Judges and Judging

Whether you realize it or not, photo judges along the way have all contributed to your evolution as a photographer. Your most formidable competitor was not your peers but yourself. The judge provided feedback on how to improve your abilities as a photographer.

Reflections on Judges and Judging 

One thing you can count on is that judges will not always be consistent. Judges like all of us have biases that sometimes can be quite strong. There is a large subjective component to judging even if we wish that weren’t true. But the best judges in my humble experience are able to keep their biases in check and can appreciate a given image on its own merits. They appreciate the challenges of the full range of photographic subject matter. They look for what works and what doesn’t in an image and offer the maker suggestions or insights on how the image could be improved from their perspective. They are teacher’s more than just judges.

You need to “stick” with it over the seasons and not get discouraged by the judging from anyone competition. When there are four judges then judging biases can be even better balanced out. This is why opportunities to participate in competitions are so important and should be a priority. You are getting feedback from a group of “experts” not just one.

Picking Winning Images 

Judges need to look for images that move you emotionally, catch your attention or “stop you in your tracks.” Your looking for that elusive quality called IMPACT! Does the image have impact on others? Does it amaze or delight the viewer? More impact equals more points.

Impact happens when an image is technically excellent, shows outstanding attention to detail and contains great or unusual subject matter, lighting, composition, approach and/or treatment.

My takeaway from all this is that for the most impact all of the elements need to be in play. If any one is at or below average then IMPACT will suffer. The principle I’m trying to get at is even if you have a great subject well executed technically and a unique point of view etc. for example, if the lighting was poor or weak for example due to weather conditions, there was a lot of smog or the light was quite harsh, IMPACT would be compromised.

Impact Components 

When you judge these are the things to look for. If any of these are off, then as a judge, you need to be already discounting points.

Basic Technical Stuff 

Below is my checklist for the technical fundamentals:

  • Sharpness – Is it sharp where it should be?
  • Depth of field – Is there enough? Too much?
  • Exposure – Within the comfortable range when projected on the LCD? How about highlights? Shadows?
  • Horizon – Not tilting?
  • Noise level – Is image “noisy”?
  • Pixilated?
  • Banding
  • Color balance – Too cold? Too warm?
  • Color saturation – Real? Too strong?


When I think about composition I consider these elements:

  • Center of interest – Is there a clear center of interest?
  • Subject placement – Where is the main subject placed?
  • Cropping – Have distracting elements been eliminated as much as possible?
  • Depth – Does the image convey a sense of depth?

When it comes to composition, ask yourself what is it exactly that captures my interest? What is the particularly focus on in this image? The answer should be simple, obvious and clear when they (the judges) see your image. No explanation or commentary should be required. The image should contain the full story.

Subject placement can make or break the impact from composition. The strongest place to put your subject generally is OFF CENTER. There are exceptions to this of course but thinking off center when you’re capturing or cropping your image is the best place to start.

Photographic images are two dimensional, but the world we inhabit is three dimensional. How do we create that third dimension in our photographs? Probably the best way is to consider how to use diagonals in your image to lead the reader to your main subject. This technique focuses on the use of leading lines. Leading lines create dynamics in an image. At left are the classic leading lines.


We all approach subjects differently. In some cases the wide angle shot may be more effective than the tight telephoto of a given subject. Shooting low to the ground or from some height. How unusual is their approach? This is where framing can come into play. You need to be  looking for a unique perspective.

How well did the image maker control not only what’s included but mostly what has been excluded. Photography unlike its sister arts such as painting and drawing is a subtractive process. This means that the skill required is in cleverly figuring out how to minimize all distracting elements and isolate the subject. The challenge is to bring coherence, order and harmony to what’s contained within the image frame out of the chaos and fragmentation of the real world. Our tendency is to include way more than is needed in our photographs. You may need to be a strong minimalist in this area – less is always better. Isolate, isolate, isolate!


When I consider lighting, I am focusing on the quality of lighting (e.g. soft, warm, harsh, mixed), the type of lighting (e.g. side lit, backlit) and how dynamic (e.g. dramatic) the lighting is.

Here are some lighting watch out fors:

  • Avoid images with distracting elements – Bright objects, busy foregrounds with highlights
  • Harsh midday light.
  • Dapple lighting
  • Strong sunlight is not the best for portraits of any kind.

Subject Matter 

Finally, we are at the last of the impact components and perhaps one of the most critical to ultimately determining impact and score. What the subject is does matter.

Ask yourself

  • Is this a particularly inviting or interesting subject?
  • Is the subject of the image commonplace or is it something more extra-ordinary?
  • Do I want to see more?
  • How long could I keep looking at the image and not lose interest?
  • Is there a whole story here that I want to know more about?
  • Am I thinking wow?
  • Is this an image I wish I had made?

Maybe it’s about the moment in time that has been captured that we don’t see often or sometimes can’t see at all because it happens in the blink of an eye. Timing does play a big role when it comes to making subject matter special. Judges can be more forgiving about some of the other impact elements if you have caught or done a reasonable job trying to catch something that is exceptional.

My final two pieces of advice on adding points to your images:

  • It’s all in the details
  • All these things above are meant to help you select images or maybe work on existing ones for competitions but the real secret is to keep them in mind when you are making the images to begin with!