How To Give a Constructive Critique in Street Photography

(Above image copyrighted by Fred Herzog)

To become better in street photography (or anything in life), it is essential to get honest and constructive criticism. However the problem with the internet nowadays is that our attention spans are short, and the majority of the comments/feedback we get on our Facebook/Flickr streams include phrases such as, “Nice shot!”, “I love the light!”, or my personal favorite “What camera/lens do you use?”

For this article I will try to give some suggestions and guidelines on how to give a constructive critique. Giving constructive critiques to others will not only help others, but it will also help you judge your images better as well.

I also included inspirational images from Fred Herzog for this article, one of my favorite color street photographers at the moment. Hopefully his work will inspire you too!

What is a critique?

© Fred Herzog

Before we can delve into how to give a constructive critique, let us first start off with having a baseline understanding of what “critique” actually means. Below is a definition of critique from Wikipedia:

Critique is a method of disciplined, systematic analysis of a written or oral discourse. Critique is commonly understood as fault finding and negative judgement, but it can also involve merit recognition, and in the philosophical tradition it also means a methodical practice of doubt.

Critique is an accepted and established process of orderly scholarly and public debate. In the fine arts and the humanities, and especially in writing, critique is influenced by the scientific method of analysis. Critique is based upon an informed opinion, and never upon personal opinion. Informed opinion is accepted as being technical knowledge, personal or professional experience, or specified training.

Let us break down two points:

  1. Critique is generally used to find faults in certain arguments. According to the definition, it is not required that you include the positive aspects when you critique, but in order to give a constructive critique I believe it is important as well.
  2. A critique should be based on an informed opinion, and never upon a personal opinion. In the end any critique you give will always be your opinion, but it should be based on your past experience, your techinical knowledge, or training you have received in the past.

How the brain manages critique

© Fred Herzog

We don’t like being told that we are wrong. We also don’t like it when people say negative things to us. We generally like to ignore the critique that others say about us or our work, in order to preserve our own self-image of ourselves.

However as stated earlier, it is important to get honest and constructive critique to improve in street photography. If we never get any guidance and feedback, how can we strive to improve and upon what ruler can we measure our progress?

One thing I learned when I was taking an honors pedagogy class when I taught my “Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks” class at UCLA is the concept of a “critique sandwich”. The idea is based on the premise of starting off with positive feedback (the top bun), the meat of the critique which is honest and critical, and ending with another positive comment (the bottom bun).

When I was in Stockholm, my buddy Brian Sparks told me how he learned in management that when giving feedback to employees, it was important to have a ratio of 2:1 (positive vs negative feedback). This way it helps us digest the constructive criticism without being put off in a negative mood, or rejecting the constructive criticism all together.

Giving a constructive critique

© Fred Herzog

I don’t feel that it is possible to give constructive criticism on the internet that is less than 4 sentences. Comments and feedback such as “nice shot”, “nice light”, and “beautiful” help boost our ego and are generous, but are equally as useless in terms of improving ourselves as photographers such as “you suck” or “you are a horrible photographer”.

Like Jesus’ golden rule, treat others how you would like to be treated. It is a simple maxim that we can apply to all aspects of our lives.

Therefore if you want to get constructive criticism and feedback, don’t simply expect to get it from others unless you give it to others as well. Much of life is based on reciprocity. Remember the saying, “If you scratch my back, I will scratch yours”.

What goes on in my mind when giving a constructive critique

© Fred Herzog

Whenever my good friends or street photographers are close to me ask for feedback on their images, this is generally the flow of what goes on in my mind, and the questions I like to ask myself:

1. Remove all distractions

When giving a constructive critique to somebody else, turn off all distractions. If you are giving it via the internet, close any other applications or tabs you have open to give the critique your full attention. If you are giving it in person, ignore your phone or even better- turn it off.

