12 Elements of a Merit Image

The gold standard 

Every year, Professional Photographers of America hosts its International Photographic Competition, where image-makers compete not against each other, but against a dozen ideals of excellence.

Volunteer jurors complete classroom and hands-on instruction before they are invited to judge competition images. They use the 12 Elements to grade images on a 100-point scale, awarding each maker one, two, or zero merits for each image based on its score.


IMPACT: Compelling images evoke emotion—laughter, sadness, anger, pride.

TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE: The quality of the actual image as presented for viewing. Aspects such as retouching, sharpness, printing, color, and exposure should be spot on.

CREATIVITY: The image is original, fresh, and an external expression of the maker’s imagination.

© Sandra Pearce

STYLE: The subject matter meshes with the presentation. Style can also include the characteristic ways that an artist applies his or her specific lighting, posing, or compositional style to underscore the desired impact.

COMPOSITION: The visual elements of an image come together to express intent, whether that’s to please the viewer or otherwise. The viewer’s attention is captured and directed where the artist plans it to be.

PRESENTATION: The way an image is showcased gives it a finished look. Everything in the presentation—mats, borders, color choices—should work to enhance the image.  

COLOR BALANCE: Color work together to evoke feelings in the viewer. For example, it can bring harmony to an image and enhance the emotional appeal. It can also be incongruous to arouse diverse feelings.

CENTER OF INTEREST: This is where an image’s creator wants a viewer’s attention focused. There may be primary and secondary centers of interest. Sometimes all the elements in an image work together to create the center of interest.

© Sandra Pearce

LIGHTING: The image demonstrates excellence in the use and control of light, whether natural or additive. Light informs dimensions and shape, sets tone and mood, and enhances the image.

SUBJECT MATTER: The subject matter is central to the story being told, so the subject should sync with the story.

TECHNIQUE: The approaches used to create the image—lighting, posting, capture, presentation—work together to be effective.

STORY TELLING: The image evokes the viewer’s imagination. While the act of creating is a personal thing, so too is the act of viewing. Each image is a story, and the one it tells a viewer may be unique to that person.

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