The following steps are a guide and criteria as to how judges determine their scores.
Step 1: Strong First Impression / Impact
The judges are first looking for impact and a strong first impression. When an image is presented to the judges, it has to inspire a strong emotion to be rewarded well. If the image is forgettable, it will likely not be awarded well.
Step 2: Point of Difference / Originality / Creativity
Your everyday work may be consistent and sealable but it may not be conducive of doing well in competition. What will win the hearts of your clients may not necessarily win the judges' hearts. Images with an original concept, execution, or technique are usually rewarded well.
Step 3: In-Camera Artistry / Degree of Difficulty / Focus / Exposure
This step celebrates the craft the photographer executed "in camera" from elementary things as desired focus to correct exposure to the difficulty of achieving the desired result "in camera."
Step 4: Postproduction
At first glance and a prolonged view, the quality of your entry must be refined. Poor postproduction is usually the first negative thing judges notice, including lack of detail in highlights and shadows, flat black tones, over-sharpening, unreal HDR, poor color, poor skin retouching, etc. "Invisible Photoshop" is usually the best approach in most circumstances.
Step 5: Emotion / Story / Communication
Remember that every element in your image should help convey the desired message and story of the subject matter to the viewer of your image. Emotive content with excellent execution is essential to inspire the judges to score generously.
Step 6: Print Quality / Presentation (if applicable)
The print quality, paper choice, finishing, and presentation of your entry must complement and support the in-camera technique and the postproduction done to your entry.
Step 7: Lighting
Lighting creates mood, drama, texture, depth, dimension, and shape and helps communicate a desired message to the viewer. Is the brightest light visible on the desired point of interest? Is there evidence of a direction of light and catch lights? Does it flatter the subject? Poor lighting will adversely affect your score.
Step 8: Posing / Placements of Elements / Design
Effective posing is flattering and/or helps communicate the artist's message to the viewer. If posing does not apply to your entry, then where you place your subject matter within the frame is the key to effective communication.
Step 9: Composition / Cropping / Point of Interest
How you compose and crop your image can elevate your entry from ordinary to extraordinary. How you bring the viewer's attention to the desired area of the image is paramount.
Step 10: Great Example of the Category / Style / Finesse / Refinement
Is your entry the quintessential representation of the category it’s submitted into? Are you bold enough to try to redefine a genre? Your entry should reek class and be refined, finessed, and polished in every way with the above steps in mind.
“Images with an original concept, execution or technique are usually rewarded well.”
- Jerry Ghionis