Be Positive – Remember you are looking at someone’s pride and joy. Always start with a positive point in the photograph, such as “you have placed the subject very well in the frame” or “the ____ leads my eye directly to the subject without any distraction.” Then let them know what little thing might have improved the photograph, such as “I think that late evening light might have given you a richer color and looked better; don’t rush the time of day.”
Don’t Find Fault – Remember that you don’t have to find something wrong with the photo. If it isn’t an above average photo, you can just let them know how it could have been improved. Sometimes they can’t change what would have helped the photo (they can’t move a mountain or a tree), but you can ask if they could have changed the angle or location when they took the photo and explain how that would improve it.
Exposure – Would the photo have been better if the subject had been lighter or darker? Explain that the subject blends into the background and would have been better if they had taken the photo at a different time of day so that the light was better. If they wanted a silhouette, then the other areas should not have details in them.
Focus – Is the image sharp or was it intended to be soft? It may be that the depth of field could have been changed to make a better photo. Maybe a soft focus lens was used to achieve a specific mood. Point out the benefits of using different depth of fields and how it could improve or change the photo.
Personal Bias – Don’t inject your personal bias into the judging and critique of the photograph. We all know that babies and bunnies are cute, but a landscape or an abstract is just as beautiful and should be given the same respect. This is probably the hardest thing to leave behind when you judge. Just remember you must be fair.
Difficulty Level – Don’t let your personal perceived level of difficulty enter into the scoring of the photograph.
Safety – Don’t make comments that might encourage the photographer to take chances to improve a photo, like “Bears aren’t dangerous; you should have gotten closer.”
Images should be judged on primarily on these three elements:
Exposure & lighting – Are areas over- or underexposed? Is the image too light, dark, or just right? Is the lighting too flat, too contrasty, or just right? Does the lighting enhance or detract from the subject? Is the time of day beneficial to the image?
Focus & depth of field – Is the image sharp? If not, is it intentionally soft and successful? Is the focus appropriate for the situation? Does the depth of field work in this shot or should more (or less) of the photo be in focus? Is it free of scratches, dust spots, lens flares, etc?
Tonality or colors – In a black & white image, is there a true black and true white with a good range in between? Is the image too gray? Regardless, does the tonal range work for this photograph? In color, are the colors saturated appropriately for the image, or are they too vivid or not vivid enough? Is the white balance correct? Is there an interesting use of primary, secondary, complementary colors?
Balance – Is the image aligned correctly or is it crooked? Is the main subject in the center of the frame? Is it on a third? Somewhere else? Does the chosen composition work? Would it be better if the “weight” of the subject(s) were placed differently or if the light or dark areas were handled differently?
Design – Is the arrangement of the visual elements effective? Is there a strong center of interest, pattern, or design? Is the cropping effective, or should it have been cropped tighter or given more space (if possible)? Is the arrangement of the visual elements effective?
Leading lines – Is there good use of visually interesting elements such as diagonal lines or S curves? If applicable to the subject, does the photo have a fore, middle, and background? Does the overall composition make you want to look deeper into the photo? Is your eye drawn into the photo or out of it?
Impact – Does the photograph get your attention and interest? Is there a mood conveyed through the image to the viewer? Do you like the photo? Does it excite your imagination and have a “wow” factor?
Creativity – Was the photo taken at the “right” moment? Does it show a familiar subject in a new and unusual yet effective way? Is there an interesting creative process shown in the image? Does it show a very unusual subject in an effective way? Is the image artistically provocative or just a missed attempt at something different? Is it unique and memorable?