Photography – competitions, judging and qualifications


Judging Competitions and fair assessment:

*** This article is intended as the basis for discussion, and it is hoped it can be developed thus producing fair processes, clarity for image makers and their appraisers, and a clear framework for all. No-one (including myself!) should be immune from changing mind!

Many of us submit images for assessment, whether for qualifications, competitions or club appraisals. But most photographers have been confused at times by the judgements made. There can be several issues – consistency of the judge, varying opinion or preferred subject matter leading to sometimes conclusions that are not understood. Essentially, assessments are sometimes enormously subjective.

Many have identified and reiterated the problem that the art of photography has always faced – where is the division between manipulation and enhancement of the image?

For me, an image should be ethically sound. The photographer would normally visualise the image at the point of capture, and that could include enhancing the contrast in the sky but not in replacing the sky. If the image captions a landscape as being devoid of people when in truth many people were cloned out, the viewer has been tricked. If a composite shows a fireworks display above a cathedral that never took place, the viewer has been tricked.

In these cases there are problems of ethics, but if the viewer understands that manipulation has occurred to some extent those ethical issues are overcome. However, the value of the image as a photograph is weakened, and thus the composite might/would score less highly than the image visualised at the time?

Freedom of expression is not diminished by those ‘rules’ because there is the freedom of freely representing the visualisation. We have the freedom to drive our car more or less anywhere we like… provided we drive on the correct side of the road and obey traffic regulations that are there for our own safety as well as other road users.

Competition rules should respect what constitutes excellent photography and enfranchise all participants.

My background has included musical assessment – auditions, competitions at festivals, or graded examinations. Music is largely seen as ‘subjective’ in terms of taste, but the music education industry has ensured that examiners and adjudicators are trained and as far as is possible use objective criteria in their judgements – intonation, rhythmic sense, structural sense, continuity and so on.  Performance is moderated and examiners are regularly tested that their judgements are appropriate.

Photographic assessments seem much more subjective with taste playing a large part. There doesn’t seem to be formal training for club competition judges and outside organisations do not seem to moderate performance. Regretfully, inconsistency between judges and/or assessment of subject matter can very easily undermine the integrity of the whole process.

For me, it has been difficult to come to terms with what seems to be the apparent lack of objectivity.

As has been intimated, for the image maker there can be contradictions in approach:

The parameters of the landscape photographer frequently aim for front to back sharpness across the whole frame, in order that the eye follows the ‘story’ of the image. Compositional devices such as the rule of thirds have great importance, but approach to exposure can vary – in the countryside a well distributed dynamic range is important, but a seascape may emphasise extremes of brightness.

The portraitist may well desire that the face and especially eyes are pin sharp, but not necessarily elsewhere in the picture when a wide f1.4 aperture makes background/foreground less distracting from the model.

People photography in the street compared to the pictorialist seems more off the cuff, but where glances and human interaction have greater emphasis than precision of compositional design.

Of course, images cross boundaries, which then pose even more questions as to what facets should or should not be emphasised. Blemishes in a model’s skin and/or distracting elements in the set or even clothing are removed to be more satisfying. In a landscape, photographers often create their image with a sense of ethics – significant elements other than small pieces of litter, etc., are seen as vital parts of the image and the photographer is then expected to move camera position in order to avoid distracting elements. Most landscapists would be dismayed if a judge asked that a whole building be removed or worse, if people or another element are pasted in from another frame.

Indeed, the ethics of the correctness of composites are often rightly questioned. Sometimes an image has been created with great care and excellence though from individual images that would otherwise be rather average.

Also, judges are to some extent asked to do the impossible – assessing impartially but without clearly defined criteria. Images can be many kinds, so how can organisation be applied to the system thus giving back its integrity?

