Whether aiming for a gold ribbon or simply improving your own work, understanding how to critically examine a photograph gives you skills to appreciate a wide range of effective images. A photo contest judge may use any number of criteria to evaluate entries, but these criteria can be grouped into four general categories that include both subjective and objective observations, with plenty of crossover between categories.
The Power of Impact
A successful photograph causes a reaction in a viewer, a visceral recognition that an image's story has been told. Compelling photographs evoke emotions in the viewer by approaching the subject in a unique way, whether literally through camera angle and perspective or metaphorically through lighting, composition or technique. The Photographic Exhibitions Committee of the Professional Photographers of America considers impact the most important criterion on its list of 12 merit image elements as criteria for judging originality.
Focus, exposure, composition and lighting contribute to the expression of an effective image, and context is critically important when evaluating technique. For example, a landscape photo that is sharp with long depth of field is no more or less valid technically than a softly focused available light portrait. Judging technical merit requires some adaptation to the subject and impact of a photo. In a contest setting, a judge may also consider the photograph mounting, retouching and overall print quality.
Composing the Story
Any visual media relying on two dimensions must give consideration to the design -- where things are placed within the frame of the image. Photo contests are filled with images showing slavish devotion to the rule of thirds to the point that the composition is the subject rather than an element of presentation. Effective composition leads the viewer's eye through the photograph as an aid to storytelling, uniting the visual elements of the image in a supportive way. Again, context dictates effectiveness.
The Creative Approach
No matter how many elements a judge may consider, a photograph must unite each element to succeed. There is no formula to a successful image -- rules are at best suggestions. Images may share traits, techniques, subjects or settings, but the myriad of instinctive decisions a photographer makes are what define the style and creativity an image displays. National Geographic photographer and contest judge Jim Richardson notes that communication is the heart of a photograph, not the photograph itself.