Anthony Northcutt is a freelance photography tutor who teaches students from all over the world. Phogotraphy reached out to ask if he’d share some fundamental advice on how to judge photographs online.
During the past 5 years or so, we’ve seen an enormous growth in the birth rate of “photography experts”. Camera owners that have a tendency of being immediately available the moment that you post your latest image on social media. And who, typically, don’t have the first idea of how to analyse a photograph let alone understand how to offer an informed and constructive critique.
So here’s some help, a by no means exhaustive guide to analysing a photograph.
The first thing we need to understand is the importance of slowing down, of not rushing to an immediate conclusion of whether the photograph is good or bad. We need to change our attitude and approach to looking and appreciating photographs, with most people making a judgement within the first few seconds of viewing instead of spending time with the work, as well as refraining from using the words “good or bad” and replacing them with more open vocabulary such as “convincing or less-convincing”. Wording that comes alive upon asking some simple questions of the photographer in order to discover and discuss their original intent.
…the language of sensory descriptions. Talk and write about an image using the more detailed and sensory vocabulary. If you say “tree,” talk about how the leaves and branches move, sound, feel and are shaped. What makes this tree different from others. Move from a level of generality to greater and greater specificity in the language you use.
…the language describing processes of perception. Talk and write about your own stages in looking at and interpreting the picture. What caught your eye; what stood out immediately; what took a while to notice; how did your eye move around the picture; did it keep coming back to a certain spot?
…the language for describing the emotional effects the image has on you. Discuss how a picture conveys tranquillity, dynamism, respect, abjectness ? Does it give you a new appreciation of previously overlooked aspects of daily life ? Does it reflect a fascination with human art or nature’s art ? Does it capture a fleeting moment and freeze it for the viewer ? Does it make a social comment or a comment on convention ?
When we photograph, we capture a three-dimensional image and re-present it in a two-dimensional format, think about how this effect the interpretation of depth.
A. Foreground and background
B. Use of the frame
C. Perspective and use of perspective
Balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Look at the use of…
A. Positive and negative space.
B. Figure-to-ground relations. How does the photographer compose the background as well as the main subjects ?
C. The rule of thirds – Place the horizon line one third or two thirds of the way down, not in the center. Place the most important objects one third or two thirds of the way across the image. Asymmetrical balance, achieved by the rule of thirds, contributes to variety.
D. Classical balance – a centered subject. There is little dynamism in this composition but, subject dependant, can be used to great effect.
Describe the lines. Find the single visual force that is the strongest. Are there actual and/or implied lines. Is there implied directional movement (even a blur) ? How do we read it, left to right, up/down ?
A. Horizontals – Describe how they make you feel ? Discuss placement of the horizon line in the frame.
B. Verticals – Again, how do they make you feel ?
C. Diagonals give a sense of motion, inconclusiveness, or instability.
D. Shape – Look out for square, circle, triangle.
Talk about how the lines and shapes lead the eye. Is there a point where the eye returns or temporarily rests ? That is the point of emphasis, convincing pictures achieve visual emphasis. Is there an emotion or narrative implied by that visual emphasis ?
A. Emphasis – resting place for the eye. Eye returns there. Emphasis creates a centre of interest.
Texture – visual equivalent to sense of touch. Note kinds of words used to name texture. Texture calls up emotions more primitive than sight.
A. Note how light creates a texture with shadowing, grouping.
Contrast creates “sharpening” – a more rapid readability of the image.
A. Contrast of scale – Without this, more time is spent on mentally establishing the gestalt or creating closure, figuring out what the image is.
B. Contrast of shape
C. Contrast of color
D. Contrast of texture
E. Contrast of tone
and finally ….
Unity – Line, shape, and texture create a unity in which the whole is greater than sum of its parts; repetition and parallelism are key to establishing unity. In any photographic analysis it is important to analyse the repetition of shapes and tones in the image.
A. Rhythm – repetition with alternation or repetition with progression. If you just had repetition of elements, it would get boring. An example of progression is a move from large to small versions of a shape; an example of alternation is a shift from light to dark and back again.
B. Motif – a repeated image which reinforces a theme in the work as a whole, perhaps functioning as a symbolic element (e.g., the color red ).
I hope that this post has been helpful to you and emphasises the importance of not jumping to immediate conclusions about a photograph before we have had time to actual “look’ at it. We are all very eager to offer our opinion and advice to others on how they should be doing things. But are we actually qualified to ? Do we know enough about the photograph, and the photographer, in order to make an informed comment ? Can we even justify why we believe our opinions to be worthy of an audience ?
We can of course go a lot deeper into the world critical analysis, but I’ll save that for another post. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and that at the very least it’s encouraged you to spend a little more time thinking and questioning the photographs we see from day to day as well as your own photography.
A PRIMER OF VISUAL LITERACY. Dondis, Donis A. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973).
A GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHIC DESIGN. William W. DuBois, Barbara J. Hodik. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983).
SIGHT, SOUND, MOTION: APPLIED MEDIA AESTHETICS. Zettl, Herbert. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1973).
This post originally appeared here.