More Observations from the Second Round of Judging at the Fair

San Diego Last Sunday was the second round of photo judging at the fair.  The first round, as you may recall, was done by evaluating electronic submissions and with a mandate, based on available hanging space, to eliminate 2/3rds of the entries.

I have made no secret of the fact that I am not in favor of that approach since I know that so much can be hidden in an electronic file that will be fatal in an actual print.  In that fear, unfortunately, I was fully justified based on the printed submissions.

We were allowed but not encouraged to disqualify any that were especially egregious in this failure because the numbers from the first cut were designed around a good, full display.  Nevertheless there were some that simply had no business on the walls of such an exhibit and were removed.  In my opinion, more should have been.

This second round of judging was to establish the 1st through 4th place winners as well as the “Best of Show.”  In this case we were looking at actual prints.  And that process generated some new comments to be added to the list from my post following the first go-round.

As with that first list, these are in no specific order; they are simply added as I noted them and as they came up in conversations with other judges.

Ignorance of basic criteria for a good image.

This exhibition is titled an “International” and “Juried” contest.  That alone is reasonably sufficient to put entrants on notice that the competition might be fierce and that the jurors, might be experienced in the field of producing and evaluation photographic images.  It says, or ought to say to anyone interested, that the images need to exhibit certain qualities that have come to be generally accepted as basic requirements for a photograph to be an outstanding example of the craft.  You need to know what those are and then exhibit them in your work.

As a want-to-be serious photographer, it is incumbent on you to familiarize yourself with the history and development of the craft side as well as the aesthetic side of the medium and to have a pretty comprehensive understanding of the visual qualities seen as basic to both a 2-dimensional image of any medium, in addition to those specific to an image produced from an optical base such as photography.  It is a safe bet that the jurors will know those and apply them.  If you don’t, you are already starting at a major disadvantage.

In my own work I personally am a complete convert to the digital world; but I can tell you that if you started in and stayed in that digital arena without the benefit of some traditional training/education then you are also at a huge disadvantage.  it is a primary reason why at our photo program at City College, we decided to make the Photo 100 Basic B&W Photography class a mandatory prerequisite regardless of whether or not the student planned on then continuing down a film-based or digital track.

It was not always the case and we allowed, for a few years, students to start with the basic digital class OR the basic film class.  But we could not ignore the obvious being played out before us: those students who took the B&W film class first were significantly better, as a group, when they hit the intermediate level classes than those who had avoided it to start directly with digital.  So we revised the program accordingly since our goal and vision was simply to be the best.  We could not do that without the change.

Just because an image has wild color or funky filtering or an iconic location does not make it inherently good, much less be of high “show” quality.  Just because you believed the idiot writers trying desperately to justify their own work that said something to the effect that, “… if you call yourself an artist and intend to make art then by definition your results will be art…” does not make any part of that statement true.  That has never worked in other mediums and it does not work in ours either.  If you believe intention alone creates real art then you have never walked through an art fair in a park.

A digitally produced image has a wealth of aesthetic options unavailable to the film world but those additional options do not relieve the final image from the same basic needs such as a good range of tones including good luminous shadows and sparkly detail filled highlights.  Only the image where it is obvious those things are not needed because their lack improves the image’s message can they be avoided without the image just looking flat.  But a mountain meadow with wildflowers and clearly delineated shadows, for example, has no business exhibiting no more than 3-4 zones of tone — none of which included good shadows or good highlights.  Over and over we saw prints where a simple levels and curves correction would have brought a flat ugly image to life and made for a very nice example of the genre.  The only possible explanation was the photographer did not see the problem in the first place.

But if you do not see the need for it then no matter how powerful the editing tools may be, you will not use them to your advantage.  Learning to over-use HDR techniques before learning to properly capture and process an image with a good range of tones in the first place, is a plan doomed to failure because from both an aesthetic and technical work-flow point of view it is putting the cart before the horse.

