Hard critique | Be Brutal And Think Like A Photography Judge

Apply a competition judge’s eye to each shoot you do and you’ll continually improve

A photography competition judge’s job is to whittle down huge numbers of entries into a shortlist of possible winners. To do this effectively, they look for common mistakes they can deduct points for. I’ve been on the judging panel for local camera club competitions as well as national and international competitions. Every time, there are recurring themes that cause otherwise great images to lose marks and miss out. Even if you don’t plan to enter competitions, knowing the common mistakes that are made time and time again can help you avoid them in your photographic career. When you learn what judges look for – beyond the basics – you can evaluate your own images more impartially and critique your work effectively. Of course, there are award-winning images that break one or many of the so-called rules, but they do this intentionally and effectively. So take a selection of your favourite shots and for each one, ask ten questions:

Even if you don’t plan to enter competitions, knowing the common mistakes that are made time and again can help you avoid them in your photographic career

Are catchlights visible in the eyes?

Without them, eyes look dull and lifeless. If you can’t see a catchlight in your subject’s eyes when you’re taking a shot, adjust your lights (if in a studio) or change the angle of your subject’s face (if using ambient light) until they appear, preferably in the top half of the eyeball. Multiple catchlights (e.g. from use of a fill light in the studio) can be frowned upon.

Is there detail in both the highlight and shadow areas of the image?

If the lightest and darkest areas of your image have blocks of plain white and black pixels, you’ve lost tonal detail. These are known as blown highlights and blocked shadows, and judges mark down images that contain either.

Are skin colours natural and consistent?

Where two or more areas of skin are visible, the colour should match. Sometimes when the light source is nearest the subject’s face, their face is peachy in colour, while skin further away from the light (e.g. on their hands) looks almost blue or purple in tone. Learn how to recolour the skin in post, or convert your shot to black and white to avoid this.

Have you cropped effectively?

If you’re not including the whole of a subject or object in the frame of your image, then crop it out. It should be clear that something has been intentionally excluded from the frame, whereas leaving it half in and half out looks like you may have simply made a mistake.

Could the composition be stronger?

The rule of thirds and golden ratio are two examples of placement that are pleasing to the eye. Would following guidelines improve your image? If you place your subject so they’re central in, or if you have symmetry in your scene, are the middle of those elements central?

Do the vertical and horizontal lines look correct in the image?

If your image includes something that should obviously be horizontal (e.g. water) or vertical (e.g. a building or lamp post), make sure the lines of those elements don’t slope in an unnatural way.

Does the pose and expression suit the image’s narrative?

If you’re photographing someone holding tools in a workshop, do they look like they are truly at work? If your subject is walking, do they look like they’re walking, or like they’ve been told to stand with one foot in front of the other?

Is your post-production subtle?

As a general rule, viewers shouldn’t be able to notice the effects of your editing. Too often I see skin that looks artificial because it’s been over-processed, textured backgrounds that have clearly been added afterwards, or halos around the edges of a subject because the image has been over-sharpened. Edit gently!

Are vignettes correctly done?

Adding a vignette via a preset, or through Lightroom’s slider, dulls the highlights, midtones and shadows at the edges and corners of your photograph. A natural vignette darkens the midtones and shadows, but the highlights should still cut through. Avoid the one-click options and learn how to create natural-looking vignettes instead.

Are your printed images presented well?

If you’re submitting printed images for critique or competition, present them optimally. Images are typically scored for initial impact, and poor presentation can distract judges. If the rules allow it, print your images on board, or seal them into matted mounts so the edges don’t curl from handling and transportation.

Remember, critiques aren’t about beating yourself up over an ‘imperfect image’. They are an opportunity to learn how you can improve as a photographer, as well as celebrate an image’s strengths.

N-Photo Magazine

This article is adapted from my article in issue 109 of N-Photo – the unofficial Nikon Magazine,

N-Photo is the only magazine devoted to Nikon photographers. Brimming with expert advice, product tests, tips and tricks, plus beautiful images to inspire your next session, you’ll be motivated to get creative with your photography and learn brand new skills with every issue of N-Photo magazine. Packed full of interviews and masterclasses with award-winning photographers, you will discover how to shoot great pictures, as well as enhance any imagery using Adobe Photoshop and other popular tools with helpful guides and step-by-step tutorials.

If, like me, you’re a Nikon user, please do support the magazine and think about subscribing!

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