Judging Criteria

There are three main areas of consideration when judging photos. Each of these is given a score and the total of the scores make up the score from one judge. The descriptions below are to help both potential judges and those who are looking to improve their own photos by knowing what the judges are looking for.


When evaluating for technique, the judges look at such things as focus, lighting, exposure, and presentation. But what, really, are they looking for?

Focus is the easy one – usually. The subject of a photograph should be in focus. Does the image need to be entirely in focus, such as a landscape, or is selective focus of one part of the scene needed to isolate the subject? Determine your focus by deciding what your subject is.

Lighting is another factor to consider when evaluating a photograph. Is the lighting of the photograph appropriate for the subject? Side lighting will bring out texture while front lighting will provide the absence of shadows. Back lighting, whether rim light, silhouette, or ethereal shapes, is very dramatic. The intensity of the light (the soft light of an overcast day vs. the hard edge of direct sun or electronic flash) and the color of the light (the warm light of early morning and late afternoon or the cool light of noon sunshine) are also taken into consideration when evaluating an image.

Lighting and exposure go hand in hand. Is the image overexposed (too light)? Is it underexposed (too dark)? Or is it right on? A camera’s metering system exposes for 12%-18% gray. A light subject, such as snow, will require more exposure than the camera’s meter suggests. And, because film and digital sensors can’t handle the range of light form deep shadow to bright highlight that our eyes can define, the exposure of a contrasty subject must be made to favor either the shadow or the highlight.

Presentation means simply submitting a slide that is clean rather than dusty and full of fingerprints. In the print competitions, the matting should compliment the photograph rather than compete with it. The mounting of the print should be even – no bubbles under the print and mounted square to the mat board (none of the backing showing). For digital, make sure the image is the recommended size as small images are hard to judge.


Composition is the arrangement of all the elements in the picture so that subject is presented in an attractive manner. When evaluating composition, the judges look for such things as placement of the subject on a “1/3” position, the use of a “line” leading the eye to the subject, foreground interest, and the use of a frame for the subject. Is the subject presented properly as a horizontal or vertical? Does the subject blend in to the background, or is it well separated? If you shoot your subject from more than one angle, trying different compositions, you are bound to present your subject in an attractive manner.

Interest / impact

Technique and composition are tangible areas of evaluation; there are rules to measure against. Impact is the intangible area of evaluation.

Most photographs with good technique and good composition will present an acceptable interest. What changes a photograph from good to “Wow!” is the creativity used to come up with the subject; it is the originality of the presentation of a common subject; it is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Impact is what makes us laugh at the image, pull back in disgust, or wish we had taken that shot.

When you are starting out submitting images for competitions, it is very difficult to evaluate your own work. Go over your photographs with a critical eye to select several possibilities. Then have someone look over your possibilities for a second opinion. This person does not have to be a photographer – just someone who will look at the photographs with an impartial eye and say which ones they prefer, and hopefully why.

So, have you entered any of your photographs into competition yet? Now that you know what to look for, what are you waiting for?