High Quality Wild Animal Images - 1/Week, No Pets, No Hand of Man, No Textures/Composites/Effects/Layers

Exceptional Images Only - The Main Rules are: No Hand of Man, No domesticated animals or pets, No head-only shots, No Textures/Composites/Effects/Layers - please refer to the forum for all posting guidelines.

Self-Critique

Jay Ryser Jay Ryser 415 posts

One of the great tools for improving your photography is submitting your photos for an objective critique. When you first start this process, it’s also a great tool for building frustration tolerance, building humility, and tolerating perceived criticism. Submitting photos for critique is not for the thin-skinned, but once you move past the perceived personal attacks, it’s an excellent way to improve your photography.

Remember, the Animal Photography group is dedicated to an extremely high quality standard for submitted images, and we have an extremely high rate of rejection. There are basically 3 ways to reduce the rejection rate:
• Reduce the quality standard for submitted images
• Improve the quality level of submitted images
• Decrease the number of submissions that don’t meet the standard

Since I would like to maintain the high quality standard for this group (don’t we have enough groups on RB that cater to snapshots of cats?), I thought doing a little work on improving the quality of submitted images would be appropriate and at the same time have members self-critique their images and only submit A-level work. Before you check that box to submit your image to Animal Photography, it’s time to do a little mindful review of your work.

Let me say again that I’m not an all-knowing photography guru (AKPG), and I don’t think my own photography is better than everyone else’s – I’m amazed at the quality of work by many of our members. What I will say is that I have a passionate desire to improve my own photography, and I’ve tried to pick up as much as I can to improve it. When I review my own work to decide if it’s worth submitting to the Animal Photography group (and I only submit 1 photo every 2 months or so, as I don’t think the majority of my photos meet the quality standard), here’s the process I follow for self-critique:

1. TECHNICAL
a. Exposure – this is a basic question. “Is this image properly exposed?” Are highlights blown out (big patches of white, areas of the sky or bright patches of fur lacking any detail)? Are there deep black shadows or black areas completely lacking any shadow detail? Check the histogram. I don’t usually check my pics in the LCD too often, but I do check the histogram on a regular basis, just to make sure I don’t have hot spots or areas of overexposure or real dark, featureless areas. Light is Right, Dark is Left on the histogram – if you’ve got a spike on the right hand side, you’ve got some overexposure. A big spike on the left hand side means underexposure. In our fox area, the lighting can be a little weird at times; bright sunny areas mixed in with deep shade, so exposure can be tricky. I’ll usually take a frame before the action starts just to check the histogram of the area I’m in for exposure weirdness. If I have some spikes to the right on the histogram, I’m likely to blow out the highlights of the white fur areas of the fox, so I might then dial back 1/3 to 1 full stop of exposure to compensate. You can also set your display blinkies so that overexposed or underexposed areas blink when you display the picture to show problem areas. That way you can make adjustments quickly to prevent exposure problems.
b. Focus – is the focus sharp, or do you lose detail when looking at the image at a larger size? There are some amazing details on animals – teeth, fur, scales, eyes, feathers – the list goes on and on. Rendering the image in sharp detail provides that WOW factor. A soft image loses impact. A little bit of sharpening can go a long way to an image with impact
c. DOF – we’ve already discussed Depth of Field in MOVING BEYOND AUTOMATIC MODE, PART 1 & 2. We can use the aperture of the lens to blur backgrounds and better emphasize the subject.
d. Obstructing Elements – do you have elements running across the subject, obstructing the view of the subject? We see photos submitted where most of the animal is obscured by some object – tree limbs, branches, grass, plants, rocks, bits of other animals. Sometimes that is acceptable and there is a valid reason for its inclusion, but most of the time it’s just bad composition
e. Stability – how steady was your shot when you took the photo? Did you take the picture with just 1 hand? Were you holding the camera out at full arm’s reach to set up the shot on the LCD? Camera shake is a major contributor to poor image quality. The longer the focal length, the blurrier the image. Use a tripod. Seriously, the tripod is a photographer’s best friend. Not only will your images be much, much sharper right out of the camera, but using a tripod will force you to slow down, consider the image a little more, and make better decisions about how to take a better photo. Even a cheap tripod is better than no tripod. Just make sure it can safely support the weight of your kit. A lot of photographers blame their lens when they get blurry photos, when it’s camera shake that’s the problem. They buy a more expensive lens, and are frustrated that their photos are still blurry. It’s still camera shake. Use a tripod.

