How Would You Rate Your Photography, 1-5?

How Would You Rate Your Photography, 1-5?

It's hard to look at our photography with objective eyes. We know how much planning went into the shoot. We know how complicated the shoot was. We know how many hours in Photoshop we spent. The sad truth is, none of that matters. Your image should speak for itself. Let me help you rate your photography fairly. 

We've come up with a simple rating system that we have built into the new Fstoppers Community. An image can be rated 1-5 stars and each star rating has a very specific meaning.  

1 Star: "Snapshot"

1 Star ratings are limited to snap shots only. Snap shots are usually taken to document a time or location but little to no thought has gone into the creation of the image. If an image has been "lit" with external light (besides a direct on camera flash) it is at least a 2 star picture. The majority of 1 star images have had no post production work done to them but it is common to "instagram style" filters added to them. The average person these days snaps 1 star images every single day with their smart phones. Most 1 star images that pop up on sites like ours are images of flowers, pets, landscapes, sunsets, objects around a house, etc. If you read Fstoppers, you should not be sharing 1 star images for any reason. 

2 Stars: "Needs Work"

All images, besides maybe 5 star images, always have room for improvement but 2 star images "need work" before they should be included in your portfolio. As photographers we are snapping thousands of images per year but only a few of those images should ever be shared or put into our portfolio. A photographer who has taken a 2 star image has put some thought into the composition, exposure, and post production but for some reason has missed the mark. 2 star images should not be in the portfolio of a full time professional photographer and amateur photographs should strive for something better. Even complete amateurs who don't understand photography at all are capable of taking 2 star images from time to time. 

3 Stars: "Solid"

A 3 star images is an all around good image. The photographer has a solid understanding of the basics; composition, color, focus, subject matter, and post production. A 3 star image is "good" but it's not great. Most part-time professional photographers have mostly 3 star images in their portfolios. Usually a level 3 image would have been rated 4 stars if it had been shot in a better location, or with a better model with a better expressions, or there was better post production. A photographer capable of taking a 3 star image is capable of taking 4 and 5 star images if they would simply pay more attention to the details. 

4 Stars: "Excellent"  

4 star images are fantastic. In most cases, 4 star images have a certain style to them that links them directly to their creator. 4 star images usually require planning and attention to extreme detail. It's almost impossible to shoot a 4 star image by getting lucky. 4 star images have almost flawless conception, composition, lighting, subject matter, and post production. If you have any 4 star images in your portfolio you should be very proud of yourself. 

5 Stars: "World Class" 

5 star images are flawless and unforgettable. The amount of time, energy, and talent that goes into the average 5 star image is staggering. In many cases these pictures require a team to produce including a professional retoucher. The concept, lighting, subject, location, and post production on these images has to be perfect. In some cases the jump from 4 to 5 stars may be as simple as changing the unknown model in the picture with a celebrity or bringing in a set designer or stylist to make the image slightly better. Although there are always exceptions, most 5 star images take days, if not weeks or months to produce.

Now that you know the rating system I want to show you a few examples of images that we believe are rated 1-5. Obviously everyone has their own opinion but your ratings of these pictures should be within about 1 star of ours.


1 Star Image Examples

Here's a shot of my dad in his 68 Camaro. Obviously I took this picture without any regard for image quality. I took this picture simply to document the moment. This image should never be in any sort of photography portfolio. We'll compare this later to my 4 star image of the same car.

Here's an image that I snapped of Patrick wearing a $10,000 fur hood we found at a mall in London. Although he is wearing something fashionable, this is not fashion photography. Again, this image was not taken with any thought whatsoever. I could have taken Patrick outside and come up with a 3 star image but I didn't. This is obviously a snapshot and should be rated 1 star.

Here's a landscape picture that was taken at sunset. Although my girlfriend would rate this 5 stars because it's "pretty" this is not a good image. Anyone with any camera who happened to be standing there at that moment would have captured the exact same image.

2 Star Image Examples

about 8 years ago I was hired to shoot portfolio pictures for an aspiring "model." As you can see she's not a model by any means but the background is poor, the lighting is terrible, and her expression is completely uncomfortable... It's almost like she knows that I'm about to snap a 2 star image.

6 years ago I decided I wanted to get into fashion photography. This image is from my very first test shoot. As you can see I was really excited about off camera lighting at the time but I completely overlooked the terrible location, styling, posing, and I didn't do any post production. At the time I was really proud of this. Now I cringe because it's a 2 star image.

During this time I was making a bit of money on the side shooting stock photography. For this image I went downtown and photographed a student studying outside. Although the idea was fine (students studying make a lot of money in the stock world) the execution was terrible. This image is obviously not a snapshot, I understood off camera lighting and exposure but I didn't think about anything else.

3 Star Image Examples

Remember the girl above in the red and black dress? That was my first "fashion" shoot and it was a disaster but within just a few weeks I got much better. Here's another "fashion shoot that I set up with 2 models in town. It's not great by any means but they actually look like models and the lighting and post production is decent. Please excuse my watermark, I had to screenshot these from my old website. This is a good example of a 3 star image.

