find passion in the images then what. You think your work is uninspiring so where do you go.  It is not a problem of more Lightroom or a new camera. I would say it is more likely a case where you have to do the hard work to figure out who you really are as a photographer.

When we examine and attempt to understand photographs, we can start that process in a number of ways. What I am proposing is that by making the technical feedback come after the meaning, intention and content conversation, we will all elevate the quality and conversation of photography to something more than a f/stop and shutter speed conversation. When we start to understand why we make the work we do creating stories and meaning where the technical can add to the storytelling rather than be only the eye candy to be forgotten image have we used criticism as a tool of value. Ultimately hopefully, moving the conversation forward to a more meaningful place in our understanding of the work, the artist and ultimately ourselves.

DJGPhoto_critique-8020As you look at your work, or better yet look at your work with others, I would encourage to talk about meaning, bias and intention when you first start to examine a photograph. Once you have some clarity on both the photographers and viewers experiences with those topics, only then move on to content inside and outside the frame. End the discussion with how all that technique that we are so fond of focusing on was able to help, hinder, define, contract or extend the image. In that conversation, you might find that you learn more about your work and where you need to look to improve your photography, even if a little self-introspection sounds scary.

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