More Comments on Judging Photo Contests – 2015 Part 1

It is that time of year again: multiple juried shows for both students and other photographers, and for me this weekend was filled with helping out for our selected jurors at the Student Show for City Photo Students on Saturday with my Photo Program cohort, Dave Eichinger, and then, on Sunday, the first tier round of judging for the International Photo Exhibition at the San Diego Fair.  Sunday late afternoon was capped off with a family portrait where I was able to help out with my portable “Rovelights” for an outdoor location but that is another story for another entry.

In the student show there was, as usual, some outstanding work the students turned in. The jurors were Gary Allard of APA and Kent Mercurio, a landscape photographer.  Dave and I, as always, stay out of the process and try hard not to influence the jurors’ decisions.  Every year there will be some specific selections or rejections we simply have to bite our tongues to let slide by. But the point of the whole exercise is to introduce students to the rigors and sometimes inexplicable results of such events.

Judging is, once the initial pass at eliminating obvious technical and basic errors is done, to a very large degree subjective.  Balancing out that subjectivity and often forcing more of an analysis of the juried work is why the Fair (and we at City) try to have a panel of judges whenever possible.  Here is a shot of Gary and Kent looking at some of the submitted work we put out in our gallery for review.

Gary (front) and Kent looking at one of the categories of prints to jury for the 2015 City College Student Show.

Gary (right) and Kent looking at one of the categories of prints to jury for the 2015 City College Student Show.

Then on Sunday I was again a judge myself for the first tier of judging at the San Diego Fair’s International Photo Exhibition.  Along with over 30 other judges we went through over 4300 submitted images via their on-line system to select, ideally, about 30% of them for the second tier judging and display.

SDFair judging 01-A

Although there were, as always, some outstanding pieces, the broad collection was, as was our own student work the day before, not as strong as it has been in the past.  Some of them were excruciatingly close and would have been easy to correct either at the time of shooting or in post production. Those were exceedingly  frustrating to deal with.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but shots that are simply and obviously the work of beginners is easy.   We all have to start somewhere and it is good they are trying to improve their work and eye by entering contests like this.  The competition and what they can learn from the judge’s panels and reviews can go a long way to improving their photography.

But shots by those with clearly a good basic understanding of what they were doing but who submitted work lacking (often) basic tweaks was sometimes painful to see as well as inexplicable.

So once again, in no particular order other than as I made notes as we went along, here are some of the things that you, as a photographer, need to give your attention when you are shooting and when you are editing your files you intend for a juror to see.  Truthfully this ought to go for everything you show anyone, but especially to a panel of experienced and professional judges, not doing this is to guarantee a rejection.  Learn and pay your dues in shows like our program show or even in the Student Showcase at the Fair where the judging approach and criteria are very different because the judge’s expectations are very different.  But when you submit a shot to any sort of international exhibition/competition or with serious high level jurying, you need to take your duty to your images very, very seriously.

So here is an unordered and not exhaustive list of disappointingly common issues that resulted in rejections.

Lack of POP.

All too often there was a shot of a gorgeous place, reasonably well composed, acceptably sharp, etc. but which was presented as a dull and lifeless image.  There may have been lots of color but all the colors had about the same gray value so the overall impressions was one of flat, dull scenes with no sense of depths of “life” to the scene.   Learn to use Curves or layer blend modes to adjust contrast and image “snap.”

Learn to just look critically at the image as it is coming alive.  Don’t get caught up in your remembered emotional high at the moment because you were with someone you loved or whatever, your audience will know none of that and have to take the image at “face value” so to speak.  So give them some value for their effort at viewing.  Good grief, when a photo of a sunset at the Grand Canyon is dull and lifeless it ought to be a clue something needs to be done.

Lack of FOCUS.  

This is one of those true basics, folks: focus in the camera!  Learn whatever you need to do to get shots consistently focused at least on the “hero” areas of your shots.  If you must use auto focus then learn how it works, what it is looking for, and how to use it right.

Learn to use the back button focus function  Make sure the view finder diopter is set for your vision or eye wear, or do what most professionals do and have had to do forever, learn to manually focus.  But however you do it please understand that a soft out-of focus image is almost guaranteed to be rejected.


Sometimes however, image sharpness is not simply a matter of focusing. If your image seems overall a little soft take a very close look at all parts of it.  If nothing in the shot is sharp, it is more likely to be camera shake than a pure focus problem.  If, for whatever reason, you cannot hold the camera/lens steady at the shutter speeds you need to shoot, then use a tripod,  or a monopod or some means of stabilizing the shot.

