Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Picture This: Elements of Excellence

The keys to a prize-winning photograph lie in these 12 competition standards.

By Earl Nottingham

What does it take to create that elusive prize-winning photograph? Helpful answers come from the Professional Photographers of America, the premier photo organization that knows a thing or two (more like 12) about the elements of a great photograph.

Each year, PPA holds national competitions for photographers hoping to earn a “merit” for each high-scoring image. Various professional degrees and certifications are earned as merits accumulate.

According to PPA, “The Photographic Exhibitions Committee of PPA uses the 12 elements below as the ‘gold standard’ to define a merit image. The use of these 12 elements connects the modern practice of photography and its photographers to the historical practice of photography begun nearly two centuries ago.”

Although most of the images judged by PPA are mounted prints, the same elements can apply to any photographic image.


Photos of the Guadalupe River by Mike Marvins, a member of the Professional Photographers of America who has won numerous competition merits through the years from PPA and is a PPA master photographer/craftsman.


1. Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these 12 elements.

2. Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

3. Creativity is the original, fresh and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

4. Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be the recognizable characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. Style can affect an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

5. Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

6. Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

7. Color balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

8. Center of interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants viewers to stop as they look at the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.

9. Lighting refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image by the use of light. Whether the light applied to an image is artificial or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

10. Subject matter should always
be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

11. Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12. Storytelling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that viewers can create their own story upon looking at an image.

big bend

Photo of Big Bend by Mike Marvins. He is publishing a book of his landscape images through Texas A&M Press, and the profits will go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

Keep these 12 elements from professionals in mind for your own photographic work. In time, they will become second nature as you shoot and process your images. Strive to make every photograph a “merit” print!

For more information on the Professional Photographers of America, go to www.PPA.com.


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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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