Judges and judging of photographs

Photography is an art form and judging of photographs is a matter of opinions. Different people will have different appreciations of a photograph, and sometimes a photograph will elicit very different responses from different individuals. A picture that will win awards in one competition may be given the lowest mark in another, even when placed against many of the same opposition photographs.

Judges give their opinions about pictures. Some appear to go through a check list (does the picture have light areas at the edge of the picture, is the subject on the thirds, does the composition of the picture lead you through or does it pull you out of the picture, is there a space for the subject to move into, is the perspective correct .. ) and award marks accordingly. This can lead to a quite boring picture which is similar to many other formulaic pictures being given top marks and to some others which break these guidelines (not rules note) to create a striking image being given an average mark. Another judge may instead be impressed by a fresh approach and award the top marks to the image which the first judge dismissed out of hand. Some years ago Dave Mason coined the phrase that a picture was “a two or a ten” to signify that it would evoke strong feelings in the judge and either get a good mark or a very poor mark. Such pictures pose a problem for club selection committees. If they don't gamble on such pictures they can't get the highest marks in competitions. If they do, they may come across one of those judges who has an aversion to the image in question.

There has been a feeling expressed in photographic circles that overly manipulated images are being given too much weight by some judges and that manipulated images should be banned or set aside in a separate category. Without seeking to defend or decry one side or the other, I am forced to wonder about the practicality of such a suggestion.

  1. Many clubs have a league for pictures entered during the season. Are there going to be two trophies – one for manipulated images, one for the others? If not, there is no point in splitting the entries as they would all have to be judged against each other anyway.

  2. Where does a picture go from one class into the other? Does removing dust spots from a picture render it manipulated? Probably not. What about red pores on a model's face or pimples and cold sores? Is skin smoothing acceptable? How about eye and teeth whitening which, done in moderation, would be almost impossible to detect. Landscapes might have objects removed, added, or moved. Saturation and brightness may be boosted or lowered either globally or locally. This could be only the equivalent of the practice of burning and dodging prints or using Velvia slide film instead of Kodachrome in pre-digital days. No one objected to these practices. If someone actually did split the leagues as in the previous point, then there would have to be a hard and fast rule as to what was acceptable. Imagine the cries of outrage if a picture which had been accepted for the “ natural ” group in a previous competition was rejected as being overly retouched and the author lost a chance of a trophy because of it.

In any case the judge is being asked to give His or her opinion of the relative merits of the pictures. This confuses those members who expect an absolute scale of judging. The judge gives his or her opinion of the images and is absolutely correct in his or her marking. The fact that maybe no other person in the world will reach the same opinion is irrelevant.