Flashy, exotic, wild, techniques cannot save a mediocre shot; they do not make up for solid editing techniques, and they serve generally only to irritate a juror but not impress them… at least not positively.

Cropping… Again.

In the first post of this topic I mentioned cropping.  But now that the prints were full sized there were even more examples of small distracting elements remaining in a shot to dilute the real subject.  Most were so small they were not noticeable in the electronic file and nearly all could have been avoided by taking a few steps forward or to one side or the other.   ALL of the others would have been a piece of cake to remove in post production.

If you fall prey to the nonsense approach, unfortunately taught by many photo instructors who shoud know better, that forces you to turn your camera – your tool – into the artist and remove from yourself your primary tool of artistic power, your so-called “artistic license” then do not be surprised when jurors, who do know better and expect better, are not rendered comatose by having their breath taken away by your shot.

Go back and read that first post if this is still unclear.

Awareness of Existing and Common Images.

Some geographical places are truly iconic locations where photographers from the days of the exploration of the west to now, focused their cameras.  These places are so powerful visually, that even on a bad day with horrid lighting they stir the heart and virtually demand that we “take a shot.”  I do understand that.  And for my own wall or for my own self learning process I have done so myself even when I knew of other shots out there that were unquestionably and unavoidably better or knew conditions were not perfect.

But I would not enter them in a large contest with real jurors.

There are visually wonderful places I have stopped and looked at but not photographed because I knew that at that moment in time I could not produce a shot better than or even just unique from the collection of other shots I had seen from that place.  That is a difficult thing to do.  But just as the song says, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,” the serious photographer has to know when to NOT do the shot as he or she must know when TO do the shot.

Or at least you must know when not to enter those where the judges will be inclined to say over and over, as they did here… “Too bad, that looks just like the other gazillion versions of that I’ve seen and it is not any better than any of them.”  Or, “If only they had shot that from a lower angle or with a different lens or (some other option) this would have really stood out from the pile of others shot here…”

When you take a trip make yourself aware of the history of work there so that you will not be inclined just to produce another copy but can use that history as a stepping stone, a beginning place for you to study, analyze, and conclude how you can present a NEW vision of it that is uniquely yours.  Serious photographers will wait, go back, sometimes many times, until the conditions are just right or they discover the unused angle to make their shots unique and strong.

You cannot be a better Ansel Adams than Adams was.  But by the same token, Adams could not have been a better YOU than you can be.  Show the judges something only you could produce because of your own unique emotional and intellectual reactions to the subject; and if you also present that in a perfectly crafted image I guarantee the judges will respond positively to it.

Display/Presentation.

This specific contest had the simplest rules for display imaginable.  The board upon which the image was mounted/matted had to be 16×20 inches and either white or black.  Period.  No double or triple matting, no colored liner mats, no other sizes or shapes than that except for a specific category.

A simulated multi-level mat with colored liners violates the spirit of those rules as much as a real one.  But the classic I saw was a 16×20 board with a roughly 12×20 print with additional cut pieces of mat board mounted over the remaining space.  It was stunningly inappropriate and poorly thought out.

If, for your photo, you want to apply an over-mat or window-mat (surely you know those are not the same thing…???) then when given maximum dimensions, make the print a size that allows for a proper mat.  This looked like an after-thought… or an after-something.  Worse case, place the file on a properly sized “canvas” and fill the remaining space with black then bleed mount it; but do not paste strips of board on it to fill in space.  Good grief…!

Over Sharpening.

Digital editing has been around now since the mid 1990s.  That has given plenty of time for writer after writer, teacher after teacher, book after book to provide instructions and step-by-step demonstrations on proper sharpening techniques.

Early in the history of digital printing the over-sharpened image became the hallmark of the amateur.   As more and more time and better editors came on the scene the ability to properly sharpen an image without those miserably horrid little halos making things look like cardboard cut-outs became very wide spread.  But for some reason, poorly sharpened prints seem to be making a comeback.  Alas, they haven’t gotten any better or any more acceptable.

