Guidelines for Judges



NAPFS uses outside judges to evaluate advanced class images and guest or member judges to evaluate Intermediate and Basic class images. 

For the advanced class, the outside judge will provide a written critique, score, and rank all images.  In the competition meeting, the coordinator will read the outside judge’s critique, member judges may contribute additional comments critiques to the image critiques. 

For the intermediate and basic classes, the three member judges will score and rank all images and provide a written critique for one third of the images (their assigned images).  In the competition meeting, the member judges will verbally critique all assigned images and may contribute additional critiques to images assigned to others.  

Competition Sequence 

  • Images become available for review approximately 16 days before the competition meeting. The competition coordinator will assign images to each of the three judges.
  • Each judge scores and ranks all images except their own. A judge cannot score or rank his/her own images.
  • In the case where a judge has entries in the level that he/she is judging, the score for those entries is solely determined by the other judges' scores.
  • Each judge writes a critique for their assigned images.
  • The judges will meet in a synchronization meeting 3 or more days before the due date to resolve widely divergent scores and ranks. 
  • The judges will update their scores and ranks to reflect the synchronization meeting. 
  • Final updates to judging should be completed by the end of the day, the Tuesday before the competition meeting.
  • The judges update their scores and ranks completing the judging task.  
  • The Competition coordinator or designee assigns awards.
  • At the competition meeting (First Thursday) each image is given a verbal critique. 
  • Following the critiques, the awards are announced.

Judging Tasks:

The judges have two primary tasks, critiquing and scoring images, and a secondary task which is ranking the images.

As the judges review images, they may find images that are inappropriate, too old, or theme non-compliant these images should be disqualified. Disqualified images receive no participation points, 

  • Inappropriate images should be disqualified and never shown and deleted from the website.  
  • Images that are too old are simply disqualified.
  • Theme non-compliant images are disqualified and may be discussed in the competition critique meeting. 

Both the critique and the score are the judge’s evaluation of an image, considering the elements of a photograph.  Below on this page are three versions of these elements used to describe images.

  • Elements of Photography
  • Expanded Elements of Photography
  • PPA 12 Elements of a Merit Image

None of these three lists are absolute but together can guide the judges as they evaluate images. 

An image’s critique and score should reflect a consistent view of the image’s merits; they are otherwise independent. The Visual Pursuits tools do not connect an image’s critique and score.

An image’s score and ranking are not independent. Images with high scores should always be ranked above images with low scores. The Visual Pursuits tool “Rank by Score” can be used to assign rankings based on an image’s score. Multiple images may be given the same score, this is not a problem.  The Visual Pursuits ranking tool will assign an arbitrary rank order which can be modified to reflect the judge’s view.  

Note: NAPFS does not use PV sliders and check boxes.

  • NAPFS judges should not use critique sliders.
  • NAPFS judges should not use critique checkboxes.

Note: The process described below is not intended to be a step by step how to use the Visual Pursuits tools. But instead, a description of the critique, scoring, and ranking task that precede NAPFS competition meetings. 

Image Critique (Written or Verbal):

 A critique reflects the opinion of a single judge. This opinion should consider:

  • The image’s class (Advanced, Intermediate, or Basic)
  • The competition’s theme.
  • Any unique instructions.
  • Element of a photograph (Impact, Technical Excellence, Creativity, etc.)

The image critique provides feedback to the image maker and serves as a teaching tool for all.  The critique should be positive in nature, emphasizing what the judge likes about the image and then suggesting ideas that could improve the image.

Judges should try to be objective and specific in their comments, but they recognize they are always offering a personal opinion.  And they should be aware that even though they may not like the subject matter of an image, personal bias should not affect how they score and critique the image.

It is suggested that judges:

  • Start their comments with To Me, In My Opinion, I feel, I see, I think
  • And use words like May, Might, Consider…
  • And avoid words like Always, Never, Must, Should…

In the end, the maker must always be left with the impression that the image commentary is only a suggestion and it is their choice to use or not use.

Those new to judging should read the reference material provided near the end of this web page. Experienced judges should occasionally reread the reference material.

Image Scoring:

Like an image’s critique, an image’s score reflects the opinion of a single judge.  This opinion should consider the same elements used to critique the image.  An image’s score is a numerical representation of a judge’s evaluation of that image. 

The judges should use the ranges listed below when scoring images.

  • 100 - 90 Exceptional in all aspects and without flaws (rarely used)
  • 89-80 Above average deserving of recognition very few flaws.  
  • 79-70 Average
  • 69-60 Below average 
  • less than 60 very below average, theme non-compliant
  • less than 50 inappropriate, very below average 

Most scores should be in a limited range (89 to 60) from “Above average deserving of recognition” to “Below average”. The highest range (90 to 100) should be reserved for the rare image which is truly exceptional in all aspects and without flaws. The very low scores (below 60) approach disrespectful and should be used very sparingly.   

It is anticipated a judge’s scores may be offset by as much as 10 to 15 points.  The expectation is that even if the judge’s absolute score is offset, the resulting rank orderings will be very close.  

Note: Multiple images may receive the same score. This is allowed and not a problem. 

