Judging at the Fair: 2017 Pt 1

Well, a year has passed by and here we are again back at the Del Mar Fair grounds for the first tier of judging for the International Exhibition of Photography.  For the last few years I’ve tried to put my “teacher” hat on and list the things the judges seem to focus on as problems and reasons for rejecting images from moving forward to Tier 2 competition. So here we go again.  But…

Hello out there… is anybody listening?  Oh well, as disheartening as it is for a teacher to be ignored, perhaps some of those who were accepted this time heard the message last year and now a new generation is appearing before us.

There were about 4300 entries this year.  There is room to hang roughly 1/3 of those which means we needed to reject about 2/3 of the entries.  At this first past at them, the so-called 1st tier judging, we are looking closely for the reasons to say “No” to the image and we do not have a lot of time to do it.  There is no time to let a subtle but “tasty” image grow on us; it hits up with that “Wow” factor or it fails.  If it hits us immediately with a problem, it also fails.

Judging at Fair 02

The room full of busy judges are the 1st tier judging for the San Diego Fair International Exhibition 2017. Photo (c) Gene Wild, all rights reserved.

So in the hopes of fostering some improvement so that next year if you were rejected this time you’ll have a better shot at it here is a short list of rejection-generating problems and issues.  They are in no particular order except as seen on the monitors and commented on by other judges.  This year’s complete list was a bit long so these are the ones most often mentioned.

Clipped Dynamic Ranges.  Almost all of the shots entered were now taken with digital cameras (except for those in equipment-specific categories.  And that means that almost all of the photographers had the ability to reference an onboard histogram to check the capture of highlights and shadows even if they did not have a good spot meter.  Make sure, first of all that the highlights are not clipped since those cannot be recovered.  Use the RAW converter to recover savable highlights and open up shadow area.  Basic rule: blobs of blocked up black shadows and blown out white highlights are never a good thing but are even worse when they contain potential visual data important to the image’s message.   If there is no way to capture them in a single file then consider using multiple exposures for an exposure blend or even an HDR.  But do NOT submit files with lost shadow and highlight detail and expect it to be embraced by the jurors.

Centered Horizons.  How often we reject crooked horizons almost mechanically.  But putting your horizon line dead in the center of the shot is almost as big a problem.  That can work when you have a perfect reflection creating an interesting abstract image or when the sky and ground areas are of equal balance compositionally and equal importance narratively.  Otherwise it creates a shot where the point of the shot is hard to determine, i.e. what is it that we are supposed to respond to?  What IS the real subject of the photo? What IS the photo’s primary story?  Is it about the sky or is it about the ground?  Pick one then move the horizon line to somewhere around one of those “Rule of Thirds” lines.  It will improve your shots immensely.

Judging at Fair 03

A fair assistant watches as myself (left) and Ian Cummings view one of the entries. (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved

Multiple Shots in One Shot.  This is a common and recurring error.  Putting more than one neat item or subject or composition into your fame does not make it better, it simply makes it confusing and, worse, each of those cool areas detracts from the other cool areas.  If there are all of those potential shots in the scene in front of you, give each one its own chance and its own image.  Otherwise it is simply too busy and too confusing the deal with.

No Apparent Focal Point.  This is the exact opposite of the problem above.  In that one there were too many focal points, here there aren’t any that can be readily discerned.  Great art and therefore photography is about interpretation.  Editorial photography is about narration.  Both types imply and require that there is something  to either interpret or narrate; some elemental primary subject, someplace where your eye is drawn whether a specific element or simply a contrasting point of color or texture or pattern from the general background, in essence the focal point of the shot.  A snap shot requires none of that.  Technically impeccably snapshots, meaning perfectly focused and exposed shots of nothing or no meaning, are typically not ones to get accepted by the judges.  We saw some images that, frankly, would have made a beautiful scarf; gorgeous watercolor-like patterns with some high commercial potential.  But a keeper photograph requires more than simply a nice design.  If that is what you have it might still be worth money, it still has a place, it is just not in this type of exhibition.

Cropping.  Sometimes we saw shots where there were some potentially interesting focal points but they were so lost in the visual weeds it was almost as bad as having no focal point at all.  Several times comments to the effect that, “I’m sure there is a nice photo in there somewhere but it is not our job to find it.” Were heard.  Finding it and making sure it is THE primary element is your job.  And often that involves cropping the image.  We used to say that some of the best photos were made in the paper cutter and that is true here as well.  The bottom line is, if you make me search for the real photo somewhere in your photo, it is going to get rejected.  If it were a class I’d help you find it, but this level of exhibition is not a classroom per se; this is the real thing, this show is big time stuff.  You will be expected to find it yourself… or get another chance next year.

Judging at Fair 01

THe name tag is in case I forget who I am… some days a distinct possibility. It was clearly a mistake for me to have found the box of doughnuts brought in as treats for us…. note the plate is empty… (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved.

FOCUS.  Really?  You would even consider turning in to an international exhibition a shot that was out of focus?  You would enter a shot that had a focal point and composition demanding a critically sharp area… that was not.  C’mon, this is beyond unacceptable.  Judges don’t care that you forgot your tripod that day or simply didn’t want to carry it.  They don’t care that it was a once in a lifetime moment to capture a rare event.  If the subject is soft and not focused it means you did NOT capture it after all.  If you do not respect your imagery sufficiently to do whatever it takes to get things sharp that are supposed to be sharp, then why should we?

Editorial Images.  We saw a lot of images that would have been perfect in a travel magazine or book to help illustrate the text.  They were narrative types of images but not interpretive.  They were perfectly good material for journalistic/documentary use but not something you would see on the wall in a gallery or museum.  If that is your forte then go for it, get really good at it and there could be some real money in your future.  I do not want to be interpreted as downplaying the value of competence of these images.  It is just that they are the wrong types of images for an exhibition such as this and so were often rejected.

NOISE.  Is there a trend I did not get the memo on?  We saw several where the smooth toned areas, such as the sky, were filled with noise.  In some it was so bad it almost looked like someone had applied a “sand” texture to the image.  It was not the typical color noise but usually mostly black or dark gausian dispersed specs.  We could not figure out where it would come from naturally, it is not a normal compression or sizing or even sharpening artifact.  But it is distracting and ugly and resulted in a surprising number of images getting rejected.  I would love to be able to tell you what causes it and therefore what to do to avoid it but I do not know.  Just really closely examine your files before submission and before (and after) printing where it will be enlarged if in the files and fix it first.

Judging at Fair 04

Another view of the room with the judges for the 1st Tier judging at the San Diego Fair. (c) Gene Wild, All Rights Reserved.

So that is it for the moment.  The Second tier of judging where we will be looking at the actual prints, may reveal other things to watch out for.  That is in about a month.  Meantime, here is a bit of, I think, very sagacious advice… if you are going to insist on reinventing the wheel, you’ll be far more successful if you make your version round and not rectangular…  You can ignore all of this and strike off down your own aesthetic path, but if you do you have to be aware that some issues and their acceptable solutions predate you.  You will not win the tour de France on a bike with square tires; you will not win an exhibition like this one with images exhibiting these types of problems.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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One Response to Judging at the Fair: 2017 Pt 1

  1. gene wild says:

    This perfectly reflects the comments I heard from the judging stations as I walked around the room…thank you for putting them into clear, understandable words.

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