Reflections on the Second Round of Judging at the San Diego Fair

San Diego — Sunday was the second tier judging for the Del Mar Fair’s Photo Exhibition. We were warned that the road would be blocked up getting into the fair grounds so I added plenty of time to the normal 20-30 minutes it takes to get there.  I can’t speak for others but the roads were open, free of traffic, and I arrived at the Fairgrounds long before things were to get underway.

Oh well, I know that if I had not gone early I might still be sitting in traffic trying to get there so I’m not complaining.  After donuts, coffee, and some chitchat with the other judges, we received our instructions and it was time to get started.  To my surprise I had the same category as for the first round and the same judge’s panel.

Bear in mind the first pass of judging, done online, was done based on computer displayed images but even so, we tried to weed out all of the really obvious issues and cull the collection down to about 1/3 of those entered.  Almost all of the panels had a hard time finding that third but even so, we were now getting a chance to look at the real prints.

I took some flack for the last post on reactions for the first round of judging for, apparently, judging too harshly.  But after discussing it with other judges we noted that in the past couple of years the judging panels, in an effort to be a little more egalitarian, were letting stuff in that was below par and the entire tenor of the show was suffering.  So most were back on track trying to make sure the good stuff was what was approved for display much less was given awards.

You, the participating photographer, must understand something that is implied in the mere title of the show. This exhibition is not “billed” as the local county photographers’ exhibition, but as an international juried exhibition.  In the opinion of most of the judges it deserves to be treated as such and most especially by the photographers who want to enter it.

And what of those entries we were now seeing “in the flesh” especially after my last post pointing out issues.  Often, sadly, in our categories there was still a major difference in quality between the image we saw on the monitor and the actual print that was submitted.  Some subtle artifacts like over-sharpening or up-scaling too far or improperly simply did not show up on screen so we let them by.  But the resulting artifacts screamed at you when you looked at the real print.  We ended up disqualifying an additional 20-30 images generally on technical grounds or for reasons described below.

Here were some of the major issues we saw at this second pass at the images. These issues either resulted in disqualification if sufficiently serious or, dropped the print out of the running for an award or honorable mention even though they might be displayed.  Here are the major issues:


Composition:  Too many prints had unresolved compositions.  That means there were often great individual elements in the shots but no clear indication as to which of them was THE subject or “focal point” of the shot.  Some seemed to have taken my comments to heart and their entries were significantly improved; but one or another issue of composition was at play in a great majority of the files we looked at.  I know some feel it is not important or is, at best, a guideline.  Those that feel that way are normally ignorant of the underpinnings of those guidelines.

Think of it this way: the picture elements are the “words” in your visual narrative, but composition is the grammar.  Composition tells us with great accuracy how a viewer will respond to an image. You can ignore it if you want but don’t feel rained on when most people misinterpret your image or cannot figure it out at all because, due to bad visual grammar, you have unknowingly and unintentionally spoken visual gibberish to them.

There were also lots of shots with large areas of out of focus foreground elements that were really distracting from the good parts of the shots.  The human eye has trouble trying to focus on the unfocusable and will look away.  The solution? Focus.  Or use a view camera.  Or use a tilt-shift lens or focus stacking to solve it.  There are tools and/or techniques available to solve it and in a serious competition there is no excuse for not doing so.

And despite comments intended to ward this aspect off, there were still shots with simply boring or static compositions that took some dynamic elements and caused them to just die on the page.  They did not do very will when in front of the judges.

Print Quality:  There were also far too many muddy prints!  Prints, that is, with no brilliance, no detailed highlights or luminous shadows.  Some prints had a great concept, strong composition, but were so poorly printed we rejected them.

C’mon you photographers!  If you do not know what a good print looks like then take some classes.  If you are sending in files made on an uncalibrated monitor or one that is too bright, the files, after you have “corrected” them based on the display, will be off and not just in terms of color.

And if you get a print back from the printer that does not look right to you then have them re-do it!  Don’t give me that there is no time; why did you wait so long?  And if you truly are out of time then don’t submit something just to be submitting something especially if even to you it is not the absolute best you can do.  It does you no favors to hang a mediocre print with your name on it!