Image Ranking:

Image ranking is automated using VP tools “Rank by Score”.  This will reorder the images with the highest score first and lowest score last.  Images with the same score are ranked as a group with unspecified order within the group. It is at the judge’s discretion to control the ranking of images with the same score.  To control the ranking, a judge may adjust an image’s score and repeat “Rank by Score” or the judge may manually reorder by dragging an image to a new place in the order.

Judges' Meeting:

The objective of the judges' meeting is to identify images with significantly different ranking and through discussion reconcile the ranking.  Prior to the judges meeting each judge has worked independently to score and rank the images. As expected, there will be different scores and possible different rankings. One or two of the judges may have overlooked or noticed an image element, that when considered would cause others to change their score and rank.  

Using a phone call or a meeting the judges should compare and adjust their rankings to remove differences caused by oversight. This is not to say that all judge’s scores and rankings should be identical, but instead that the judges understand their differences. 

Following the completion of needed updates, the judging process is complete. 

PPA's 12 Elements of a Merit Image

The PPA (Professional Photographers of America) publishes 12 elements of a merit image.  These 12 elements are used by PPA judges to rate competition photographs.  Bri Thatcher gave an excellent presentation to the NAPfS membership on these 12 elements and the benefits of the PPA on September 19, 2019.  You can see the complete recap of her presentation here, including the links to the PPA websites and some interesting facts on the way that PPA judges operate.

  • Impact – Viewing and image for the first time always evokes some kind of feeling. Sometimes they can make us sad, happy or angry. Sometimes they force us to look inward at ourselves. That’s called an impact, and the more powerful the image, the more powerful the emotional response of the viewer.
  • Technical Excellence – This is the print quality of the actual image itself as it’s presented for viewing. There are a lot of aspects that speak to the qualities of the physical print. These can include: retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and color correction.
  • Creativity – Your point of view is exactly that – yours. And it’s unlikely anyone else’s. This element speaks directly to that perspective. It shows your imagination and how you used the medium to convey an idea, a message, or a thought to the viewer. This is how you differentiate yourself from others.
  • Style – There are many, many ways to apply this element to your work. Maybe you use light in a specific way on a subject, or maybe you make a technical decision for the express purpose of underscoring desired impact. When subject matter and style come together in an appropriate manner, the effects on an image can be spectacular. But remember, when subject matter and style don’t work together, the results can be, well, less-than-spectacular.
  • Composition – When all the visual element of an image come together to express intent, that’s when the magic of composition happens. Good composition captures a viewer’s attention and directs it where you, the artist, want it to be. Depending on your intent, you can make something that pleases the view – or disturbs them.
  • Presentation – How you showcase an image is just as important as how you compose it. Everything in the presentation should work to enhance your image and not distract from it. Keep this in mind when choosing mats, borders and everything in between.
  • Color Balance – Proper color balance can bring a sense of harmony to an image. When the tones all work together to support an image, the emotional appeal is that much greater. But color balance doesn’t have to be used to bring harmony to an image. You can use color balance to evoke any number of feelings from a viewer. The choice in how to take advantage is entirely up to you, but no matter what, be sure your choice enhances rather than distracts.
  • Center of Interest – This is where an image’s creator wants the viewer’s attention focused. Sometimes there can be a primary and secondary center of interest. Sometimes everything in an image will work together to create that center of interest. A good way to measure this is to turn your photo upside-down; if your eye still goes to the center of interest, then it is probably correct.
  • Lighting – The use and control of light has an effect on every aspect of an image. It informs dimensions and shape. It sets tone and mood, and, like every other technique, proper lighting can be used to enhance your image while improper lighting can distract from it.
  • Subject Matter – Even though it lacks words, your image is still telling a story, and your subject matter is central to that. So make sure your subject matter is right for the story that you’re trying to tell.
  • Technique – How you choose to execute your image is a key. It’s also a holistic decision. Technique informs everything in the creation of your image. From lighting and posing to printing and presentation, it all works to show off the techniques that you’ve mastered and applied to your craft.
  • Story Telling – What does you image evoke in a viewer’s imagination? What do you want your image to evoke in a view’s imagination? Your image is a story, and the one it tells your viewer may be one you never knew you were telling.

Almost everyone agrees that the most important element is Impact; what impact does the image have on the judge? Other merit elements include: Technical Excellence, Creativity, Style, Composition, Presentation, Color Balance, Center of Interest, Lighting, Subject Matter, Technique, and Story Telling. The image’s title can also be quite important to judges’ reactions.

Elements of Photography

For the person who may feel they would not know what to say in analyzing a photograph, here is how it is easy. Simply memorize the elements and when confronted with an image, begin going over them in your mind one at a time and apply them to the image. Nearly every image will exhibit or not a majority of the elements. It is up to you how you use the elements; the important thing is to use them. 

