Twenty-Five Questions to Think like a Photo Competition Judge

Photo of an impala drinking. Impala Drinking. This image has a feeling of tranquility. The lighting and soft focus background of the impalas reinforce the feeling of a peaceful scene. The subject pops and helps create story. © Donna Brok
Impala Drinking. This image has a feeling of tranquility. The lighting and soft focus background of the impalas reinforce the feeling of a peaceful scene. The subject pops and helps create story. © Donna Brok

By Donna Brok

Camera clubs offer members some great opportunities to learn and practice their craft, one of which is regular photo competitions. In addition to whatever points members earn toward year-end recognition, seeing other members’ images and getting critiques on your own is one good way to improve your photography. Thinking like a photo contest judge is an even more powerful way to rapidly improve the quality of your entries. In this article, I will explain my thinking as a photo contest judge and the 25 questions I ask about every photo I evaluate.

Photo of a lilac-breasted roller. The action of the wings adds interest. A low perspective gives a unique view on this subject. DOF and lighting increase visual appeal. © Donna Brok
Lilac-breasted roller. The action of the wings adds interest. A low perspective gives a unique view on this subject. DOF and lighting increase visual appeal. © Donna Brok

What judges look for

It is important to note that different judges will see an image through different eyes. One may score a photo differently than another. While judges follow guidelines and seek objective criteria to evaluate, there is also a certain level of personal opinion involved.

A photo competition judge considers all the factors that go into the presentation of the subject. It’s more than just the subject of the photo. The judge looks at the form and feel of the image, the techniques that were used, the presentation, and the composition. A judge observes the work as a whole, without breaking it down into parts. Technical considerations, composition, lighting, and impact are key considerations. But even more importantly, a judge should examine how a photograph makes one feel.

Images can communicate meaning through composition, focus, focal length, tone, and light. A good image also conveys a mood that helps viewers find a meaning in what the photographer is trying to say. Denotation is the literal meaning in an image. Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the implied meaning within the photo. Connotation leads to art. Done well, it’s why some photos evoke strong feelings in a viewer.

I’m not necessarily interested in the special subjects as much as I am in the moments you capture. Too much of the photography I see in camera club judging is merely documentary, lacking any feeling or emotion (denotion, not connotion). I suspect that is true in a lot of competitions. Including the subject, the moment, and the feeling will kick your image up a notch.

When I look at work of others, I look for a personal handprint, something that makes an image unique, powerful, or interesting. I look for emotion, intensity, passion, and purpose in the image. It is how you get impactful images.

How your choices create impact

Why do your choices as a photographer matter? Because when you snap the shutter, you create something no one else has captured in quite the way you have.

First and foremost, you made that image for yourself. It was a moment of connection, where the moment met the emotion within you. You felt something that excited you. No excitement, no great photo. If you look really hard for these moments, your images will improve and start grabbing the attention of judges.

Okay, so it grabbed your emotions. Now, is it something that will move your viewer, especially if the viewer is a judge? You succeed when others see and then feel things as you intended. Even if they see it differently, you may have stirred their curiosity, or helped them imagine a new meaning. You are then on the way to forming a personal style and following.

When selecting photos to enter into a competition, ask yourself, “Did I create an image of which I am truly proud? Did I engage my viewers?”

Photo of elephants at a waterhole. Elephants Drinking. When do you choose to go Black and White? Many times it is when the subject has texture and interesting form. This image shows how contrast moves the eye through the image. It creates balance, through a light and dark rhythm, which gives movement and impact. For instance, this is a dark subject on a lighter background. Many tonal values alternate, keep the eye moving through the space. © Donna Brok
Elephants Drinking. When do you choose to go black and white? Many times it is when the subject has texture and interesting form. This image shows how contrast moves the eye through the image. It creates balance, through a light and dark rhythm, which gives movement and impact. For instance, this is a dark subject on a lighter background. Many tonal values alternate, keep the eye moving through the space. © Donna Brok

The technical craft of photography matters

Technical excellence does and will always matter. A badly composed, out-of-focus image won’t stir emotions or win any prizes. But technical prowess is not the end. It’s really the beginning. A necessary but not sufficient condition for a winning photo. A contest winner needs good lighting, posing, contrast, emotion, story, and expression.

Ask yourself, “Is the shot well focused, sharp and well exposed?” Those should be a given if you view yourself as photographer. That’s as basic as it gets.

