SD FAIR JUDGING 2019: Part 1

YAY!  Enough about me and back to photo subjects…

April 20 saw a cadre of judges assembling for the tier 1 judging of images for the 2019 Annual International Juried Photo Exhibition at the San Diego Fair.  This year saw the second highest number of submissions EVER – well over 4,000!

The judges had a daunting task at this stage: reduce that initial pile to a little less than 1/3 the number  to then proceed to tier 2 judging where actual prints were evaluated for a final decision on what to hang overall, plus to pick a 1st through 4th in each category, a limited number of Honorable Mentions, and finally the Best of Show.   But first things first.  We assembled in the judging area for coffee and donuts, bagels, etc. were available and where calibrated monitors awaited us and our three-panel sets were  assigned categories and places.

opening greet

The judges gathered early to grab some coffee and a donut or three and catch up since many had not seen each other for a year.  Rarely is a room so packed with incredible photographic and experience as during the judging for the SD Fair.   

We really never know where the coordinator will place us so it is always fun to sometimes find yourself on a panel with other judges you’ve never worked with before.  I like meeting other photographers and photo educators and always feel I come away from these sessions actually learning a little more than I started with.    So quickly, it was time to get into the serious business of making “approve/disapprove for passing on to tier 2” evaluations of our assigned stacks of image files.  Tier 1 is conducted based on viewing on our calibrated computer monitors.

Lee panel

In this panel the judges in the foreground (l-r: Lin Craft, Dave Hinkle, Lee Peterson) are reviewing a submitted image on one of the calibrated monitors.  This is how we see the the submitted images in tier 1 judging.  In the background you can see a few of the other 3-judge panels looking at the images in the categories they were assigned.

As with each Fair for the last several years, I took notes and spoke with other judges to come up with a list of issues we saw commonly among the entrants in the hopes of both explaining some of our decisions and in providing information that will let participants improve their photography for next time or other exhibitions or contests.

Don panel

Sometimes the judges (here l-r: Craig Carlson, Dave Gatley, Don Bartletti) really get into their review and appraisals of submitted images to try to be as objective as possible in selecting the 1/3 or less of the submitted images in their categories to pass on to tier 2 judging.  The same judges will review the submitted prints at the tier 2 stage in part to see if the actual prints live up to the electronic file then to select individual submissions to ribbon awards.

This year produced a longer than usual list of recurring and sometimes maddening issues which surprised us all.  After all, after all this time of reading these critiques, of having so much new technology available and so many educational resources, we would expect things to be getting incrementally better… not incrementally worse.  As always there were enough really outstanding images to allow the staff to put together a good show for the Fair.  But the broader base of images were really fraught with issues.  So lets get right into the list.  I’ve tried to synthesize and condense two pages of notes into something more palatable for readers to absorb.

CROPPING.  Every year I hammer away at this point and yet it seems to go unheeded:  it is up to YOU to find the real photo in your photo, to eliminate EVERYTHING that does not contribute to supporting or enhancing the story of that central subject.  Over and over and over again you could see judges doing “finger” cropping of the displayed images discussing how much better and how much more acceptable the final shot would be if the photographer had started in the shooting stage to identify the purpose of the shot, the element in their view that portrayed that purpose or best told its story, then to hone in on the focal point — THE ONE FOCAL POINT) and then, if necessary used editing stage cropping to complete the deal.  Let me be as clear as I know how:


THe good news is that you get to be the artist — the “author” of your visual story.  The bad news is that you and you alone must make the decisions about how best to tell that story.

FOCUSING:  Turn the $@%$^&@ auto-focus OFF.  And if, especially, you are doing a shot, such as, but not limited to, a macro shot, where the subject and composition demands that SOMETHING needs to be sharp, THEN FOCUS ON IT AND USE THE APPROPRIATE DEPTH OF FIELD  to include anything else that should also be presented as sharp.  Come on… this is Photo 100 stuff.

Showing a landscape where peripheral material is more or less in focus but the obvious focal point is soft is not acceptable.  Showing a flower detail where the fascinating detail in the bloom is out of focus but a petal or two somewhere else in the shot is sharp is not acceptable.  Showing a shot where it is not a complete abstract but something in it demands detail but in fact NOTHING is sharp is not acceptable whether it is a result of trying to over-extend the minimal focusing range of the lens or not being able to hold the camera steady, it is simply not acceptable in such a venue as an international juried exhibition.  If your friends think it is the coolest image they’ve ever seen then sell it to them but do not put it in front of experienced professionals and expect a good outcome.

CONCEPT Vs EXECUTION This gets us into the issue of editing and was perhaps the most frustrating and common issue outside of cropping.  Seeing a great concept ruined with sloppy or inadequate or even over-wrought execution is simply maddening for the judges.  Uncommonly mediocre images of uncommon beauty is simply maddening to see.  A great subject diminished by a bad photo is guaranteed to get experienced photographers and educators to dismiss it out of hand.   And given the power of major editing programs such a Photoshop™ and the incredible array of educational resources to learn to use them, not to mention to learn basic aesthetics and composition, there is simply no excuse for not doing it if — IF — one’s images are important to them.

