How to Assess Photographs – a Guide

Always assume that the photograph at which you are looking is what the photographer intended you to see.  This does not preclude the possibility that you may spot something they missed.

Often amateur photographers accept that there are rules to which each photograph they make should adhere. These include –

• The “Rule of Thirds,”

• Placing the horizon away from the vertical mid-point of an image.

• Using leading lines to point to the centre of interest.

• Having a  single centre of interest.

• Having a  red item as a centre of interest.

• Avoidance of symmetry – especially bilateral symmetry.

• Making the brightest part of a picture coincide with the centre of interest.

• Not allowing the frame to cut off body parts – such as heads or feet, or whatever.

• Not losing the sense of the complete, or confusing the subject, by overlapping figures.

Most of these rules have come about from studies of Renaissance Art where writers  described these rules as present in pictures from that period. Somewhere along the line these then became  prescribed as being necessary in pictures. Early photographers followed the rules of painting because they wanted their art to be accepted. And so it is that in club photography it came to be believed that these were elements of ‘good’ pictures. It is these rules that often restrict our judges from ever saying much of use.

Of course some of the time these rules can help in our picture making, but they can be ignored and the resultant pictures still be successful

When assessing pictures twelve elements* can be defined as necessary for the success of an art piece or image. Any image, art piece or photograph will reveal some measure of all twelve elements, while a visually superior example will reveal obvious consideration of each one. They are:

1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.

2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct colour are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

7.) Colour Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Colour balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

8.) Centre of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centres of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific centre of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the centre of interest.

9.) Lighting —the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12.) Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read their own story in an image

Giving Feedback

Use “and” instead of “but”. For example, instead of saying I like the lighting but the framing could be better, say I like the lighting and it might work better in this shot if the framing was different. Why don’t you try . . .(give an example.)

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in photography so be specific in your comments. You may choose to comment on each of the above points or chose those you feel are strongest in the picture. Remember – you are trying to encourage.

By all means quote the “rules” but also comment on unusual compositions and the use of negative space.

Robin Mellor ARPS CPAGB (May 2016)
Download as a PDF Assessing Photographs

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