The Importance of Honest Self Critique in Bird Photography

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 Four year old Bald Eagle portraitFour year old Bald Eagle Portrait – D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited, a wild bird

I’ve enjoyed photography for a long time but for quite awhile I didn’t understand the value or importance of honest self critique. If the image was sharp enough I was pleased. If I was able to get the entire subject in the frame I was happy. If I had good light I was thrilled.

During that period of my growth as a photographer I started looking for a place to post my images to be critiqued by others hoping that it would improve my skills and image quality. I’ve only actively posted on two of those nature critique forums, the first one went belly down after about 6 months so I searched for another one. I’ve been posting my images at the second forum I found since 2005 for critique, comments and evaluations. I also peruse several other nature photography sites.

I have learned a great deal from the members who take the time to honestly evaluate, critique and offer suggestions for future improvement of not just my images but other members too. I have gained skills and knowledge by reciprocating and giving thoughtful critiques for the other members too. By critiquing other people’s work I found myself able to be emotionally distanced from the image, something that can be a challenge to do with our own.

There are real benefits to having multiple people critiquing my images, some may go more indepth and another person may offer a suggestion that hasn’t been mentioned. It helps with finding the best camera settings, composition and learning to work with the habitat present and the light.

What being a participant on a nature photography critique forum taught me was invaluable, it is the ability to look at my own images objectively and to critique them honestly. The keywords are objectively and honestly.

Some days I take hundreds of images because with birds I want to be shooting when they are doing something interesting either on the land, water or in the air. I often take my images in bursts hoping to get several in focus, sharp files. When I am away on camping trips the number of images can go up drastically because although I can load the images onto my laptop, I don’t like using its screen to make critical decisions about sharpness. However, that means when I upload the files to my hard drive I have a ton of culling to do.  It is time consuming to cull that many images, keeping the best so I can delete the rest.

I look at every image I delete and ask myself “What could I have done to make this image better?”.

  • Sometimes I’ll see that my shutter speed was too low for the action or conditions. I’ll know that I could have increased my ISO or used less depth of field. 
  • Or notice that I used the wrong aperture and didn’t get the whole bird sharp or the tail wasn’t quite in focus. I will learn what aperture to use in the future for a similar shot. 
  • I might not have been paying close enough attention to the background and see that I have something distracting in it that may have been avoided by moving right, left or positioning the camera higher or lower. 
  • The same can be said of the foreground, there can also be distracting elements there.  Grass stems, branches, rocks and more crossing any part of the bird has the potential to be distracting 
  • I may not have used the correct EV compensation and blown out the whites or blocked up the darks.  My whites could look muddy and I’ll know I needed more positive EV compensation. 
  • I may not have composed the image to its best advantage. That makes me think about how I frame future images.
  • Was the light good? Too bright, not bright enough?

Those are just a few of the thoughts that run through my mind while culling.  I store all of that information in my mind for use while out in the field again.

Honest self critique is a valuable tool that I consistently use. I can look at images and know they belong in my delete bin. I can also see when I’ve nailed a shot, exposure or pose. I have learned to become my own harshest critic.



  1. Ingrid December 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Mia, thanks for re-linking to this from your current post about exposure. I loved this post. Your points about external critique are well advised. I’m hyper critical of myself in general, but in a practice where you’re not yet an expert, the only way to apply constructive critique is from others … since you don’t have enough perspective to see all of the flaws. I’ve submitted my work for critique and have no issue receiving criticism. What’s difficult for me is that I haven’t yet found a forum where both technical prowess and right-brained interpretation are equally valued. I love a pristine image, but when I look through the books of well-known photographers, I’m often emotionally drawn to the images that wouldn’t be considered technically perfect — they evoke a mood. Of course, that mood couldn’t have been achieved without the photographer knowing enough rules to be able to break them. Same is true in writing and all other art forms.

  2. Jim July 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    A very interesting and a good reminder of how we can learn to be better photographers. I have learned so much from participating in photo critique sites (especially NPN) but I really like the your question as you are reviewing your images about how could I of made the shot better. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Harry Harris January 30, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Mia, your critques have helped me and your narrative above is also a big help. I will start self-critquing. I made some notes on your thoughts so I can better accomplish this goal. While I am limited due to knees and old age, I am becoming fitter because of photographing birds. You have been and inspiration to me. Thank you so much.

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