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.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS… BOREDOM
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.
WATERMARKS and TITLES
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.