Whether you’ve just bought your first DSLR or you’re an avid photographer, evaluating your own photographs can prove a challenge. Properly evaluating your photographs does not mean sitting in front of your computer with a magnifying glass (most photo editing software has a tool for this for those of you that enjoy it). To properly evaluate a photograph you need to be able to find a perfect balance between sharpness, noise, exposure, and composition.
Does the composition strengthen what you are trying to convey in the photograph? Or does it distract the viewer, leading them away from the subject or story? Things like leading lines, the rule of thirds, and framing are all strong compositional tools to learn and keep in your tool belt (don’t actually wear a tool belt, that’s a metaphor).
When reviewing your photograph try to focus on why you took the photograph, what it was in the scene that you wanted to capture, and review whether or not the composition strengthens or weakens it. Also, when you are taking a photograph you should try to envision what that photograph will look like when you are done editing it… this will help you to visualize and make sure that your compositional elements are all supporting then end result rather than trying to sort it out in the end.
Compositional Rules You Need To Know
You don’t need an expensive camera to take really great photographs, the first thing someone will notice about your photograph is its composition. After running photo contests over the last couple of years I can confidently tell you that if your composition is crap your image won’t even make it past the initial screening.
“…the first thing someone will notice about your photograph is its composition.”
In order for you to evaluate the image quality of an image you should have first put it through the composition screening, meaning if it didn’t have appealing composition there is no need to evaluate the image quality. Let me repeat that, your work flow should start with the evaluation of the composition. If your image passes your scrutiny then and only then should you evaluate the image quality of said image, this way you can spend your time efficiently instead of scrutinizing every one of the 200 images of your pet cat Snicker Doodle.
After you’ve screened your images you are left with a handful of brilliantly composed images that require a second look to make sure the noise, exposure, and sharpness are acceptable. The problem is, what is acceptable? Read on…
Image noise is the visual distortion normally found in digital photographs when taken in low light with a high ISO. The distortion looks similar to grain found in film photography. When noise is really bad it can look like splotches of color and ruins your photograph. Some noise is acceptable in most situations (stock photography generally precluded noisy photographs). With the advent of Instagram and other similar photo manipulating programs image noise has become so popular that there are actually filters that add additional noise to your photographs.
Look for noise by zooming into your photograph 100% and look for splotches of colored pixels. If the noise is evenly distributed and you’ve retained a majority of the detail then I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Evaluating the correct amount of noise is very difficult because artistic vision plays a large role… with that being said if your planning on entering the image into a contest or blowing the image up larger than a 5×9 you’ll want to try to eliminate the noise all together. I’ve seen a fair amount of photographs with great composition get eliminated from photo contests due to digital noise.
If you have noise that is plaguing a photograph with excellent composition and you just can’t eliminate enough of it to satisfy your O.C.D. then you can try converting said photograph to B+W, this will make the noise less noticeable.
Lastly, if you aren’t trying to win copious amounts of money and gear by entering photo contests or selling your photographs on a stock photography website noise is perfectly acceptable. The trick to “good” noise is adding it post processing rather than getting it because of a high ISO. When you use a high ISO you can lose a good amount of detail and the noise can look blotchy like a sick cat with hair clumps. When adding it in post processing you can add it evenly and avoid the blotchy, sick cat, look.
Abstract photography aside, there is no excuse for blurry images. Grab your tripod, dust it off and use it. When you zoom into your photograph 100% look for ghosting (where an image looks as if its laid over the same image but not lined up perfectly). Ghosting is even more noticeable if there are signs with writing on them somewhere in the photograph.
Utilizing the tripod as well as turning off image stabilization allows me to capture tack sharp images every time.
Crop of the image above. I always check signs in cityscapes to see how sharp the image is… If I notice the letters look like there are faint letters behind them then I know I need to try again. This is also a good way to tell if you’ve blown your highlights.
Tips To Keep Things Sharp:
Use a tripod
Turn off image stabilization when using a tripod
Choose a smaller aperture when shooting landscapes (f/6 to f/11 depending on the lens)
Use hyperfocal distance calculations or make an educated guess by focusing about a third of the way through a scene.
You can increase the sharpening during post processing too but it’s better to get it right in the field.
Use your cameras LCD screen to zoom in and check the sharpness.
Know your lenses sweet spot, too wide and you risk shallow depth of field making subject blur and too narrow of an aperture could cause diffraction.
I saved this one for last because I hope that if you take nothing else from reading this you at least take this. Please get your white balance right. There is nothing worse than seeing a beautifully composed portrait where the person looks like they ate too many carrots (because they are orange). Or how about the landscape that looks blue? Manual white balance is super easy to use on your camera if the presets aren’t cutting it. If you refuse to change your white balance off “auto” then I implore you to shoot in RAW so that you have full latitude in post processing to adjust it to your heart’s content.
The difference that the correct white balance can make is huge
Poor white balance can make a decent looking photograph look terrible
There are other ways to ensure correct white balance in post processing but that would be another article all together. The best advice I can give you is to set one of your custom buttons to manual white balance set and carry a grey card with you. If you don’t want to carry a grey card you can purchase a cheap lens cap that has a grey card built-in from here.
From the earliest days of photography photographers would process their photographs to get the most out of every drop of light. Lightroom, Photoshop, and the rest of them are like digital darkrooms for the modern-day photographer. Get familiar with one of the programs, if you don’t want to spring the extra cash for one of these programs you can use the free version called Pixlr.
(slightly over processed to emphasize the difference)
Straight out of the camera.
With a little massaging you can pull details out of shadows and return detail to highlights (within reason) and save images that you’d otherwise get rid of. Shooting in RAW is ideal for post processing because each image file retains all the uncompressed image data that the sensor records.
Reviewing your photographs is important for a number of reasons but first and foremost is quality control. Don’t publish poor photographs on the internet (or elsewhere) because they will always be associated with your name. If you want to turn your passion into an income of some sort you’ll always want to put your best foot forward. If you’re still not sure if your able to evaluate your own photography you can join one of the many critique groups on Flickr (beware, they can be harsh).