Get a Second Opinion on Your Work: Asking Colleagues To Judge Your Photos Can Reap Rewards


No surprises for this view from a hot air balloon of BMX riders in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I expected it to do well, and it did, both with my group and the Society of American Travel Writers’ contest judges, who gave it a gold award for action photo. I attributed that to a good point of view, grabber shadows, and lots of texture.
All Photos © Blaine Harrington

According to a photo industry writer I know, I do something that’s a bit unusual: I freely admit that sometimes I’m too close to my own photographs to judge them objectively, and because of that, I ask for help.

Each year I submit images to the Society of American Travel Writers’ photo competition, and to help me choose those images I have a group of photo editors, picture buyers, and professional photographers to whom I send a link to what I consider the strongest photos from my recent work. I ask them to choose from an online gallery of up to 50 photographs the 20 images they consider the strongest of the strong. I don’t ask for comments, just their one- to five-star ratings.

From my evaluation of their choices, I’ll compile the photos for the portfolio and individual image sections of the competition. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, during which I’ve twice been awarded SATW’s Travel Photographer of the Year honor, and have picked up several portfolio and individual image awards as well.

This was a normal photo for me to make as far as my point of view at Turtle Hole, New Caledonia, and the fisheye lens I chose, but when it did better than expected, I took another look and guessed that the curve of the earth and the aerial perspective gave it a lot more drama and impact than I first realized.

I expected a good reaction to the urban bicyclist riding down the Albuquerque sidewalk in front of comic book superheroes, but I didn’t get it. Perhaps it seemed too busy, too confusing. I realized that people have to do some work to take in the details of the artwork, and maybe the photo was just not effective at first glance.

This sunrise image of a hot air balloon over the temples of Bagan, Burma, did as well as I thought it would with the group. Moody, with lots of detail even in the fog, it works as a perfect postcard and an artful landscape. I had the composition from the start; then the balloon floated in and made the picture perfect.

This Swiss Alps image didn’t do as well as I thought it would. I saw a quintessential, ideal image of Switzerland, but later decided that professional photo editors and pro photographers probably saw an image too ordinary, too familiar.

You might call this method market research, as I’m trying to get a feel for what the SATW judges will react to. My group is, in effect, a stand-in for the contest’s judges. I shoot tens of thousands of photos each year, and my throwaway rate is quite low: maybe 5 percent. I feel all the photos I keep are salable, but for the SATW contest, I need to narrow down the submissions.

While it’s very easy for me to tell another photographer what his strongest images are, I want some help when judging my own. I know I can overrate some photos because they’re personal favorites, or because I’m identifying them with the pleasant experience of being in the location where they were made. Or perhaps they were difficult images to get, and because I was able to overcome the problems, I’m overly partial to them. The images the group members choose fall into three categories: those that do better than I expected; those that do not do as well as I thought they would; and those that I rate very high and the group agrees.

Essentially what I’m looking for is an emotional response—I’m asking the group to help me nail down the “Wow!” images. I’ve learned that the group members’ perceptions of my work often differ from my own, and ultimately their choices not only guide me to contest submissions, they also influence my future planning and shooting, and they help me grow as a photographer. It’s all good information, and I’ve found there’s a correlation between what the group likes and what ends up selling well as stock images.

This photo of a Chinese couple at morning prayer did better than I expected it would. I thought it might negatively influence the group because it looked set up (it wasn’t), but it did very well among my panel of experts.

I really liked this image of Tibetan women spinning wool at Yamdrok Tso Lake, but it didn’t get a very high rating. I saw the pleasant, unposed composition and the women working in the natural environment, but those factors didn’t seem to resonate with the group. I wonder if there would have been a better reaction if all the faces were visible.

I imagine that this dynamic image of trucks, sheep, and goats held up by a landslide in the Zojila Pass in Kashmir, India, was highly rated because the precariousness of the situation triggered real emotion.

This straightforward image of a Melanesian girl in New Caledonia received a better rating than I expected it would. I credit that reaction to her lovely expression, overall warmth and happiness, and how well the flower works.

I thought this image of a merchant selling flowers to tourists on houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir would rate well, and it did for a lot of reasons: the fisheye view, the fill flash that revealed details, the great background sunset, and the colorful flowers.

My method might be worth considering if you enter contests from time to time, or present images at a photo club or a local organization. It will take a bit of effort and, of course, the cooperation of people whose opinions you respect, but I can tell you from experience that there’s a great growth benefit in learning how your images are perceived by others.

A selection of Blaine Harrington’s travel images, award-winning and otherwise, can be viewed at his website, Information about his 2015 African photo safaris can be found by scrolling down the homepage to “…learn more about Blaine…”