12 Elements of Success in Image Competition

by Tim Mathiesen, M.Photog.Cr.

In all aspects of life, first impressions are usually lasting impressions; good or bad. So, it goes in print competition. When a photograph initially comes around on the turntable, that first impression either makes or breaks the image. Therefore, many photographers agree that this is the most important element in subjective analysis of judging photography. Since everyone has his or her own personal opinions, likes and dislikes, there must be some sort of standard on which judges can determine the merit of prints. The Photographic Exhibition Committee established the 12 Elements of a merit quality photograph. These elements are endorsed by the International Print Competition Judges.

Listed here are these 12 elements, in order of importance, along with a brief discussion of each.

1. IMPACT – Impact is the first reaction when a print is observed. It is the most important of the 12 elements. Does the print grab your attention? Does it make you want to look at it further? Does the title complement the image?

2. CREATIVITY – How novel is the image? The most creative images are totally unique. Use your imagination in creating images, and to share your ideas with others. You want your imagination to spark the imagination of others.

3. STYLE – Style separates one’s images from others. You can borrow elements from established styles to help develop your own unique style. Examples of well-known broad styles include realist, cubist, impressionistic, scenic, documentary, glamour, and renaissance.

4. COMPOSITION – Composition, how the image is framed and its elements arranged, is often a matter of how well you follow (or break) the “rules.” Create rhythm in your images through repetition and symmetry. Use the rule of thirds to place subjects. Use lines to create design and interest. Don’t allow horizon lines to cut through subject heads, and watch for objects “growing” out of subject heads.

5. PRESENTATION – This is the style with which you present your images. Cropping, mounting, and underlays. Dare to be different. But, don’t do anything that doesn’t enhance your image. Use a color from the main subject as the border to help direct viewer attention. Don’t use borders that are too bold. 1/16 to 1/8 inch border is a good rule of thumb. Refer to print competition rules for thickness and print sizes.

6. COLOR BALANCE – This element is the use of color harmony in an image. Light against dark, strong against weak. Do the colors of your subject harmonize with the background? Does the background de-emphasize or compete with your subject?

7. CENTER OF INTEREST – Use design and leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye directly to your subject. Your design should hold viewer attention, leaving them free to explore the entire image, but always returning to the center of interest. The fewer distractions, the better.

8. LIGHTING – This means the correct quantity of light to convey the mood of the image. You should always have direction of light, otherwise the image will appear flat and lifeless. Proper lighting of the five views of the human face is essential to a great image.

9. SUBJECT MATTER – A correct and clear interpretation of your subject should be conveyed to the viewer. Your subject should correlate to its surroundings.

10. PRINT QUALITY – Color negatives should be of proper density for prints to hold detail in both highlight and shadow areas. Camera angle, lighting, contrast, and color will also effect overall print quality. Avoid matte sprays and any spray that lessens the brilliance of the photographic print. High gloss prints score best.

11. TECHNIQUE – This is the foundation of photography, but art principles are necessary and should be studied.

12. STATEMENT – Every image should tell a story. Make sure that the story is easy to read. Again, your title can make or break your story. By producing a competition print, which incorporates a majority of these 12 elements, you can create a merit print. Personal experience may tell you that this is difficult to achieve. But, with experience, the goal may be more easily attained. Don’t get emotionally involved with your work, to the point of not being able to accept criticism. To learn, you need to enter competitions. Through subjective analysis, we all grow and become better photographers.


Tim’s experience during three decades in the photographic industry includes everything from running his own studio to marketing management positions at leading companies on both coasts. Tim’s many honors include the ASP Fellowship, ASP Gold Medallion, PPA Master of Photography, and the Kodak Gallery Elite Award. He has been a PPA affiliated juror for 25 years, and is a PPA Jury Chairman. He has served as a member of the PPA Photographic Exhibition Committee for a decade, the last three years as committee Chairman and is the current President of the American Society of Photographers. This article is from Tim’s recent presentation to the Professional Photographers of Orange County.


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