Back when we started the judging process from actual prints those were weeded out in the first pass.  But under this current approach, since we could not enlarge the electronic files very much such issues and artifacts were not apparent at that stage due to small size and low screen resolution, so a number of prints with this most basic flaw got in.  But the experienced juror saw it immediately and did not let them make it to the top categories.  It is the same level of blunder as submitting a darkroom print that was not spotted and remained full of dust spots.

Zoom in at least 100% and if you can see the halos then back up and do it again properly.  And DO NOT sharpen the master file and then enlarge it for printing, it simply exaggerates the artifacts.  Global sharpening sharpens everything defined as an edge which includes noise, compression artifacts, enlargement artifacts, sensor dirt, even some out-of focus specular highlights (which look terrible when sharpened).  Learn to do it right and even so, do it selectively.  And do not enlarge a shaprened file further!  To all of your enlarging then go another 10% or so, sharpen that, and then reduce it back to printing size to minimize the sharpening artifacts.

General Editing.

The San Diego County Fair also has a photo exhibition for students.  There, the purpose is to showcase the work of area photo students so in that exhibition beginning level students are not held to the same standards as one would expect in an international contest.  On that international stage, however, jurors have a right to expect entrants to know such basic camera ops as, oh, say, FOCUSSING!  Or knowing when to use long or short exposures and deep or shallow depth of field appropriate to the subject.  Or knowing when a file will not stand up to enlarging that much without some superior editing skills and techniques.  Judges in major exhibitions have a right to expect professional quality work and to judge what they see accordingly.

For digital shooters the histogram gives you instant feedback concerning exposure and contrast which you can adjust for each individual frame if you needed to.  Then,  once pulled into a RAW converter and then into a major photo editor such as Photoshop, the editing capabilities are so powerful there is no positive explanation available for images that are flat, or that have blocked up shadows or blown out highlights where they are screaming for detail.  There is no excuse for color imbalance these days.  And there is no excuse for leaving distracting elements that take attention away from the real point of the shot when modern photo editors make it so easy to deal with them.

If you want to be viable with the professional crowd then you do yourself a huge disservice to not make the effort to master at least the basic editing tools available to you in the darkroom or at the computer.   And you need to accept the unfortunate fact that not all photo editors are created equal.  It is no more excusable to claim that you did not do something because your editor did not have that function that it was for a darkroom printer to claim the print was soft because he or she could not afford a good enlarger lens.  It may be true but it doesn’t matter and is never an acceptable excuse.

If you are shooting event photography where only light editing is necessary and for lots of shots, then some combination light weight editors/organizers are perfect for that.  But if you want to absolutely control the final image to prepare it for a major contest, then you have to have an editor that will do that and you have to learn how to use it.  And as importantly, you have to steep yourself in both experience and references to know WHEN you need to do it.

Your competition will have taken the time and expended the effort to do that.  If you want to play in the same arena as they do then you can do no less.  If you respect your own reputation and the images you create and sign as they do, then you cannot give yours any less attention and care than they do.

Trust me, experienced jurors as well as sophisticated viewers, the type who, for example, might become collectors of your work, can see the difference.  The judges were not allowed to see the photographers’ names, but when hung for the exhibition, names will be on the tags.  And with that starts your exposure to potential buyers and your reputation.  Think about that…  You never get a second chance at a first impression.

Printing.

Here is where the rubber meets the road because here is where you produce the actual image that will be given a final evaluation.   And here, at the stage where it all has to come together, was the most common weak link in the process I saw.  There is no way to soft peddle this… some of the printing was simply awful.

No matter how good your image may have looked un-enlarged on your monitor at monitor resolution, if it does not hold up perfectly when printed to mandated size and resolution, then it will fail.  Period.

Film-based professionals, especially those that worked with color transparencies learned quickly that the wonderful 8×10 transparency on the light table was a completely different thing than the prints that would by made from it and appear on a printed page.  Transparency film was capable of vastly more than the printing process could handle, and so often the photographer would produce at least two versions: one to see on a light table or projected, and another to be sent for separation negatives and 4-color printing.

