Follow-Up 1: Judging at the San Diego Fair 2013

San Diego — I just received a comment on the initial entry about judging at the fair this year.  It is attached to that first post so you can read it if you would like.  It consisted of a complaint that pieces were rejected without explanation and that therefore participation was pointless.  It also said I had mischaracterized the judging process compared to the information posted in the entry rules.  I think those are important issues and deserve more of a response than a simple reply to a comment, so am going to address them here.

No one likes to have pieces rejected but it happens to all of us; God knows it happens to me as well.  Our art work is our baby, we have a huge emotional connection to it since it is our creation and goes to our inner core.  Often too our connection to the image is tied to the emotional responses that were part and parcel of the moment in which the photo was captured.  It is incredibly difficult, even when we know better, to step outside those emotional blinders and not be hurt or profoundly unhappy when someone, especially someone held up as an authority on it, rejects it in a show.  It hurts.  I know, I’ve been there and know I will be again down the road.  But being a judge myself I now can be a bit more objective about the results, both good and bad and perhaps I can make it a little more acceptable, if not more agreeable, to you.

OK, the first complaint was in not letting entrants know why they were rejected.  I have to say up front I don’t think I’ve ever been told why a submission of mine was rejected for an exhibition but I do agree it would have been helpful information.  So let’s put that activity under the lens of reality.

At large exhibitions such as the San Diego County Fair, there are usually a couple of thousand (and sometimes more) entries.  They typically have hanging space for about a third of the entries so assuming a 2/3 rejection, taking the time to comment on all of those 1,000 to 2,000 prints that do not make the first cut or all of those except prize winners, is simply not possible unless the judges, who do it for free, were willng to spend several days devoted strictly to that activity.

Whoever sends the email out alerting entrants as to the fate of their entries is not involved in the judging and would have no idea as to why something was accepted or rejected.  It is, however, a fair complaint and that is why at this particular exhibition there are a judges’ Roundtable and a Judges’ Critique events scheduled… and that is far more than most exhibitions and photo festivals offer in order to improve the caliber of both entries and displayed work.

However, photo exhibition are not intended to be photo classrooms; judges are not expected to also assume the mantle of photo educators as part of the judging process.  Indeed some things ought to need no explanation: B&W shots entered into a color category, for example, or a landscape in a portrait category. Nor do basic level photo errors such as focus issues, bad printing or editing, poorly used composition, and a plethora of digital blunders such as being oversharpened or over the top HDR in the wrong categories. Those are errors addressed in nearly every basic level class available in the galaxy and the judges’ question back to the photographer is often, “Why on earth would they enter such a piece since they knew or should have known it was so flawed in execution?”

But there are other reasons as well for rejection that are less obvious than simple basic blunders should be.  If we are in a “Color, Scenic, Winter” category, for example, and have just narrowed down to a dozen or more nearly identical photographs of wildflowers, judges are not going to accept them all and create a boring show unless the category is flowers. They will carefully, sometimes painfully try to find the top couple that, in their view, are the best and reject the rest. An artistic exposition, whether of photography or painting, is, in itself, a sort of art work and needs to not be boring or it is pointless. In the categories I and the panel I was on reviewed, we often chose between similar or nearly identical entries based on our collective appraisal as to which was the best, sometimes by virtue of having the fewest flaws, sometimes on which we thought made the strongest statements or told the strongest “Story” about the subject to decide upon the one or sometimes two we would pass on to the next tier of judging.

To everyone entering such a contest, it is very important that you understand something. Judges do not “see” with a monolithic eye or aesthetic.  This is ART not SCIENCE.  Judging between creative works of intended art does not have the luxury of the type of objective measurement that would allow us, for example, to judge the correctness of answers to a math quiz.  That is why at this exhibition, unlike many others in which I’ve participated, judges work in panels and often discuss conclusions before making a final decision.

The comments I made in the previous post were compiled from discussions with a number of judges from a lot of different categories. These were judges from a number of photographic disciplines ranging from photojournalism to commercial photography to fine art photography and yet there was a surprising consistency in their reactions to what they were seeing. That, to me at least, helps reinforce the idea that in this case the final decisions were not simply capricious whims of individual judges — which in fact does happen in some juried exhiitions. Sometimes, though quite a bit more infrequently than one might think, we would disagree. The images that initiated the disagreements really got discussed and if we could not reach a consensus we kept it for the last pass where it was now viewed against others of the same situation and then evaluated comparatively but often with close and careful scrutiny.

