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. 

Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of

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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

Very true

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.

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?

Yes, more than 10 pictures are on the way

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

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

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.

Sometimes one single black image is enough though too :)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

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.

Good point, I'll see what we can do

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!

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

That has a nice ring to it

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

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!

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

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

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.

I think it also depends on the creative disposition/background f the person rating. Sometimes I'll see a photo of a model posing and doing her thing, and think it's a 3-star image because...There's not enough intrigue to it for me. It's a pretty girl in a pretty place lit...prettily. Yay. However, someone else might see the same image and feel drawn to it because of their creative background, and they subsequently rate it a 4.

The jump from 2 to 3 is pretty noticeable and easy to spot, but from a 3-4 is much more difficult to least for me.

And there's also the commonly understood (I think?) trend that photos of attractive women photographed with at least some amount of technical skill will rate highly anyways It could be the most generically shot photo of a model in the world, but it'll still get high ratings. It's not a bad thing at all. I don't feel right judging the genre of others' photography negatively if they enjoy it (although individual photos are free game, right? ;) ). It's just an observation I've made on other sites. *cough*500px*cough*

That's true, nobody has the exact same opinion of an image. But instead of thinking about that one guy rating your picture, remember that over time, each image will have hundreds of ratings which will equal a great "average" community rating which is what really matters anyway.

Subject matter+Form+Context=Content It's the formula you learn in art school when critiquing.
I just wish I had more context before I click the star. It seems like half the photos I look at are either untitled or without further description just metadata

People always have the option to add context to their images. So you're able to rate images lower if there is no context to the image.

I'd have to give myself a 3.5 close 4 need to step my photoshop retouching up.

Interesting read, the rating system is solid and straight forward.

i think i might just start to adopt it when judging my own work.

It seems people have been rating rough on the site, and I like it. I remember I took a few photography classes at the college I'm going current and I was upset because I was not getting critique on my work. I knew it could be better and I found myself critique my work more than anyone else and it was frustrating. I don't want to be told my shot is good, I want you to rip it apart for all the reasons you don't like, otherwise how else am I going to learn?

Now here I post my work and saw my work getting rated all over the place and have come to see that my food photography is not up to par, yet my twilight shots and portraits are getting 3-4 star ratings. It's really helping me pick the shots for my portfolio. The only thing I wish that happened more (and I am guilty of this as well) is people telling me why they rated my photo a 2 or 3. More direct input on what could make my photo better would really be awesome.

College ratings and critiques are the worst. Before I ever dreamed of being a professional photographer I took one dark room film class as my final elective during my Sr year of undergrad. I was so shocked how my ridiculously simple snapshots were praised by everyone in the department simply because I allowed my blacks to go pure black and I actually made a decent composition. Overall the photos were pure crap though but I breezed through the class with A+s and little effort.

I'm the first to say I hate people who rattle off critiques without their own success or solid portfolio to back it up, but at the same time I think overly positive encouragement can be the fastest way to a failing career in photography. Hopefully our Community will rest somewhere in the middle of both extremes.

Pretty subjective and biased article. More artificial illumination and post-processing does not necessarily equate to a better end product. I shoot plenty of wildlife photos that are published and accepted as professional work, mainly these are ambient light exposures with no post-processing aside from sharpening, noise reduction, and minimal contrast enhancements. A successful or memorable lifestyle photo can be sometimes be executed with ambient light and straightforward post-processing by a skilled artist. I actually give your rating system 1 star for being pretentious and I hate to say it, but ignorant.

Just like photography itself, critique is incredibly complex and cannot possibly be covered in just one single article. I think what Lee was trying to do is establish some sort of baseline for the majority of images that photographers want to create and share on the site. Many of my images use heavy artificial light, some use no artificial light. Both of the styles have 'excellent' ratings and without being there to defend or give commentary on my work IMO my stuff will never ever be fairly critiqued. It's a general baseline.

Do I think you can still create world class images of wildlife only with natural light? Fuck yeah! Just look at National Geographic. Truly world-class stuff, and I feel that it would be rated accordingly if posted here. Again, I think Lee was just trying to explain it in a way that the majority of readers can identify with.

I agree. I only gave 3 examples of my own personal work. I may add more images in a range of genres soon.

Lee - The images you ranked as 4 or more stars are very nice, and I wouldn't want to take that away from you. My point though is that the highly polished and processed look is merely a photographic trend that will come and go. I have written my own PS actions, and consider my images a failure if post-processing requires more than 5 minutes. Just as the age of hair metal and Def Leppard has come and gone, so too will photographic arts return to its roots. The Ramones and Nirvana came along and smashed the status quo in the music biz.

Ironically, I've actually concocted a self-critique nature workshop at my local store/institution and expect be leading that within the next few weeks. Topics to include fine art comp, IQ, quality of light, etc. It is a great idea to have aspiring artists set the bar as high as possible, but I do feel your write-up has an "omniscient and all-powerful" edge to it. I would not necessarily accept your ratings on my work, be it nature, lifestyle, or product shoots.

Approx 45 mins of pursuing this newly emerged dragonfly, a few minutes of in-camera exposure fine-tuning, and 2 minutes of RAW post-processing. My rating might be a 3 or 4. Image quality is very high, and comp is good. Perhaps taking to the next level might be an action shot of some sort like a insect flight photo. Sure bug photos can get redundant, but an effective portfolio is always about mixing up subject matter in one way or another.

I'd argue that the amount of time and effort is irrelevant. It's a solid image no doubt. I'd rate this one a 4 though:

Critical focus (subject's eyes) is actually off in this photo. On a scale of 1 - 5. This is either a 1 or a delete if I were to give it an honest rating. It is unusable for large format print or advertising.

This is a nice artistic rendering, and I'm aware of the "water spraying technique" to add more dynamics to a photo. Unfortunately, this is a cliched technique, and not going to hold up in the natural history world. The technique is akin to having a female model whip her hair around in a pool... nothing new. Images like this are often banned from nature photography publications and contests because of the "hand of man" within the frame. It may also be construed as a very minor form of animal cruelty, coming from an animal rights and vegetarian background. NANPA is a nice authority on photos for aspiring naturalist photographers who want to take it to the next level. I believe the scope of this field falls outside the knowledge of most fashion/lifestyle experts.

Macro photography is definitely a tough genre to compete within. I'm inclined to say all the images posted above are 3s with maybe one being a 4. I always imagine what would be published on the cover or inside of National Geographic and I don't think any of these above examples are strong enough to be Excellent and def not World Class. They might have been Excellent in the 80s or maybe 90s but at this stage I think you have to have something more interesting going on for a 4 or 5 star image in my opinion.

Hey Lee, what if people want to share a project or a certain group of images with everyone that doesn't necessarily represent them as a whole but rather a slice of what they've worked on recently? If that makes sense. For example, I recently did a photo project for my kids, but it's totally different than anything I've ever done and it'd be great to share it. Is that something that might be supported later on or is it mainly to just show your main portfolio?

Portfolio folders/groups are on the way. Plus a forum. Stay tuned.

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