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.
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.
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…!
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.
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.
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.
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.