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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Previous comments
Bo Bickley's picture

Lee thanks for this article and examples, it clarifies the rating system. It also goes hand in hand with another article you wrote "The Photographers You Idolize Are No Better Than You". I'm here because I want to up my game and ultimately produce 4 and 5 star images at will (so to speak). As I look at other's work I can see that I'm improving, however it's obvious I still have quite a ways to go when I look at the top rated photos.

Chris Blair's picture

If you leave a low score, it would be awesome if you left a little feedback on how to improve the shot. Felix Inden left me some great feedback on how to improve one of my shots and it really helps. Not all of the FS readers are pro-fotogs, some of us are just starting out and have been using FS to learn outside of a scholastic environment. This is so great, finally I can get some honest feedback from actual professional photographers, it’s a pretty powerful thing.

I try to when I can. Sometimes images are so bad I don't know what to say besides scrap it at try again.

Neil Holloman's picture

Absolutely. Would be nice for someone who leaves a low score to be required to leave input as to what is wrong with a picture or what in the photo "needs work". The five start rating system is good for tracking photo rank but offers nothing as far as input regarding how to improve. I feel that you can't get any better if you do know what you are doing wrong. I am pretty passionate about photography and am always looking for actual information instead of just "good" or "not good". If a photo is rated low then why is it low? Is it because it hasn't been retouched like crazy? Is it bad composition? Is it a bad concept? Etc

If you had to leave feedback then nobody would rate crappy images. When I look at my 1 and 2 star images above I don't have any idea how to critique them. They are simply bad images. Bad location, bad lighting, bad subject, bad post.

Patrick Hall's picture

Furthermore, imagine if you had to take the time to leave a comment everytime you saw a 1 or 2 star some point you'd just rate them 3s so you could move on.

As hard as it is, I think you have to step back and take all personal attachment away from your image and say "does this look anything like the top 200 images on the community or within this genre?" and if your answer is no then just delete it.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

I'm unfortunately in the 3 star bracket. :(
Working hard at improving and it show but I don;t think I really have any 4 star shots and certainly no 5 stars.

3 is "solid" that's not bad at all

Patrick Hall's picture

The encouraging thing is, I believe photographers with an average score of 3 are still very well able to make a full time career out of photography. I do not know that I have ever taken a 5 star image and my own port was once at a solid 3 when I was about 2 years into my career. If you can market yourself, you can easily make a living with a "solid" portfolio.

Charles Gaudreault's picture

i got some 3 and some 4
what do you all think ?
my goal is to hit the 5 one day, take many hours to shoot on great location with model of great talent :)

Thomas F's picture

This should almost be presented after you sign up for an account. I'm really hoping the new FStoppers will become what I hoped 500px would be. A place for photographers to get critique and grow instead of a bunch of "V+F look at my port".

I am most definitely a 2 right now. I have been trying to shoot more to maybe up my game, but I've honestly been holding myself back. I just graduated from University and the first thing I wanted to do was shoot more and get myself on track to maybe do photography as a career, but with a hell of a lot of student loans to have to start paying back in about 5 months, I've mostly been job hunting. I really want to up my game in photography and I have a few potential clients lined up for some simple portraits in the near future that I can maybe try and hone in more of my skills on, but for the most part I've been slacking. This is just the type of article that I needed to realize that I really need to step up. I shall be uploading some photos of mine here in the very near future for ratings. Thanks Lee.

mike charlton's picture

I'll give my self a 3.5 stars....I'm too hard myself to give myself a 4.

Bart Edson's picture

Great article, thank you. We're all out there seeking the elusive 5-star image. It's what gets me out of bed every morning!

Rob Berg's picture

I've started getting serious about photography over the last couple of years (not as a professional). Your development over the years comments strikes a chord here. I've taken many photos and really liked them at the time yet, as I improve I look back and see how they could have been better and how new images taken have improved.

Shane Castle's picture

When I am browsing magazines and see photos that make me cringe, I am not shy about thinking "what a crappy photo" but I hesitate when faced with rating someone else's work, even after crit sessions in workshops. And giving a low rating without saying why seems like cheating, somehow, so if I don't like it I tend not to rate it, and not give a comment, either. I guess I haven't quite gotten to the stage of not caring what others think. But if I didn't care what they think I wouldn't put my images out there to be rated. So I try to swallow my ego and just listen - hard to do as well. "Someone gave my photo a 2. Why? Hmm...OK, fair enough."

Which rating would my instagram receive? Currently, I'm using instagram as a quasi-portfolio and trying to get me name out there. Thanks for the feedback :)

Oh my god, I didn't realize this article is a year old :o