In nature photography competitions, judges will also want to know that photos were taken ethically and without harming or stressing animals or environments. NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices and Truth in Captioning Statement are good sources of guidance.

Annotated photo of elephants drinking. Elephants Drinking. Here, I’ve simplified how this works. If you change an image to B&W you can readily see the changing tonal values. Go to the top of this image and see the same thing happening. © Donna Brok
Elephants Drinking. Here, I’ve simplified how this works. If you change an image to B&W you can readily see the changing tonal values. Go to the top of this image and see the same thing happening. © Donna Brok

A judge’s feedback

The job of a photo competition judge is, of course, to provide expert feedback. The first and most basic level of feedback is scoring, based on the judge’s analysis of the work. Ideally, the judge will also give a second level of feedback with helpful advice for improvement or explanations of why an image was or was not successful. If your club’s competitions do not have this level of analysis, it’s a missed opportunity that leaves the photographer with little to no guidance for getting better. And it won’t take full advantage of a judge’s knowledge and skills

A judge should be a communicator whose remarks have both substance and guidance. The score or award is secondary. If a judge does their job well, photographers will learn, improve, and enjoy the process.

When I judge, I give feedback on what works (or doesn’t), similar to the captions on the photos that illustrate this article. I also try to ensure that people will start asking themselves questions so they can learn. Questions only they can answer. Questions that will lead to images with direction, purpose and feeling.

In a way, judging is answering questions the maker should have asked before taking the shot!

Photo of Baboons. This image exhibits emotion. When you look at the photo, you might note the eyes, the face and, if you are very observant, the hand. They are darker, more vibrant, and sharper than the surroundings. What you might not notice is the alternating light and dark areas which create tonal contrast and visual interest. The strength of figure/ground to make the subject stand out. The direction of gaze into the negative space works with implied converging lines. © Donna Brok
Baboons Papio. This image exhibits emotion. When you look at the photo, you might note the eyes, the face and, if you are very observant, the hand. They are darker, more vibrant, and sharper than the surroundings. What you might not notice is the alternating light and dark areas which create tonal contrast and visual interest. The strength of figure/ground to make the subject stand out. The direction of gaze into the negative space works with implied converging lines. © Donna Brok

Twenty-five questions to ask yourself

These are some of the questions I ask, as a judge, when evaluating a photograph. These are questions you could be asking yourself, either in the field before you press the shutter button or at your computer as you consider entering a photo in a competition.

  1. Does the image have a message, purpose or feeling?
  2. Is the subject presented in an effective way?
  3. Is the photo unique?
  4. Is there a fresh or creative approach or is this image merely documentary or a snapshot?
  5. Does the image tell a story? Can you say it is compelling?
  6. Does the image focus on the subject or interaction of subjects?
  7. Are the colors used pleasant and harmonious?
  8. Was it taken in good lighting?
  9. Was the best angle or point of view chosen?
  10. Is the depth of field appropriate or adequate?
  11. Is the image noisy?
  12. Are there distracting elements or mergers?
  13. Would a different aspect ratio improve the image presentation?
  14. Is the image lacking visual interest?
  15. How are the tones in the image? Is there depth to the image?
  16. Is there implied movement?
  17. Does the subject have room to move in the direction of travel?
  18. Is the subject doing something interesting?
  19. Is the background pleasing, working with the subject, and appropriate?
  20. Is the horizon line level? Was it intentionally skewed?
  21. Is the image sharp?
  22. Was selective focus used?
  23. Is the subject in focus?
  24. Is the subject properly exposed?
  25. Is there contrast? Or is the image flat?

Yes, it’s great to win or score highly, but competitions are supposed to be an incentive for photographers to excel in, or advance their craft. The end result isn’t really the winning, but rather gaining a better understanding of your own photographic strengths and weaknesses, your vision and passion and your path to improve.

My best advice, as a judge, is to enter camera club competitions and look for other opportunities to have your work juried or critiqued. Some friendly expert feedback is the best way to improve your craft.

And, when you’re asking and answering those 25 questions, you are on a path to thinking like a judge. Your photos will thank you.

Photo of Donna BrokDonna Brok has been an artist and wildlife photographer for many years. She is also a judge for local camera clubs as well as professional competitions. She is also the Judging Coordinator for the Niagara Frontier Regional Camera Clubs, an organization of 20 clubs in the US and Canada. Her job is to help guide the Judging Committee as it create judging guidelines, determines ways to interest and attract new judges, and creates a curriculum to instruct and educate judges using the guidelines developed.


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