I see this over and over both as a judge and as an instructor looking at sometimes hundred a prints in a week pretty much constantly.  Therefore I cannot emphasize this too much: image stabilization is massively oversold by manufacturers and “gurus” who ought to know better.  Regardless of the hype about gaining 3-4 stops, if sharp images for enlargement or serious viewing are critical to you, never push IS/VR more than two stops and one is even safer regardless of what the advertising or camera salesperson tries to tell you..

Of course if it is not important to you then don’t worry about it.  But don’t then whine when your “shoe-in” award winner is summarily rejected by a panel of judges.

Lack of single FOCAL POINT.  

Your image may contain multiple cool areas, all fighting for attention because they are so visually interesting.  And you thought that by putting them all in you would make the shot even more interesting. Error!  Wrong!  Don’t do it. If all that cool stuff is spread out in front of you, give each cool part their own photograph.

Putting too much into a shot is simply confusing, distracting, or visually unintelligible. YOU get it because you know where to look and how each part is both isolated and connected to the whole, but your viewer does not know any of that and has to try to sort out that visual quagmire alone.  They won’t.  Usually they can’t.  What judges can and usually will do however is simply reject it and move on.

You must remember, in a large show judges have less than 30 seconds to make a decision – and often less.  There is not time to make a career out of trying to sort out the incredible complexity you have so cleverly buried in your masterpiece.  Go and watch the audience come through the fair.  This is NOT a museum where art historians, critics or students on assignment come and sit for hours contemplating and analyzing an iconic piece of art.

There will be over 1,000 pieces being shown at the exhibition, how much time do you expect the viewers to give each piece? If you think you will so stun them that they will gather in mesmerized paralysis in front of your work while their brains try desperately to absorb the deep meaning of the cosmos you have carefully instilled in your breathtaking piece… prepare yourself for a disappointment.


We saw images processed to death and others desperately in need of some post processing attention. It is not the judge’s job to imagine what a great image this might have been; it is YOUR job to show them.  Judges have a right to assume that what they are seeing is the absolute best work a photographer can produce. Was it?

You need to learn what makes a good photographic image per se, independent of techniques and editing approaches.  Then learn to analyze the image as it comes from the RAW processor for what it needs  Then do all it needs but ONLY what it needs.

A good RAW file has detail in all of the possible areas and tones so you can then do anything with it you want.  It will often look a little flat as you bring it into your photo editor and should not be considered “finished” at that point any more than slamming a negative into an enlarger and making a completely untouched .exposure would seem finished.  A good RAW converter can do a lot of foundational work and make the final editing much easier, but for fine art work, it is the start not the end of the process.

But you also need to know when, for that. Image  to stop working on it.  When the technique itself becomes an important part of the image’s story then you have gone too far.  HDR processing to expand the dynamic range as the Zone System promised but never fully delivered does not — repeat — DOES NOT have to look garish or cartoonish!

Sometimes a simpler Exposure Blend will accomplish the same thing and be far more natural looking to boot.  If you often shoot in conditions requiring HDR, then you need to learn to use it to create what you have envisioned not what the HDR generator thinks it should be.  Good HDR generators like Photomatix™ or Nik™ give you incredible control over the look of the final result.

And even so, it is common that you will have to go in and do some custom area work, often to reduce the cartoon look in Photoshop (or whatever editor you are using).  Think of HDR processing as you would have done “special processing” in the darkroom such as push and pull development.  That was not the end of the procedure, it mere set you up better for the real editing at the enlarger.  HDR or other processes merely are special processing to set you up for the “real” editing needed to produce the final image.

This not just an HDR issue; it is ESPECIALLY true of sharpening — the most over used and poorly used digital function pretty much from day one of the digital era.  Most cameras with an anti-aliasing filter will require some sharpening for the final output because of the softening effect of that filter.  When, however, you can see the halos, much less when you can see the sharpened noise or pixel artifacts, then you have gone WAY too far.

Learn how to constrain your sharpening to below the halo level and within specific detail areas that need it, and not in the areas where it will sharpen noise or compression or sizing artifacts… like in the sky or other broad areas of even tone.

