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!