If you are editing your files on a computer you have an analogous situation on your hands.  The brilliance of the transmitted light image on the monitor is a different animal that the reflected light image on a print; and that print version can be as varied as the available media upon which the print can be made.  Some combinations can improve it and others can destroy it.  It is your job to know which is which for each individual image.

But you have another wild card in the mix just as they did.  The light on the light table would influence the appearance of the transparency and that was assuming the photographer was working with a calibrated shooting system, filters, and lab.  Some things do not chance conceptually, just in the specifics of the process and this is one of them.  If your monitor is not properly, accurately calibrated then you are basing your judgments of even that image on inaccurate color.  You can adjust it to look great on the monitor but if the monitor is off then the file is now off.

And the printer itself needs to be profiled so it is printing colors the way they are supposed to be, ASSUMING that the file from which they are printing has accurate color in it to begin with.  This is a critical area for the digital photographer known generically as “Color Management.”  There is no way around the fact that it is a royal pain and requires some equipment to make it work for you.  But here is the bottom line truth:  if you are not willing to embrace this side of things and do what you must then give it up now before you embarrass yourself.

But though it starts there with color managment, the printing issues do not stop there.  If you are making your own prints then you have to pay attention to such things as head alignment, nozzle checks, platen adjustments, media profiles.  I saw several otherwise nice prints with clear printer head banding or color streaks where a clogged nozzle had not laid down a color.  Some tonal banding in graduated areas like skies was from poor files with insufficient bit depth or color space or improper sizing techniques.

Are you using inks and media combinations not subject to metamorism (color changes due to lighting conditions) or creating “bronzing” or showing gloss differential.  You better know what those are and make sure it is not happening to your show prints.  It was inexplicably happening to a lot of the prints we looked at.

Look closely at your prints and be brutally honest about the defects you might see because the judges will do that when it is too late for you to fix them.  DO NOT BELIEVE the often given comment that you do not need a high resolution file to print because at the “proper viewing distance” it doesn’t matter.  That is rampant BS!  And you fall for it at your career’s peril.

That whole “viewing distance” concept is a misunderstanding of attempts to decide on projector and screen placement for proper A/V viewing and was adopted whole cloth by would-be gurus who apparently had never been to a gallery.  No matter how big the image is, once it is taken in as a whole then the viewer will almost instantly be right on top of it to check for sharpness and resolution.  Judges do the same.  When we are down to the last few and looking for ANYthing to remove a print from the list, we go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Given modern printer capabilities a “dotty” print is simply not acceptable.

If you are making wallet prints or album prints for a wedding or a party, or collecting those cutesy shots of all of your stoned friends being stupid at the local hang-out to put on Facebook, as if someone is actually interested, then who cares?  None of this matters. It would be merciful to you and them if those dreadful images died a quick and lonely death.

But if you are trying to make wall hanging fine-art prints, or to produce prints for a major juried show, then you had better care if you want to have a chance, because the good competition will.  And the jurors will care.

If you are not printing at the native resolution of the printer engine in your printer then you are not getting the highest quality from it.  Not sure what that is?  Then stop printing until you figure it out.  Here’s a hint… read the manual.   And if you are getting any banding of any sort then STOP, don’t waste any more ink until you have solved it.  Then start again.

Darkroom printers often made several versions of a print, keeping careful notes, then would select the final version and used their notes to know how to make it.  Yet digital photographers seem to think they can download the file from the camera, send it off to the printer and make a print and it is just fine.

No it is not.

If you cannot do all of this for whatever reason, then there is still an answer and help for you.  There are a number of really good custom printers out there who will gladly make a very high quality print from your file.  In this area (San Diego) there are several.

My friends John Watts (http://www.wattsdigital.com/Home.php) and Jim Respess (http://www.greenflashphotography.com/) both do very high end printing and will work with you to maximize the results.  Check them out.

