with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Judging Photographs – It’s Now About the Back Story

I’ve been working as a photography judge, reviewer, critic, editor, and even helped teach others how to judge and review photographs, since I was in high school. While there are a lot of points to consider when judging and evaluating a photograph, they basically boil down to:

  • Composition
  • Light
  • Capturing a “moment”
  • Focus
  • Product Quality (film/reproduction quality)

These can be very regimented (only “rule of thirds” compositions allowed) or more subjective. Either way, they are the core foundation for judging a photograph for awards, reproduction, or sale.

The values of how a photograph is judged in the past few years has dramatically changed. Many of these points are not only considered not important, they are not even in the mix when it comes to honoring a photograph.

As I’ve been traveling recently, I’ve talked to a lot of photographers and found they all agree digital photography has revolutionized photography, and they aren’t sure what. Well, I’ve found out why, and it is a little disturbing.

Put a Camera in the Hands of Everyone, and Everyone Takes Pictures

When the Brownie camera was produced, it helped to put a camera in the hands of the common person. A Polaroid not only put a camera in everyone’s hands, it gave them instant gratification with fast picture results. Still, it was novel and the photographs faded quickly, so film cameras made a return boom in the marketplace. Then disposable cameras were in everyone’s hands. Not much later, the digital camera became affordable and now instant photographic gratification can be yours.

With the recent ability to share your photographs with anyone and everyone increased via the Internet, and the fact that most handheld computers and cell phones host built-in cameras, you can take a picture any time and anywhere.

Thus, by putting a camera in the hands of everyone, everyone is taking pictures. The past two or three generations have been the most photographed generations in the history of the world. Every moment of our lives are caught on film. There is a huge glut of photographs everywhere.

Instead of ooing and awwwing over beautiful photographs because they were special, photographs are a dime a thousand dozens. With the myriad photographic images out there, the way we are judging photographs has changed.

It’s About the Back Story

With the glut of photographic images everywhere, taken by anyone, judging a photograph now isn’t always about the technical perfection or expertise. It’s now about the back story.

This is an interesting evolution in judging photographs. I have taught students over the years that a photograph must tell its own story. It needs to stand on its own feet and tell the world what it is about.

Elk snorting during rut, Jasper, Canada, photograph copyright Brent VanFossenEvery element must help to relate the story. An elk in the woods snorting steam out of its nostrils, bellowing out its lust to the world during rut. Because we know it’s rutting season, we know it is the fall. We know it’s cold because of the billowing cloud of mist from the hot breath hitting the cold air. We know it’s early morning because the light is low in the sky, back lighting the steam, and it’s cold. We have a sense of space and time and understanding about the photograph. Yet it is timeless. It doesn’t matter if it was photographed in 1880 or 1980 or 2080. The image surpasses time. It is its own story.

But that isn’t what grabs your attention. It’s the dramatic action caught on film. It’s the power, the composition, the way the light hits the steam, the body position of the elk. All those elements capture your attention and holds it.

A photograph with a back story is different. It isn’t about the light or the composition. It’s about the story that comes with the photograph. And the story is usually summed up with “You should have been there.”.

The photograph doesn’t have a story. The photographer does. “We were walking down the trail and you should have seen the size of that elk snorting smoke out it’s nose.” The photograph doesn’t show the steam, and you can barely see the moose. No thought, no planning, no expertise went into the photograph. It was a snapshot, now published, and in order to understand and appreciate it, you have to hear the story.

With millions of photographs out there, without their photographers standing next to them, people are making up their own back stories to fill in the gaps in the story the photograph tells. If they recognize a landmark, a memory of their own experience at that place may be triggered. If they recognize a situation from the one caught on film, it will trigger a memory of when they were caught in the same situation.

I recently sat through a showing of photographs by people who “should” know what they are doing. As each image came up, I looked at it and buried a groan. The lighting sucked, there were too many distractions, the positioning was all wrong, the horizon line was tilted, or it was out of focus. Pictures I throw away at first glance.

Yet, everyone was so excited and proud of their pictures. And every picture came with a story. The more they talked about their photographs, the more others said, “Oh, me, too!”, “Been there, done that!”, “I remember when that happened to me!”, and “That reminds me of…”. Suddenly everyone had their memories out, using them as filters to judge the photographs.

One woman declared her favorite was a photograph of two kids walking on the beach. “It reminds me of when I was little and we used to go clam digging.”

