How to Critique Your Images Objectively: Ask for Other Points of View

How to Critique Your Images Objectively: Ask for Other Points of View


What happens when you ask 150 people to look at the same photos and pick their favourites? The answer is simple: a pattern emerges. But which pattern emerges can be very surprising, as I found out recently.

Last year I decided to self-publish a photo book on Spain. I’d been wanting to do it for years. When the crowd-funding website Kickstarter announced it was opening up shop in Spain, where I live, I took it as a sign and made sure my project was uploaded the day they opened.

Alhambra palace ranked number 1

#1 ranked image by my crowd-fund book supporters.

But I wanted to do something different with the book. Then it hit me – I could get supporters to be a part of the process by choosing which photos would go in the book. I thought of it as crowd-funding meets crowdsourcing. I wanted everyone to play a role in my book. So I uploaded 240 images onto a private webpage, and gave everybody a password and a mission; chose your favourite 80 images. After the voting period was over, I tallied up the results and the top 80 images went into the book.

I was blown away by the results. Some of my personal favourites didn’t even make it in, and some other images that I didn’t think were particularly strong, ended up being extremely popular. It was very instructive. The one that stands out for me is of cows in a field beside a church in the mountains of northern Spain. I almost didn’t even include it in the original batch of 240 images. But not only did it make it into the top 80, it was the 6th most popular image!

Cows ranked 6

On the other hand, here’s a shot of a beach in the south of Spain that I quite like. But it didn’t make the cut – not even close. It ranked a mere 223rd. Fascinating!

Beach ranked 223

I think there are a number of things at play here. For one, the photographer often attaches a value to a photograph that the viewer doesn’t. If an image took repeated attempts to achieve, or was somehow difficult to get in another way — perhaps finding the right angle took hours, or maybe there was some fantastic luck involved that would be impossible for the viewer to appreciate — then it’s natural for the photographer to place a greater value on it. But the final image is what counts, and should be judged on its merits alone, which is sometimes hard for the photographer to do without bias.

Wild horse roundup ranked 133

Ranked #133

For instance, I particularly like this image of a church in the city of Salamanca. The strong graphic lines of the church’s shadow on itself, was not only dynamic because of its oblique orientation, but also offered a second yin-yang with the tourists, some in shade against the sunlight, the others in sunlight against the shade. But, it ranked only #208, again, not even close. But I find the fact it was not very popular more interesting, than disappointing. It wasn’t an obvious image to take, I had to see the opportunity first, then carefully compose, and wait for people to enter the light (and shade) at just the right time. I got it after almost an hour of waiting. Is that part of the reason I like it so much? I find that an interesting question.

Church shadows ranked 208

Of course the reverse also happens. The following image of the field of sunflowers was an easy photo to take, and much easier to spot as a photo-op, versus the church in Salamanca. Speaking as a photographer, I don’t think it’s one of my best images technically or creatively, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a beautiful landscape. The people who look at your photos don’t (and shouldn’t) care about how hard or easy an image was to take. They either like it or they don’t. In this case, the field of sunflowers was very popular, ranking 4th overall.

Sunflowers ranked 4

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should only take photos that you think will be popular. But if you want to please a crowd with a slideshow, or a book, paying attention to what people like will make it more successful. It doesn’t matter how lucky you got, or how hard you worked to get a photo. The important thing is to try to look at it through other people’s eyes. If you enjoy sharing your images, it’s crucial to remove your own bias, and in the end it will make you a better photographer.

Editor’s note: How you can go about using this new knowledge without making a book? You can try posting a set of images as a collection on Facebook and ask people to rank their favorites. Or post a color and black and white of the same image and ask people which they prefer. Why not go ahead and try it here – post some photos in the comments below and rank each others images. How else can you look at your image objectively? 

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Mike Randolph has been a professional writer and photographer for more than 20 years. His photos have appeared in National Geographic publications as well as hundreds of others. For photo tips, techniques and gear talk, check out his travel photography blog.

  • Josh

    This happens a lot even in portrait work…What you think is a terrible photo the client may actually like the best. Sometimes we have an emotional attachment to the image, or we just may have a trained eye that’s looking for the positive and negative aspects of our work. Art & photography is like comedy, it’s all subjective. But at the end of the day when it comes to trying to sell something it doesn’t matter what you like, it’s what the customer likes and wants. If you had posted your survey amongst strictly photographers you may have gotten completely different results.

  • Thanks for your comment Josh. Your example of the portraits brings a whole other element into it–how people see themselves versus how others see them. It gets interesting, doesn’t it?! In terms of more general photography, beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but once you get over a hundred people casting their votes, you see patterns emerging. I find it fascinating.

  • Alex

    Mike, I also made this experience as I asked people to select pictures for a calendar. I agree that often personal memories are the reason for prefering a picture.
    Which software or tool did you use for the voting?

  • I used SmugMug, a website popular among wedding photographers for ordering prints. But it was not the ideal solution for my project. Every vote had to be counted manually because they’re not set up for the kind of thing I was doing, and to be honest, it was a lot of work…as in too much! If someone were just ordering prints, then they’d get what they ordered and that’s that. But I had to count votes (what would otherwise be print sales), and because the “voted for” photos didn’t appear in sequence (they appeared in the order they were voted for, not in the order they were presented), it made it a lot more labor intensive. But I still think it was worth it in order to try something new, and a lot of people were happy to play a role in choosing the images and that was very important to me. Thanks for your comment.

  • Sort of illustrates the importance of cultivating the ability to see ‘just the image’, what is actually in front of you when you select photos, rather than some mixt of the image and your history with it, or subconscious thoughts about it:-)

  • Wade

    I really like the idea of getting other to chose the final images – whether for a calendar, a photo book or any other project. I think will need to try that as well. Thanks for the encouraging article.

  • SueWsie Wils

    I chose a number of photos to shortlist for a local exhibition (very small town stuff) and my husbnd couldn’t understand why I chose some, and why others hadn’t been chosen. Only he refused to tell me which ones he’d like to have seen. Using facebook would have been a great way to do it.

  • dude II

    How about checking to see if the image is level (the beach scene is crooked – look at the line of windows in the building) and the church (the columns on the left side are wider at the top than the bottom). If you post images for a competition just make sure that the horizon is flat and that buildings don’t lean. On the Sunflower shot, I would have cropped out as much of the blank blue sky as possible, the mountain top on the left would have been very very close to the top of the frame. No sky cushion.
    I agree that just a few images at a time are best, no more than ten.

  • Dallas Shooter

    The problem is, you can’t “see” what the “photographed” person sees. They think a certain side is more complimentary than the other “side”. Therefore, you can’t please everyone. For instance, my wife is from up north. She like “White Castle” hamburgers??, I find them disgusting.

  • Becky Pearman

    On the sunflower shot, the photographer worked well with the rule of thirds…

  • Germanas Simonson

    Thanks for the article, Mike. That’s an interesting approach, but… You didn’t tell us who those supporters were. From what I am reading they are non-photographers, just a regular people. And in that case it doesn’t surprise me at all that relatively simple images like that one with green flowers were favorited. It is because, let’s admit it, regular people rarely can tell a good photo from a bad one, their taste is just that, simple, and a pop-factor is the most important. And this is why, in my opinion, such approach has perhaps left your really best/interesting/unique shots out of the book. Which is sad. I know, to choose the best photographs can be tough, but this is something only you (or sometimes with some help from those who understand) have to do.

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