2. Judge the composition

I first start off by looking around the frame, for every small detail in terms of the composition. I try to do this for about a minute (at least). This is what goes on in my head (questions I ask myself):

a) Is there a random hand in the background that distracts or adds interest?
b) Are there cars in the background which are distracting? (there usually is).
c) What is the main subject, who should I be looking at?
d) Is the composition good?
e) Do I see nice leading lines in the image that lead to the subject, or does it lead away from the subject?
d) Is the light good or flat?
e) Are there any triangles I see that achieves balance and harmony in the frame?
f) Is the perspective good? Should the photographer have crouched down lower for this shot when taking a photo of a kid, or shot more eye-to-eye with his subject?

3. Judge the content

I then start judging the content. When I refer to “content” I mean try to figure out what is going on in the frame. What is the story? Is the photograph an interesting photograph or not?

I generally judge content based on certain things:

a) Does the photograph immediately pique my interest?
b) Is there something unusual or wacky happening in the scene?
c) Have I seen a similar photograph taken before by someone else?
d) Does the photograph make me feel anything? Does it make me smile, laugh, cry, frown, feel depressed?
e) Does the image make sense in a series or a photo essay? Is it a stand-alone image or a part of something bigger?
f) Is this image memorable? Will I remember the image a month, or even a year from now?

Giving the critique

© Fred Herzog

Once I have fully absorbed what I have looked at, I then ask the photographer, “Do you want me to give you an honest critique?” This helps the photographer getting the feedback and opportunity to mentally prepare for what he/she is going to hear. If they say “yes”- they will expect some of the negative feedback you will give them (instead of it coming out of nowhere).

1. Tell the photographer your intial impressions

Start off by telling the photographer what went in on your mind when you first looked at the image. Verbalize what your mind was thinking when looking at the frame. For example you can say something like,

“When I first looked at the photograph, my eye immediately looked at the brightest part of the frame, which was the top right corner. I then had to search around the frame a bit to look for what was going on, and then found an interesting background, and found the subject.”

Tell them what initially drew your eye to the frame, and how your eyes personally looked around the frame.

2. The top bun (positive feedback)

Every image has some sort of merit or intent. Try to think about why the photographer who is asking for feedback took the image. After all, he/she probably took the photograph because he/she found something interesting going on enough to click the shutter.

Tell the photographer what you liked about the frame, whether it was the gesture of the subject in the photograph, an interesting background, dynamic colors that juxtaposed well, or if the subject him/herself was interesting.

3. The meat (negative feedback)

This is where the critique gets tricky. Giving negative feedback is tough to give, and tough to hear. After all, you don’t want to hurt their feelings. But as mentioned earlier, they agreed to you giving them an “honest critique” so it doesn’t make sense if they get upset for your honesty. After all, it is very rare nowadays to get honest feedback (anything in life).

Talk about what in the frame you don’t like or you find distracting. Tell them what you find is weak in the image. Some feedback I generally give people:

a) The background is distracting (too many random heads, people, or cars)
b) The subject is boring (the subject is standing too static, not moving their hands or making gestures, wearing ordinary clothes, or a blank facial gesture)
c) The subject is too centered. Typically I prefer subjects in photographs a little more on the left side of the frame or the right side of the frame (think of the rule of thirds).
d) The lighting is bad. The frame itself may be good, but the lighting may be too harsh and there are blown highlights (generally happens when people shoot mid-day or afternoon).
e) The image is too busy. There may be too much happening in the frame, and it can be overwhelming to look at.
f) The photo doesn’t fit in a series. If someone is asking me to critique an image in a series, I sometimes find images which are good as single images, but don’t work in a series based on a concept.
g) There is too much post-processing. I see many images that are too “over-processed” by having too much highlight recovery (HDR-looking), by having too heavy a vignette, or the colors are oversaturated.
h) The colors are distracting. If the shot is in color, sometimes colors can be a distraction, especially if there are bright colors such as red or yellow in the corners of the frame (and the subject is more near the center of the frame).

4. The bottom bun (positive feedback)

I then conclude the critique by leaving on a positive note. Remind them again what you like about the image, and what you think that they can improve on. Tell them if you think the photo is either a “keeper” or something that they should not show publically or remove al-together.