Again, when the processing technique becomes obvious and starts to be a point of discussion itself, it is way too much.  And by the way this goes for shooting techniques as well.  Pinhole cameras, plastic cameras, infra-red, alternative processing of any and all approaches, all should be chosen because they emphasize and help tell the story of that image.  Trying to shoehorn an image that really is not perfect for that technique into it thinking the technique itself will sell it, especially an otherwise terminally mediocre shot, will nearly always fail and get quickly rejected.

Too much ROAD.  

For some reason there were lots of “road” shots, e.g. looking down that long lonesome road, gal… or something like that.  When done well, shots of the road can be wonderfully metaphoric, the “road less traveled” and all that esoteric stuff much loved by authors of artists’ statements.  But even so, only rarely is the road itself the point.  It is where the road goes, or through what it goes, or from whence it domes that tells the tale.  Huge percentages of image real estate devoted to Tarmac are almost always BORING and detracting from the real point of the shot.

Too much SIZING.  

I get it, I love large prints.  But when you shoot and edit in JPEG you have just shot yourself in the enlarging foot.  The second time you have opened and saved a JPEG you will have a cumulative compression of 16:1,  the. Human eye can see the artifacts at around 10:1 and the sharp masking routines will see it at the native 4:1.  Any form of global sharpening will sharpen end emphasize the compression artifacts AND any noise in the shot.  And then even human eyes can see them!  The technical term for what that results in looking like is “do-do” and we saw it over and over… And over… And over…

Even a well shot image converted from RAW into PSD or TIFF at printing resolutions (300 0r 360 ppi) can come apart if poorly resized.  A program called “Q-Image™” does an incredible job of resizing; On-One Software’s “Perfect Resize ™” (which is the modern version of the iconic “Genuine Fractals” algorithms) is also great.  Photoshop is not.  First of all do NOT use Photoshop ACR’s default resolution of 240 ppi (or anything less), change it to 300 or 360 ppi.

Secondly, if you must upsize in Photoshop, do it incrementally.  Resizing is all about math.  Computers are great with math but they are even better with simple math. If you want to double the native size of your file (i.e. enlarge it by 200% or 2X), then for every “real” pixel in the file, Photoshop must guess at another pixel it will have to create and insert. In the enlarged image fully half of the pixels will be ones Photoshop guessed at.

But if you only enlarge 10% at a time, then Photoshop needs only create and insert one pixel for every ten in the original.  It is REALLY good at that.

But no technique will allow you to enlarge over 500% without a very noticeable drop in quality because as you enlarge the image data you also are enlarging the problem data like noise and any artifacts, various aberrations and optical distortions.  There was a reason in the film days that if you wanted larger prints you went to larger formats of film.  That issue and its solutions remain intact in the digital world.


This is getting old, every year there are far too many images where the horizon line is not horizontal but off by enough to look like the ocean should be pouring its water off one end or you are witnessing a major event in the history of plate tectonics.

It is quite acceptable to adopt what cinematographers used to call the “Dutch Tilt” to seriously throw the horizon or implied horizon way off angle to create tension and drama.  But a peaceful landscape with the horizon at a noticeable angle is unacceptable, especially when it is so incredibly easy to straighten for the final file.  We all manage to shoot with the horizon a bit off now and then but the professional and serious photographers FIX IT before forcing a judge to look at it!


The next round of judging will be the selection based on prints of images passed through on this first tier.  Assuming that the print matches the quality of the electronic image then it will be considered for one of 4 ribbons in each category.  That happens next month and as usual, I’ll give a report on what shows up at that point.

I’m not doing this to make anyone feel bad but to get you to take your photography, at least that part of it you want to show to the world and/or want to enter in juried contests (or get past screeners at a gallery) to higher levels.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to More Comments on Judging Photo Contests – 2015 Part 1

  1. I’m loving this!! Thanks so much. All these blog post have been answering many questions I’ve had when trying to determine how to prepare an image for competition, and what category they should go in. I will have to say that 2016’s category guidelines were pretty thorough and much improved. Good job!

    I do have a question based on your comments though. What is the difference between and overmat and a window mat?



    • ndking says:

      An “Over Mat” is cut so that the mat slightly covers the edges of the image (i.e. it goes OVER the image). That forces the artist to sign the mat in addition to the print so that viewers can see that data. (For the provenance of the piece the artist’s signature needs to be on the image’s paper itself in a permanent media.) A “Window Mat” is cut larger than the image so the viewer can see quality of the paper and the signature/title line (usually) below the image area. That is an approach carried over from the fine art print-making world of engraving, etching, seriagraphs, lithographs, etc.


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