Exposure of Capture and/or Print:  Assuming that your monitor is calibrated (and if it is not then go away and come back when it is) then when a print is lifeless and lacking punch it is because either (a) the capture exposure and contrast is off and you did not fix it or (b) the shot was fine but you mucked it up in trying to edit it, or (c) both, and in any of those cases you would have seen it as visually flawed on a calibrated monitor.

So why would you submit such a print that you could plainly see was not a good one?  Unless you have never been taught what makes a good photograph in which case, again, TAKE A CLASS!  Capturing a unique moment does not cover up the mistake of presenting it with a bad print.

Presentation Quality:  Do you really think a judge will not notice when a mat looks like it was cut with a pair of toenail clippers, or a print is mounted askew on a board, or it is so wrinkled it looks like the laundry after lying in the dryer for a week?

It is sometimes held that it is only the image that counts and whatever is around it serves only to help protect the print itself but has no aesthetic influence on the viewers’ responses to the image.  The proper rejoinder to that view is, “Poppycock!”

And, seriously, think long and hard about bleed mounting prints.  No presentation style is truly a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Different images are best served with differing presentations styles and as an art photographer it is YOUR job to know which is which and then do that.

Some prints are so powerful they need no buffer to the world, but others do; others need that transition zone from the end of the image’s universe to the display environment. With it they can truly sing but without it they are overwhelmed. If you have not learned about this and just guess then the judges will happily give you the bad news when you guess wrong.  If you have never thought of it then, again, TAKE A CLASS or read about it.  And if you are going to mat a print learn the difference between window mats and overmats and learn how to determine the optical center of a board (not just the geometric center).

None of this is rocket science.  None of it is arcane and hidden lore carefully guarded in secret by ancient photo wizards revealing it only to selected novitiates and at considerable cost.

Metal Prints:  Now this was a sort of snafu because the sudden surge in printing on metallic paper and metal itself has caught on with a vengeance very recently.  From an aesthetic point there is no reason to exclude prints on metal just as one accepts prints on various types of paper including metallic papers.  But there is a serious logistics issue: the panels used by the Fair to display prints are designed to hold prints based on small Velcro™ tabs that stick to the fabric.  Prints on metal are too heavy and pull off which is not something good for the print, the attitude of the photographer, or the toes of the viewer who is standing a little too close when it happens.

The coordinator and staff are looking for solutions but in the meantime I have to confess that reluctantly we had to turn away some very nice prints on metal because at the moment there was no safe and secure way to display them.

It may seem as if I’m saying that there were problems with EVERY shot submitted and nothing could be farther from the truth.  Across the board, there was a top tier of entries, ranging, depending on category, from 5% to 20% that were really superb.  In these photographs the photographer exhibited a mastery of the technical issues facing their shot AND used composition to draw the viewer into the world of the image.  They had that “Wow” factor I’ve mentioned before and were very well printed AND displayed.  Any panel of judges would likely have ended up with those images in their final cut.

It was often a hard choice between finalists, indeed that is often the case when it gets down to the choices of the top 4 prints out of a category with several hundred entries but was especially common among the judges with whom I spoke.  The differences in virtually any objective form of analysis and critique were negligible and quite often final picks were either a complete coin toss or required a compromise agreement between jurors.  I think the show itself will end up being a very good one.

My reason for writing these posts is to let you in on the thinking of the judges and what it is that they see that leads them to accepting some work and rejecting other pieces.  The important thing is that on the first few passes the major goal is to find some reason to say, “No” to the piece in order to get the pile narrowed down to something manageable.  Your job, as an entrant, is to eliminate any of those reasons.  And the results were that quite a few entered work that did just that.

So if you got ANY place award then you need to know your work was top drawer.  And the truth is among the honorable mention awards are some that barely – and I do mean “barely” – missed being one of the ribbon winners.

If you are in the area do come to the judges roundtable and critiques in June when the fair opens and don’t miss out on an amazing collection of FREE seminars each weekend.  So, as they say in the ads, “See you at the Fair!”

Post Script…

This coming week is “Finals Week” at City College and then the summer break begins.  I’m looking forward to it!!!


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Reflections on the Second Round of Judging at the San Diego Fair

  1. 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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