Here is an ugly little secret about judging: when you are trying to whittle down a large pile to a few selections you are first of all looking for ANY reason to say, “No” to a piece. And one of the questions is, if we pass this on to the final round, does it really have a shot at a prize? We passed on some where our own answer was “No” to that question but we were trying to get the numbers up a little. How other panels dealt with that situation I cannot say.

However the point of the comment is well taken. To help turn the exhibition into an educational experience for the entrants, feedback would be good. Then like a call at a game, you could agree or disagree but at least know what the umpire or judge believed when they made a ruling and put that into your thinking for the next time. But I do not know how to get around the time issue for so many images.

On a single image basis it does not take much time, typically a minute or two or three (we timed a few) to open up that “comment” field in the viewing software, discuss an answer or comment the whole panel can agree on, type and edit it (most of us are not very good typists), re-read it to make sure we were as clear as possible trying to articulate visual issues, then close it and get back on track. But those minutes add up quickly and then we have to start rushing through the next batch and not having the time to give them the discussion they may deserve before we make a decision about acceptance or rejection. if there were fewer entrants it might be feasible, but frankly, not with this volume.

I’m sorry too you think I gave a different impression of the judging process. I have never seen any indication in writing or otherwise that would imply a process other than what I described, that is, panels of judges viewing selected categories and, in the first tier, trying to select for both display and second tier judging, an amount of work for which there is display room. I can tell you that in the past we have sometimes accepted more than the quota and left the staff scrambling to find a way to show it all.

Although I used the term “quota” the word overstates the reality. The so-called “quota” is simply a guideline and we were never told it was a hard and fast number as either a minimum or a limit. If that was what you thought I was saying then I apologize if I misspoke. As judges coming from the professional side of the discipline we all tried to honestly chose the images that were, in our opinions, the best ones but also the ones that best exemplified high technical skill as well as solid aesthetics. It is, after all, an International Exhibition and we set the bar fairly high.

Finally, an etrant is of course quite free to participate or not in future events. But I would recommend that all of you come to the judges’ presentations and hear their comments and suggestions.  We will not entertain a whining convention of, “Why didn’t you accept my print since all my friends said it was so good and my mom just loved it?”  But we will try to address visual, technical, aesthetic issues in general that should give you some ideas to start a round of self analysis.  And at the Judge’s Critique we will talk about specific images if you like, at least within the time constraints given.

The commenter had some work accepted and some rejected.  If that also describes your experience I would also highly recommend that you do a brutally honest analysis of the differences between the images of yours that were and were not accepted and look for the elements that might have led to such decisions. Contests are, in the end, reduced to juror likes and dislikes. If we can chose only four images for prizes out of 500-600 entries in a group, we first look for, as i said above, reasons to say, “No.” But invariably that leaves far more remaining images, often 50 or so, than we can give prizes to but for which, unfortunately for us, there are no remaining objective technical or aesthetic reason to turn down. We then try to rank them in some fashion but that still always leaves a small group of 10-15 that are all OK; any one of which might win. but by then all that is left as criteria is what we like or dislike based on our won sensibilities.

For entrants, knowing that reality means something important. If you lose… don’t despair: the fifth in line for which no prize is given was selected out often by compromise and personal taste and with a different judge or judge’s panel might have won.

And if you win… don’t get cocky about it: you got that blue ribbon not always because yours was the best in some objective sense, but because the judge or jury liked it better. A different judge might have placed if 5th or 6th.

I told several of my fellow jurors about this and the response has been this so far.  First from Lee Peterson (


OK, the first complaint was in not letting entrants know why they were rejected.

This is why I proposed a long time ago to have the judges panel night where entrants get to hear the judges and and understand what they were looking for in a print. Although not about a specific print but in general terms what makes winning prints. For one of the contests that I judged for the SDUPS I put together a pre contest review meeting where the judges discussed in front of the photographers who where entering the winners from the previous year and why and how they voted for these images to give the contestants some idea of what they had to do to get a winning image.  I think this might be impossible for the Del Mar Contest because of the huge numbers of entrants. However small local competitions could benefits from this.

Entrants have to remember that values applied to a work of  art by a judge is nothing more than an educated OPINION.  Judges try to apply the criterion of judging the quality of the craft and execution of the techniques that make for a GOOD print and it boils down to the content and subject of the art or what I call the WOW factor. Prints that lack WOW just don’t make it into the final round.