  • Impact: Does the image evoke an emotion no matter how subtle?
  • Story or relevance to the monthly theme: Does the image tell a story of some kind? If there is a theme for the competition, does the image address the theme?
  • Composition: How are the subjects in the frame arranged?
  • Interest area: What, if anything, in the image is of interest to you or not, or is missing?
  • Creativity: Does the image convey a different point of view, use aperture or shutter speed in an unusual way, show something you have not seen before or something familiar done in a creative way?
  • Color: How do you see the color being used in the image or not being used?
  • Light: How has the light been used in the image? Light should enhance an image, not detract from it.
  • Technical: Focus, depth of field, exposure (ISO, aperture, shutter speed), camera handling, white balance, noise – technically done well or not? Is the image clean without spots or other issues? 

The Elements Expanded

Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder, horror or any other emotion. There can be impact in any of these emotions. Impact may also be found in any or all of the elements of a fine photograph. Photographers may be impacted by a fine composition or something finely focused.

Just because you do not feel any of the above responses to an image does not mean that is has no impact. This just means it may not have any impact for you. Impact is only one of the elements of a fine photograph; so do not put too much weight on the impact element. The quality or lack thereof, of all elements should figure into image impact.

Bias may be one reason, and the worst of all reasons, to think an image has no impact. If you do not like cats, recognize this fact and do not think that a picture of a cat has no impact just because it is an image of a cat. Your perceived lack of impact may be true; it does not have impact in your mind. This may be your problem and not the maker’s. There must be other reasons; look into it a bit deeper. Once you get past a bias, the true impact may reveal itself.

An important fact about impact is that it is just one of the elements of a fine photograph. You might not want to put too much emphasis on impact positively or negatively.

Technical excellence is the image quality as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, dirty sensor spot removal, proper removal or inclusion of distracting elements, proper or improper use of a vignette, removal of a distracting background, sharpness, exposure, depth of field, presentation, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the image. Technical excellence encompasses all the things you have learned about photography that have to do with visual excellence of the image presentation. It may not be emotional in any way and the viewer must understand the concepts as well as the methods for creating a technically excellent image.

Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to create a meaning from the image. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker, or your perception. You will not know what the maker’s intent was, so you must create the meaning for yourself before you can discuss composition. All images have some form of composition whether it is good or bad. Rules are meant to be broken and your perception of composition may very well see beyond them.

Interest Area is the point, or points, on the image where the viewers want to stop as they view the image. These are called fixation points. There can be primary and many secondary interest areas. There may be no mandate that an image must have a single center of interest. Occasionally, there will be no specific center of interest at all when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest. Interest areas serve to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering and create pleasant fixation points.

Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker and the viewer. It may be a new or creative way you feel the maker has presented a tried and true subject or an imaginative presentation of a very new subject. In either case the creativity will manifest itself in your mind as something a bit different.

Color harmony supplies structure to an image. An image where tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color harmony is not always comfortable and may supply a very unstructured image and may be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect. Color may very well be used to enhance composition by balancing the image much like a scale. Dark colors may appear heavy and bright colors conversely may appear light. This apparent distribution of color balance may not have much to do with color manipulation in a computer, but more to do with the visual equilibrium of the color parts within the frame.

You may consider black and white. Tonality may take the place of color and serve the image in a similar way. Color tonality is also a part of color harmony.

Light - The use and control of light refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image in every way including, but not limited to, color, highlight and shadow, exposure, distractions, and as mentioned, dimension or the impression of the depth.

Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The stroke around the image used, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it. Making sure there is not any Sensor Dust showing on the image.

Story - Storytelling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination in the viewer.           One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image. Therefore, there may be an argument that the viewer, as well as the maker, has a responsibility in the process. The maker has a profound responsibility to present an image that correctly fulfills as many elements as possible. The viewer may need to create a meaning for the image if it is not obvious. A vivid imagination may be one of the most powerful tools in reading a photograph.  It is not necessarily the maker’s responsibility to present you with something you recognize.

Because or judging software currently only uses six scoring sliders, the above elements have been configured to conform.

Reference Material

Visual Pursuits Videos

The basic Visual Pursuits instructions are shown in these videos: [Note: this website,, is hosted by Visual Pursuits]

N4C Judges Manual

The following PDF manual is included here courtesy of and with permission from the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs. (N4C)

It has great information and recommendations on judging photographs.  The first half of the document (PDF pages 1-34) contains excellent articles written by a variety or people.  The second half of the document (PDF pages 35-65) contains a "Judging and Analysis" workshop.

Since the document is so large, it is recommended that you start by reading "P-Essay, An Analysis of Judging", parts one and two by Dr. E.R. Sethna on PDF pages 8-14.  It contains recommendations on how to judge and how not to judge.


"The Pain and Pleasure of Critical Analysis" from PSA

The Pain and Pleasure of Critical Analysistxt.txt

Helpful Information About Critiquing

The following pages have some helpful information about the art of critiquing:



Competitions should be fun for everyone, including the judges. members should be respectful, win or lose. We appreciate you taking the time to come judge and share your perspective on photography. If you have any questions, please ask any of the NAPFS officers, or email the competition coordinators by doing the following on . Go to “Organization > Send Email to Members”, selecting “Competition Managers”, composing your message, and sending it. Alternatively, general email can be set to the club at .

This website is hosted by Visual Pursuits, a service provided by Software Pursuits, Inc.