If you are serving as a judge for a digital images or print competitions, you must have some sense of what makes an excellent image. These thoughts are meant to contribute to generating some consensus about the quality of images. In the Naples Camera Club those scoring the image will award an entry 3 to 9 points. In general, this allows three points (1-2-3 reflects low, medium, high) each for 1) composition, and 2) impact or interest, and 3) technique.
The most important thing to ask with respect to composition is, “Did the photographer put the picture together in such a way that the subject matter is the main center of interest?” Is the arrangement interesting or pleasing? All elements of the picture should be subordinate to the main idea, to the center of interest (it is true that some artistic images may successfully eliminate a center of interest). Some elements of composition might include 1) a recognizable center of interest (or a recognizable reason not to include one!), 2) framing, 3) action, and 4) imagination and creativity.
Center of interest. With the exception of some artistic designs, a good composition brings the viewers eye to a center of interest. The photo is well organized so the eye immediately recognizes one subject as most important, usually well lighted and in clear focus. The “rule of thirds,” while only a guideline, generally creates a composition that is pleasing to the eye. For example, the center of interest is not centered bulls-eye; nor are horizons at the center of the picture. Live objects face into the picture, not out of the picture, and, if moving, they have apparent room to move.
Framing. The photographer should be close enough to the subject to leave irrelevant or distracting items out of the image. For example, there should not be unnecessary space above subjects’ heads or a part of someone or something not intended to be part of the picture. On the other hand, tree branches, tall grass, or a railroad track may help “frame” a picture effectively when purposely included. Look around the edges of an image for distracters.
Action. Many photographs show some kind of action, particularly if people or animals are the subjects. Of course, some pictures, such as landscapes, do not require action. If a picture includes action, the action is usually an important center of interest, and thus rendering it well is an important part of the image composition.
Imagination and creativity. Composition is one of the main ways a photographer exhibits imagination or creativity. What makes an image attractive is often an unusual camera angle or lighting effect on the subject. For example, lying on one’s back to photograph a gardener harvesting a row of carrots in order to get his expression and also the soil falling from the uprooted carrot may be far more interesting than an eye-level shot showing the top of the gardener’s head and a bag of carrots. Many times traditional rules are successfully broken for the sake of creativity. No photographer should feel totally constrained by the general guidelines of good photography.
II. Impact and interest.
The most important thing to ask with respect to impact and interest is, “What degree of success does the photographer achieve in presenting his or her subject matter? Does the picture say something to the viewer? Does it generate a reaction from the viewer?” This is an elusive criterion for judging photographs, but it is the most important. Perhaps it should just be labeled subject matter. A photograph is not successful unless it makes an impact upon the viewer. What did the photographer wish to show the viewer – beauty, factual information, social commentary, emotion (fear, love, and hate), mood, humanity, etc.? And did he or she do so effectively? Camera angles, color moods, contrast moods, special effect lenses and filters, selective focus, multiple focus, expressive moods, although part of technique and composition, all add up to making a picture more interesting. Good judges will look for originality, emotional imagination, creativity, and unusual photography in making scoring decisions. A picture must convey some sense of feeling before it will be noticed. This impact may carry the picture even though a technique is off or a different composition might be preferred. That is why we can say it is the most important.
III. Technique. The most important thing to ask with respect to technique is, “Does the technique do something for the final result, that is, does the technique support the subject matter?” Technique includes matters such as the exposure, sharpness or clarity of the image, use of color, and lighting. The successful picture tells the viewer what the photographer wants to say; it tells why the picture was made the way it was. It is possible for technique to be bad but contribute to a winning image. Some elements of technique to consider include:
Exposure. Correct exposure should be a “given” in a competition image (assumed to be correct) and therefore penalized heavily if it is not. Faces must not be washed out or shadowy, backlighting too harsh, flash used improperly, etc.
Focus. The center of interest must be sharp and clear. This is also a “given,” and out-of-focus photos should be penalized. Often the picture calls for everything in the entire image to be sharp; however, this is not the case for every picture. In fact, selective focus often adds greatly to the appeal of some photographs. A blurred hand can be effective at showing action, for example. Experimentation is good, but, unless the photo is an abstract design, some point of interest usually should be sharp.
Color. Generally, color should be believable, that is, true to life. On the other hand, if the picture is a contemporary image in the area of abstract art or non-representational subject matter, it may be more important for the colors to create the impression desired by the maker (e.g. subdued or startling). In general color should be pleasing and harmonious. Good color quality, whether using a full scale of tones or some more unusual technique, is essential.
Lighting. This element general makes or breaks an image, and particularly poor lighting should be penalized – for example, lack of strong texture rendition when texture is called for, eyes hidden in deep shadows or hair blending with background, or failure to use fill or supplementary lighting when indicated. On the other hand, creative use of light and catching very pleasing elements of light should be well rewarded. We say photographers want to “follow the light” or “catch the light,” and with good reason.
In summary … do not be afraid to exercise your vote. It is not helpful to the competition or to the photo maker to simply vote down the middle. If you see the picture positively in the terms described here, score it high; and if you do not, score it low. Do not be influenced by others. Make your own judgment, but know why you are making the judgment. The above criteria should help you describe the “why” of your judgment, and you should be able to provide such a description.
Every image entered deserves a 3, and almost always even a 4 or 5. Mark your scores from 3 to 9. If you are in a position to offer verbal commentary about an image, find something positive to say about it, but also offer constructive criticism or ideas to improve the image. In this way our interaction helps all of us improve our work, and that is the point of having a competition and critique.