Based upon the visual presentation of the same name the following text sums up what judges look for in photography. It is not a list of rules for judges upon which to base decision making because this would cause a formulaic approach that would stilt image making. It is, however, a simple guide to help those at the outset of their photographic judging career. A guide to just a few things of which to be aware and to bring to the attention of photographers to help them expand and evolve their skills.
It is impossible to include all the following positive qualities in one particular image of the things that go to make a high quality photograph. If the image is to capture the attention of a judge, audience or benefactor then at least one of these elements will be present. A true high quality image will have stopping power, holding power and be appreciated from one generation to the next.
Positive qualities in images
In this short list some of the elements that contribute to quality images include:

  • Imagination and clarity of thought in carrying out personal perceptions. These are the ideas that drive image making
  • Sensitive observation of the surrounding environment
  • Creativity, that is, the inventiveness and originality used
  • Colour; its contrasts and harmonies dealing with the Visual or Optic      based primaries (Red, Yellow & Blue) and the Psychological Primaries (Red, Yellow, Green & Orange). This is about understanding the disciplines involving colour. Judges should research colour theory but here are some aspects to guide research: Colour harmonies include - cold/warm contrast, size contrast, visual primaries (red, yellow, blue), secondaries (orange, violet, green) and tertiaries (russet, olive, ochre) colour mixes (triadic) and quality or harmonious contrasts (working with one colour and its variations from near white to near black)
  • Impact; where our attention is gained and also held
  • Mood; an image that is relaxing or tempestuous gained by texture, shadow and atmospheric effects
  • Lighting, its direction, intensity and colour
  • Technical quality and the appropriate use of sharpness and exposure.
  • Print characteristics, presentation and correct lens & format usage. These characteristics include image texture, paper used, exposure, dodging, burning, borders/no borders, quality of mats etc.
  • Composition is the skeleton or frame of an image. Some images are totally abstract and formal composition transcends to the informal feel of its appearance.
  • Style, the manner by which images are repeatedly made and recognised by others
  • Psychological content, behavioural conduct and sensations in people as observed in subject matter and captured in imagery.
  • Emotive content, the sensuous or temperamental feelings in a picture
  • Disturbance, where viewers pre-conceived ideas are ruffled
  • Excitement, the stimulating and thrilling, when making the image and also seen by others in the image
  • .Humour, those elements in an image that cause audience amusement
  • .Pleasure, the enchantment, charm and delight caused by an image
  • .Satisfaction, the contentment and fulfilment seen in an image
  • .Educative content, the tuition or instruction provided by pictures.
  • .Documentary content, the authoritative presentation of history
  • Illustrative content, this is about the clarity of the subject example in a picture
  • Form, the contour and shape of a subject
  • Simplicity, the natural that is not complicated, elaborate or intricate
  • Action, the energetic, nimble or agile motion represented
  • Human interest, that deals with the frailties, passions, sympathies and qualities of mankind.
  • Communication, the story telling or information seen in an image.

Visual Irritants

Judges and audiences, often unknowingly in their case, also look for visual irritants in images. These are generally those aspects that present a challenge to the photographer and where further improvements in their skills will avoid visual irritants or distractions in photos because they destroy the point of interest by competing with it or reduce the effectiveness of other compositional elements. These distractions are usually seen at the edges of photos. Judges do not go deliberately looking for these and making them the key point of an evaluation - the key point is identifying what is right - those noted above. 

  • Visual irritants include bright or white highlights, because the outside area is usually black the extremes of brightness contrast are at the edge – exactly where our eyes physiologically focus.
  • Unrelated contrasting colours
  • Business (untidy), where the image includes parts that are irregular, crowded and distractive
  • Lines or areas parallel to the sides of the frame with light spaces between them and the frame edges, known as light traps. This is about having an area of white, pastel or light/bright colours around the edges of otherwise darker toned images. They become visual distractions and compete with the point of interest.
  • Secondary interests should be subdued compared to the dominant one. It is preferable that they supplement rather than oppose it
  • Incompatible layering in images.
  • Rubbish, distracting, visually irritating or discordant objects in images when not complementing the narrative.
  • Unattractive foreshortening and truncating body parts.
  • Inappropriate expression or colour or being unsharp within the subject
  • Aside from proximity used in humour in pictures avoid foreign objects apparently growing out of people especially their heads
  • Sensing the uncontrolled. Further areas to avoid include: Weakness, Imbalance and Indecision on the part of the photographer. Weakness is about an image which lacks vitality regarding composition, colour, emotional and psychological content. It is about images where a beginner is making images, commencing their journey, but is yet to come to grips with the extent of image making. These words would NOT be directed at an image in a competition but can be referred to in a presentation. Sensing the uncontrolled is a useful comment providing it is explained during the commentary. 
  • Competing themes. We should avoid these which includes more than one unrelated point of interest as well as equal areas of light and dark tones. This is not a good characteristic in images. It shows indecision on the part of the photographer especially in relation to emphasis in the image which relates to the point of interest. However, there are exceptions - such as patterns.
  • Pictures cut in two by a horizontal line (but a specific subject may preclude this and the following) Or by a vertical line because it will represent unresolved conflict in the photographer who was unsure about emphasis
  • Weakness here is about making an image that is devoid of reasonable characteristics of composition. When design, composition (geometry, Gestalt, Pre-Raphaelite, dynamic symmetry, etc) cannot be read into an image or cannot be 'reverse engineered' where it is impossible to identify a recognized form of composition. 



As noted in the book "Judging Photographs" judging is not only the above but also about how to:
Describe the appearance of pictures in their wholeness; (pertinent identifiers or characteristics not necessarily what all can obviously see)
Interpret content (visual, mood, feeling, spiritual, emotion, intent and communication values);
Evaluate the image's aesthetic content through useful analysis that may also offer suggestions for improvement;
Theorize about the intent of an image;
 A judge also has the capacity to:

  • See trends as they unfold, for example, images that have been ‘tweaked' to seek approval or for positive new styles;
  • To direct novice photographers in the craft of photography;
  • Make observations about the technical aspects of images;
  • Inspire photographers by referring them to other photographic works or artistic pieces from which they may learn;
  • Enrich photography by drawing upon the range of current and historic imagery, from ancient rock art to advertising, from cinema to comics, from glass plates to pixels, to evaluate what they are viewing;
  • Make decisions about competitions.

Finally, a judge, audience or benefactor assess images from intellectual, psychological, sensory, emotional and cultural perspectives all at once. Engaging the audience in a manner that is not 'template' based but which encourages the exploration of image making by photographers provides the real service to improving photography.

You may also like to read this article by Emma Gilete (Director of Training at the Photographic Judges association)

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