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Judging The Success Of A Photograph

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Why is it that some photos strike a chord with our audience? And why do some images transcend the reach of our usual audience and become viral?

Often folks respond to photos particularly positively based upon a range of criteria which might include the following:

  • The kind of subject matter or genre in which they’re particularly interested
  • A connection, based upon familiarity or aspiration, with the subject matter or scene in question
  • The visual appeal and emotive power underpinning the image


  • An image that’s topical, of the moment and trending in social media
  • A photo of a celebrity, whether shown in a positive or negative light


  • The physicality and/or related challenges such as cost, effort, patience and timing involved in making the image
  • The camera and/or image processing skills underpinning the image


  • The attractiveness of the subject portrayed
  • The grandeur or historic nature of the subject or the event associated with it 
  • The exotic nature inherent to the subject or scene
  • The iconic nature of the image


  • It’s ability to explore notions such as humanity, kindness, war, hunger, motherhood, childhood, lust, anger, power, greed, compassion and empathy
  • The ability of the photographer to transcend the subject matter and to explore bigger issues such as the Human Condition, Spirituality and our place in the cosmos.

Naturally the image that appeals most to a particular individual is, by definition, subjective. Photography tutors are supposed to be somewhat more objective in their valuation. But, at the end of the day, we are all biased. Perhaps the fact that you either like or dislike a particular image is less important than your ability to explain why you feel the way you do. Feedback can be largely meaningless unless it is thoughtful and coherent.

A beautiul image of branches on the surface of  Harcourt Reservoir  during the afterglow at  Harcourt, Australia .

A beautiul image of branches on the surface of Harcourt Reservoir during the afterglow at Harcourt, Australia.

Keeping Technique In Perspective

There’s a place for pixel peeking and the like but, at the end of the day, that’s only one way to critique an image. And it needs to be put into perspective. Why? Because such concerns are not what’s most important in the big, wide world.

Other than photographers who cares what lens, shutter speed, aperture or ISO was used to make the image? Likewise, does it matter if there’s a little bit of noise or if the image is ever so slightly soft. You have to be able to firstly see these things and consider them to be important before they affect your judgement. And I think it’s good for us photographers to appreciate and accept that fact.

We make images for ourselves, but we also make them for others. The more communicative your images the more people will see and respond to them, on an emotional level.  

As a photography tutor it’s part of my role to draw attention to issues of technique. However, that should never be at the expense of recognizing or rewarding the visual or emotive power within an image. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

More and more I hope the feedback you provide to your peers will reflect and support this view. You’ll be amazed at how opening yourself up to view and respond to images in this way will affect the quality of your own photography.

Photo Of The Week

In my cohorts at the Arcanum we have a regular, and non-compulsory, Photo of the Week competition.

Here’s the result and the feedback I provided one of the earliest winners, Mr. Torben Kühle.

This photo of a large wooden building, illuminated with warm, artificial lighting against a night sky painted with the surreal color of the Aurora Borealis is spectacular.

While I’m impressed with the technique underpinning this photo it is the surreal and exotic nature of the scene and its cinematic qualities that I feel are most important to its success. What’s more I’ve long wanted to photograph the aurora and travel to Norway to do so is right up the top of my bucket list.

A protective barrier guards a  beautiful tree  on a high, windy pass on  Mt. Huangshan  (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in  China .

A protective barrier guards a beautiful tree on a high, windy pass on Mt. Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China.

Duality In Photography

I’m very interested in the notion of duality. The quietness and solidity of the building contrasts markedly against the dynamic and transitory nature of the illuminated sky. This photo seems, on the one hand, to record a moment in time, but it also seems to explore a moment between events.

From a compositional point of view I like the way the building runs up into the top right hand corner of the frame.

I think to enhance visual appeal photos need to be, on one level, stripped down to their most basic components. Including too much information (which, incidentally, can be the death of a HDR image) can result in unnecessary distraction. With this in mind I feel the photo would be better with a silhouetted hillside in the background. That would mean getting rid of the trees protruding above the horizon and retouching out the structures that are partly visible in the foreground.

Ideally I’d like to see a little more of the illuminated grass in the very front of the picture, including the bottom right corner. The shape created would provide an opposite (light verses dark, and right to left versus left to right) shape compared to the hill in the immediate background. I’m not saying I’d necessarily do it, but I feel it would produce an even more dynamic image.

Beauty lies in simplicity of design as much as it does in the choice of subject matter.

Congratulations Torben on an excellent result.

After making the arduous climb up the hill overlooking  Paradise Harbour  in  Antarctica  it's an absolute thrill to slide down, in a fraction of the time.

After making the arduous climb up the hill overlooking Paradise Harbour in Antarctica it's an absolute thrill to slide down, in a fraction of the time.

A Final Piece Of Advice

My advice is to provide your peers with meaningful feedback that is positive, constructive and from the heart. Ultimately your advice should be in alignment with your own photography: life affirming.

Thanks so much for watching the above video. Actually it was made way back in October 2014, but I felt it was time I shared it outside of my Arcanum cohorts.

If you like what you see and would like to take a look at The Arcanum make sure you check it out. You'll be glad you did. Many call it life changing. It has been for me.

Visit Schmidt Fine Art Gallery to read more of ourblogs or view ourCollection of art

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