How to Critically Evaluate Your Own Images

I think that being a photographer is a truly remarkable experience. We are all on a journey as we go about capturing our everyday moments and growing into the photographers we are meant to be. We learn and grow in our technical abilities and practises, and we also develop as artists in our unique style. Critically evaluating your images is a fantastic way in which you can grow as a photographer. Examining your photos doesn't have to be an exhaustive process; rather, it can be as simple as being curious about how you could have made an image better. Critical evaluation is not only about recognizing what you may have done better, but it's also about highlighting what you did well. Evaluating our images is something I think each of us should do from time to time because this will help you grow as a photographer. I believe that the development of a photographer is twofold. It consists of two meandering side by side paths. One of these paths is in technical skill, while the other pertains to artistic development. It's essential to evaluate both technical and creative expression. Here are some tips to help you develop your critical eye.

1. Technical components

Evaluating technique can and should be done in camera and when you return to your computer. When you are out capturing photographs of your beautiful everyday moments, you'll want to create strong straight out of camera images. With every image you capture, you want to keep these questions in mind:

  • Am I obtaining the best exposure for my photograph? Is my image overexposed or unexposed, and how can I change my camera settings to acquire the best exposure?  
  • Is my white balance as accurate as possible? 
  • Is my image in focus or not, in a pleasing way, if this is my goal?
  • Is my composition solid, and does it strengthen the message I am trying to convey in my photograph? 
  • Am I using light in a way that enhances my image?

Back at home, when you're sitting in front of your computer, you'll want to ask yourself these questions once again. Is there something you could have done differently or better specific to exposure, focus, white balance, composition or light to strengthen your image? Is there something you find that you are continually trying to "fix" in your post-processing? Perhaps this is an area that needs a little more attention when you are out on location capturing your images.

ISO 400, 50mm, f4, 1/1250SS (This image is when I began to recognize how important light is when it comes to evoking mood). 

Let me share a personal story with you. As a landscape photographer, I capture many long exposures as they happen to be a favourite technique. However, quite often, I found myself returning home to my computer to find that my overall exposure in my longer exposed for images was underexposed too much. "Fixing" this issue in post-processing resulted in unnecessary noise in my pictures. Critical reflection by my part on this technical aspect in my long exposure photography has resulted in me increasing my exposure times, which has resulted in me producing better quality long exposure landscape images. Had I not reflected on this issue, I would have continued producing unexposed images. My critical reflection resulted in me making changes and becoming a better photographer.  

ISO 100, 19mm, f13, 270sec

When you're at your computer back at home, I want you also to make a note of what you're happy about specific to the technical components within your images. You should be proud of your accomplishments. 

You can jot down your thoughts if you'd like in your photographer's learning notebook. I highly recommend you keep a journal close at hand for your photography journey. Looking back through your goals and accomplishments is humbling and rewarding.

2. Artistic development 

I think that the creative development of a photographer goes through stages. Here are my thoughts around the developmental stages of a photographer as an artist:

  1. The new photographer: This is the photographer that is new to the art of photography. In this stage, you're trying to learn technical skills, and you're likely feeling quite overwhelmed. At this point, you are just trying to capture images that are more technically "correct." 
  2. The beginner artist: This is the photographer that has some confidence in her technical skill and is trying to capture images with a little more intent. You are likely infusing what you like in other photographer's images into your own.
  3. The evolving artist: This is the photographer who subconsciously knows what she likes in her images but doesn't quite know she has a style. She will create compelling images that speak to her on occasion.
  4. The identifiable artist: This is the photographer that consciously knows what she likes in her images and intentionally tries to capture those types of images. Sometimes she's successful, and other times she's not. She's exploring what she likes and knows what it is to be true to herself. 
  5. The confident artist: This is the photographer who has a definite style that is identifiable to herself and others. This artist is aware of what she likes and what does not fit into her style. She captures images that only fit within her artistic vision. She is very identifiable in her photography.

ISO 800, 105mm, f3.2, 1/500SS (In this above image, I was an evolving artist. I started to experiment with infusing touches of magic into my pictures like the butterfly composite).  

I think that the artistic development of a photographer can take years. I also think that photographers can move forwards and backwards through these stages of development. I believe that growth as an artist is ever-evolving, and that is one of the things I love about my journey as a photographer. 

There's an internal process that occurs at a more subconscious level when you develop in your artistic skill. You, as an artist is your voice or your style. You'll know when you're on the right path in your creative development when an image feels like you or you say to yourself, "I love this image!" It's during these times that you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is it about this image that "I love?" 
  • How can I replicate what I like about this image?   

As an example, let me share another personal story with you. Years ago, I was photographing my eldest daughter walking through the forest on one of our adventures. I accidentally captured sparkle bokeh as the sun was hitting the snow and trees in just the right angle. I fell in love with this look. To date, when I look back at this image, I know that this is where my awareness about my love of sparkly bokeh started on a conscious level. This infusion of sparkle bokeh into my photographs has become apart of my signature style. Had I not made a note of what I liked about that image, I would have missed the opportunity to develop as an artist.

ISO 200, 105mm, f3.5, 1/1000SS

I also think that development as an artist comes from being aware of what you like and are not drawn to in other photographer's images. Instead of falling into the comparison trap, which can be detrimental to your development, make a note of what you like in images that catch your eye. Think about how you can infuse what you're drawn to into your photos in a way that's true to you. Also, be aware of what you don't like. Knowing what you do not want in your images is as relevant and knowing what you do.

As another example, I'll share one last story with you from my own experience. Several years ago, lifestyle photography on a more documentary level was prevalent, and I took a workshop specific to creating these types of images. I struggled significantly during this workshop, not because it wasn't a fantastic workshop, but because the concepts did not meld with who I am as an artist. I learned a lot about myself as a photographer during this workshop. This critical evaluation resulted in my exponential growth as an artist.

ISO 2500, 50mm, f3.2, 1/320SS (This is one of the images I took away from the above workshop that I liked because it fit my style more than the other ones I was creating. This image was more true to my artistic self).

Critically evaluating your images on an artistic level is a very personal experience. My one piece of advice is that you follow your heart. Only you will know if you've genuinely captured an image that is true to the artist inside of you. Pay attention to those images that grab your attention and speak to you because it is in those images that pieces of you as an artist lives. 

ISO 1600, 35mm, f2.8, 1/800SS

I think that critically evaluating your images as a photographer is essential to your growth in your technical and artistic development. The process of assessing your pictures does not have to be exhaustive. When you are capturing your images in-camera and reviewing them on-screen, be conscious of how strong your image is on a technical level and make changes if needed to improve the quality of your pictures. I also encourage you to remain curious about what you like and don't in your images. This will help guide you on your artistic journey. Follow your intuition. Your heart knows what kind of artist you are. Don't rush this process either because you will find the artist inside of you. Photography is a beautiful ever-evolving journey. There is no finish line.    

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