2. AESTHETICS
a. Composition – is your subject dead center in every image you take? Do you take every photo in landscape orientation? Are there too many elements competing for attention in your photo? Are there distracting elements that pull the eye from the subject? Generally speaking, the simpler the composition, the better the image. One of the basic rules of composition is called the Rule of Thirds. Subjects placed dead center in the frame tend to be a little boring. By placing your subject according to the Rule of Thirds, you can make a better composition. Imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe grid on your image. The grid intersects in four places across your image – a third of the space from each corner of the image. Place your subject in one of those intersections, and you’ll usually have a stronger image. There are many other options for composition.

b. Foreground & Background – are your subjects stuck in a tangle of branches? Is it difficult to tell where the subject is because there’s so much grass, plant-life, rocky outcrops in the way? Do your images have fences and buildings clearly visible in front of or behind the subject? The cleaner the fore or background, the stronger the image will be. Many times, I can’t get a clean shot of an animal – I don’t take the picture. I’ll approach from another direction, I’ll change locations, I’ll return a different day. I’ll even tidy up an area just a little to get a cleaner shot when I return (no major landscaping, just removing some tall grass). Or I’ll use a shallow DOF to isolate the subject from the background. Also keep in mind that a brown animal without much detail against a brown background can make for a weak image.
c. Point of View – were you looking down on the animal to take the photo? Do you see more of the animals back than anything else? Do you always take photos from the same perspective every time – standing up holding the camera at eye level? You can create a much more powerful image by keeping the camera at eye level with the subject. This means sometimes flopping yourself down on the ground for that low perspective to keep eye level with the frog, dropping down on a knee to keep eye level with the coyote. Keeping at eye level provides a more intimate connection with the subject.
d. Hand of Man – do you have fences in the BG of every shot? Are cars and people visible? Is the subject wearing a collar? Wearing a hat or sweater? The Hand of Man doesn’t just refer to a literal hand in the shot, but ANYTHING man-made or unnatural to the animal. That can also include obviously man-made zoo habitats. Again, isolate the subject from any HOM elements.
e. Clipped Parts – are your subjects missing feet or ears in the photo? Is part of the head obstructed? Does the beak continue off the frame? Or the tail? Having ALL the subject in the frame creates a stronger image – clipping off parts weakens an image. Use the zoom on your camera/lens to pull back, or walk back a few feet, and make sure you’re not cutting anything off. That applies to “virtual parts” as well – the subject may have its feet and part of its legs in the snow – include enough room in the shot to account for these “virtual parts.” This also applies to reflections – if you have a reflection of the subject, include the entire subject and reflection.
f. Color – do your images appear a little flat? Washed out? Muddy looking? Lacking color and impact? Bland colors make a bland image. Assuming the exposure is OK, you can sometimes boost color a little in post processing – a Levels or Curves adjustment maybe, a bit of Saturation – just don’t over-do it.