If I put a print under a scanner with an algorithm software capable of evaluating the content of the print,(Focus,color,sharpness,cropping,mounting,type of material, and other nuances) I think the results would be the same as what we get by human judges on the first round of judging. The WOW factor is where the judges have to deal with the impact of the image and that is where the OPINION factor comes into play.

I do feel that the contest entry description for certain categories needs to be refined so that there can be no confusion as to what the category is about.  If the image is in the wrong category the judges have the right to move it into the correct category if the print meets the quality needed to be a good print.

In this event judges are working together in a small group for each individual category and have the opportunity to discuss each of the images among themselves which adds a valuable scrutiny to the final vote.

I have judged many exhibitions and contests over the past 40 years and I have learned a great deal from this experience.  I can say from my experience that the judging at the San Diego Fair 2013 for the entrants who have entered this competition that they will have been subjected to the best judging of any contest that I have been involved with. The accumulation of art and craft knowledge in the collection of judges that are selected for this event far surpasses any other event of the same caliber. I will say that if your image made it in the final show you have been selected by the best individuals in the field.

Lee Peterson 2013



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Follow-Up 1: Judging at the San Diego Fair 2013

  1. John H. Moore says:


    Unlike Alex, I wasn’t expecting comments on my rejections (I’ve served as a judge before!), but having seen some of the rejected work, I have to say that I took real offense at this statement in your previous post: “In fact most of the judges I talked to said they were unable to meet the quotas for prints in their category.”

    There’s a lot of good work that wasn’t accepted. Let’s hope that, when it comes time to see what’s in the show, that isn’t balanced by poor work that did make it in. At least this year HDR is allowed, so we won’t again see a bunch of clearly HDR work that should have been rejected winning…

    Lee, nice to see that you were a judge!


    • ndking says:

      John I hope so too. But as both Lee and I said, the selections are about opinions – the are evaluating art not science and making those evaluations through out own aesthetic filters. But the commonality of that comment by the other judges was simply an observation. This is an International Exhibition, a pro-grade collection, or at least is supposed to be. i saw lots of images my panel rejected that would do fine in the Student Showcase but not here. I cannot speak for the other panels in terms of the specificity of their selection or rejection rationales beyond that blanket comment so I hope it was based on the same types of issues I saw in our collections.

      But the show will have to speak for itself as to all such exhibitions. But it is important to understand that although most judges would, I think, make very similar first pass judgements, when it comes to the final cut all bets are off and rarely does one panel completely agree with another. That is why I wrote that if you don’t win don’t despair and if you do don’t get cockey!

  2. Pingback: San Diego County Fair Entries | Alexander S. Kunz

    • ndking says:

      I think you may have missed the point. I did not judge or see these but if I had, this would have been my opinion. The accepted B&W coastal shot is a quiet shot yet certainly has a strong sense of composition and the tonalities and technicals are all top notch. I would have been surprised if that shot were not accepted. THe others however… The trees have a really strong central core but could stand some judicious cropping as there are some distractions from the main area where the inner photo lives. i think it is a nice shot though and would have held it to the end to see if anything trumped it. I also liked the dandelion shot though for my own sense of design there is some dead areas in it. Nevertheless I would likely have voted to hold it over too until I saw the competition for it. THe hazy shot is an interesting but unresolved pattern shot where there is a nice progression of both color and area of the receeding hills until it hits the sky and then the pattern is lost. THe guitarist shot shows a person playing an instrument but other than that tells me little about him, his personality, his style (other than casual), his intensity or connection to the music so, for me, does not really rise to the level of a true “portrait” though it appears to be technically quite well executed.

      So the bottom line is I agree about the accepted one and about two of the rejected ones, and two in the middle I would have held for further comparisons (which perhaps they did but I do not know nor do I know what might have gotten selected in their place). Honestly Alexander I saw stuff in your galleries that I think would easily have been accepted, at least by me. So I come away from this thinking that perhaps you don’t fully understand what Lee meant by the “wow” factor and think it means some garrish in-your-face type of image which is an error of interpretation. In our category there was one incredibly simple, elegant, quiet piece that got a “wow” from the panel almost in unison as we saw it. But it’s “story” was instantly evident, the composition supported and helped to tell it, nothing distracted from it, and it was beautiful.

      • John H. Moore says:

        you said, “In our category there was one incredibly simple, elegant, quiet piece that got a “wow” from the panel almost in unison as we saw it.”

        ….which category was that? (so we can look for that photo once they’re displayed!)