Written vs Oral Critique

© Fred Herzog

When it comes to written vs oral critique, I prefer receiving and giving oral critique. Why? Because when giving a written critique (via the internet) it can be difficult to specifically point out what parts of the image you like/dislike. Furthermore generally critiques that are written via the internet tend to be shorter and have less substance.

When you are sitting down with someone face-to-face, it is a much more personal experience. You can also spend more time giving a critique (30 minutes, an hour, or even longer).

When I receive critiques face-to-face, I can also see what initial reactions that people have of my images based on their facial expressions. I can see which photos they find boring, and which photos they find interesting based on first glance.

On the internet, we cannot differentiate different tones of voice. Therefore sometimes on the internet we can mis-interpret critique and take it the wrong way. When in-person, I feel you can get a better sense of what the other person is trying to say, and whether they are being genuine or not.

My Personal Suggestions Regarding Critique

© Fred Herzog

Hopefully now that you have read this post, it can give you a better sense of what goes on in my mind when giving a constructive critique. Hopefully you can take whatever parts you have read and apply it to either critiques you give or you would like to receive.

Some suggestions for you moving forward:

1. Never half-ass a critique

I forgot who said it, but I once read, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing”.

Therefore I feel that it is more meaningful to give fewer whole-assed critiques, than many half-assed critiques. Select a few people on the internet (or in person) that you are close with, respect, or would like to correspond with – and give them whole-assed critiques.

In the age where everyone gives comments like “nice shot” – comments/critiques longer than 4 sentences are incredibly valuable and memorable.

For example, on my Flickr stream, I appreciate but tend to ignore comments that are less than a sentence long. However those who actually take the time to leave a meaningful critique or feedback – I remember them. I end up feeling grateful for what they did for me, and in-turn I add them as a contact, and give them a whole-assed critique/feedback as well.

2. Find a group to give whole-assed critiques

There are a few street photography critique groups on Flickr which are great resources. Some suggestions:

a) Street Crit — The Home of Street & Documentary Critique

b) HCSP Image Critique Thread

c) Grit & Grain

d) Streettogs Critique Group

I just made a Facebook critique group. Some ground rules I tentatively made:

  • Each critique should emphasize the positives and negatives of the image posted.
  • It is recommended that each critique be at least 4 sentences long
  • For every image you post, give at least three critiques to the other images posted before yours.

3. Ask for constructive criticism and critique

If you want constructive criticism, feedback, and critique in your images, ask for it. If you upload your photo to Flickr, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram, 500px, or whatever- ask for a critique and make it blatant.

I used to give unsolicited critique & feedback to people on the internet, and found out that many people who uploaded their work didn’t want critique & feedback. That is totally fine, but I tend to shy away from giving away my honest criticism unless people specifically ask for it.

Remember, the saying: “Ask and you shall receive”.


© Fred Herzog

Everything I wrote in this post regarding critique isn’t the only way to give constructive critique. Rather, it is based on my personal experiences, what I have learned in school, and what I have learned from others.

Regardless of how you give a critique, just keep the same advice at heart: do onto others as you would appreciate done unto you.

Therefore if you would appreciate honest and constructive critique, give it to others before you expect it yourself. Also expect that the level of critique and feedback you give will be equal to the quality of it you give to others. However at the same time be careful when it comes to giving constructive criticism (when other people don’t explicitly ask for it).

When giving critiques, don’t feel that you have to give everyone a short essay when giving critique. Give fewer critiques, but make sure to full-ass them, not half-ass them.

Also make sure to check out more of Fred Herzog’s work and check out his recently published book.

Any other advice you have when giving a constructive critique? Leave your thoughts/feedback in the comments below! 

49 thoughts on “How To Give a Constructive Critique in Street Photography”

  1. Thanks this is a great article and gives some good pointers about how to approach an image critic. I read it with a lot of interest. One thing that I would disagree is with the suggestion that that any of these may be true with the suggested Flickr group HCSP image critic thread. I was part of that group until I left because the critics use none of the suggested principles included in this article. In fact, some of the “critics” are simply hostile and some others are simply to cryptic to be worth anything. That thread is one of the most useless “critic” threads I have ever encountered. IMHO.