During this time I was hired to shoot some environmental portraits for a college. Here's a shot of a girl in front of the school. I think the image is "solid" and I would be happy to shoot something like this again today but for this to be "excellent" in my mind it needs some post work done to it. As it is, it's straight out of the camera and it looks like it so I'd give it 3 stars.

Here's another fashion shot I did towards the beginning of my fashion faze. It's good, but it's not great so I give it 3 stars.

4 Star Image Examples

After shooting "fashion" style pictures for a few months I really started upping my game. I had a really good understanding of photography at this point so now I didn't need to waste my energy thinking about lighting and camera settings, instead I could focus more on the concept/subject matter. In this image I called the guy back from the 3 star image above and we photographed this under a pier in Charleston. I personally love the expression, the clothing, and the lighting. I also spent an hour in post making it even more perfect. It's by no means a "world class" image but I do think this is an excellent image so I personally give it 4 stars.

About 4 years into my wedding photography career I decided to take out a 2 page spread in a local wedding magazine. I scouted a location and called my favorite bride (who was model quality) and captured this shot. I believe I used 3 lights and spent quite a while in post to make it perfect for print. I can't honestly say this is a 5 star image but I do think it's "excellent" so I rate it 4 stars

Here's an interesting shot that was taken from a wedding that is arguably a 3 or 4 star image. It was a "snapshot" from the wedding of the bride above. I quickly took it without looking through the viewfinder and I was just direct flashing. That being said the emotion in this image is so powerful that this has become one of my most well known images. I personally give this 4 stars because I know how my clients react to it but I won't argue with you if you rate it 3. I wanted to include this to show that the amount of time you spend on an image does not necessarily relate to the quality of the image.

This is my latest image and the closest image in my portfolio to a level 5. I bought this car for my father for Christmas and I wanted to create an incredible image of the car before I gave it to him. I spent weeks scouting locations and we probably spent 5 hours photographing the car in front of this filling station. Afterwards I spent about 40 hours editing the shot (because I was being too picky and kept changing things). Although I've never spent this long working on a single image in my life I have to force myself to step back and admit that this still probably isn't a 5 star image. It's excellent no doubt, but I'm not sure I can say this is world class so I give it 4 stars. You can watch the behinds the scenes videos here.

5 Star Image Examples

In many cases what takes a 4 star image to a 5 star image is a matter of opinion but in this case I'm not sure there is much debate. Julia Kuzmenko created this image and I instantly rated it 5 stars. I'm happy to say that it is also currently the highest rated image in our community site right now. Everything about this picture is flawless. 

Here's another flawless fashion shot that I couldn't resist giving 5 stars. Georgi Andinov took this and I think it's incredible. Flawless model, perfect styling, killer post production. I love it and I think it's a world class image. 

Here's a shot that Mike Kelley took during the filming of his Art and Architecture tutorial. There is no doubt that what Mike does is world class and he shot this image on the original Canon Rebel and 18-55mm kit lens just to prove a point. Gear doesn't matter, but in this case, lighting and post production does. 

It's been argued that it is impossible to take a 5 star image during an event like a wedding. Even though I have shot literally hundreds of weddings over the last 10 years, I don't believe I have ever taken a level 5 image at a wedding but I do believe it can be done. Here is one of my favorite wedding pictures by Cliff Mautner. I personally give this 5 stars and if you want to see more 5 star wedding images, head over to his website

Here's an interesting artistic shot by Dennis Ramos I gave it 5 stars because I would love to hang this in my home. It's an unforgettable shot to me and Dennis has a very distinct style which is unmistakable. The most interesting thing about this image is that it started off as a level 2 shot. He brought it up to a level 5 in Photoshop. 


If there is one thing I hope you take away from this it's that we all started by taking 1 star images. The question now is, what level are you currently shooting at? Even if you are consistently shooting 2 star pictures, how long do you plan to stay at that level? If you shoot often and are honest with yourself, you could move from a snapshot shooter to a level 4 shooter within 6 months. If however you lie to yourself and keep telling yourself how great your work is, you'll never improve. 

If you want an unbiased rating of your images join the new Fstoppers Community and upload your pictures today. Once you login, you will also be able to anonymously rate other images in the community as well. I can't guarantee you'll receive the ratings you want for each of your pictures, but you will receive the ratings that you need to see your images with fresh eyes and to improve your work. 

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Felix Inden's picture

Very interesting article Lee.
I enjoyed the writing and it motivates to stop working on images for some time and try to evaluate them instead. As i am from the landscapes/architecture scene i would say that in these disciplines, the biggest factor that separes the 3,4,5 stars from each other is the light and weather situation.
A solid 3* composition with poor light has the potential to be 4 without changing much, but the light.
As 5* i see the images, that are hard to repeat and feature unique lightmoods besides a flawless composition and edit.
Often those shots are taken by people with a concrete image in mind for years that finally suceed, because they kept visiting the location over and over again.
And sometimes there´s a lucky 5* as well if you are "chosen" to do it.
Just thinking... best regards

Lee Morris's picture

Very true

E Port's picture

Coming from architecture, I completely agree with your assessment of conditional weather. However, I would imagine most other photographers deal with similar environmental variables. Lifestyle seems to get the short end of the stick in this regard. Not only do they have to have the right weather, the talent makes a huge difference too.

