What makes one or two photos rise to the top in a stack of 20, 30, or even 100 photos? The answer, despite what beginning photographers may imagine, is not a secret known only to seasoned photographers and photo editors. Nor is there a single element that makes a photo “good.” Rather there is a not-so-secret checklist of criteria commonly used to evaluate images.
Having said this, I hasten to add that evaluation checklists vary by person, and, like other judging criteria, there are always exceptions to the rules. Furthermore, the lines separating the criteria very often blur. Photography is, after all, subjective.
Despite these disclaimers, knowing the commonly accepted evaluation criteria can give you a roadmap to getting better day-to-day photos, and a guide for evaluating the final images. Following is the evaluation list that I use when I review my images. In addition, I’ve included sample questions for each checkpoint that you can use or adapt for evaluating your photos.
1. Is there a clear center of interest? In a strong photo, the viewer can immediately identify the subject. While this sounds like a no-brainer, a surprisingly high number of photos fail to clearly identify the main subject. Instead, a complex montage of elements compete for the viewer’s attention.
In a strong photo, the subject should dominate the image and form the viewer’s first impression. If the subject is strong, the viewer’s eyes may move to explore other areas of the image, but the eyes are drawn inevitably back to the subject. While the colors and cloud formations of a sunset are dramatic, they are seldom enough to create a compelling image. Beyond a quick, though perhaps appreciative first glance, most sunset photos are quickly forgotten. And in large numbers, they quicky become “ho-hummers.”
However, when the photographer adds an element that gives the sunset context and interest, you have a sunset photo with impact, and one that is far more likely to capture and retain the viewer’s interest. The sunset photo here includes the activity of people enjoying the last moments of the day against the backdrop of the dramatic late-day color.
To evaluate your own photos for a strong center of interest, try asking yourself these questions. Or show the picture to a friend and ask your friend to honestly answer the questions.
- When you look at the photo, what is the first thing you see? If you’re evaluating your own image, is what you see first the subject you had in mind for the photograph?
- What holds your eye the longest?
- Do other elements in the image compete with the subject for attention?
- Do technical aspects such as light and the direction of light, depth of field, focus, and so on add to or detract from the subject?
2. Is the image composed well? In a strong photo, there should be a sense of overall organization. While entire books are written on composition, at the most basic level, composition is the process of establishing a sense of order for the elements within an image. Note Composition rules or guidelines are a helpful starting point, but they are useful only as long as they enhance the overall image.
Here are a few basic composition pointers.
- Fill the frame Filling the frame helps establish the center of interest, and, simultaneously, it helps exclude competing background details. You can fill the frame by moving closer to the subject or by using a longer focal length (or zooming in).
- Organize elements In composition, the Rule of Thirds is often used to organize elements in a composition. This rule is derived from the Golden Section or Golden Rectangle that divides a space, such as a photographic frame, into equal segments to create pleasing proportions. In simple terms, if you apply the Rule of Thirds in photography you simply imagine a tick-tac-toe pattern on the viewfinder. Then, when you place the subject of the photo at one of the intersection points, the result is a pleasing sense of order.
- Control the background A non-distracting background is a compositional tool to help bring attention to the subject of the photo. You can control the background by moving your position or moving the subject to avoid background distractions and by using a wider aperture (smaller f-stop) to blur the background. It’s a good practice to review the entire scene and, when possible, eliminate or rearrange as many distracting background elements.
- Keep it simple The fewer the elements in a photo, the stronger the statement the image makes. Simplicity also helps prevent the viewer’s eye from being distracted. To evaluate the composition of your images, try asking these questions.
- Is there a sense of order and balance in the image that helps lead the eye through the composition?
- Are elements included that do not contribute to the subject of the image?
- Are elements excluded that, if included, would have enhanced the subject of the image?
- Do the depth of field, focal length (lens or zoom setting), lighting, angle, and perspective enhance the composition?
- Does the crop enhance the composition?
3. Is the focus tack sharp and is the exposure appropriate? With the exception of photos that either intentionally show motion or are taken as soft-focus images (such as a portrait), tack-sharp focus is one of the first things that everyone notices first about an image.
Going a step further, the center of focus should be on the center of interest of the subject. In other words, if the picture is of a person, the focus should be on the person’s eyes. The sharpest point of the picture should pinpoint what the photographer sees as the most important aspect of the image. READ MORE