    I any event, thank you for this article. Great read!

    1. Agreed, HCSP’s critique thread is absolutely useless, and anything but constructive. Which makes sense, actually, because most of the guys who speak up are bad photographers and Alex Webb wannabes. But I digress.

      Good article.

    2. i would disagree here. most of the more active members of HCSP are just brutally honest.. after posting and looking through the critique thread i have learned a lot about street. i would say at worst ive gotten half assed critiques but i’ve always gotten usable feedback.

    3. It used to be a good group, but it’s devolved. I used to gain a lot of insight from the critiques there but it just sounds like a bunch of self loathing jerks getting their kicks by putting people down.

  2. mishobaranovic

    Excellent article Eric. I very much agree with this line “critique should be based on an informed opinion, and never upon a personal opinion”. In light of this, I do worry that photo critique is often confined to technical image deconstruction (add this/move this/remove this).

    This form of critique can become limiting for photographers that have control over the technical aspects and often break them in order to challenge or reinterpret the world.
    I think there is value in also critiquing an image on its emotion (feeling and message) and also within its historical context (what has come before/who is doing similar work). This helps a photographer to learn from others and also identify and place their motives for their work.

    This type of critique is really hard work and requires the critic to have the background knowledge in their respective field. Just look at Bill Cunningham, he scares the crap out of fashion designers because he can draw upon his encyclopaedic photo archive and expose the ones copying or imitating past designs.

    Either way, great article, and always appreciate your critique (and curation!).

  3. The detail in this is so helpful.
    I always wish comments were more detailed than “Great”, “love the light” or whatever, but it takes a bit of confidence to leave more detailed critique, but I will in future- when it is solicited!

  4. What an excellent article. I confess I have been reluctant to continue putting images up on 500px or Tumblr etc because of the trite, puerile even, “nice shot” sort of comment. “is that all? Is that it?” ‘Nice shot’. It’s simply not worth it.
    Of course I have a view on my own work. That’s obvious. I am prejudiced. Indeed I have extreme prejudice about the worth of my own work. Who doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean I wont listen to another persons opinion. The question is ‘which person’? Do I really want to listen to some vapid comment giving me a virtual tick for my effort? No.
    So what’s the answer? Well I simply don’t know other than, that is, simply head down, ignoring all criticism ( and praise because they are both impostors) in the hope ( self deluded or not) that I have something to say on a particular topic.

    And remember: Opinions are like backsides. Neither is best aired in public.
    Onwards and upwards.

  5. critique sandwich? reminds me of family guy.

    you make great points. thanks for taking the time to write this.

  6. How about a new article “How to write an article without using someone else’s work without their consent” ?

      1. Because when I read foolish comments like this one by E.K. in an other thread, I serioulsy doubt it:

        ” Leica commissioned Jacob Aue Sobol to shoot the project with the Leica M Monochrom. Therefore I think it would be appropriate to use the photographs in this context.”

        It definitely shows a complete lack of knowledge of how copyright works, which is even more of an issue coming form someone who sees himself as a photographer with enough knowledge to ‘teach’ others…

        1. That and the fact that the authors of these posts never address any of those copyright issues of course…

  7. Francesco Agresti

    Great article, Eric…
    Very interesting!

    I completely agree with you and I will try to improve my criticism even more, following your advice.
    Thank you!

  8. I noticed you use a lot of subjective questions when critiquing a picture. I wouldn’t imagine this is an effective way to practice an objective critique. what is good to one person may not be good to another. “d) Is the composition good?
    d) Is the light good or flat?
    f) Is the perspective good? ” perhaps you could have said: “d.) is the perspective interesting, or appropriate for the subject or does it follow conventional guidelines. instead of “is the light good”, you could ask the same “is it interesting, is it dramatic, does it follow conventional methods of capturing light in a photograph. ” and lastly, composition, you might ask, does it follow the rule of thirds, but I wouldn’t agree that every good photograph has to follow the rule of thirds.