Really good printing is not cheap, even if you are doing it yourself.  But the question is, or ought to be, what is the value of your reputation?  Your displayed output will reflect the level of seriousness and dedication you are putting into your work, your art.  Do you want it to say you are cheap and it is not important enough to make it right?  Trust me, your competition will support you all the way with that attitude.

Conclusion

I’m sad to say this but I think what I was seeing was, to a large degree, the result of photographers leaping into the digital arena without a shred of training or historical references available to them.  Some seem to believe the claptrap that you do not need to worry about the shot, you can fix it in post.  No, you can not!

You can make a mediocre image better, that is true.  But you will only achieve a perfect print if you start with a perfect capture.  And you can do none of that unless you know what that should look like.  I understand that many of the new cameras are true marvels of sophisticated engineering and can almost automatically produce an acceptable image.  But the question is, acceptable for what?

And the real question is who or what is it that you are willing to be the artist?  Is it the camera?  Then give it the credit and sign its name to your prints because they are not really yours; you were simply an operator.  But if YOU want to be the artist, then act like it.  Learn to control every phase of production of the final image from capture to display.  if you do any less then take off your Artist’s Badge and burn it.

If you are OK with happy snaps of the trip to beautiful downtown Bugscuffle, OK then they are fine right out of a P&S camera.  Need shots of Aunt Harriet of the purple hair and Uncle Bobbie Joe of the red nose out visiting for an interminable week?  Almost any camera out there will do great.  But…

If you want to lay claim to producing serious art-quality photographs, much less want to submit them to an international juried contest, then NO camera will automatically produce the quality of shots you need.  No cute action or filter in an editor will know what needs to be done and specifically by how much.  They are tools and no more.  YOU have to bring yourself and your skills and your eye and your vision and your experiences to the table and handle that tool like a musician handles their instrument.

You need it to play YOUR tune in your way, not someone else’s.  And then you need to demand that same quality of response from every one of your tools from camera to editor to printer.

The good news is that if you put your best energies into every single step of that processes of creating fine photographs, and practice all of those steps with the same dedication a sports hero practices their game or a concert-grade musician practices their instrument, then you will definitely get the judges attention and will get hung not because you made the number-based cut to fill the space but because they really were impressed with your work.

I’ve been told I might be a little hard edged here.  So be it.  Get over it.  This has been my life and I’ve been a lot harder on myself than on the readers here.  I can tell you if you want to be a success at this then you will need to be far harder on yourself, push yourself, or find someone who will push you such as an instructor or mentor; avoid the sycophants who will stroke you no matter what you do, they will never, ever help you to get better.

If you want to improve, I mean REALLY want to improve, then fill your time with people that will push you so hard it will be uncomfortable and you will want to push back, people that will irritate you and make you say to yourself, or to them, “Oh yeah, I’ll show YOU!!!”

And then do it.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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10 Responses to More Observations from the Second Round of Judging at the Fair

  1. Adam Johnson says:

    David,
    I think you are well within your right in asking for the submissions to be top notch. To go further I think the competition organizers need to step it up a notch as well.

    I can only speak for myself but I didn’t find the rules to be well written or simple. For example, concerning your comment about the bleed mount, I certainly would have used that approach had I not read this statement in the rules and second guessed myself:

    “A digital-stroke border touching the image is allowed, either black or white, but not more than 1/8 of an inch wide. No embossed, beveled or otherwise altered borders are permitted.”

    So I took that to mean that a 1″ black border around the image would not be permitted regardless of whether or not is was a digital-stroke creation or a background layer. Am I wrong? 1″ is bigger than 1/8″? Didn’t I see thick full bleed borders around images last year? Oh, a rule must have been changed. Speaking of rule changes…

    Last year there was a rule that stated in each category that the image was to be a single capture. Lots of people followed that rule and submitted single captures. Others submitted HDR type shots. Several of the winning shots ended up being HDRs. During the judges roundtable this was mentioned and I don’t remember the exact quote but to sum it up that rule was not enforced. This did not impress me in the slightest, and gives me no confidence in the integrity of the contest. There were thousands of people following this rule and basing their submission choices on this rule. Regardless of whether the rule was right or wrong, it was in there when the contest started and the Fair began accepting our money for our entries.

