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How to Know If Your Photography Is Good: The Art of Self-Critique

How to critique your own photos

Which images should you include in your portfolio? Which should you share on social media? And which should never see the light of day? Determining which photos to present to the world is a common problem for amateur and newbie photographers (and it’s something that plenty of professionals struggle with, too!).

Now, photography is subjective, and every person will have their own sense of what makes an image good. In my view, this subjectivity is one of the great things about photography! You should always aim to photograph what you enjoy, and you should do it with your unique style and vision.

But sometimes – especially if you are looking to earn money from your images – you will need to consider other people’s tastes and needs. You’ll need to think about whether other people like specific images, and you’ll need to determine whether your photography is good in the eyes of the everyday viewer.

In this article, I offer a set of guidelines for determining if your photo is good or not. By considering the questions and tips I share below, you’ll be better equipped to recognize whether other folks will like your shots. And you’ll also be better at looking at images from a more objective, clear-headed perspective, which can be helpful when evaluating your photos for yourself.

1. Is the photo technically good?

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique

Different professional photographers have different workflows, but for most, determining whether a photo is good starts with checking if a file is technically acceptable.

Because let’s be honest: a blurred or poorly focused photo isn’t going to make it into your portfolio.

So a good first step when evaluating a particular photo is to check that it is sharp with a good tonal range, that it has good contrast between shadows and highlights, and that it’s focused correctly on the right portion of the scene.

Of course, there might be occasions when a photo is slightly off in terms of focus, for example, but it still works. And if you want to showcase it in your portfolio, that’s fine. But the majority of the time, a blurry photo can be discounted.

(If your image has tonal or color problems, you can always try correcting things in post-processing. However, sometimes you just won’t be able to edit away these technical issues, and you’ll need to move on to a different photo instead.)

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique
This image isn’t totally sharp, so I won’t be adding it to my portfolio.

2. Is the image missing something?

Sometimes, you can look at one of your photos, and while it’ll be technically good, you can tell that it’s missing something. (This might be obvious after a glance, or it might take a bit of inspection before you recognize that sense of emptiness. So if you’re not instantly sure, spend some time sitting with the image and see what you think.)

It might be that you’ve done a great job of capturing a quiet cobbled street, yet it just feels wrong without a person in the shot. Or it might be that you’ve photographed some beautiful scenery, yet the composition is missing a point of interest.

These are the type of photos that you look at and think, “I wish I had done something differently,” or “If only there were something or someone in that empty spot…”

If you have those (or similar) thoughts about one of your images, then it’s probably missing that special something that would make it into a great photo. And it probably shouldn’t go into your portfolio, because while it’s likely a decent photograph, it’s not a good photograph.

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique
Here, I’ve captured a nice landscape with a nice sunrise, but there’s no real point of interest. It would be improved with a boat on the lake (or some other object on which the eye might rest).

3. Try the Stop Test

When I’m going through a collection of my images, one of my favorite things to do is something I call the “Stop Test.”

You see, when you flick through one of your galleries of photos – whether it’s on your smartphone, your computer, or even your camera – there are usually some photos that make you stop.

It might only be a split second longer than usual, but sometimes you’ll pause briefly as you flick through the set just to look at that one photo.

That’s usually a good sign there is clearly something about that particular shot that grabs your attention. And if it can grab your attention, it might grab the attention of others as well. (In other words, it might be the kind of image that the average viewer will see as good!)

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique
When I’m flicking through my photos, a lot of the shots just fly by – but occasionally, one makes me stop. That’s a sign that I might want to consider it for sharing publicly.

4. Don’t get sentimental

One thing that’s easy to do as a photographer is get sentimental about a photo. Regardless of how detached you try to be when reviewing and editing your photos, there will still be that part of you that remembers the effort it took to capture each shot.

It might have been that you spent hours getting to a location, or maybe the image reminds you of a memorable encounter with someone interesting. No photographer is a robot, and we are all guilty of liking our images for sentimental reasons, rather than liking them because they’re actually great.

So if you’re unsure about an image, try to pause and ask yourself: Is this actually a good photo? Or am I just being sentimental?

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique
Though it took a while to get up to this vantage point, I know that the lack of light means the image doesn’t work. It can be hard to admit, but it’s true.

 5. Is the image unique?

In this era of digital photography, where everyone has a camera, the biggest challenge is often capturing unique photos. And that is also a good test of whether you should include a photo in your portfolio.

It could be that you’ve captured an image that’s perfectly fine, but if it’s a popular subject from a conventional perspective, it might not be worth including in your portfolio. (After all, your portfolio is your way of standing out – of making it clear that you can capture unique photos that are different from the billions of files uploaded to Instagram.)

On the other hand, if your image is merely decent, but you’ve managed to capture something unique that doesn’t already exist, that might elevate it to greatness.

The key is to search what already exists and see if your image is better or different than others, then take that into account when evaluating your shots.

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique

6. Can you imagine the photo in a magazine?

Even if you’re not planning on selling your photos, trying to envision them being used in real-life scenarios can often be a good guide to how good they are.

When you look at your image, can you imagine it on someone’s wall? Can you see it on the cover of a magazine or used to illustrate something for a feature or story? Can you imagine it on a billboard, flyer, or postcard?

If you can imagine your photo in those scenarios, then it’s probably a good shot, and you should include it in your portfolio.

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique

7. Go with your gut

There are many different ways to critique or evaluate a photo, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling.

Sometimes you might be proven right and that image you were unsure about leads to work (or even ends up making sales!).

Always remind yourself that photography is subjective. At some point, we all look at a photo we’ve taken and have a good feeling about it – and that feeling can be worth trusting!

How to Know if Your Photo is Good or Not - The Art of Self Image Critique
I took this image at a local market in London, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good one. It was a last-minute decision to submit this image to my agency. Since then, it has made over $350 worth of sales.

Critique your photos, but don’t follow my guidelines too rigidly

These are just some of the ways to assess if a photo is good or not, but hopefully they provide you with some handy guidelines to help you evaluate your images!

Always remember, however, that these are not hard and fast rules that you should adhere to all the time.

Not every photo will fit the criteria I presented above. But just because a photo doesn’t fit doesn’t mean the photo is bad. Use these points as a guide when you are stuck on an image, and if in doubt go with your gut feeling.

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Kav Dadfar
Kav Dadfar

is a professional travel photographer, writer and photo tour leader based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and many others. Kav is also the co-founder of That Wild Idea, a company specializing in photography workshops and tours both in the UK and around the world. Find out more at That Wild Idea.

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