    1. @google-095631a65fd0af3a464f4ac9e869d7e7:disqus good points, i was thinking the same. Critique should be as objective as possible, otherwise you can end up giving criticism based on your own way of thinking, that caould potentially be completely different from someone else’s way of thinking (i.e. you mark someone “down” based on something subjective, than another person might actually see as a positive).

      1. But how on earth can anyone give critique based on anyone else’s way of thinking and why would that be more valuable than a personal opinion? If I ever had the chance to have Bruce Gilden review my work I certainly would want to know how HE feels about it, not how he thinks it measures against some sort of “objective” -where would you get that from?- standard.

    2. @Rob, sorry but I can’t agree with you.
      Substituting “interesting” for “good” does not make “is it good” any less subjective.
      Just as you can substitute interesting for good into the “is the light good” question, you can substitute “interesting” for good into the “what is good to one person may not be good to another”.
      Same with “appropriate”.
      I.e. appropriate, interesting, good or bad – they are all subjective terms/questions.
      True you can use the basic conventional rules e.g. “rule of thirds”, “level horizon”, “don’t have things appearing out of people’s heds”, “don’t cut people’s limbs off at the joints”, “leading lines”, etc and measure against them.
      But as you say yourself “I wouldn’t agree that every good photograph has to follow the rule of thirds”.
      Nor does a good photo have to have leading lines, have a level horizon, be in focus, “properly” exposed etc.
      And if these rules are applied you still have the question of whether the application is appropriate or not and “appropriateness” is subjective.

      I think when it comes down to it, except for fairly narrow technical fields, e.g. crime scene/accident, passport or scientific documentation photos, most of the time whether a photo is good or not is subjective.

      Offering a critique that merely checks off an image against those basic conventional rules (rules of thirds? check! sharp focus? Check!) does not help many shooters, except perhaps the very early beginner.

      There is a certain amount of science in photography, but on the whole photography is an art and art is subjective.

      And when it comes down to it, I think photographers want their chosen critic to tell them what that critic thinks of their photo is it good or bad? I think the why is it good or bad, is where you can use some of those rules, “I think that the parking meters as leading lines are really effective”, “hmmm, maybe the rule of thirds might have been better than a sniper shot?”. But just measuring against rules and technical standards is not a useful critique for most people.
      After you’ve ahd a camera in your hand a few monts, you can tell if your shot was over or underexposed, was sharp or not – what you can’t tell is how other people see it and how they feel about it or what they think about it.
      And in my opinon, that’s what it is all about – how people think or feel about the shot.

  9. I have to admit that it is true that almost every comment on my photos is a positive one and indeed often half a sentence. As a newcomer it’s great to receive positve feedback to become more confident and to be stimulated to carry on with your passion.

    Also, I think that people on social media are following to many photographers to be able to spend the needed time for giving a proper feedback which will help the photographer be become better.

    Asking for feedback is something I totally forgot and definitelly something I should do. So Thanks for reminding me;)

    I learned that giving feedback is mentioning the positive first followed by the negative one.

  10. Peterstielzchen

    Very good post eric and also a very interesting theme. I think honest criticism is one of the most important things in the world. I’ll try to make better critsism in the future.

    Would be very happy if someone would criticize my work. If anyone has time for me, I’ll have time for you : ) So we can criticize each other.

    1. I see a lot of no-moment situations in your work, which is normal since you are a beginner. Just people hanging around, sitting, or waiting for something. One thing I like very much is that you get fairly close and you shoot with visual consistency. I notice that you get a lot of people giving you “the look”. Use that to your advantage. You need to be more selective with your subjects, situations and moments.

      Feel free to critique my work if you want, but do not feel obligated to do it. You are invited to join G&G if you want to receive pointers on specific images from me and other people.

    2. I see a lot of no-moment situations, which is normal since you are just beginning. Just people sitting, walking, or waiting for something. I like to see that you get fairly close and you are also shooting with some visual consistency. I also notice that you are getting “the look” a lot. Take advantage of that to make your images more powerful. You need to be more selective with your subjects and situations.

      Feel free to offer critique to me if you want but please do not feel obligated to do it. You are also invited to join G&G if you want to receive pointers on specific images from me and other people.