    Its my opinion that just because something is titled international or juried does not mean it is prestigious or should attract the elite of the elite. Walking through the halls I did not get any sense that this is anything more than a county fair. I wonder what other International Photography Competitions use bare fluorescent tubes as the main lighting source?

    Also, look at the different visual styles used for the fair website and the multiple pdfs that state the rules, there isn’t anything that ties them together – it looks like they were made by different volunteers. If you click on “How Judges Will View Your Digital Images” note that no official fair logo nor Photography Competition identifiers are present. Even worse, there is no mention of pixel dimensions. I see dimensions listed on wattsdigital and that is part of my point… why do we have so many documents to look over? Why isn’t there only one comprehensive document that is well written? This contributes to my feeling that this is in fact a county fair operation.

    And finally, I don’t know her name but the woman that handled my submissions this year pulled my bottom image from the stack first, scratching it in the center. Who pulls an image from the bottom of a stack? I barked at her but left it at that, I didn’t reprint, I just figured that’s what I get for doing the Del Mar/SD Fair.

    I don’t think you will get the elite until the fair organizers step it up. Simply portraying the contest as elite is not enough.

    -Adam

    • ndking says:

      Well I do agree with much of what you say, especially about the lack of some comprehensive site for data and rules. With your permission I’ll pass along your concerns to the organizers… they have already gotten an earful from me so hopefully will be calloused to it by now. if we saw a full bleed print but there was a border simulating a normal mat with no more than a thin line then we accepted it; it was the attempts to simulate more that we had problems with. And to be honest the “officials” were less than clear with the judges as well.

      HDR is still a confusing thing to them. My argument is that if it simply expands tonal ranges such as can be done in the darkroom with Zone system and developer manipulations it ought to go into regular categories and only be shoved into other categories when it is clearly over the top and no longer even arguably “realistic.” THat argument did not find it way into the rules.

      But for all of the difficulties, it still does not, in my opinion, excuse any entrant from producing the absolute very best they can. To be hones this was a weak year of entries yet we were mandated so many prints to hang. It is sort of a chicken and egg issue. Were it me I’d rather hang 100 killer shots and tell the folks to do better next year than 2,000 mediocre ones but that is not my call. All i can do is encourage the readers of my sites to do everything possible to get better; to not accept work they know they could have done better; to not inflict it on the judges; and more importantly, to not let their reputations get started with their first public exposure being of less than stellar work.

      I think you and other entrants ought to contact the fair officials with your concerns as well. THey are the ones who can change things. The judges are all unpaid volunteers (unlike other exhibitions and other fairs) paid only in a handfull of tickets, a cookbook, and a pin. And i can also tell you the number of truly professional jurors i am used to seeing were down as well. A lot needs to change, there is no denying that. But that still does not relieve the obligation of a photographer to make sure their own work is above reproach. i wrote because of the incredible number of bonehead beginning errors or failures we all saw. Being out of focus, having distracting elements, prints that are oversharpened or with lots of head banding cannot be laid at the feet of the fair organizers… only at the feet of the photographer who submitted them.

      DK

      • Adam Johnson says:

        Certainly you have my permission to pass along my concerns. If you do please include this reply as well as I don’t like to criticize without a solution in mind – I was hoping to speak to Ron Hamm when I see him (at the judges roundtable?) and volunteer to come up with a draft for the submission guidelines. I want to at least get something in the ballpark for a peer review that we can build upon. I would certainly do it for the good of the contest and to help alleviate the confusion any fellow photographers may have. And that fancy pin you mentioned sounds nice.

        -Adam

      • ndking says:

        Do talk to him: the more input the better.

        D

  2. Rick Stanford says:

    David — Thanks for your honest comments. Based on your first blog about the judging process, I went back and looked more carefully at the images I submitted. Hmm…guilty as charged.

