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Evaluating a Photograph

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers

by Gloria Hopkins

To get the most from the visual experience it helps to understand as much as possible about the image including subject matter, style, and execution. Before delving into the compositional aspects, look at the image in a broad overview that considers the following:

Artist’s Intent

With the exception of documentary-type images, photographs usually have a meaning or a message. These could be as simple as showcasing a pretty flower or as abstract as a photograph of a pure white wall. Before rendering criticism, try to see a photograph as a complete image. Try to understand the artist’s intent. What was the photographer trying to achieve? What is the purpose of the image? To document a scene? To dazzle us? To relate a story? By understanding the artist’s intent, you are, in many cases, better able to evaluate the image and form a knowledgeable opinion.

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Emotional Impact

One of the most powerful aspects of a photograph is its ability to generate emotions. The effects of a photograph are immediate and are thrust upon the viewer with little warning or time for preparation. The first impression that you get from a photograph is extremely critical; it can set the tone for the entire viewing experience.

Photographs are often created specifically for the purpose of evoking an emotional response within the viewer; some photographers are very good at doing this. At times, photographers can be aggressive in their efforts to stir emotion and at other times they can be subtle. It is not necessary to be clobbered with emotion when studying a photograph. You need not wind up sobbing on the floor or flying above Cloud Nine for an image to stir your emotions.

It is often best to recognize the nature of the emotions you experience when viewing an image and to keep them in perspective. A field of pale clover will not have the high drama and impact of a field of screaming yellow sunflowers. But the field of clover may have its own quiet qualities that evoke powerful emotions. Both high drama and subtlety are well represented through the medium of photography.

If you recognize the subject or understand the message the first time you see a photo, you may well connect it with your experiences. You carry the memories of these experiences with you throughout the viewing process; this can make for an extraordinarily moving experience. This is one reason that images depicting human suffering are often so powerful. All people experience pain. When people read a sad face, it brings back memories of their pain and suffering. As each person has had diverse experiences, it follows that there cannot be a right or wrong way to interpret the emotional aspects of a photograph.

Evaluating the Light

The evaluation of the quality of light is subjective. There are various ways to look at and interpret the light in a photographic image. Artists, being familiar with the properties of light, come to the table with lots of ideas as to how it should be captured in photography. It’s important to put your personal preferences aside and try to imagine the scene as the photographer might have seen it.

When evaluating the light in a photograph, consider the following:

  • Is the main subject adequately lit? Should it be brighter or darker? Is it exposed well? Is the image properly processed?

  • Is flash or other artificial lighting technique used? If so, how well was it used??

  • Is time of day evident? Does it add to the image?

  • Does the light make you feel anything? Does it contribute to the mood of the image?

  • Is the image too contrasty? Are the highlights too bright or the shadows too dark?

  • Does the light have weight? Does it seem thin and light, crisp and airy, thick and muggy?

  • Is the light direct, obstructed, or filtered? Do the obstructions, if any, affect the quality of the light falling on the subject? Would it have been better to create the image in different light?

  • Is the image side-lit, front-lit, back-lit, or lit from above or below? Would light from a different direction have been more effective?

  • Does the light cause glare or extreme contrast? Does the light add a sense of drama? Did the artist purposely over or underexpose the scene to create an artistic effect?

These are not questions that need to be answered for every photograph. They are simply a range of things to be considered when evaluating the light in photographic images.

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Structure

The structure of a photograph can be categorized in one of three ways: formal, abstract, or informal. Examples of a formal, rigid composition would be a tight image of a brick wall, a honeycomb, or another pattern created by regularly occurring shapes of equal or similar size.

An abstract structure is usually an unordered composition comprised of elements or effects that are not immediately recognizable. In an abstract composition, order, structure, and predictable flow do not exist; the viewer is left to explore the image on his or her own.

hibiscusAn informal structure includes a mix of both abstract and formally structured elements that creates a composition that is fluid, cohesive, and interesting. Most nature photographs with a sense of order have informal compositions.

Execution

Rendering a three dimensional scene with a camera onto a two dimensional piece of film or a flat digital sensor is a tough business; you must have absolute control over your equipment in order to do this. With digital cameras, you can check your technique in the field and make real-time adjustments. With film you do not see your results until they are processed.

When evaluating the technical aspects of an image, look at its sharpness, exposure, and lighting. Look for the area of sharpest focus and for things like camera shake, blown highlights, blocked shadows, lens flare, color quality and saturation, and effects created by artificial lighting and reflectors.

Advanced Evaluation

In addition to the things already mentioned, take a close look at the following:

  • The distribution, position, and relationship of shapes, forms, lines, and points;

  • The visual pathways that suggest movement and motion within the frame;

  • The visual balance, or lack thereof: symmetry, space, negative space;

  • The color palette, distribution, saturation, and harmony;

  • The distribution, weight, and balance of tones;

  • The various textures and how they are lit;

  • The effect of extraneous elements on the image;

  • The influence of weather and atmospheric conditions on the image;

  • If the information is available, the equipment used, the settings, and the accessories and their effects;

  • The sharpness and/or blurring techniques, including shutter speed, aperture, and depth-of-field.

excerpt from Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers, Available Now!

Revised August 2011
Text and images copyright Gloria Hopkins