During the Covid Pandemic Herefordshire Photographic Society has been holding monthly members’ challenges, with the members judging and scoring their colleagues’ images with verbal critiques using Zoom software. This is a terrific concept; images are scored according to criteria with each entrant scoring up to 10 points in each category:

  1.  Interpretation – the story, portrayal of feelings, the idea
  2.  Creativity – is the image well thought-through and inventive?
  3.  Technique – composition, lighting, cropping, exposure and focus
  4.  Impact – to what extent does it have the WOW factor?

I know of other clubs that use similar criteria such as Beacon CC.

Compared to the usual open competitions independently judged there are some issues, including overlap between categories.

Subjects and challenges over the year may be entitled Urban, Old, Unusual Point of View, Close up, Wet, Scary, Still life, Patterns and symmetry, High key, Minimalist. The intention is to be challenging, but also to interest and encourage photographers.

Let us see how do these criteria work.

For instance, in the case of taking an excellent studio portrait image, category b) looks for inventiveness as well as being well thought out, but the aim of the photographic subject may be stability of process and control. Taking an excellent landscape, the subject itself may not lend itself to ‘inventiveness’. Many subjects do not intrinsically have ‘impact’ in the sense of a published image, but the photographer may have aimed for reflection, emotion and for significant consideration.

The image makers who construct composites may have an advantage with these criteria – it is much harder to mark down a composite as lacking creativity, lacking in technique or impact. This can be controversial – some would argue that the practitioner has produced a composite having failed to find/take a photograph matching the published theme. It seems inevitable that a well-constructed composite will score well.

Preparation for public examinations in Art and Design does demand clear criteria, but fulfilling the criteria may involve a written description and the task is often drawn tightly. The problem with assessments in  the photographic field is that tasks are not drawn tightly according to subject, which leads towards over-reliance on subjective comment.

My articles on this site reflects that photographs are produced in three processes – concept of the idea (i), execution and editing (ii) towards the final output of DPI or print (iii).

The consideration of all images includes elements of a) Exposure – appropriate range of values, appropriate shutter/aperture/ISO choice, control of lighting; b) Picture elements – providing a ‘story’ to the image; c) Composition – recognition of compositional devices.

Types of image may be

1) Places and Scenic;

2) People – including fashion and studio;

3) Wildlife and Nature;

4) Still life;

5) Reportage;

6) Technical and Macro;

7) Composite and photo design

Some subjects can be subsumed in these headings – a subject type such as ‘street’ can be included in either 1), 2) or 5) depending on the photographer’s intention.

Integrity of the image is also vital. In order for our art to have validity it must be ethically sound. Composites are therefore fine as an expression of the image maker’s intention in design of picture, but a composite should never be passed over as ‘true’ – the abrogation of ‘truth’ holds an enormous danger in our 21st century media and electronic communication.

It follows that a photograph should be assessed in Process, Elements and Type. All photographs include the three Processes, but the criteria for assessing Elements of the image should vary depending on Type. In order that an image is properly judged it should thus be assessed according to those criteria that also accord to image type. It would also be appropriate that there is room for the expression of more subjective interest that lifts the image beyond the merely accurate – does it enthuse, excite, inspire.

Some are very satisfied with present arrangements and may consider more clarity a restriction of freedom of expression. Clearly, present arrangements often result in consistent and frequent ‘winners’, but we must remember that it is the intention of competitions, especially those supported by camera clubs and photographic societies, to further the art and practice of photography. We can only achieve this through clarity of intentions. Freedom comes with responsibility.

To summarise:

  1. a) The photographer needs to state the Type of image that is entered.
  2. b) The assessment should primarily include marks for the picture Elements with appropriate weighting for the picture Type, and appropriateness of output (print or DPI, colour or mono) together with a more subjective assessment of whether the intent of the picture has been met.

It would also be desired that assessors and judges should undertake training and moderation amongst peers. Higher level certification could be from the presentation of a minimum of three small portfolios from different picture types.

*** It would be interested if colleagues could give their comment – I would be happy to include alternative views following this article if they would email me. Thank you for your patience!