San Diego – This past week was filled with contests. First, on Saturday I assisted the selected jurors for our own City College Photo Student Contest and then on Sunday I helped to start the judging process for entries into the 2012 International Photography Exhibition at the San Diego Fair. I must say that the judges at our student show were impressed with our student’s work and that is always wonderful to hear. We had around 500 entries and they both said it was very difficult to chose the winners.
The judging at the Fair, done at the fairgrounds in Del Mar, was the first pass to select those entries, based on submitted electronic files, which will be accepted for display and go on to the final judging for prizes. Our job this time was to select approximately 30% of the entries based on the available display space and the number of entries. The photographers of accepted work will be notified to now get their prints ready for final judging and display.
In every such collection there will generally be a few mind-blowing images that anyone, at any time would love and want included. And there will generally be a few that instantly raise the question as to what the photographer was smoking to think it OK to submit them to such a contest. The real effort for the jurors, is in dealing with those between the extremes and making aesthetic decisions as to whether to include or exclude them from the next step where, from the included group, 1st through 4th place winners will be chosen.
Based on my own observations, and after talking with some of the other judges when finished, here are some of the more common problems we had with what we saw.
- CROPPING. Many of the images certainly contained a good photograph in there somewhere but it is not the judge’s job to find it. A lot of the images could have been so much better and so much more visually powerful if the photographer had gotten closer or cropped them in the processing. I was surprised at how many of them contained extraneous and even distracting elements competing with the “assumed” actual focal point.Cropping is a major element in basic composition: what should be included in the “universe” of your image and where does that universe stop, i.e. where are the borders or edges of it. As a good starting point, the more visually simple a photograph is, the more powerful its message. Compared to large works of art such as wall murals, photographs, especially limited in size for a competition, are not large enough to carry multiple focal points. If your scene has multiple areas of interest then make multiple photographs; do not try to include them all in one shot. If an element is that visually exciting on its own it deserves it own shot.
And pay very close attention to the edges of the frame for little bits of other elements that can distract the eye from the important parts, or that start leading lines that can take the viewer’s attention right off of the frame.
Additionally, do not split the scene into two equal spaces trying to convince the viewer that each has equal value. Landscapes with skies are common examples. Make one part what the shot is about and the let other exist only to support it and provide context if that is appropriate.
Cropping should be done as much as possible in camera to result in the greatest resolution on the film or sensor. Alas, many digital shooters shoot so fast and so often they do not deliberate over the composition of any given frame, making the assumption that they can fix it later. But forcing the crop to happen in the darkroom or at the computer means you are trying to make your final print from, essentially, a smaller negative or with fewer pixels. That will degrade the resolution of the final print. And it eliminates the ability to frame and compose the elements purposefully by using spatial relationships as a guide. Those spacial relationships — perspective — are a product of focal distance not of crop per se. So use your feet as part of your creative toolkit.
If you are an amateur shooter clickinging blithely away taking happy snaps on the family vacation, or, honestly, a want-to-be serious photographer but who is not willing to give it any more effort or time than the tourist, then it hardly matters. keep your day job. But if you are trying to produce a visual work of art, something worthy of inclusion in an international exhibition of photography, then the images you create need to be “made” not just “taken;” and that implies that a large part of the result depends on YOU and your input. YOU are in control: not the camera, not the processing/editing… YOU. You and you alone are to credit or blame for the resulting image. If you fail to purposefully and deliberately create the image; if you fail to properly edit it; if you fail to properly present and display it, then it will fail in its mission because you have put nothing into it except dumb luck.
- HDR ABUSES. There were lots of HDR shots submitted since they were allowed. I am in favor of that. However… the intention for the standard categories such as the various “scenic” categories, was that an HDR shot was to be used by the digital shooter like the Zone System is in B&W film, i.e. to simply extend the dynamic range of capture. HDR is a powerful tool, quite capable of a lot more image tonal manipulation than simply exposure and development control, even when that was combined with various types of developers and developing techniques plus serious printing techniques using contrast grades, contrast masking, contrast burning, etc. Indeed it can produce very exotic looks that quickly abstract the elements away from natural and into another visual realm entirely.But pushed to its over-the-top results, for this contest HDR was to be used for another category which specifically allowed it as just another creative technique. Yet, lots of the entries in the scenic categories were of the over the top variety and should have been in a different category. At the same time, there were also a lot of shots that could have benefited from agood subtle application of HDR because they had blown out highlights and blocked up shadows that would have been easy to fix.
A common and inexcusable editing blunder is in leaving the halos around dark to light edges, which many of the HDR generators inherently do. This is simply intolerable laziness for entries in a major contest when it is so easy to fix. It speaks ill of either the photographer’s skill or their dedication to producing the best possible images.
Just as doing special processing to a negative is not the end of the process, neither is producing the tone-mapped file from HDR shots. It now still needs to be “finished” and fixing those halos is just one of the necessary finishing steps.
- SUNSETS. We all like sunsets. Gosh… they just make us feel all warm and fuzzy. When we are standing in front of a great sunset, however, especially in the midst of an emotional moment, we are mesmerized at the beauty. But our personal reaction is in no small part due to the emotional content of the moment. The brilliant colors of the sunset simply help us to magnify that response.Likewise in a photograph the sunset is just a prop to help tell the story of the real subject. By themselves, sunsets are fun to experience but not all that thrilling when abstracted into two dimensions and lacking the evening breeze, the sounds of the environment, and sometimes the nearness of someone special. Sometimes we judges would say something like, “Great sunset; too bad they did not find a photograph in which to use it…”
Sunsets are not all that easy to photograph especially if in order to use them correctly and tell your visual story clearly, other picture elements need to be seen and sometimes seen with detail and texture. Sunsets contain smooth gradients of a color – red – that is a nasty problem for digital sensors in the first place because reds so easily oversaturate and wipe out all subtle tone and detail.