I looked at the same picture and thought that this was a nice memory. If we were sitting in the privacy of a home browsing through a scrapbook, this wouldn’t be important. But these people are working their way towards serious-make-money photography skills. At that level, this photograph sucked. It was out of focus, the lighting was directly overhead and blinding, with deep shadows under the children’s eyes making them look exhausted, and the waves beyond them were caught between waves rather than one crashing dramatically in the background. Horrible.

The memories triggered blinded this woman to the real technical qualities of the photograph. The back story took over.

Is this right or wrong? It depends.

If you are taking snapshots for your family album, who cares? Only you. Twenty-five or fifty years from now, all you need is a photographic trigger and those memories will come spilling out.

However, if you are publishing, selling, or submitting your images for contests, then a higher standard needs to be met. It should have quality technical, compositional, and artistic merits. Unfortunately, I think a lot of photography judges are letting back stories influence their preferences from the results I’ve seen in the past year or two.

As you consider your own photography, for whatever the end use may be, think about how the photograph can tell its own story without you hovering over it. Think of your photographs as a canvas. You control what goes on and what comes off. Think before you take the photograph. Think about the light, the arrangement of the subjects within the frame, the background, foreground, colors, patterns, choosing horizontal or vertical formats, and all the elements that fit within the frame. Do this before you hit the shutter.

When you photograph consciously rather than randomly and unconsciously, the quality will naturally improve. Pay attention to the details, but most important, let the photograph speak for itself. And let it speak well.

It isn’t about the composition and lighting technique that makes a photograph awesome.


  • Posted May 22, 2006 at 10:31 | Permalink

    I’m concious that my memories of the moment blind me to some of the technical aspects of my photos. I like to use flickr or my blog to publish my favorite photos and see what kind of comments I get from folks who don’t know me or the situation. The internet has helped me take better photos – mostly because I see can browse through lots of other people’s photos.

    I got into phototography as a hobby, and have a basic Fuji digital camera I usually use on the auto setting. I’d like to take a real photography class someday to learn the technical aspects of photography. I think there’s so much I can do with just the basics that it’s still a fun hobby.

  • Posted May 22, 2006 at 10:40 | Permalink

    Understanding that your memories act as a filter in evaluating your photographs is a first step is identifying them and removing them from the process. It’s not that the memories are bad, but they do make for rose-colored glasses and can make you publish or try to sell horrid photographs because the back story is blinding you to the flaws. It’s a tough thing to learn.

    While you are waiting for a “real photography class”, check out our online basic photography book with exercises to help you learn the basics, and then check out the rest of the educational articles on photography we have in our Learning Zone. There is a lot you can learn before attending a class. Learning is the easy part. Getting your butt out the door with the camera is the hard part. ;-)

    Good luck and let me know if I can help more.

  • Patsy
    Posted May 28, 2006 at 16:37 | Permalink

    I am another newbie to the photography world having only recently started taking photographs instead of pictures.

    I get a lot of positive feedback on my work, but that’s mostly friends and family. Of course they are going to be positive, or at least in most instances. My challenge, as I see it, is to find outlets for my photographs whether that be magazine publication or direct sales. I have been doing lots of research but have yet to sell my first photo (with the exception of the photos that were published with a travel article I wrote).

    Having said all this, I found your information to be very beneficial. I now know that I need to be able to turn off my “memory” of the photo and see what story the photo tells me standing on its own.

    Thank you for a very enlightening article.

  • Posted May 28, 2006 at 18:51 | Permalink

    Glad to help. Be sure and check out the series of articles I’ve done on the Business of Nature Photography as it includes a lot of information on selling and marketing your work.

    It’s a tough market right now as competition is so high. So concentrating on taking the memory or back story out of the photograph so it will stand on its own is critical. Good for you for getting that point.

  • Evelyn Thomas
    Posted August 8, 2006 at 4:34 | Permalink

    Dear Sir
    As I am organising a photograph competition for our Manchester Deaf Club, Booth St East, Manchester on Saturday October 14th at 2.30pm. Before I send out the details to See Hear a page on BBC2 for Deaf people we wondered if you would be kind enough to judge our photos from a wide range of people with deafness?
    How much will you be charging? We are a charity. I then will proceed as I hope to have the information. Thanks.
    Yours faithfully Evelyn Thomas (Mrs)

  • Posted August 8, 2006 at 8:46 | Permalink

    I would love to participate but we will be traveling overseas at that time. Thank you for asking.

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