  11. Peterstielzchen

    Very interesting eric and a such important theme not only in photography. It’s one of the most important things in world. I’ll try to make better criticism in the future.

    I’m new in street photography but I would be happy if you can criticize my work honestly. If you have time for me I’ll have time for you, so we can criticize each other : )

  12. I always have had a problem with the term “constructive criticism”. First because it implies there is something like a “destructive criticism” that nobody wants to receive and second because the concept has become into an euphemism for “Gentle, supportive, encouraging words that don’t hurt my feelings and sensibilities”.

    For me, there is not such a thing as constructive criticism. I do not see in Rotten Tomatoes a section for constructive criticism and other for any other kind of criticism. Some photo reviews are kinder in tone than others. And some are more useful than others regardless of tone. The “constructive” part -getting something useful that helps us improve- is strictly a process held by the receiving end.

    The sandwich thing sounds like something Dale Carnegie would advice. I have nothing against saying something positive about a photo -I always do it if the image deserves it- but such social rules seem to be more concerned with not offending sensibilities rather than providing substantial feedback.

    But that is just me. I am known for not suscribing to traditional social contracts.

    Oh, and once again you forgot to mention Grit & Grain as part of the groups that offer flickr users a place to excercise criticism.

    1. Thanks for the comment Adrian.

      I feel that the difference between constructive criticism is to help a photographer grow and develop. A constructive criticism doesn’t necessarily have to be “kind” – but to simply say a photograph flat-out “sucks” or is “bad” doesn’t help the photographer develop. If people should say things like that, perhaps they should explain why they think it is bad etc.

      And yes, of course this is only my opinion!

      And oops- forgot Grit & Grain- thanks for the reminder, added it.

      1. I agree that things like “this sucks” and “don’t get it” are not any better than their “brilliant!!!” and “yes!!” counterparts.

        My beef is with people who ask for honest feedback but at the same time
        expect kiddy-glove treatement for some weird reason. They often appeal
        to the “constructive” criticism thing. They leave me with the impression that they did not want an actual critique, just attention and a boost for their egos. There is a certain sense of entitlement there “Hey, I am exposing myself here! Be nice!”

        One thing that helps a lot is when both the critic and the creator know each other well. They both have a better understanding of where they are coming from and how their views fit in the grander scheme. So it helps to start out exchanging critique with somebody whose work and opinions you are familiar with.

  13. Great article, Eric. That sandwich method seems a good way to structure a crtitique.
    But I have to be honest, sometimes I’m a bit lazy commenting the photos, so I just leave a small comment, ifI liked the photo or not. I’m not also a great writer in English, so sometimes I avoid long comments. But I like to comment what I see, even if it’s just a “like” or “dislike”.


  14. I think the flip side of all this needs to be addressed as well, which is to say that we should not ask for nor listen to critiques of any kind unless under special circumstances such as workshops. This can also be voided if you are an absolute beginner but for the rest of you I believe the idea of someone else telling you what you should do visually is not needed. The person critiquing is telling you what THEY want to see, which not necessarily what you vision when taking a photograph. Learning this art form is a process and I think everyone should find their own voice without the noise of others throwing out verbs and adjectives. While I respect the authors views I do not agree with this article as it totally takes the romance out of using cameras. If anyone is still reading…don’t listen to what others think! Do what you love, let others do what they love and make no apologies.

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  20. Picked up Fred Herzog Photographs from the library; thoroughly enjoyable; his work will be forever admired and critiqued. Puts the notion of photographer in second place behind what; docomentarian?. Nice article on critiqes.

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  26. waytoosquirrelly

    I remember reading an article in which the owner of an art gallery was asked how he knew when a piece of artwork was “good.” He could tell, he said, by “the number of toes.” During an exhibition the best works of art usually had the most number of gallery visitor’s toes pointed at them. If a photo is good, people will want to look at it.

  27. You know what I appreciate most about this post?

    It’s that in the questions you put forth to be included in critique, you include ways to make the photographs interesting.

    Thanks for that.


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