Judging Images in Competitions

Earlier this year, I was invited to a photography club as a guest judge to judge the club's open photography competition — a type of competition in which there is no set subject or theme.

Apart from the honour of being invited to judge a competition's images, it is also a challenging and interesting experience.

It can be very easy at first glance to decide which images have the most impact, and therefore which will be given awards; but the real challenge is in providing insightful and constructive critique about all of the images.

When I look at images, I am looking for numerous attributes, and I tend to notice the small details which enhance an image, or detract from it.

My nature as a very fussy and demanding photographer automatically draws to my attention the lighting, the composition and the subject; but also important is the story, and of course image quality, in terms of focus, sharpness, contrast, tonality, dynamic range, colours, shades and noise, as well as the nature of the post-processing applied to the image.

These are all important ingredients in an image, and the most impactful images have the right amount of these ingredients.

Lighting in an image is very important — it is literally part of the meaning of the word 'photography'.  Light can make an image very impactful, or it can make it fall flat.  I look at the quality of the light, which is largely determined by the time of day or night at which the image is shot (when shooting in natural light).  Soft and/or warm light is more flattering to subjects, reveals shape and form, and makes for easier shooting.

When I look at the composition, I look for the staples, such as rule-of-thirds positioning, leading lines, symmetry, filling of the frame, etc.; but I also look for elements that can be distracting, such as subject matter placed too close to one edge or the frame, a chopped-off limb, a bright highlight (to which the eye is naturally drawn), or even something such as a out-of-place hair in a portrait, or some part of another object cutting across the subject.

It can be very easy when shooting to miss what is right there in plain view.  When one is too focused on the subject or absorbed in the moment, distracting elements can be easily overlooked, and it takes a lot of practice to notice not only the main subject, but to notice everything in the frame.  Equally important to what is in the frame is what is not in the frame.

Naturally, the subject is very important.  Some subjects appeal to people due to their visual or emotional impact; some subjects tend to have significance or appeal only to the photographer; and some subjects just look better with one's own eyes than when captured with a camera.  Sometimes the camera does not do the subject justice.  How the subject is depicted is also important, and can elevate an image to another level.

Image quality is also a major consideration, especially in competitions.  Sharpness is critical for many types of images, but it is especially important with the eyes of living subjects.

Contrast, colour and tonality are significant ingredients in an image.  Colour in particular can make an image stand out, as it is visually very noticeable; and some colours work well with contrasting colours (eg, blue against yellow, or red against green).  When working with black and white, it is all about shades, tones and form.

In addition to what is happening at the capture phase, the post-processing of an image plays a significant role.  I look for the quality of the post-processing applied, and I find that the best kind of post-processing is the kind that does not reveal that post-processing was applied.

Beginner photographers — and beginners at post-processing — can sometimes over-process an image, which results in outcomes such as too much contrast, over-sharpening, muddy shadows, blown-out highlights, halos around subject matter (particularly in high-contrast areas), over-saturated and unrealistic colours, and noise.

While there is a lot to inspect when viewing and judging images, the more challenging aspect of competition judging is critique (when there is scope for critique).

The whole point of critique is to make it constructive so that people can learn.  As a photographer, it can be difficult to hear negative comments about one's images, especially when one is heavily invested emotionally in an image.  As photographers, we see things differently than non-photographers; but in our own images, we see things that other photographers and judges do not see, and we sometimes miss what other people can see.

My approach when judging images is to provide feedback in terms of what was done well, but also what could be improved.

When an image has a strong positive impact and is technically excellent, it can be hard to find shortcomings.

Conversely, when an image is not strong and there is a lot of room for improvement, it can be hard to be complimentary about it, and feedback on improvement needs to be presented in a manner that will not make the photographer feel bad, but allows the photographer to see differently, and to look at it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

For me, education is a big part of photography, and I love imparting to less-experienced photographers the experience and knowledge that I have acquired over many years in what is an ongoing journey.  To learn and grow as a photographer, one needs to not only practice, but to look at many images, and listen to critiques of images — especially critiques of one's own images.

I have been invited back to the club to judge this month's open photography competition, and I am about to begin working on the critiques, so that the competition entrants can hear from someone else what they have done well, as well as what they can do to improve.

I am looking forward to the competition night.

Published on Sunday, 2 October, 2022.