Matt Palmer's picture

At some point, if members are active in the community and have good karma, is there a possibility that we will be able to upload more photos, or will 10 images be the limit forever?

Lee Morris's picture

Yes, more than 10 pictures are on the way

Will Phillips's picture

Glad to hear it! I've been wondering the same thing. My portfolio cannot be summed up in 10 images.

Matt Palmer's picture

Excellent! That just makes it more fun to follow your favorite photographers.

Spy Black's picture

Although 10 is a bit low, I think 20-30 would be a good number to have. Too many times I wind up having "visual glaze" looking over countless images in portfolios. It all becomes a big wash of images. So I think less would be more, as it would allow you to better appreciate the work at hand. An artist can always supply a link to a website if you're curious to see more.

Patrick Hall's picture

Sometimes one single black image is enough though too :)

Spy Black's picture

That's my black cow grazing under a moonless night pic. I knew you'd like it.

I've been hesitant to put my work up online, as I've seen so much work get ripped off. Some of that has even been reported in articles here on FS. I don't even keep a website because it. I know it's counterproductive career-wise, and I may very well just bite the bullet and deal with the possibility, but so far I've for the most part held off on posting online.

Patrick Hall's picture

I'm never a huge fan of watermarks but I am curious to see your photos since you've been such an active user over the years. How do you get bids without an online port?

Spy Black's picture

Well, you already saw my black cow. :-)

I use an interactive PDF doc, plus references. My stock in trade is photographic retouching, photography is a semi-profession, although it's ticked up a bit lately.

E Port's picture

It'd be great if the "rate another" button is always visible. I'm sure many of us would like the option of selectively rating random photos, as currently there is no way to skip rating a photo when you're in 'random voting' mode.

Lee Morris's picture

At the moment we need ratings so we don't want to make it too convenient to not rate them. At that point you may only be tempted to give 4s and 5s

Eric Lefebvre's picture

One issue with the "Random Picture Rating" that needs to be addressed is the NSFW images.
I'm on my lunch break at my day job and was rating images. I was served a NSFW image (blocked since my filter is off) but I can;t hit "Rate next" because I haven;t rated this NSFW image.

Maybe have NSFW images check for NSFW status and skip to the next one instead of blocking us there.

Patrick Hall's picture

Good point, I'll see what we can do

Chris Blair's picture

I feel like this post was written for me…I really need to start putting more effort into my images. Everyone is free to check out my images and rate them honestly, you won’t hurt my feelings…I know I’m an amateur and FStoppers has been integral in my improvement over the past two years. I think I take 2s and 3s mostly, but hope to get some 4s pretty soon. Thanks for the informative post and I look forward to the barrage of ratings!

David Justice's picture

I would say I'm a 3. I think my portfolio images would back that up. My post-processing is okay, I'm studying frequency separation and trying to apply that, but my post could use some work. I'm also finally getting a solid hand on posing and finding the best way to pose men and women.

But as a 3, I would like to say you are spot on. I definitely need to work on the smaller details more.

Lee Morris's picture

You need to stop shooting your friends and start shooting models. That will instantly bring your shots up 1 star

Paul Bradley's picture

It's amazing how much better your photos look when you get to photograph someone ridiculously good looking. It also kinda spoils you as well.

Zach Sutton's picture

Not necessarily someone who is ridiculously good looking, but someone who knows their angles and has some insight on their own expressions and movements.

Willian Silveira's picture

This is exactly what I was going to say. People that know and photographers that can see the best features in their subjects always do at least 3's

Daniel Flanagan's picture

This is a great article! I really enjoyed reading it, and the 4&5 star examples are breathtaking!
I think this logic has uncovered away for a separation of the "wannabes" who get lucky shooting on full auto with their DSLRs from those professionals who have a deep understanding of photography as an art.

I'd appreciate any feedback on my photos located at

Lee Morris's picture

upload your pictures to the community and get the rated by the masses

Daniel Flanagan's picture

That has a nice ring to it

Joe Chirilov's picture

I think you wrote this article just so you'd have an excuse to post that silly photo of Patrick. ;)

Patrick Hall's picture

That silly photo is my FB profile at the moment. I actually gave Lee a bunch of my crappy photos I took the first 2 years of my career and luckily he decided to post his own images ha!

Karma Wilson's picture

I stand by my comment that it was a world class photo. I was disappointed to not see a jumping shot of you. lol :)

Lee Morris's picture

There are actually WAY worse images of me that I could have posted :)

Joe Chirilov's picture

On a more serious note, I'm glad to see you put this down in words. As an amateur, I struggled with how to evaluate photos. Rating photos well is a skill in itself, and it's good to have a framework to help you think about why something should/should-not be rated highly. Thanks.