The Judges Hate Me!

Most of us have, at one time or another, taken umbridge with a Judge who clearly doesn’t like our pictures. We’ve sat in the audience muttering “doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” as we receive yet another score of 14 points when we’ve travelled 2000 miles to capture the shot, or it’s taken us weeks to edit and process.

Having judged competitions myself I realize it’s a really thankless and difficult job. You can please some of the people all of the time; all of the people some of the time; but you can never please all of the people all of the time and there will inevitably be some disappointed photographers on the night whose images didn’t do well. When we’ve had a bad night in a competition we just have to chalk it up to experience, take on board the critique of the judge and be determined to do better in future.

From a judge’s point of view, there are photographers who definitely have an over-inflated sense of their own abilities and who think that their pictures should be scoring top marks when they are clearly not yet at that level. It’s a tricky balancing act for the judge to be encouraging while also being realistic and requires a good degree of diplomacy.

All of this begs the question of what makes a good image. I can’t speak for non-PAGB judges, but can give some pointers on what makes for a good picture in the eyes of a PAGB certified judge who receives advice, guidance and training in what to look for in an image.

They mark on 3 essential elements:
1  Communication of an idea/feeling       50 – 60% of the mark
2  Content                                                  30 – 35% of the mark
3  Construction (technical)                        10 – 15% of the mark

I’ll break this down further below.

EMOTION/FEELING

A good photograph makes you feel something.  Whether it’s joy, sadness, laughter, amazement, intrigue, appreciation, “wow!”, “eugh!”, “awww” or “how on earth did you capture that?!” the best pictures convey emotion.

Pictures which evoke positive emotions in the viewer tend to score better in competitions than those which evoke negative emotions, and is one of the issues I have with judging. If a good photograph makes you feel something it should be irrelevant whether this is a ‘positive’ something or a ‘negative’ something. While we might be disturbed by images of war, unrest or famine they are critically important pictures and just because they aren’t “pretty” shouldn’t mean they score less well than more aesthetically pleasing images. If we love to eat meat but encounter a vegetarian message in an image, or are male and encounter a feminist message, or an atheist and encounter a religious message, we must as a judge overcome our bias and judge on the strength of the story not whether it fits our own political, ethical or life experience.

Angels by my side

WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL ME?

The second most important aspect of an image is its story.  Ask yourself why you took the picture.  What are you trying to convey?  It might be amazing patterns in the landscape or the beauty of a wild flower surviving against the odds.  It might be what a dragonfly eats or how a butterfly mates.  It might be the experiences of a hill farmer, the daring speed of a jet pilot or the freedom of paragliding.  Whatever your subject matter we, the viewer, need to know the story behind the shot.

If I’m being honest (which I always am, often to my cost!) although the PAGB say the story telling aspect of a picture is all important it’s actually something which is often ignored in favour of a pretty picture. There is a distinct lack of images with a story which I see do well in nation-wide competitions, other than in the genres of sport and wildlife (and even then I see way too many images of stationary birds and animals just looking pretty being successful). As someone who consistently tells stories in my images it can be frustrating.

I’ve noticed that the sexes usually deal with emotional content and stories differently. Male judges, I have discovered, often fail to ‘get’ the messages conveyed in images and tend to go for pictures which are simply aesthetically pleasing, whereas women are more likely to look for a deeper meaning. This is, of course, a broad generalisation to which there are exceptions! It does, however, enforce why it is of vital importance that competitions are judged by both men and women and judging panels should not be dominated by one sex or the other.

As my images have become more story-telling, and often political, in nature I’m finding they are doing less well in competitions than my simple “pretty” pictures, which is why last year I sadly decided to do more of my photography outside of the PAGB.

Life Behind Bars
Judged to be “very well put together but too contrived” with no marks given for the story telling value.
Ruby
Won a salon medal and a Federation cup despite totally lacking in any story-telling value. It is pretty though!

There will always be a place in photography for simple pretty pictures and there should be, but my concern is that the scales often tip in the direction of aesthetics over content particularly in the wildlife and portrait arenas. In 7 years I have never seen a Salon competition with a theme of ‘news’, ‘editorial’, ‘politics’ or ‘ethics’ but I’ve often see the theme of ‘nude’, 95% of which are young and female. It makes me sigh inside.

TECHNIQUE

Although making up the least proportion of a mark, the technical aspects of a photograph are still hugely important. This includes sharpness, exposure, lighting, sensor dust spots, noise, blown out highlights/shadows and how well the image has been edited.

The critique from judges of not only my own but other people’s images is how I’ve learned and grown as a photographer. It’s where I was taught about “frisky grass”, “blocked in shadows”, the importance of cloning out distractions and, of course, good composition.

However, I have also sat in competitions where the judge has given nothing but positive critique of a picture then scored it 15 marks or less. If an image is average or below average it’s the judges job to point out its flaws, so that the photographer can learn from the process. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “there are simply stronger images in the competition tonight” but you must give some reason for a low score, otherwise it smacks of personal bias. It’s largely irrelevant whether or not a judge personally likes a picture – marks should be given for the reason listed above, and you can do that whether you’re into landscapes, creative, still life, street photography, architecture etc. or they’re not your preferred cup of tea.

Disobedient

The other aspect of judging which, as a creative photographer, drives me to distraction is when a judge guesses at how a picture has been taken. I’ve lost count of the number of judges who have assumed my Disobedient picture is a composite, when it is nothing of the kind. I sat in every seat in the pews and stacked the resulting images together in Photoshop, just like you would focus stack a macro image of an insect. That judges are even trying to guess whether or not it’s a composite means they are taking this into account when it is scored, otherwise why are they bringing it up? If the competition rules state composites are acceptable why would it even be a consideration? The answer has to be that there is still bias against creative images from some judges, who score them less well than record shots of pretty birds on sticks.

How an image is taken is totally irrelevant. You can’t assume a nature image has been taken in the animal’s native country rather than a Zoo at home, or that a portrait shot has been taken in the controlled lighting conditions of a studio. How far you’ve had to travel for your polar bear picture, or how difficult it might have been to photograph a kingfisher underwater, or whether you actually dressed up as a Nun risking ex-communication from your Church in order to sit in pews freezing your bum off for an hour with a self timer is no business of the judge, who should simply be critiquing the image presented before him or her.

CONCLUSION

Being a Judge is a demanding, difficult and thankless task done by volunteers who should be commended for giving their time and expertise for no other reason than to help their fellow photographers learn and grow. It’s easy to sit in the audience and grumble, then not be brave enough to do it yourself!

Having said all that, there are aspects of the judging process that I have struggled with for years and when it improves in one area it seems to get worse again in another. In particular I take issue with:

  • Bias towards one genre of photography over another
  • Sex ratio of judges
  • Positive critique yet low scores for images
  • Guessing how images are taken and marking on the resulting assumptions
  • The narrow competition genres, which favours nature and wildlife above all else (I say this as a photographer whose first love is wildlife photography, but even I can see there is a huge lack of less “pretty” images such as news and street photography).
  • No outlet for political, ethical or message containing images

Nothing in the world is perfect but when a friend of mine stopped coming to camera club last year and I asked her why, her answer was “I’m fed up with the inconsistency of the judges. In one competition my image gets 20 marks and in another it gets 15. If a judge doesn’t like landscapes it doesn’t matter how good my picture is, it doesn’t do well” you know there are issues which need to be addressed, particularly when the photographer in question went on to become British Life Photographer of the Year!

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