Observations from Judging at the Fair

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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39 Responses to Observations from Judging at the Fair

  1. wattsdigital says:

    So many pearls of wisdom in this post, I simply don’t know where to start! Thx, Dave, for an eloquent post – much appreciated… I’ll be referring back to it frequently …

  2. Gene Wild says:

    This is good—I feel like we should copy it and post it somewhere at the show—or at least have a copy at the dest for people to read.
    gene wild

    • ndking says:

      If you think it would help photographers then you have my permission to copy and distribute or link to it. NDK

      • wattsdigital says:

        I’ll be posting a link to it on the Watts Digital SDC Fair FAQ page, but i’m with Gene – this is great stuff…

  3. Lindsy says:

    While there is a lot of information in this post, as an entrant, it feels a little harsh. I know it is an overall representation of your experience as a judge, not finger pointing at the failures of individuals. As a professional, you have more experience and knowledge of the “rules” regarding images. You are right that we need to be willing to take criticism of our work. I would enjoy some feedback on images that were submitted.

    • ndking says:

      That’s a fair comment; but it might surprise you to see some of the work submitted. However I would be willing, time permitting, to try to offer some constructive input on specific work. Also, remember that in the end judges/jurors are just like photographers or artists in that after we have eliminated all of the entries for specific quantifiable issues and still have more left than you have ribbons, all that is left is what you like. But entering such contests and reviews can really be a major factor in getting better and better if you develope a thick skin and accept that there is nothing personal in the comments. Mine were general and commonly felt but all of us would, I think, be willing to help you make your work better. DK

      • Lindsy says:

        That would be great. Let me know how we could collaborate on that. Developing thicker skin is something, I think, many people deal with when putting their work out there. It requires a great deal on confidence and/or ignorance.

        By the way, your Location Seminars look like they would be interesting.

  4. Adam Johnson says:

    David, I’ve often wondered why you don’t host your own posting and critique forum. I think it would be wildly popular. I recognize that too often threads on forums can easily get sidetracked… Perhaps more of a closed system such as a blog format would be appropriate for you, where you take submitted images and discuss them in the blog, while allowing comments and questions at the end. I know, sorry, as if you didn’t have enough to do .

    • ndking says:

      Adam that is an interesting idea. As you noted, time is an issue these days but I think it is worth discussing further. I am ignorant of some of the logistics involved in such a site but will look into it.

      • David,
        Even if you charged for it, I think there would be a sufficient interest that it could be worth your while, as well as educational for photographers, both professional and amateur alike. I know I would be excited to take part.

    • Kathy says:

      I would love this, too. I have no real “professional” critics of my work, only people who like what they they, or not. I would be grateful to have someone to say yea or nay and be a bir harsh. Better photos come from that learning.

      • ndking says:

        Really? forgive me, I don’t mean to prejudge people especially when I don’t even know them and could be making totally unwarranted assumptions. But I have to tell you that more than once people have asked for serious critiques of work (and not just to me but other teachers and pros I know as well) and then when it was given, and unlike the slobbering adoration you see on Facebook or Flicker or other such forums, they got some harder edged comments on how to improve the shot, they got all defensive about it. I’ll think I’ll address this in the next post and see what happens… Standby… DK

      • David,
        If someone posts that they want a critique, then that’s what they should get. If you do start a group, anyone who doesn’t take the criticism constructively can be put on probation. If they continue, they can be banned.
        We have all been to critique sessions where there is always at least one (always the same one), who argues about any criticism. If you’re there for continued fawning, just continue to show it to your mother!

  5. Lindsy says:

    I think you have to be prepared for people to get defensive. It’s the their work and, if they are anything like me, they put their heart into it. But, I agree that you can’t get better with out some constructive criticism. It’s a double-edged sword.

    • wattsdigital says:

      It’s funny, Lindsy, but I run into this all the time, too – – it’s extremely difficult for the shooter to separate the emotions involved in the creation of your image from constructive, but occasionally harsh, criticism… And not so easy for the criticizer to avoid stepping on toes, so to speak – – But if Johnny says that 2 + 2 = 5, I’m not going to beat around the bush: 2 + 2 = 4, and you cannot change that… So, if you want my professional opinion, I’m going to give you the truth, as I see it – I try to be diplomatic, but sometimes it can be harsh…. And Dave, I’m looking forward to your next post with bated breath – Maybe I’ll learn something, too 🙂

  6. Heather says:

    Dave – this has been great to read. I too fall into the place of someone who has wanted to get better but only have the non professional around to look at my photos. I submitted several to the fair, had two accepted, but wonder why those two and not the others. What about them is what you all like and what about the others was not liked? Is there anyone (you or others) that are people we can go to at points to get help / critism. I agree that it’s tough to hear, but some of us know that it’s usually said in the spirit of assistance … provided the person giving the critism doesn’t just flat out say “well this sucks” and then walk away 😉 thanks!

    • ndking says:

      Heather I have seen shots entered that all you COULD say about them was what you noted. But those are rare. Most of the time a rejected shot is done for some simple issue. Remember the jurors are trying to weed out nearly everything to get to the final awards. And even just to hang, in our case, we needed to reject 2/3 of the submitted ones. And (and this is important to remember) if i went back next month to go through the same pile, I would bet that though the top and bottom 10 percent would be the same, the bulk might be slightly different. A number of years ago at the fair a now legendary event happened. i piece that had been rejected the previous year and not hung was awareded the Best of Show when it was resubmitted the next year. I judge evaluates such things from the same time-specific unique position that, one would hope, the image was shot. If I critique a photo my assessment of basic level technical issues and composition might remain constant for a long time but my gut reaction to it is likely to change over time. The job of the entrant is to make sure those commonally viewed basic issues are all solved in your shot; after that it is largely a matter of the perspective and whim of the judge at that moment.

