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"What were the judges really thinking?"

Have you ever received your judging results from an exhibition and wondered what the judges were on about.  

The judging process, the sensitivity or senility of judges and even the judges' parentage are all called into question when we get low scores for one or more of our favourite or most successful images.  
So what has gone wrong when this happens?

Is it the Judging Process?

Lately the APS National and ADPA have been judged by three judges each independently judging the entries out of 20 points.  Judges are advised to allocate points across the full point range.  This makes the judges' scores a ranking, or relative comparison, of the entries judged and NOT an absolute score.

Low and mid ranking scores are an indication of the judges' relative ranking of the images in the overall set.  

When I judge a projected image exhibition the first thing I do is take the entries into Lightroom and use the five star ratings to begin to sort them into point groupings through several reviews over a period of a couple of days.  Once I have settled the groupings I then take a further couple of viewings to allocate points within each of the five groupings.  

In a strong exhibition good work will settle into the middle point scores and may miss out on an acceptance due to the strength of the competition.  I think most exhibition entrants can accept the logic of this fairly easily, the difficulty comes with the low scores, especially when not all judges give the same low score.

So how does an image score less than 6 out of 20 in an exhibition from a judge?  

Whilst it seems harsh there are common features in lower scoring images in any exhibition.  From my experience here are a few areas to think about when preparing your next exhibition entries.  

Getting past these will give you a better chance of higher points for your entries.

Or is it something to do with me?:

Processing Errors Omissions & File Preparation
Whilst there are many who believe that the digital image quality doesn't match the best of film, particularly when projected, it is what we now have and slides are unlikely to make a reappearance anytime soon. 

Viewing images on a quality monitor will reveal processing and digital errors that may escape a poorly calibrated or set up projector.  

Many processing errors are correctable in either processing or by getting it right in the camera in the first place.

Whilst it is easy to attribute processing errors to inexperienced entrants, it is also evident that many of our senior members continue to struggle with the computer environment.

Common examples of process errors I have noticed too frequently include:
  • high ISO leading to the presence of visible digital noise and image softness not corrected in processing;
  • image processing failing to adequately rectify under and over exposure and soft focus issues in key parts of the image;
  • poor HDR - strong evidence of ghosting and halos are a dead giveaway that the image has been produced using high dynamic range techniques;
  • dust spots and/or poor cloning producing sharp edges and/or repetition patterns in the cloned area; and,
  • in composite images, poor cut out techniques, difference scales, sizes or perspectives of objects within the photograph, and particularly light coming from different directions across the elements of the picture, all point to technique problems rather than the photographic content itself.
If the technique applied to the image is more evident than the content then it hasn't worked for you. 

In recent years I have judged too many strong images that were significantly let down by issues in presentation and file preparation, including:
  • poor cropping of margins & borders that resulted in slivers of border appearing unevenly on part of one or two sides of the photograph;
  • the use of thick borders (white or coloured) that dominated the actual photographic content; 
  • colour borders that clash with the dominant colour or tone of the photograph; and,
  • thick "tram-track" borders (white or black) on just two sides of the photograph - supposedly to fill in the empty space to make the image file fit the 1024 by 768 pixel format.
In such cases the final result of the photograph is let down by a lack of finish - the final photograph looks sloppy to an independent observer and the observer is distracted from the photographic content.
This is no different to a poorly presented print.  

A photograph that looks sloppy is not going to feature much above a low acceptance level, regardless of the actual content, and will not score as highly as a well presented photograph of similar content and aesthetic interest.  

Never give a judge a reason to score your photograph at the lower end of the point scale.

When judging regularly it is inevitable that you will judge many photographs more than once.  Recently I was surprised to see some that I had previously judged presented in a ‘softer’ focus than I had seen them before - indicating some problems that were subsequently found to be in the image downsizing done in a hurry by the author. 

Always check your images before submitting them, and if you can get someone else who you trust to give you their opinion.  They may see something amiss that you don't.

Camera Craft
I have been surprised at the number of entries at national level that have missed out because of errors in basic camera craft and photographic techniques that should easily be picked up in a camera club or folio grouping.  

Unfortunately the panel judging system does not allow specific feedback to address issues such as:
  • shallow depth of field (f5.6 or wider) to maintain shutter speed when the picture requires greater sharpness and clarity across the main subject;
  • too slow a shutter speed, producing distracting motion blur, again where sharpness and clarity are necessary;
  • higher than necessary ISO settings, leading to noise/softness; and,
  • long exposures at high ISO/shallow depth of field unsuited and unnecessary to the image subject.
As I use Lightroom to sort and judge the images, I am able to look at the metadata for some of these images after I have completed the judging.  That data confirms that the understanding of camera equipment and photographic techniques of many exhibitors is in need of improvement.  

Whilst automated or program settings are often a culprit, that could also be a dangerous generalisation to make.  

As a photographic society the exhibition system is not the best venue to address these issues.

What does this all mean?

You will note that this article does not address issues of content, style, composition, impact or aesthetic merit of the photographs to be judged.  One of the beauties of exhibition photography is that nothing is simple and clear cut and we all see the world (and photographs) differently.   

Entering exhibitions is a journey of photographic discovery, not just about yourself, but also about how other people and people from other cultures respond to your photographs.  It would be truly boring if everybody's photographs were the same and judged the same.

Ansell Adams once wrote that "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs."
My final observation is that this sentiment can also be drafted into the judging debate: "There are no
rules for a good judging, there are only good judgings."  

For most of us this occurs when the judges give us good points and awards.



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