Judging at the Fair 2014 and Old time Roses

Memorial Day 2014.    To all vets and those currently in service:  THANK YOU!

Judging Observations

This week on Sunday was the second tier judging at the San Diego Fair’s International Photo Contest.  The good news was that out of the roughly 4,000 submissions there were some truly inspiring pieces of work.  The bad news was the incredible number of pieces that were mediocre above and beyond the call of duty.

I would dearly like to populate this now annual debriefing of the judging experience with some new material; reporting gladly that entrants had taken the previous posts to heart and at least were now, in a spirit of creativity, finding new ways to get judges to reject their efforts.  But even in the selection of visual and technical infractions on display there was a dull and a little sad commonality.  As if in response to last year’s admonitions about being out of focus, the conclusion was that the solution was to be MORE out of focus.

Please, before entering an international contest (and there were entries from places as far away as Austria) make sure your very basic photo skills are on display in the shot.  Such niggling little issues such as correct focus and depth of field, exposure and contrast leading to such things as blocked shadows and blown highlights, camera shake, and, again and again just like previous years, wanting us to find and approve the real photo buried somewhere inside their submitted photo are simply irritating.  That is not the judge’s job.  Much as I would have liked to attack some of the prints with a good paper cutter, that is not what we are there for,

One shot had a gorgeous bit of structure nearly lost in the fog on a hilltop and the surreal view drifted through the clouds to infinity.  But the entire sense of depth and movement was stopped and stymied by a dead horizontal foreground hilltop punctuated by a perfectly spaced and static row of tall thin trees.  Loosing the foreground and a little of the sides, the entire panel concluded, would yield a keeper; as it was, however, it was easily by-passed.  It was a great shot destroyed by being inside a really poor one.

If you cannot physically get in a proper position to isolate the real photo, then you must crop it.  If you hang onto the tired old notion that whatever is captured must be used in its entirety then prepare yourself to get rejected in a lot of exhibitions and festivals.  Your eye, looking through the viewfinder at the scene, might have cropped the composition around the focal point, but if your print does not do the same, the judges will not attempt to second guess you.

But the most prevalent issue, print after print after print, was printing… really poor printing.  And that includes the selection of media on which to print.  Over and over we saw prints with an obnoxious color cast (often cyan for some reason but some in magenta or even green. Here is a clue to bear in mind…white horses are not green unless they are mildewed.  You must – mustMUST embrace the issues of color management to include monitor calibration and printer profiling. If you are trying to correct color based on the monitor display and the issue is not in the image file but due to an uncalibrated monitor, you will be imposing a color cast on the output.  DO NOT BELIEVE the marketing hype that some monitors do not need calibrating or periodic re-calibration.

Digital capture has (actually this is old news now) surpassed the inherent dynamic range of film.  But the dynamic range of prints is very close to what it has always been.  That means it is entirely possible to capture a scene that on the monitor looks great due to pixel dithering but which displays, on the print, a loss of detail in shadows and highlights. This issue is exaggerated by a bad choice in paper or printing media.

One shot, for example, had a stunning rendition of a sun on the horizon through mist or clouds laying on the ground with a subtle rendition of delicate shadow detail that would have made Bierstadt proud.  But it was printed on gloss paper and unless you held the paper at the right angle and had an eyeball right on top of it, you could not see it through the glare.

One solution is to obtain (do an online search) a printer “test ramp” target.  It is a 256 increment step wedge with the 8-bit numbers written on each step.  Run this through your printer based on the settings and paper you will use for the intended print.  It will tell you where, in the levels function of Photoshop, you should set the black and white points.  When you do that you may be horrified at the sudden loss of extreme detail, but better here than on a print in the hands of a judge.  And, here, you can now adjust and fix it to work within the parameters of your chosen printing options.

Remember Adams’s musical admonition, “The negative (or, for us, the digital capture or monitor display) is the score but the print is the performance.”  Judges only see the final print and have every right to assume it is as good as it can possibly be made.  They should also be able to assume that it absolutely and perfectly renders your vision for the piece.  If it does not, then don’t send it to them!  Period!

To leave this topic on a high note however, when it came time for the combined judges to select the Best of Show piece from all of the category 1st Place Winners, it was very, very tough because there were so many really good images and they were all so very, very different.  From a quiet evening street scene to a fantastic painterly shot of wind bent trees to some inspiring and fun composites, it took half a dozen ballots to finally hone in on a winner and there were still plenty of votes for several other image.

The truth is, if you got a first place in almost any of the categories this year you produced a very nice image!  Indeed if you got ANY ribbon this year, you can be justly proud of your work.  And in fact the cut off from 4th place to Honorable Mention was often a VERY fine line involving a lot of discussion by the panels of judges.

A Rose is a…

On Saturday I was at the rose garden at Balboa Park in the midst of a fascinating discussion and a photo experiment.  Those of you who have followed this know that I have been experimenting with the various techniques of “Painting with Light” on different subjects.  The beautiful roses in the garden were a perfect subject for the technique but there was a problem… too much light since it was in the afternoon.  But there was another problem as well, it was also bathed in extremely flat, dull, somber, gray lighting due to a thick cloud cover that looked like at any moment the skies could open up and send us scattering to the workshops to build a serviceable ark.

That meant that the ligth was coming from all directions due to sky scatter from the clouds’ heavy diffusion.  So, I wondered, thinking back on the painting with light techniques, what would happen if I took a series of exposures from underexposed (for good rich blacks) to one that was quite overexposed (for highlights( and then, in post, put the exposures into layers, starting as if I were making a P’shop HDR but instead went in using layer masks and painted in the tonalities where I wanted them as if I were transferring the lighted portions of a painting with light series but this time simply selecting the portions and tonalities as I might if I were painting the tonalities?

I confess from the time I took it some part of my mind was thinking about and planning how I would accomplish the rendering of the image in my mind.  All I had time to do Saturday night was download the files from the memory card.  Then I had to wait until getting home from judging to start work on it.  Here is the first version…

First version of Rose shot created by selecting areas of about 5 varying exposures.  Taken with Canon 5D MkII and Tamron 180mm Macro at f 16

First version of Rose shot created by selecting areas of about 5 varying exposures. Taken with Canon 5D MkII and Tamron 180mm Macro at f 16

Remember this is a prototype experiment.  I made a couple of mistakes needing correction in subsequent effort.  For one I brought the files into Photoshop one at a time and forgot to apply the lens correction to two of them so there is not a perfect registration of some fine detail and the result is a little softer than it should be.  So to heighten the effect I played subtly with color to slightly warm and brighten the center rose while actually de-saturating the other parts by a few points, and then simulated the sharp center and edge halation and diffusion effect of an old Petzval Lens.

The second version of the shot, this time after applying the simulation of an old brass-barreled Petzval / Imagon lens.  The change is subtle but important.

The second version of the shot, this time after applying the simulation of an old brass-barreled Petzval / Imagon lens. The change is subtle but important.

This is very close to the final image I envisioned when I was shooting it: elegant, quiet, painterly, and a little old-timey.  It was tedious and time consuming (about 3 hours of post production work) but has yielded a fairly unique rendition.  I think it may be worth some more experimentation…

Workshop News

The Bristlecone Pines workshop only has a couple more slots so if you are interested, please click on the link under the banner above and check out the details.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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