  7. Karen says:

    I want to learn about Documentary Photography and what makes a shot work and the basic principles to incorporate. Can you or someone in the field steer me to articles or workshops or advice?

    • ndking says:

      Karen I’m afraid i do not do documentary photography. i think however that basic elements are the same vis-a-vis composition and technical considerations (focus, tonalities, proper camera settings, etc.). The difference is in whether the story of the photograph manages to tell the story you are imposing on it. Perhaps another ready can give some guidance here…???

  8. snakeshooter says:

    David- excellent post and soild advice. I want to ask your permission to use a link to your post on another website that I frequent regarding photographing reptiles in the field. This should be required reading for anyone who is contemplating submitting an image in a photo contest. I can’t address all forms of photography, but I’d like to pass along your link to the area of photography that is important to me. Thank you.

  9. snakeshooter says:

    David-excellent post and solid advice. I want to ask your permission to use a link to your post on another website that I frequent regarding photographing reptiles and amphibians in the field. This is great advice for anyone entering a photo contest, regardless of the subject. I know of many who could benefit from having read this post.

    Thank you

  10. Eric says:

    David-Thanks for clearing the air for the participants in the Photography Exhibition. The only issue I had this year in in deciding which season to put an image with “some snow” in it. If the image was taken in the Spring but looks “Winter-like”, what category should it go in? If I put it in the Spring-time category, could that make ineligible because of the snow?

    • ndking says:

      Eric i was not part of the decision to make the scenic category into seasonal sub-categories. But i would have ghone with the “look and feel” of the shot more than the specifics of precisely when it was shot.

  11. Jerry Waddle says:

    This was needed. Well Said. There is no shortage of bad art.

  12. Johancharles Van Boers says:

    Great post with a lot of good advice. You have to tell it like it is. Over the years I have recieved some really good critics of my work – the folks usually criticing my work tell me what is good/bad about it and how to improve upon it. Isn’t that what we all strive for – perfection. The only way to get there is with the truth, even if it hurts some of the time.

  13. Jeffrey says:

    Great post that is tremendously helpful in deciding what to submit for next year’s Fair. That being said, most of what I saw at the 2012 SD Fair Photo exhibit was disappointing for many of the reasons you cite in your article. Most of the same comments apply to the 2012 Orange County Fair
    Photo exhibits too. If there is a prize for over-saturation, most every photo hanging at both of these Fairs would be in a tie for a Blue Ribbon. Few images looked natural. Many images were laughable they were so over-saturated. Both Fair exhibits were terribly disappointing.

    Good luck to everyone next year!

    • ndking says:

      One can hope that this is a fad of sorts. When word processing first was available people made giberish of documents with single pages full of 300 type fonts. Then when desktop video was available we got a spate of unwatchable videos using every transition known to man. Mercifully both abuses of the tools died away. i think — or at least hope — it will happen here as well. i do not mind font changes or transitions or saturation if they serve to enhance the story of the piece; but done for their own sake or just because it can be done, is anatema to the art of each of those mediums.

    • LOL. I have a photographer friend that feels the same way. She likes things “natural – the way she saw them.” Her photos are all so bland I don’t know what to say. And what looks natural to your eyes is going to be different than what my eyes see. I see wonderful tones and gradients, vibrant colors, multiple levels of grey in the clouds and well levels of blacks in the shadows. Her “natural” is definitely different than my natural.

      • ndking says:

        The camera — ANY camera — does not and cannot see as an individual human “sees” their world. What it renders fails on so many levels to be a conduit to that original visual experience brought to life by so many variables not contained in camera controls. If she prefers her photography unedited that is her choice. Sometimes it is a good choice… but not all that often. Remember, Adams was an absolute master of darkroom skills.

  14. Les Abeyta says:

    Thanks for the tips. As I enter the 2013 contest, these are invaluable!

  15. Pingback: Judging at the San Diego Fair 2013 | Travels with Rocinante

  16. Brian says:

    Thanks for the insight! I’ve never submitted to an exhibition and intend to submit to the SD County Fair this year, lots of great advice. Thanks! Brian

  17. Pingback: Photo Judging & Photo Composition – links : Inland Empire Photo Club

  18. Pingback: Why Not a Photo Club? | The San Diego Photography Center

    • ndking says:

      As in the last post, I’m not sure if there is a comment or question here…??? I have judged at several photo clubs and given talks at several and enjoyed all of it… so why not indeed? It is a separate event and I think many of the comments I made in these posts are as applicable for photo club exhibitions as they are for the fair.

  19. David,
    Speaking about categories, I had a problem with the “Cell Phone” category last year (but last year was my first time entering the fair, so I don’t know if it was the same in years past). The winner and second place were fine art photos that just happened to be taken with a cell phone. WTH? Doesn’t that just defeat the whole spirit of a “cell phone” shot? I think when anyone things of a cell phone shot, we are thinking about a shot of convenience where we are trying to capture a moment and we didn’t have our pro camera. What the point of setting up a shot in a studio, complete with props, lighting, and just using a cell phone to shoot it? Totally killed the spirit of the category to me and made it a total joke. Can you wave your wand and fix it please? 🙂

  20. ndking says:

    As I understand the logic, the reason for the category was the technical limitations that would prohibit a cell phone from competing failrly with a high-end camera, but it had nothing to do with subject matter. I can certainly pass on your comment to the Fair coordinator and let him know.

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