      • ndking says:

        We judged several categories Color Scenic: Fall, Winter, & Sumer and I don’t remember which one it was in.

        On Fri, 3 May 2013 20:18:42 +0000, Travels with Rocinante

      • John H. Moore says:

        Hmmm… then we may need a hint after the photos are posted!

      • David, I appreciate your comments. I guess you saw the thoughts that are at the bottom of the photo in the slideshow view, where I explain some of my thinking behind the images. That said, I guess I understood that cropping seems to be your dogma (sorry), so please forgive me if I (obviously) disagree with your evaluation. Which is fine, because it is all about taste, in the end.

      • ndking says:

        Alexander my “dogma” re cropping is that the subject should take precedent in importance over the tool.  I do not believe my camera is an artist anymore than I used to believe my brush or burin was an artist.  I do not believe the world comes pre-packaged into views corresponding to the arbitrary shapes of various camera formats.  If I was shooting with my Hasselblad. would I bypass an obvious panorama because my format was square?  Not in this lifetime.  If I am shooting with a pano camera would i pass up a composition I saw in my heart as square?  Not likely.  I came from the world of painting and printmaking into photography.  In those worlds the artist had a wonderful gift called “artistic license” to help them or free them to interpret the world around that made up their potential subjects.  I refuse to give that up.  I insist on my right, as an artist, to allow my subject to tell me how it needs to be rendered not my tool.

        If someone wishes to give their tool such control over their vision that is their absolute right but neither in art making or art evaluation am I willing to let go of that right for myself.  But that is one reason at this exhibition at least, judging is done by panels.  I do believe in trying to maximize the capture “real estate” on either film or sensor to minimize enlargement and loss of detail but that is another issue.  If I can realize my own “vision” for the final image by a simple angle or point of view change I’ll do it that way so as not to loose image quality.  But if my vision sees the final shot differently because the subject “spoke” to me and requested a different approach, I will happily run with it.

        In the end, to me, it is ALL about the image.  Does it work or not?  How it was accomplished is essentially irrelevant to me. The only time I let an issue of aspect ratio impose itself on my shot is for commercial work where it has to fit in a layout of some sort.  But when my commercial hat goes back on the rack and my art hat goes on, it includes that artistic license sewn in the brim.


        On Fri, 3 May 2013 22:08:54 +0000, Travels with Rocinante

  3. “I do feel that the contest entry description for certain categories needs to be refined so that there can be no confusion as to what the category is about. If the image is in the wrong category the judges have the right to move it into the correct category if the print meets the quality needed to be a good print.” I liked this I was very nervous about submitting some images as I was unsure if I had the right category for them. My work encompasses landscapes and portraits and is often a bridge between the two, but I think I got it right. Beyond my fear of rejection based of of my inability to distinguish what category (is my underwater, underwater work, or is it portrait?), I am pleased to be in the show. I felt the process was simple, and the results returned quickly. This is my first entry into any event where I had to pay an entry fee and am being judged. Alex does have some very strong work, and I adore his landscapes some are truly breath taking. It is good to hear that if you have so many of a similar subject, a strong composition could be bypassed because of the sheer quantity in that category. Thank you for taking the time to respond back a detailed and thoughtful response. The dialog is always appreciated.

    • ndking says:

      Erika I think it is an important discussion topic so if I have time I will try to respond and clarify things if I think there is a misunderstanding. I agree that in his gallery he has some very good work, better in fact than what was entered. But entering exhibitions is an important educational process even if it is only to help build a thick skin. Nothing in this even remotely approaches the “blood letting” of a serious portfolio review on a commercial level. Only the most dedicated survive that much less come back for more. But only the most dedicated survive the trauma of exhibition rejection and instead of taking their marbles and going home to sulk, get their backs up and swear to themselves that next time they’ll show those idiot judges! And then do it.

      There is one thing that can separate your work from similar or nearly identical work. Assuming of course that the technical and compositional issues are not lacking in anyway, remember art, real art, is about interpretation. Not narration, not documentation, but interpretation. That makes the artist and their presence in the work an incredibly important part of the mix. in the landscape arena, for example, you cannot be a better Ansel Adams than Ansel Adams was. But Ansel Adams cannot be a better YOU than you can be. So get the basics down solid and then make us see and, more importantly, FEEL the subject through your emotions and intellect and it will very likely get chosen. But if we see a dozen shots all technically perfect but they are simply technically impeccable snapshots without heart or soul or the presence of the artist, they will ALL likely get passed over.

