My Ethos to Judging Photography Competitions

With Australasia’s Top Emerging Photographer competition closing in just a few days time I thought I would take a few moments to discuss my approach and ethos to judging photographic competitions (since I was recently asked and seeing as I am one of the Professional Judges in Capture’s competition). My thoughts on judging photographic competitions are quite different to entering them (since I no longer enter competitions that do not judge the print) and it should be said that the below criteria is not definitive; but is rather a rough sketch outline of what I look for when judging photographic competitions. Just as an aside, part of the reason I personally no longer enter most competitions is I have grown to dislike the consideration of photography as a competitive sport.

Right off the bat, it should also be said that there are important key differences between judging print and digital competitions. Given the luxury of choice, I will opt to judge print competitions every single time (to those of you who follow my blog that should be no surprise). I am a huge fan of the printed image and at least for me the online jpeg is nothing but a poor facsimile by comparison. I wont wax lyrical anymore on this subject in this post, but I do wish more competitions went to the effort to judge the printed image.

Before we even dive into the criteria by which I consider any entry in a photographic competition it is important to clarify that to a very large degree photographic competitions are subjective. Photography competitions are definitely not a one hundred metre sprint with a clear timed winner. Rather, they are subjective and open to judges opinions and interpretation. All judges bring their own bias to the table – what is important for judges to remember at all times though is to try and minimise those biases and respect the entrants work; even if it does suffer from multiple flaws or even if the judge doesn’t like the subject. Being truly impartial is not easy, but its mandatory as a judge if we want to be fair to all entrants.

On first view of any competition entry image the very first thing I assess is the emotional impact of the photograph (assuming it has one as many don’t!). Does the entry immediately grab me and does it trigger an emotional response? It had better if it wants to make it to the next round of judging. An emotional response to an image doesn’t have to be powerful and jaw dropping either, it can be a very subtle calming feeling that is bought on by just the right subject that has been delicately and carefully handled and crafted. During this initial viewing, I like to ask myself how the photograph makes me feel and if the photograph evokes feelings or communicates a clear and concise message. If the photographs message is confused, without clear meaning or emotion then it usually fails to make it past the first round. Triggering an emotional response in a viewer with a two dimensional photograph is far from easy, but it is one of the most important elements and cornerstones to any great photograph. Emotional impact is far more important than any technical aspects, such as how sharp or soft the photograph might be.

Just as an aside, many entrants fall into the trap of over saturating their photographs to try and wow judges. This sledgehammer cliché is a bound to win a one way ticket to the trash heap. Judicious use of colour is key to any successful and powerful photograph. Each colour should enhance the subject; not slam the viewer across the head. Giving the viewer a sense of colour and letting the imagination fill in the blanks is a far more powerful mandate that many would do well to adopt.

Regardless of wether the competition is print or digital there are certain key technical criteria that need to be met in any entry. Firstly, the image or print needs to be properly exposed. An entry can be under or overexposed, provided that it is a deliberate creative decision by the photographer and that their decision enhances the subject and final image (High Key images are a great example). Any entry that should have been correctly exposed, but is not is never going to make it past the first round of judging.  Likewise an image with blown highlights or crushed shadows is also destined for the trash heap in the first round of judging unless the same creative caveat above applies. Any entry that has had an overly heavy handed approach to its post production is also likely to win an early exit. Post production should be utilised to enhance the subject and should not end up ‘being’ the subject. Setting just the right white balance with just the right amount of contrast, colour and other correction is a vital skill for photographers to master (irrespective of wether they compete in competitions).

The entry also needs to be sharp where required and if required (not all images need to be sharp!) A great many entries I have judged across multiple competitions are either over or under sharpened. The right amount of sharpening is an absolutely key element in post production and is one a great many photographers make a complete mess of.

When it comes to composition the entry needs to be thoughtfully well composed. The eye should not be led immediately out of the frame, or left to wander aimlessly around the print. Instead, the eye should be guided through the photograph before coming to rest on the key element/s. It should be a pleasurable experience for the eyes (even if its a difficult subject) to view the photograph. If I have the opportunity I will often turn the entry upside down. Turning the image upside down often reveals problems with a photographs composition that may not have been immediately obvious in a quick viewing.

In the case of print judging, the technical quality of the print needs to be assessed. Is the print sharp where it needs to be? Is the colour rendition accurate and / or pleasing? Are there any obvious flaws in the print such as posteriztion, blocked up shadows or blown highlights? Are the tonal transitions smooth and does the print have a sense of depth? These, along with other print specific criteria make up a large part of judging the printed image. Print judging is really its own seperate post as even the lighting under which the print is viewed plays a key factor.

Once I get past the technical aspects I then have a final look over the photograph to see if there is anything I have missed. Occasionally at this point I will pick up an easter egg (something not immediately obvious that really adds to the photograph) or a flaw I missed earlier. It is also often at this point that I might find a dust spot that has been missed during post production or some other issue that I did not catch at first.

When it comes to degree of difficulty judges have to be extremely careful not to act on assumptions about the photograph or how they believe it may have been captured. Unless clear and concise information is provided by the entrant on exactly how the photograph was made and any difficulties encountered to make the photograph it is virtually impossible for a judge to accurately gauge an images degree of difficulty. Judging degree of difficulty is therefore a very slippery slope that needs to be traversed with extreme caution by all judges.

Certain competitions lay down guidelines on what the judges should look for and these rules (for lack of a better word) have to figure heavily in a judges scoring. As a judge if you are provided a set of guidelines and disagree with them you should respectfully bow out from the judging (I have had to do this in the past on two occasions). Personally, I prefer it when I am not railroaded by a set of guidelines as it means the competition is truly open and that the organisers have open minds to the winning entries. They are not visualising a certain subject or style as the winning entry (never a good thing). Thankfully most competitions set the judges free to use their professional experience and judgement to the best of their ability.

Lastly, if you are an entrant you should always keep in mind that your score in a competition reflects nothing more than one (or more) judges subjective opinion/s. Given a different judge on a different day you might well score a different result.  Generally speaking though if a competition has chosen its professional judges carefully then there should be a general consensus across most entries.  It does however never cease to amaze me how professional photographers who frequently judge competitions can have such differing views and scores on a single image. Its this individual opinion that makes competitions so subjective and at least in my view is why photography should not be considered a competitive sport.

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