Additionally, compression artifacts, noise artifacts, all exaggerated because of cropping in the editing/printing phase, contribute to degrading the sunset along with the enormous contrast range from near-sun areas of the sky to silhouetted elements in the foreground or middle ground. Just because they are glorious to observe and experience does not mean they are equally easy to photograph.
In an international exhibition the judges had a right to assume the photographers submitting shots will know how to deal with those issues and are quick to toss out those that fail.
- CATEGORY CHOICE. There were lots of instances of shots submitted into one category that clearly belonged in another category. As I noted above, we had to select fewer than 1/3 of the total submissions to go on for display and final judging so there was no room for those that did not fit the category.A macro shot, no matter how well done, is not a “scenic” photograph. Especially when a “close up” category exists where it would fit perfectly. But at this stage the computer application being used did not allow for us to move it back into the category where it belonged. And to include it, just because it was a very good shot, meant one less slot for good ones that were properly categorized… so out they went. That was often truly frustrating.
In this year’s competition, the “Scenic” category was further broken into seasonal components, i.e. Spring, Summer, Fall Winter. Submitted into the Summer category was a truly wonderful snow scene with a town in the distance. The lights of the cabins and homes seemed warm and inviting compared to the cold blue of the late afternoon/early evening blue of the environment. But this really nice shot should not have been entered in anything other than winter no matter when it was taken.
Of course some shots were truly a problem: desert shots for instance. These look the same all times of year unless you were given snow somewhere in the scene or spring flowers ablaze in color to contrast the endless sand. Lacking a visual clue, we could only assume they were taken during the appropriate time but perhaps if the exhibition is to get so anal about sub-categories a desert category might be called for.
- HORIZONS. I could not believe how many landscape shots, especially seascape shots, I saw with awkwardly tilted horizons where the water was looking for a place to run out of the shot. Using a so-called “Dutch Tilt” for dynamic tension and effect is one thing and can be powerful. In that case, following conventions that were first seen in German cinema that threw viewing horizons WAY out of plumb to force a sense of discomfort or near vertigo in the viewer can be an extremely powerful compositional technique.
However, simply getting the horizon off by a few degrees is unacceptable when now it is so easy to correct in either darkroom or digital processing. Even if the time was not taken or available to square up the camera, slightly rotating an easel in the darkroom or straightening the image in the editing software is to easy to ignore. This is Beginning Photography stuff! To see it appear in this level of juried competition is simply lazy shooting and/or editing.
- EDITING. In today’s photo world there is no – repeat, NO – excuse for someone entering an international exhibition to not have properly processed/printed or edited a photo. Period.
For the digital shooter, aids such as the histogram instantlyreveal areas needing attention and it is so easy to read for both exposure and contrast problems. To not take advantage of it means the shot is not all that important to you.Flat, featureless images of subjects crying out for some drama are not acceptable. Bottom line, just as the negative is only a starting point when using film, the RAW file or even the HDR program’s output file is only a starting point as well. Ansel Adams opined, using a musical analogy, that the negative was like a score (the sheet music a composer writes) and the print was like the performance (how the music was interpreted and played for the audience).
Digital technologies have not changed that no matter how good cameras have gotten. An artist, a true artist, is an interpreter, a translator who takes the raw elements of the scene in front of them and the arranges and assembles them then processes and manipulates them in such a manner as to reveal to the viewer their interpretation of that scene which will be different from artist to artist. It is that ability and requirement that makes this an art not a science.
- FOCUS. Focus? Really? C’mon… no one entering an international exhibition should have to be told to have SOMETHING in focus… And yet, to my amazement, in the categories I judged there were several instances of shots completely out of focus.
Now that is not easy; indeed it is nearly optically impossible. If you simply missed with your focus then what you WANTED in focus might not be but something would be.I thought at first I was looking at simple camera shake due to an exposure longer than the photographers ability to hold steady. Indeed that is the number one cause of fuzzy photos. But that was not the case. Nor was this a case of deliberately blurred images in the attempts to abstract the image from reality to some new interpretation. No, this was simply out of focus.
That these were common problems was troubling. Self editing, and a brutal, painful, but honest evaluation of one’s own work is one of the hallmarks of a professional grade photographer. We all hate to admit it but the sad truth is that no matter how good we are, or how good we THINK we are, not very shutter release results in a magnificent work of art. There are some out there who hold that if you are an artist by virtue of calling yourself one then whatever you produce is also, by definition, art. I believe that is simply a nonsensical expression of ego risen to delusional levels.
None of these problems should have ever been put in front of a judge in a contest. I have to assume that the photographer did not see it, did not realize it, or perhaps had never been trained to know it was important or surely, surely, they would have fixed them.
There were shots with amazingly beautiful potential ruined by the stupidest of mistakes or omissions of editing effort. A couple could well have ended up in the final cut for best of show, but a failure by the photographer not only degraded them, it took them out of running entirely.
If you want to be a serious photographer, you cannot let that happen to work with your name on it. Find some honest critique somewhere; someone who will tell you the truth even if it makes you want to cry because you were so in love with that shot. But if you are honest too, you may have to realize you love that shot not because it is a great photo but because it reminds you of a powerfully positive memory, it was taken during a moment of bliss and happiness. Fine, keep it yourself and take it out now and then to bring back that memory.
But keep it to yourself and spare the judges at the next contest.