      That is the real “WOW” factor! Not flashy color or technique or action or excitement… but the realization that you are experienceing the universe of that picture through the emotional connections of another human.

      • Yes, and this is just what I’m striving for. I’m trying very hard to put raw emotion into my work. If an image doesn’t make you feel, or think in a new way, it isn’t quite there. Sometimes that feeling is something as simple as remembering a precious time, (a portrait of a baby), or an emotion like fear, strength, or even humor. I’m striving to capture that emotion in my personal work, and the greatest compliment I have gotten was someone privately writing that my work brought tears to their eyes, as they were so overcome when they saw it. And, honestly, that is why I entered the fair. To share my work with a new audience. Maybe an image I make will stick with someone, or inspire them. It would be amazing to win a prize, and be recognized by the judges (Heck, it helps subsidize the printing costs and entry fees!), but as an artist, I am built to create and share, and I’m looking forward to sharing my work with more people here locally.

    • I’d like to second Erika’s comment about the categories. David, if you have any influence on the creation/description of these categories, I’d appreciate it if you used it.

      Also, from my point of view, it is rather odd to have Landscape Scenic categories in a fair here that are ALL about the seasons, while we do not have exactly typical seasons in San Diego County. 🙂 Also, a category where images from our fantastic photographic playground to the east – I mean the Anza Borrego desert – is, at least from my point of view, sorely missing. I was too unsure about the categories to submit a desert photograph.

      Does a color desert photograph made December through March fall into the “Winter” category? Certainly not. I was under the impression that it would be rejected there. It doesn’t show winter. The desert landscape (minus the wildflowers) looks the same throughout the year. It is almost timeless. Does it fall into the “Abstracts” category, that also lists fractal art (computer generated?!) and says “not identifiable as a subject”? It’s a landscape, and can be very much identified as a landscape.

      I hope this illustrates the misery that some of the contestants might go through.

      • ndking says:

        Alexander I completely agree with you about categories but in reality every year the coordinator tries to fine tune the categories to make them clearer. Since the exhibit is truly an international and gets entries from all over not from just locally the categories try to adopt to that. A few years ago there was just one color landscape class and there were so many entries a single panel was having trouble getting through it long after everyone else was done.

        The coordinators have always openly asked for input, ideas, and feedback to try to make it better. It has evolved over the years and sometimes the changes worked… sometimes they didn’t and had to be dialed back. Digital threw a huge monkey wrench into it but that is finally getting worked through though it has been a rough process filleed with lots of issues and misunderstandings on all sides.

        THe desert does present a special problem. Although on rare occasions it has snowed in the mohave, and spring does bring at least cactus flowers, it is hard to tell seasons for all but experienced desert rats. That is why the instructions said to use the season that the image seemed to best represent OR when it was actually taken. A similar issue happens for pictures taken from places like the Arctic or Antarctica which always looks like winter. I doubt if they will ever find a solution that works perfectly for everyone but to their credit they have been trying very hard over the years since I was first involce in 2000. But I agree there should be a separate “Desert” category if we could all agree as to who gets to define “desert.” Certainly it means sand dunes but does it also mean the high desert as well? Perhaps categories more geographically or geologically titled would make sense. But then, I come from Colorado and what they call mountains locally is a joke to me. Bottom line is that this issue is not as simple and clear cut as most of us (especially the judges) would wish it to be.

        “Abstract” is another problematic description although the general guidelines are that if the average person can figure out what the subject it is more proeprly a nature detail while a true abstract leaves the issue of its real identity a puzzle, confusion among entrants never seems to go away no matter how carefully the instructions are worded. However completely computer generated art has its own category separate from images that started life as some form of optical capture.

  4. Carole Massey says:

    Thanks David. Great information and well said. Thanks also for giving your time as a judge.

  5. ndking says:

    Thanks, Carole, I appreciate it.

  6. gene wild says:

    Thanks again for all of your time an input. As one of the coordinators for the show I can vouch for the amount of time that is spent on the category issue. I have been involved with the show for seven years and every year I have seen the categories revised in an attempt to make them easily understood and to keep pace with the changes in photographic technology. Will we ever get it perfect–no. Will we get it better–yes.
    As for the judging process, I know of no other show that uses as many top quality judges as we do. It is a major job to find the number of quality judges we use that are available and willing to volunteer their time and talents. We thank all of our judges—without you there wouldn’t be a show.

    gene wild
    assistant coordinator
    Exhibition of Photography
    San Diego Fair

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s