Secrets of taking Good Pictures: Self criticism

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

October 30, 2011 10:36
Top of the Rockefeller Center

New York skyline 311. (photo credit: Sue Redekop)

Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.

Developing the art of self-criticism takes a lot of experience and practice. First you need a solid practical understanding of the four important qualities that all Good Pictures have in common. Criticism then consists of judging how each of your photographs succeeds or fails in embodying these qualities:

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- An appropriate background that adds depth and meaning.
- A composition that creates interest and movement.
- A main focal point and several secondary areas that combine to tell a story.
- A suitable shooting position and angle that combines all these points.

Three Questions

My method to critique pictures is straightforward - I ask these three simple questions: What works?
What does not work?
Could it be improved, and how?

The answers are based on how well the pictures embody all four of the qualities mentioned earlier.

I’m taking this opportunity to catch up on some of the many shots that readers have sent in for constructive criticism. Before you read my own comments for each picture try the critique method yourself. Give practical, down-to-earth answers that would result in an improved picture that is more interesting and catches the imagination.

Although we are applying this technique to pictures already taken, its real value is to train the mind to spot success and failure in a photograph before you shoot it. The mysterious quality called the photographers “Eye” is actually just practical critique that good photographers apply instinctively as they work.

Here’s a picture taken by Mark Isaacson of Wisconsin on his cell phone.

What works?
It’s a pleasant enough composition of natural textures.

What does not work?
It lacks a focal point to direct my attention. I can’t tell what interested the photographer - are the textures important, or the contrast between the stones and organic shapes, is it the atmosphere, the seclusion, or something else?

Could it be improved, and how?
There are very many stories this picture could be made to tell by the use of different focal points. Some vegetation sharply focused in the foreground would focus our attention on the surrounding textures. An unusual rock formation close to the camera could awaken us to the beauty and remorseless forces of nature at work. A lizard or deer would tell another story. Shafts of sunlight breaking through the branches would emphasize atmosphere.

I have roughly retouched the picture with the first thing that came to hand. The children now form a strong focal point and suggest yet another story: Do they appreciate the beauty around them as much as the snack?

This is a great shot taken by Marty Kounitz of New York, taken on a mobile phone. It captures one of those moments that normally pass by unnoticed. Photography is a wonderful tool that opens our eyes and mind to appreciate beauty in the mundane. It reminds me of Edward Hopper’s paintings.

What works?
A private moment captured in a public place. The unusual composition brings a lot of movement to the shot and I can almost feel the quiet vibration of the carriage.

What does not work?
The reflection in the mirror does not add to the mood.

Could it be improved, and how?
Photographers are often disappointed with their results. A glimpse of an aged face being made up would have added another layer to this story, but to obtain such a complete shot is rare. I’ve retouched the shot below to roughly indicate how it could have looked.

Norman Trubik of Australia sent me this sunset shot taken on his mobile phone.

What works?
The sky is dramatic.

What does not work?
The lower half of the picture is virtually black dead space.
The setting sun draws our attention to the object on the right side of horizon but it is too small to have any impact.

Could it be improved, and how?
Pictures tell stories and this is about a dramatic sunset with unusual silhouettes. The photographer could have moved closer to the silhouettes to increase their size and dramatic strength. This could have reduced the dead space and increased the amount of dramatic sky. The picture could also be cropped to emphasize the sky.

I have retouched the shot below to show how it could have looked.

The last picture we will take a critical look at is by Sue Redekop of Canada, taken at the top of the Rockefeller Center, New York.

What works?
The binocular stand and skyscraper instantly draw my attention. The binoculars look slightly humorous, like eyes keeping watch over the city.

What does not work?
I can’t see any reason for including the compass directions. The focus of attention is with the binoculars and what they point at, and the compass points don’t add anything.

Could it be improved, and how?
The story in this picture is about the binoculars looking out over the spectacular city. I suggest lifting the camera higher to show more of the city and less of the paving. I would crop out the compass points and show more sky. This would contrast the Natural with the Man-made and add an extra dimension to the story.

The retouched version below indicates what I mean.

If you enjoy photography and want to improve, you have to develop an objective and practical method of assessment. Once you spot a photo opportunity take a moment to answer all three questions before you even take out your camera. Take a shot, reconsider, and answer them again. If you have the time, take as many shots as you can until your assessment is truly positive. You have now done what it takes to shoot a Good Picture.

Be warned: You will be disappointed again and again with your efforts, but when you do succeed the satisfaction you feel will be worth all the hard work you put in.

Send me your picture 

If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.  

Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected].

Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at:

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