3. VALUE OF CRITIQUE
a. Reviewing and deleting poor images – do you keep every shot you’ve ever taken? Is your hard drive filled to capacity with photos you never plan to use, or have no real use for? Do you ever look back at photos from a year or two and wonder why you ever thought they were good? It’s time to be more ruthless when evaluating your photos. In post-processing, one of the first things I do is review that batch of photos and weed out the obviously bad ones – poor focus, I’ve cut off ears or feet, blown highlights. I can’t do anything to make salvage them – they just need to go. That saves me a lot of hard disk space too. There’s no reason (other than sentimentality) to keep bad images. One of my rules is to not review and process images the same day I’ve spent several hours at 14,000 feet – I’m just too loopy to do a good job.
b. Start grading your own images – do you think every image you take is a photographic masterpiece? It was said that Ansel Adams considered himself fortunate if he took 1 really good image every year. He may have been a little too critical of his own work, but it does illustrate the point – be your own worst critic to improve the level of your work. Rate your images from A to F. Immediately delete all the images that receive a grade of C or below. Post your B images to RB or other sites. Post them to sites that provide honest critique. Save you’re A images for Animal Photography.
c. Importance of Objective Feedback – we can lack objectivity about our own work. We know how hard we had to work to get that shot – we had to get up at 4A.M., drive an hour, then hike another hour uphill to be able to get that shot. It’s our baby. Someone else objective can look at it without the emotional attachment and give honest feedback that we can’t currently see ourselves. THAT’S the feedback we want, that we benefit from the most. Learn from that feedback.
d. Places for Critique – before you visit these sites, lurk for a bit to get the lay of the land. Read the feedback from others, and then start commenting on the work of others. Then submit your own work – don not take the feedback personally. Learn from what others have to say – it’ll make you a better photographer.
Nature Photography Network
NatureScapes
Outdoor Photographer
And you can post images in the Animal Photography Forum under PHOTO CRITIQUE as well

KSkinner KSkinner 26 posts

Good information Jay….

AFogArty AFogArty 12 posts

Fantastic article Jay.

Eivor Kuchta Eivor Kuchta 209 posts

Great stuff, Jay! Those are things we should remind ourselves about often, so we don’t have to think about it when we’re out there shooting. I know I can get carried away in moments of exciting, seeing a rare animal for example. Lighting is so important, especially in the eyes of animals.

Bunny Clarke Bunny Clarke 3012 posts

I am really glad you put this out there. I know it’s hard to step back sometimes, but one of my art instructors used to tell us to divorce our emotions from our work when it was completed. Step back, believe we were buying a masterpiece for our new and sumptuously decorated home. Then he would ask us, “would you buy this and hang it on the wall to live with for the next 10 years? 20 years? 50 years?” If we answered no to any of these, then it was not a keeper. I try to hold myself to that standard though it is hard at times. Just another idea for improving our work. :o)

Veronica Schultz Veronica Schultz 517 posts

Really great info! I appreciate knowing what moderators are looking for. Thanks!

Jay Ryser Jay Ryser 415 posts

Speaking of Bunny’s recommendation, I’ve heard many times to wait a day or 2 before you process photos. It helps make the editing process a little more objective – you’re less emotionally attached to the image as you would be the same day you took it.

And I think that the hosts all share a passionate interest in photography – along with our group members, and are very interested in improving the level of photography submitted to this group. We have some very experienced members, and some new members – use the PHOTO CRITIQUE forum here for some wonderful feedback and instruction from members and hosts alike.

hatterasjack hatterasjack 15 posts

Mr. Jay, since I’m new to photography(2yrs.) and have not recieved any training/classes, I consider your article very informative. Thanks for the valuable education.

EverChanging1 EverChanging1 69 posts

Great information as usual Jay…. Being new to RB and to the Animal Photography group, I am gaining a huge amount of inspiration and information from your forums.
Like hatterasjack, i have not done any training/classes so most of the time have been flying blind.
Your time and valuable information is much appreciated.

Eric Abernethy Eric Abernethy 15 posts

This may be corny, but I think its true, with a truly great photo, you can turn it on any side and if its still pleasing to the eye on any side, you a have a winner.

Jay Ryser Jay Ryser 415 posts

I this this was an interesting article: How to Handle Unwanted Critique of Your Photography

Other than accepting or rejecting images we don’t do critique in this group without a specific request.

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