The advent of affordable, quality cameras has led to a world full of photographs. This has been multiplied exponentially when manufacturers began to include high-quality cameras in most mobile devices. It is safe to say that everything has been photographed. Since everyone has a camera, and is therefore taking pictures, we are exposed daily to the entire gamut of skill levels. Nearly every instructional booklet or text written about photographic criticism will begin with analyzing the technical qualities of the image---I believe this is exactly the opposite approach that should be used to analyze a photograph.
Instead we should start with the most fundamental attribute of any photographic image. The Subject - What is in the photograph?
The subject of the photograph is the most fundamental characteristic of an image. The subject exists without artistic vision, the subject exists regardless of post-processing, and most importantly the subject exists at any skill level. Since the 1800’s people have used a camera to photograph ‘something’, we do not photograph ‘nothing’. As photographers we have posed, we have hiked for a better view, and we have panned or zoomed to find a subject worth capturing. Capturing the subject is our true goal, the reason we photograph in the first place.
Simply put, any noun has the potential to become a subject. But when we analyze (or criticize) a photograph we subconsciously or consciously rank subject as the most important characteristic of a photograph. We “like” or “dislike” a photograph, regardless of artistic qualities or skill, based almost completely on the subject. I imagine that if we were teachers grading an exam, the Subject of the photograph would constitute 65% of the grade. Everything else that separates amateur photographers from top-ranked professionals exists in the remaining 35% of the grade.
Consider a soldier, entrenched in a foreign land months away from returning home. The soldier reaches into his pocket and pulls out a worn, faded photograph. Already in your mind you have pictured something on his photograph. The soldier does not concern himself with the kind of camera was used, how it was photoshopped, if the composition was strong or weak, or if the depth of field was shallow, it is the subject of the photograph that causes him to reach, with dusty hands, and take one last look at the picture.
Examine these 3 photos. Some were taken with advanced skill, while one was taken with no intentional skill whatsoever. However, it should be clear that what the skill-less photograph lacks in technique, it makes up for in subject.
I urge you, regardless of your skill level or familiarity with photography, to consider above all else what you are photographing.