Monday, February 3, 2014

Rating Photographs Constructively

Four Views of Death Valley

It's not easy to rate one's work objectively, but there are advantages to be gained from making the effort. If we want to feature our best photos (for clients, for a website or a photo book, for instance), we need to be able to select the best shots from a larger population. The rating process can also help us to identify our own strengths and weaknesses.

Photo editing and organizing software titles usually provide a "rate by stars" feature.  The number of stars indicates a level of quality.  Typically, a five-star rating is considered the best, but one could flip the ratings system and mark with best work with a single star if they wanted to. (Canon users might like this inverted system, since Canon's best cameras are marked with the number 1.)

a photo of the general store at the rhyolite ghost town in nevada by daniel south
Technically competent but not difficult to reproduce. Rating: **

As for what each level of stars means, there are different options.  But before we discuss applying stars to photos, let's compare for reference the way that a movie critic might use the star system to rate upcoming films.

The Movie Critic's Rating System
* - A really bad film. Don't waste your money.
** - Disappointing. If you must watch it, wait until it comes on TV for free.
*** - A good, solid film, but nothing special.
**** - A very good film with few if any flaws. Highly recommended.
***** - An outstanding film. A contender for Best Picture. A must see.

There are good movies and great movies. There are movies that are somewhat disappointing and others that are laughably bad. The Movie Critic's Rating System has to cover all of these bases.

a photograph of impostor rock on the racetrack playa in death valley by daniel south
Exotic locale. Technically challenging (infinite focus). Rating: ***

But when it comes to our own photos, do we need to mark the bad ones with a star? How about just not rate them at all? Does this rating system make sense for a photographer who is sorting through their work?

Photo Rating System Number 1 (From Bad to Great)
* - A bad photograph. I regret that I took it.
** - A disappointing photo. I could have done better.
*** - A good, solid photo, but nothing special.
**** - A very good photo with few if any flaws.
***** - My best work. I'll show it proudly.

I'm sure that lots of people use this method to good effect, but personally, I find that it doesn't offer enough gradation. Why would I bother to tag a bad photo with a star or a disappointing shot with two stars. It's a waste of stars. Just leave them unrated. Further, if ALL of my good photos get four- or five-star ratings, how would I identify my very best work? I've already run out of stars.

Same locale and technique, but adds a unique sky. Rating: ****

Here is the rating system that I have adopted for my own work. It provides several levels of "good" within the five-star range.

Photo Rating System Number 2 (From Good to Better to Outstanding)
* - Good. A better than average photo. An image that caught my eye upon initial review and shows potential that I might want to explore in the future.
** - Better. A solid image with no perceivable flaws. Work that I would feature proudly on my website. (This is the level where viewers start to say "Wow!")
*** - Exceptional. Beyond technical competence. An image that is emotionally stirring or represents special conditions or circumstances that could not be easily repeated.
**** - Outstanding. Perhaps the best image in an entire collection.
***** - Rare. Among my personal best. The type of image that we don't make many of over the course of a year.

This is the system that works for me. It offers the opportunity to classify my work with varying levels of "good" so I can differentiate the rare gems when they come along instead of wasting stars on mistakes and disappointments.

Mundane or flawed images simply don't get any stars. If an image has even a single star it means that I thought highly of it enough to separate it from the pack. Most of the images that I display publicly are ** or ***, because four- and five-star ratings are reserved for rare and exceptional work. 

a photo of zabriskie point at sunset by daniel south
Technically challenging (exposure). Once in a lifetime sunset. Rating: *****

What are the pros and cons of the rating system that you use? Do you use stars at all, or do you use another rating system (colors, flags, keywords)? How well does your system work for you?


        Canon EOS 5D Mark II

        Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II
        Canon TS-E24mm f/3.5L II
        Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L

Light happens.  Be ready.  Shoot hard.

Copyright © 2014 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment