Judging at the San Diego Fair 2013

San Diego — Once again I was invited to be a judge for the International Exhibition of Photography at the San Diego Fair, the 4th largest county fair in the country.  And once again, a number of distressingly common issues arose for my panel and for some of the judges on other panels as well.  In fact most of the judges I talked to said they were unable to meet the quotas for prints in their category.  Most of those chosen to proceed to 2nd tier judging were quite good but were a smaller proportion of the total field than from previous years.

Last year on this blog I wrote up a list of things for photographers entering contests to look for.  All of those are still in play and I would highly recommend you re-read that information.  Here is the direct URL to that post:


OK, now what did we observe THIS year?  Many of the same old problems but also some new ones.


I really don’t care whether you can pull it off in the camera or need some post production help here, but very few real world scenes fit neatly into ANY of the normal aspect ratios of film or digital cameras.  Over and over again a dead, often out of focus foreground, or blank sky, or simply other interesting but distracting elements fought the real subject for attention and killed an otherwise nice image.

We started making comments on some but quickly realized if we did it for every shot needing input we would be there a month. It is not the judges job to crop your image for you.


This is related to cropping as noted above.  The biggest offender were some incredibly static arrangements and/or a shot with important horizon separation placed right in the middle of the shot.  Unless it is truly an important part of your image’s story that sky and land share equal billing, then choose one and make it roughly 2/3s of the shot with the other “supporting” part no more than 1/3.

And please, straighten the %$@#&^% horizons!

If your composition skills are weak TAKE A CLASS.  Or read a book.  Sign up for a 2-dimensional design course.  Composition is one of those basic foundational issues that, along with the technical ones such as exposure, focus, etc. will get your shot rejected out of hand if it is not strong.

Remember last year I wrote that it is not up to the judge to find the actual photograph somewhere within your shot.  That has not changed at all.


Snapshots or “I was there” shots are fine for albums, email, social media, etc. but for a contest expecting art quality images they truly have limited place.  In fact outside of journalism, editorial, or documentary categories, they have NO place.  I’m sorry but a simple snapshot of the backyard does not make a cosmic level psycho-philosophical visual statement about the human condition nor does it transmit an emotional response nor engender reflective thinking beyond wonder what possessed the photographer to take it, much less to send it into a contest.


There are some iconic views of famous places that have been photographed, by actual count, 4.7 gazillion times.  Judges from the profession, especially those that are teachers, have seen most of them… over and over and over and over… and over.  Some of these places are so spectacular that it is easy to think that even a fairly good shot is somehow made fantastic just by virtue of the subject.  They are not.

Art is about “Interpretation” so unless you can feel and then create a shot showing the judges your own view, perspective, point of view, emotional response, WHATEVER that is somehow unique, please keep them to hang on your own wall or on Mom’s fridge or to make all of your friends gasp in awe in Facebook.  Judges with any amount of experience at all will simply pass it on by as just another one of those millions of nearly identical and identically mediocre shots they have seen.


OK, this is really inexcusable in an international exhibition.  Surely every basic level photo class in the galaxy whether based on film or digital technology has talked about print quality; about having a good range of tones with brilliant detailed highlights and rich luminous detail filled shadows.  And some shadows that are meant to be graphic and black should be, well, BLACK.  Not dark gray.  Not blue or red or magenta… BLACK.

If a shot looks like it was taken during daylight, even overcast daylight, it should have more than two or three tones in it.  Some potential shots of exciting topics were just dead and lifeless due poor exposures that were matched by poor editing.  Digital editing has given the photographer artistic and technical tools only dreamt of in the film world.  LEARN TO USE THEM!!!

And if the story of your shot is such that color is important (otherwise do a B&W version) then respect that color as you would (or should) respect the tonalities.  Overdone HDR or simply over saturated (or undersaturated) colors are as jarring to see as the overdone sharpening that should have been solved by about the second month of your basic digital class.

Oversaturation not only screams “color novice” it also blows away detail just as overexposure does.  Trying to out-saturate a film like Velvia is rarely going to improve on a shot.  HDR is to allow you to solve the issues attacked with the Zone System and capture the full tonal range of the subject.  Yes, it can also set up the foundation for some spectacular special effect shots but only if the editor knows what they are doing and is pursuing a well thought out “vision” for the piece… and, more importantly, knows when to stop.


What can I say… DO NOT WATERMARK EXHIBITION SUBMISSIONS!  Judges are supposed to make image-only conclusions and not know who the photographer is.  DUH!

And for titles, if a shot needs a title to explain it, then the image is too weak.  If the title is the punchline in a visual joke it will fail in jurying situations where the title is not seen by the judges.  Titles are needed only for identification for cataloging entries.  If the image-title package is needed to work together it may or may not make a clever and oh-so-cute gallery display but rarely works in contests where the judges’ sense of humor is an unknown.  This particular contest is all about the image: it either works by itself… or it does not.


Black and White shots DO NOT BELONG IN COLOR CATEGORIES!  Especially if there is also a B&W Category!   Shot of your puppy does not belong in a Scenic category especially if there is a category where it does belong.  A shot of Half Dome does not belong in the portrait category just because there are some little unidentifiable stick figures in it.

Only if (a) it appears to be an honest mistake and (b) the shot is so excellent the judge thinks it might be a winner in the right category will they take the time and effort to try to transfer it into the correct category.  Otherwise it is simply summarily rejected.


We think the overall show will look good, as it usually does.  But it was frustrating for us to not be able to fill the quotas of roughly 1/3 of the entries making it to the 2nd round.  All of these issues yield to education and learning… and then LOTS and LOTS of practice.  None of them are made up of arcane and eldritch bits of photographic lore only known to long standing practitioners of the magic side of the visual arts.

Most of the errors that got images rejected at this first round of judging were basic level mistakes or omissions.  Some truly great concepts failed utterly due to poor execution.  Fewer things will irritate judges faster than that.  But the opposite is also true. Adams opined that fewer things were worse than great technique applied to fuzzy concept.   It is maddening to see shot after shot where the only comments you here on your and other panels is, “Too bad, this could have been a great shot.”  A GREAT shot is a seamless marriage between technical mastery and solid concept.

So keep trying, keep entering, but please, learn the basics first and then practice them until they are second nature.  Give this art the same practice regimine that would be required of a musician aspiring to be concert grade, or an athlete aspiring to Olympic Gold.  Anything less will fail.  Period.

Force the judges to agonize over having to select between scores of breath taking, knee buckling images.  We will love it!

Perhaps this year some more observations will flow from the 2nd tier judging or from the judging I’ve been invited to do at the Orange County Fair.  If so I will pass them along.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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15 Responses to Judging at the San Diego Fair 2013

  1. As a participant in the contest/exhibition, and with 80% of my entries rejected, I am a bit surprised to read that there were difficulties reaching quota.

    And, to be quite honest, for a $18 entry fee, I find it questionable, to say the least, that there is not even a BASIC explanation offered in the email that submitters receive as to WHY entries were rejected. A simple “wrong category”, “too heavily processed” etc. would have been sufficient.

    While I do not seek a discussion on this (I have made my decision to not participate again in the photographic contest; it is both a waste of time and money to me, since there is no feedback provided), allow me to add that the way you describe the judging process versus reality (plainly visible to everyone who visits the fair, and who has submitted work to the contest), leaves a bitter aftertaste that will surely make people carefully evaluate future participation in the fair.

    • ndking says:

      Alex you have made a very important comment so rather than give it less attention than it deserves here in a reply, I’m going to add another post to discuss it. I hope you will read it and also that you will come to the judges events at the Fair.

      • Dear Mr King, I have read your follow-up post, and thank you for your detailed insights. Knowing what was in the exhibition last year and – to a small degree – what will be on display this year has led me to the realization that the field of photography which the fair judges allow to enter the contest and exhibition is not the type that I see myself pursuing through my own work. Which is in no way meant disrespectful, but only to illustrate the benefits of rejection as a chance to reflect on one’s own artistic preferences, and development of vision and style.

        I do have to admit though that knowing that the judges are doing their work for free adds an entirely new viewpoint. I was not aware of that.

        PS: I can’t help but add that one particularly memorable piece in the 2012 exhibition was an overcooked HDR in which even basic technical flaws such as chromatic aberration and sensor dust had not been taken care of at all (in fact, the HDR process pronounced them, making them easy to see). One would assume that such deficiencies would lead to the rejection of a piece – but on the contrary: it was the winner in its category. It makes one wish that all judges for all categories would adhere to the highest selection standards that you describe in your articles here.

      • ndking says:

        Goodness knows as humans we make mistakes as well.  I would dearly like to think that an overdone HDR was from one of the “creative techniques” type of categories and that even so something else was strong enough to over-ride deficiencies.  Sometimes photographers purposefully push the extremes of HDR and/or other techniques to make their own visual statements but had I been judging it, some other factor would have had to outweigh the over-wrought processing unless I thought that tended to enhance the photograph’s story.  Photography requires a sometimes uneasy alliance between craft and art.  I’m assuming that, for whatever reason, that panel thought it all worked.  A different panel might not have liked it at all.

        One of the other judges just sent me a comment via personal email and with his permission I appended it to the follow up post so you might go back and read that as well.  And remember this bizarre anamoly from several years ago: a shot that was, one year, rejected and did not hang, was re-entered the next year and won best of show.  I looked at your site and think the work includes some very nice images.  But big shows like this where there are mere moments for a judge to look at an image do not deal well with quiet introspective shots that need more time to grow on you and reveal their secrets.  But having said that, even quiet images also need to follow some of the more basic compositional guidelines or even with time, they will be bypassed quickly.  If the picture elements are the “words” of your visual story, think of composition as the syntax that helps those words make sense to the viewer.

        My advice would be to keep trying but that’s just me…


        On Fri, 3 May 2013 17:07:46 +0000, Travels with Rocinante

    • ndking says:

      I think that is a wise decision for all of us. Since I was there and am part of the process and you are not I stand by the description I gave. The “quota” numbers are only for guidelines but we are not judging to any predefined numbers, only to the judge’s consensus as to the quality of the work. Sometimes even a panel of judges from the photographic profession, such as is assembled for this event, do not appreciate the brilliance and visual insight of a submission by an entrant. That can happen in any juried show but sometimes, sometimes, when a collection of industry professionals disagree with a contestants self appraisal, it is worth considering the possibility that the pros are not all wrong…

  2. Betsy Batish says:

    I have a question about paper types. It sounds like you may just be judging digital submissions (forgive my ignorance if I’m incorrect), but what are your thoughts on paper types? I’m preparing to enter another local fair in California and am not sure what type of paper is best. Glossy? Metallic? I’m leaning away from lustre/matte finishes as I don’t believe they show off the detail and color as nicely in the photos. I’d love to hear thoughts from a judge on what papers are appropriate. Sometimes I wonder if metallic paper is too gimmicky? Thanks in advance for your advice.

    • ndking says:

      Betsy there are two issues at play here. THe first is what best conveys YOUR vision for how the final image will look. Glossy, as you noted has deeper blacks, richer color, and finer detail, but some images profit from the softening of the elemrnts onh a matter paper in the same way thqat sometimes a watercolor painting is a better way of rendering an image than oils or acrylic. Metallic paper can. like all options, become a template and soon a gimmic but when the image is right for it, nothing else has its visual power. But since it is YOUR vision that rules, only you can answer that and make a proper choice but the answer can only come from trying the alternatives and seeing what variables serve your vision best. After a while you will have seen enough to make the judgement based on experience but to start with try an image on all of them.

      But there is a second issue in any show and that is how the work will be hung and what are the lighting conditions. If you are hanging framed and glazed prints or glossy prints some venues are so poorly set up for display that the reflection of the lighting makes it hard for the jurors to actually see and appreciate the images. When that is all unknown to me i usually print on matte or on satin or luster as a compromise. I’ve had prints that just cried out for something very high gloss but the venue made them impossible to look at when hung. It is little consolation to know you did it right for the print when it is dead wrong for the venue…

  3. Thanks for the insight, Sounds like you have your work cut out for you. This’ll be my first year submitting, I’ll do my best to help make your job painless 🙂

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

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

    • ndking says:

      I’m not sure if there is a question in there or even a comment. I have, over the years, been asked to talk to and judge photo club’s meetings and work and always enjoyed it. I like looking at good photography, it is always inspiring and thought provoking.

  6. Denise Vasquez says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight!

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