    Truthfully, I did not take enough time to carefully prepare them for submission. No wonder only two of sixteen were accepted for display. In retrospect, I was lucky last year to have two of four accepted and earn an honorable mention for one of them. This year, I was sloppy / hasty in image processing and paid for it. I can only hope my lack of experience and knowledge in the area of display & matting will not negatively affect my chances for an award.

    To answer your question, no, I don’t know the difference between an overmat and a window mat. In fact I don’t know where to find the answer to that question (google did me no good), so I will ask you: what is the difference, and how does one learn?
    btw, I like the idea in your blog of a critique forum and would pay to have people enable me to get better. One does not improve without knocking off rough edges.
    thanks again
    RS

  3. Diane Peck says:

    I have read your blog about your experiences judging photographic entries for this year’s San Diego Fair and feel I must comment. I do agree with most of what you expressed, however, there were 3 points on which I disagree with your views.

    First, the Fair itself, does not restrict the skill level of who is eligible to enter. I took offense that a competitor’s entry, in your opinion, should be deemed ‘unacceptable’, simply because a well-known, professional has a same or similar image, in the same or similar location, out there in the public domain and you feel entries should be ‘different’. What you are really doing as a judge with that opinion is comparing the competitor’s entry to a ‘professional’s’ image and not judging the image based on its own merits. If an entry meets all of the qualities of an ‘acceptable’ image, it should not be eliminated simply because it does not measure up to some ‘professional’ image you may have viewed in the past. If that is your true opinion, maybe you should try to convince those in charge at the Fair to restrict entrants to ‘professionals only’.

    Second, your opinion is that ‘viewing distance’ is hog-wash. So, I take from that, that should you be viewing an owl from a distance of 1-2 feet away where you can see the detail of every feather, is the same as viewing that same owl from a distance of 50-60 feet away. Amazing that at a distance of 50-60 feet you would be able to discern the same detail of every feather as you would at the 1-2 feet distance!

    Third, you as a judge indicated that when down to the last few, you look for ANYTHING to remove a print from the competition. I would hope that judges would rather look for ANYTHING that would keep a print in the competition.

    The above are simply my opinions.

    • ndking says:

      Diane, thanks for the comments and observations. You are correct, the Fair does not restrict entries to skill level. But it IS a juried competition. And it is open to any photographer in the world who might know about it. An entrant is free to enter the most blatantly awful stuff they wish to inflict on the judges’ time and efforts. Nowhere in the rules does it say that an entered work must be properly exposed, exhibit even a hint of compositional effort, be burdened by the slightest amount of thought towards editing and improvement, or, for that matter, that the image maker even was aware that adjusting the lens might bring the picture into better focus. But because at least some of the entrants will do all of those things and since the judges are trying, by whatever logistical procedure, to arrive at the prints that, in their opinions, represent the best work, those which could not be bothered with such things will not get very far in the process. My writing was to try to encourage photographers who would like to do well in such event to take those efforts if they know how and if not to learn to do so. But on an individual basis, you are quite free to ignore ALL of those suggestions.

      But you do bring up an excellent point vis-a-vis a work looking like someone else’s. By the way, being a professional does not mean you automatically produce show stopping images everytime you take a shot. i have students frequently take shots that take my breath away and make me wish I had taken it. In fact the more often that happens the better I feel about being an instructor. But as judges, we cannot ignore our own knowledge of the history or our medium. If I see a wonderfully wrought images of Half Dome or the pillars at Mono Lake, and it is a shot that makes me feel like I was there and experiencing the place with the photographer, then it will get into the pile for further review. But though it might do well in a contest where no one has a better shot, it will not do well in the world of fine art sales or even decorative art sales if it is simply a repeat of someone else’s iconic shot of the same place. If I have seen that view before and it was terrific and the one in front of me is weak, then it will need to be better than the others I’m looking at to get very far. if a photographer — or any artist in any medium — cannot stand on the shoulders of the giants that went before, and try constantly to gain the skills and vision to first understand and then present their own emothional responses to the world in front of their camera, then exhibitions aside, they will not go far and will be seen as simply trying to copy other work whether that is true or not. Getting an award at an exhibition will be the least of their concerns. My observation about striving always to bring something new to the table was as much to provide a goal and approach for individuals wanting to get better and produce more powerful work, exhibitions aside. But if that is not important to you then by all means please write me off as some stodgy old curmudgeon and do not give it another thought.

