Issues from 2nd Tier Judging at the Fair

Or… well, except for the shooting, editing, and printing, this photo could have been great!

OK, what is going on out there?  The consensus among not only the judges at this exhibition but also other photo faculty and jurors of other exhibitions I’ve been speaking to is that the overall quality of the submitted work is going down…. Noticeably.

Oh there are still the top few that can make for a good show, but the great body of work is dropping precipitously in quality.  I personally believe it is all of the reinforcement for marginal work showing up from “friends” on social media.  A stunningly mediocre work will be seen as breathtaking and the friends will all circle the wagons around it and their friend.  The problem is it does not work to help the photographer improve and they are not learning what makes a great photo as opposed to a snapshot.

Remember the first tier judging was looking at online submissions, but this time we were looking at real prints whose images had conditionally passed muster from the computer displayed files. Here are the main – but by no means ALL – of the issues I saw this time.   Judges were told if an image did not measure up to the potential of the electronic version they could reject it.

  1.   Oh man, this was the big one this year.  The printing was simply awful on so many otherwise good shots.  Each year there seems to be some common issue and this year it was bad printing.  The largest proportion of them were simply too dark.  Shadow detail was simply lost into amorphuous blobs.  In a black and white image subtle shadow detail can work beautifully but in color it just dies.   But the problems were not limited to darkness.   Many, and I mean MANY were dull and lifeless, had a lack of brilliance and brightness, were flat and with severely limited dynamic range.  Images that looked great on the computer screen were simply awful in the final print.  You – YOU – as the photographer/artists are responsible for the print whether you make it or have it made for you.  Most printers whether custom or consumer will reprint a bad print but YOU have to be able to identify the issues and ask for the reprint.
  2. Cropping. This continues to be a problem for far too many photographers.  I SOOOO wanted to take a mat knife to some of the prints due to bizarre and distracting elements along the borders that should have been cropped or even cloned out in the edit.  Cropping could also have massively improved the composition of many of the images.  Yes it is ideal to get as much of the final image as possible in the capture; but if that did not or could no happen then don’t just submit the resulting bad shot if cropping could have improved the composition.
  3. Revisiting Iconic Scenes. Most of the jurors for photo shows have been around for a while and are very familiar with iconic photographs of much photographed and/or painted scenes. There are (by actual count) several bazillion shots of Half Dome, Tunnel View, Horseshoe Bend, etc., many of which have been stunningly rendered by great photographers.   If you are going to shoot one of these famous scenes then bring something to it only you can bring… YOU.  Bring your personal vision and responses to that view, learn how to infuse the scene with your own visceral and cerebral responses and you will have a winner.  You cannot outdo Adams by trying to copy his work…  but by the same token he could not outdo you.
  4. Over and Under Processed. Oh please, get the garish, cartoonish HDR renderings out of your system and move on.  HDR is a fantastic tool for capturing dynamic ranges beyond the capability of the sensor, don’t throw the tool away because it can be poorly applied.   Just learn how to use it in the same way B&W photographers learned how to use the Zone System to allow them to pre-visualize a scene and to handle haloing that is often the result of HDR or over sharpening.  It is easy, though sometimes tedious, but it can make all the difference between a phony looking cardboard cutout image or a great one.  But also learn that because of the issues in digital capture you will almost certainly need SOME post processing.  A well shot RAW file is like a well shot negative, it has ALL of the important tones captured and that means that in its RAW state it is most likely a little flat.  Now the job is to DO SOMETHING with all of those captured tones to turn them into an appealing,
  5. Wrong Category. Really?  C’mon, read the category descriptions and if in doubt ASK.  This should be a no-brainer…
  6. Bigger is not always better.  Painters understand that images have a proper scale; some need to be big and others need to be small.  Photographers seem to think it doesn’t  matter… they are wrong.
  7. Cute borders and display. Oh puleeze… get over getting cute with the simulated, built in borders.  Almost NEVER does a shot look better with a top and bottom black border but otherwise bleeding to the edges.  And NEVER does it look good with a single edge border!
  8. Simulated matting or borders on a full bleed print, especially high gloss, may look OK but leave the surface really vulnerable to damage.  We saw several with scratches or other damage to an otherwise gorgeous print.  The Fair staff interleaves every print to protect it but still, having that surface rubbing directly against something can create micro-abrasions on the surface and really diminish the impact.
  9. Clean up the sensor dirt and other issues just like you would have to “spot” your darkroom prints. Maybe that spot on the wall is really in the scene, but if it looks like sensor dirt or is otherwise distracting, get rid of it!

So there are some of the issues we saw this time around.  Many are repeat offenses that have no justification for existing in a juried exhibition of this nature.  Others were new problems creative minds could bring to the table.

If you search through this blog you can find other entries dealing with image problems.  Check them all out and then, being brutally honest with yourself, analyze your own work to see if some of these are showing up and do everything necessary to stopping it.  I guarantee you success ratio will go up.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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4 Responses to Issues from 2nd Tier Judging at the Fair

  1. Noella Ballenger says:

    Outstanding comments in this article.

  2. Mark Floyd says:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to help us with these informative observations from this years judging (and the past ones as well!)

    Sincerely,
    Mark Floyd

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