After a shoot, it’s time to go through all the images you’ve taken and pull out the good ones. But what makes a good photo? Let’s look at how to assess and analyze your images.
In this article, I’m mainly going to focus on assessing your own work to see which of your images are strong and have potential, but you can use the same process to look critically at the photos you see every day. Looking at great photos and asking yourself why they work (or just as good, looking at bad photos and asking yourself why they don’t work) is one of the best ways to learn about photography. If you’re one of the regular readers of my tutorials, I will encourage you to look critically at every one of the images I post; they’re not perfect so pull apart what you think works and what doesn’t. Just remember, if there’s an image you hate, I chose it deliberately to test you—or at least that’s my excuse.
Now, let’s break it all down.
Step One: Do You Like It?
The first step when reviewing your images is simple: what’s your gut reaction to it? Do you like the shot? Hate it? Somewhere in between? If you don’t like an image you shot, flag it as a reject in Lightroom or whatever catalog app you’re using. There’s not much point continuing to consider an image if your initial reaction is indifference.
Here’s a photo pulled at random from my collection that I rejected straight away. There’s not much to like: my dog is posing awkwardly, the composition isn’t great, and it’s all a bit meh.
With other people’s images, even if your initial reaction is indifference, you should at least consider why you feel that way. Is it the subject matter? The composition? The colors? Is it just a mediocre snapshot? Think it through.
Step Two: Technical Assessment
Technically assessing an image boils down to two big questions: is it sharp and is it well exposed? If the answer to either question is no, even if you love the image, it’s probably worth killing at this stage.
To get a little more specific, the kinds of things you need to ask yourself at this point are:
- Is the photo in focus? Is the right part of the subject in focus? Are the eyes sharp?
- Was a slow shutter speed used? If so, is there any blur from the subject moving? What about blur from the camera shaking?
- Is the image correctly exposed with no blown out highlights or crushed shadows? It’s okay if it’s a little overexposed or underexposed but does the histogram look like you can fix any problems in editing?
- Was it shot in RAW or did you accidentally leave your camera in JPEG? This has happened to me before, and it’s a major headache when it comes to editing.
- How do the colors look? What’s the white balance like? This stuff is easy enough to fix in editing, but you should think about it now.
Let’s look at some photos I rejected for technical reasons. In this shot, I missed focus, so the man’s eyes are blurry.
In this shot, my shutter speed was too slow, so there’s some blur from the camera in my hands.
This shot is just too underexposed. I remember that I fixed my exposure on the scene, so I’ve got a better one from a few moments later.
I reject at least a few shots that I kind of like each shoot because I got something wrong technically.
Step Three: Consider the Composition
What typically happens when you shoot is that you’ll take a couple of slightly different images of virtually the same thing. Here are twelve very similar photos I took of a lighthouse near my home. TThere area few test shots in there; I was playing around with shutter speeds and waiting for the ships in the bay to move around.
For the most part, the images are all technically equal: they’re sharp, in focus, and reasonably well-exposed. They’re also of the same subject so this is where small differences in the composition come into play.
RELATED: What Is Composition In Photography?
As you get better, you’ll get a more instinctive sense of what works and doesn’t but it’s still worth thinking about composition deliberately.
- Are you strictly adhering to the rule of thirds or have you gone for a more balanced image? Remember, you can crop your image but too much cropping reduces the image quality.
- Is there something happening in the foreground and background?
- Where do your eyes fall when you first look at the image? Is it where you want the viewer’s eyes to fall? Are there any leading lines pulling you to certain areas?
- What’s going on with the colors and contrast? Are there any bright or saturated subjects? Is the color palette going to work well?
- Does the image show what you want it to show? Is it making the point you want it to make?
All this is subjective and often it will be difficult to choose between two very similar images. In those cases, I either go with my gut or pick the first one I shot.
If you’re curious, here’s the image I finally went with that day shooting the lighthouse.
I was shooting it for a specific project, which limited my composition slightly but, overall, I’m happy enough with it. The heavy gray sky isn’t ideal but I love the depth between the lighthouse in the foreground and the subtle variations in shade of the island and mountains in the background.
Step Four: Pulling It All Together
Once you’ve pulled out your few favorite photos from a shoot, it’s time to edit them. You should be thinking about how you can fix any problems, emphasise the strong points, and minimize any weaknesses with the image. Now is the time to straighten the horizon and remove any blemishes. Every digital image you shoot will need at least a few small adjustments to brightness, contrast, and color. For example, here’s the original version of that lighthouse.
And here’s my final version again.
I haven’t done anything drastic. I cropped out the dark bit of land in the bottom right and brightened everything up. Again, it’s not the best image I’ve ever shot but it’s the best one I took that day.
Once you start to gather a collection of good images that you like, you can put them all through this process again. Look at them really critically and tease out what you got right, what you got wrong, what you like, what you don’t like, and most importantly of all, why you think these things. You can, and should, also do the same with other people’s images. Even just flicking through a decent magazine will give you dozens of images to assess.