      I have no idea what your references to viewing owls has to do with the issue of viewing distances of displayed photographs. My comments were based on observations that in a gallery or museum setting, whenever it is possible for a viewer to get close for a better or more critical look they will do so and when they do the work still needs to hold up. And in this and other contests, the judges most certainly can and often do view the images from very close specifically to look for problems that might not be seen from farther away such as bad printing. Again, youa re quite free to dispute or ignore the comment, print your work at 50 ppi and assert that it was designewd to be viewed at 100 yards. Good luck with that.

      When the judges are faed with the task of taking a pile of 500-800 images and from that pile, selecting 1st throught 4th place winners, the necessary process is one of exclusion at various stages. Once in a while a wonderful shot comes in front of you that goes into the finals pile with very little effort. But when you have, on average, 10-15 seconds to view an individual work, you proceed more by a weeding out process. By the time you ahve reached a point where you are down to, say, 10-15 finalists, sometimes one or two will jump out at you that you know are better than the others. But that still leaves the others and more commonly, by that time, you have agreed that any one of them could win because they are all more or less equal and you would love to give multiple awards but that is not how the rules are set up. if you had not found positive reasons to keep them in the running by then in the process they would not be there.

      So there you are, looking at more prints than you can give awards to. On the surface all are worthy, at a distance all are worthy, so What do you do then? Frequently, if some few do not just stand out of the pack as clearly better, you are forced to look for minor issues to help you decide. The point of that observation too was not to suggest that you as an entrant need look closely at your work and try to make sure no such miniscule flaws exist. Your competitors hope you don’t. But the ugly truth is that if we are looking at two images, both well composed, both technically well shot and well edited, both using color or B&W tones well, both well displayed, most judges will take a VERY close look. If we see one of them is oversharpened or one shows printer head misalignment we will give the award to the other one without those issues.

      For the entrant the bottom line is simeple: if they are entering to try to win, to get positive exposure for their name and work, or they simply have a lot of pride in their art, then I have given them some more ammunition in the form of knowledge as to how judges look at work. But if none of that is important, if you do not care if your name is associated with work of mediocre quality or that it might be hung next to work where that artist DID care about theirs and you do not think viewers can see the difference, then by all means, go for it. Sometimes it takes a painful object lesson to learn some core truths about the way the world operates. I would rather help you to avoid those painful and often expensive lessons. But a person ought to do what they think is best.

      THe hard ones to judge are when there is, even on close inspection, NO quantifiable difference. When the process has removed all tangible reasons for rejection and the judge is left with one criteria alone: what they like best, most honest judges really agonize over it. We continue to look for some tangible reasons for selection until we run out of time. We could have flipped a coin they were so close. We have several times asked to be allowed to award a tie but the system does not allow it. That is where, as the Fair does it, multiple judge panels works to even out such subjective input at least most of the time.

      Judging art work, once you get beyond the technical issues and into the aesthetics gets harder and harder; it is an imperfect system with imperfect judges. But the more an entrant knows about how the process normally works, what is being looked for, what is liked or hated, and how judges approach their tasks, the better prepared they will be to not just do well the next time they enter work, but also t grow in their art. But, my goodness, you are most certainly free to ignore that information and proceed blindly through the world of contests. When you get to be judge you can use whatever rationales work best for you; I’m simply telling you how most of the judges I know and have discussed this with approach it. You can agree or disagree with it to your heart’s content and act accordingly.

  4. 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.

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