Several of the judges referred to the issue as “Lightroom Dependency Syndrome.”  Despite all hype and advertising and rah-rah articles to the contrary, here is the consistent position of a room full of seasoned professionals:  If you are an event photographer (weddings, festivals, P.J., etc.) or a sports photographer — basically any photographer working in a genre where you need to do minimal editing applied to a huge number of image files — then Lightroom™ is, without a doubt, your best tool of choice.  But… But…  If your task is to wring every speck of enhancement and tweaking of a specific image – whether it concerns contrast or color or brilliance or area tweaking of any sort – then Lightroom should NOT be your final tool. It does not have the power. A good professional workman knows what the proper tool for a given job is AND how to use it.  Yes, you can hammer in a screw but it is not the proper process or tool.  You can use the handle of a screw driver to pound in a nail but it is not the proper process or tool.

Nor should you rely on the hype of the host of more-or-less automatic filters to produce the look of your submitted images.  Those represent someone ELSE’S concepts of how an image can look; being cute and clever and even “different” than normal is not inherently a viable criterion for art.  Art is NOT, NOT, NOT about narration, it is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS about interpretation.

As importantly, it is about the ARTIST’S interpretation; the artist’s efforts and abilities to infuse the final image with that artist’s emotional response to the subject. It is not about how someone else thinks your image might look good.

If you want to have your work taken as serious art in the serious art world, it is not just about what the artist sees; it is predominantly and most importantly about what the artist FEELS when they see what is in front of them.

To see a gorgeously composed landscape filled to overflowing with brilliant colors or special highlight areas or naturally dramatic chiaroscuro presented in an overly flat, crushed dynamic range is just aesthetic, artistic sacrilege.  To have a RAW file like that, where virtually every tone in the scene is captured, provides a perfect foundation stone for the final edited image.  But it should never be taken as the last word on that artist’s interpretation.  After expending the effort required to put you and your camera in some of the most stunning locations on the planet, and then not being willing to learn the tools or give the efforts required to make that final image the very best it can be, is visual blasphemy.

Few things irritated the judges more than this failure of execution of an otherwise gorgeous potential.  Over and over I would hear or think myself, “Oh please, just give me that file to work with!”

So the recommendations for photographers wanting to participate in this level of competition are that you access the many, many available educational resources available all over the place.  Real school programs such as ours at City College and other local, regional, nationally available schools; online resources such as and Youtube among others; printed guides by the library-full… good grief, there is no lack of resources for one to learn to properly use this new technology.

Bottom line: if all you need to create are “I was there” shots for social media or your blog, then none of this matters and you can freely embrace filters and other cutesy tools and technical automation to your heart’s content.  Good for you; you’ll have a lot of fun and you’ll get a ton of “friends” on social media telling you that your work is the greatest contribution to photography since the camera obscura.  But…

If seriously want to put your images in front of serious professionals in a juried exhibition or even in front of serious collectors in a gallery setting, you need to learn to use every possible tool out there so you present your gorgeous view or stunning concept as well as it possibly can be done at the moment.  Or…

…give serious thought to a hobby such as scrap-booking or stamp collecting.



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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6 Responses to SD FAIR JUDGING 2019: Part 1

  1. gene wild says:

    Your comments echo the things I heard while wondering around the behind everyone keeping track of how things were going. The also are the same things we said during the nine talks we gave before entry deadline. The only addition I might make is that I am very close to a digital
    Scrap Booker, who claims not to be a photographer, that is constantly taking classes to learn to use both Lightroom and Photoshop…anyone that is interested in anything that uses images needs to develop these skills….they are basic to today’s image world.
    Thank you …and the 35 other judges for your support.

  2. ndking says:

    There were several images we disapproved I’d love to use in a public critique — or even a videotaped one — to show some of the things that COULD have been done to make them more acceptable to the judges. Hmmm… I’d be happy to do that and put on YouTube if permission could be gained from the photographers…???

    • Melanie Plummer says:

      I have 3 rejected images use can use….could really use the critique. Happy to report 5 of my 8 submissions were accepted…. Not sure if my images were rejected due to category or other issue.
      Many Thanks,
      Melanie Plummer

  3. David, you’re probably familiar with Photo Lucida, that gets underway this week. The five-day celebration of photography in Portland, OR includes lectures, workshops, and exhibition collaborations. Intensive portfolio reviews are at the heart of the festival. Reviewers are selected for their experience, involvement, and commitment to advancing the work of emerging and mid-career artists.
    Brooks Jensen is one of the reviewers and also offers his services for a fee. Here’s a link to one of the reviews he made available for everyone to consume.

    • ndking says:

      Thanks for the link. Yes I know of the event generally but am not all that familiar with the specifics.

      • ndking says:

        I just watched the link you sent. We are definitely on the same page, especially in terms of photographing what one FEELS instead of just what one SEES and being able to use the captured file as a starting point, and the processing tools as equal in artistic value toward the end file. People forget, Ansel Adfams shot flat negatives but his MASTERY of the darkroom helped him produce those incredibly dramatic prints.

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