Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Using photography contest judging criteria to help photographers self-assess

Paris, Eiffel TowerMany photographers struggle to create an insightful set of principles to self-assess their work. Getting a critique from trusted photographers is an excellent idea, but without regular in-depth, honest image critiques of their own work, photographers will have a tough time improving and growing.

I offer for consideration, using the criteria photography contest judges use to assess images, as the basis for photographers to develop their own workable, rational approach to self-assessment.

When I began to ask colleagues for assistance, by having them critically assess my work, I found that they typically zeroed into the technical aspects of my images. While there is little doubt the quality of focus, bokeh, color, exposure, lighting, composition, etc. are important, I knew that there were other issues that should be included in any image critique. Over the years I developed my own assessment checklist.

Interestingly to me, many years later, when I began to be invited to be on photography contest juries, I found that my list and the contests' guidelines for judging entries were essentially the same. Therefore, for photographers serious about improving their craft today, rather than struggle to create their own checklist, I suggest using the criteria developed by photographers to judge work in photo contests across the globe.

Please note, this article isn't meant as a guide to winning photo contests. I've seen many articles claiming to offer the secrets to win photo contests. Contrary to their boasts, I know as photographer and jury member that there are no sure-fired methods to win a photography contest.

So, what criteria do judges use to assess images that you can use for self-assessment?

Adherence to rules:
This is important for project work. Project images should all meet the vision and goals of our projects and should meet our project's deadline, even if self-imposed. Additionally, the images should meet the ethical standards of the project's photography genre.

Appropriateness to the theme of the contest:
While some may quibble that appropriateness and adherence are the same, I think there is a subtle, but important difference. Appropriateness, suitability, is more refined than adherence in many ways An image that's appropriate has a fitness and relevance that mere adherence to the rules doesn't necessarily have.

Title and caption sensibility:
Setting a title for a photograph and writing a caption for them is often important, particularly when showing or providing images to others. Titles and captions can put-off viewers or be inviting. Sometimes, a displayed work's lack of a title can be even worse than a poor title. The title and caption, if any, should be sensitive to the subject in the image.

This is one of the most critical categories for judges and photographers in critiquing images.

Intent is the difference between looking at a scene and seeing it. It's the difference between snapshots and selfies, versus photographs and self-portraits. It encompasses many image qualities that are important for any photographer to use to assess their own images.

The visual design of the image as a whole should be a statement of intent. The creativity of the image's design goes a long way to determine its effectiveness. Has the photographer used light or point of view effectively, to name two creative aspects, or just produced something ordinary? What originality has the photographer utilized in recording the scene compared to prior attempts by others? Is the photograph in some way unique in form, concept and execution? Has the photographer created an artistic impression that emphasizes their intent?

Is the image's composition purposeful or accidental? Does it move the audience's eye though the story of the image? Do elements of the composition add or subtract from its effectiveness?

Does the image have audience appeal? Does it create an emotional impact with the audience? Does the photograph have a “wow” factor? We can sum that all up by asking if the image will matter to anyone but the photographer?

A quality image tells a story. Whether it's a street shot, a landscape or a portrait, a travel image, a astro-photograph or a sport's image, the good ones all tell a story, a story that invites its audience to pay attention to the photograph.

Image expressive clarity:
A great image has a clarity of expression. Ideally, the whole image should clearly express its intent using all aspects of the image. You can turn that upside down to say that nothing in the image should blur or muddle the image's expression.

Innovative use of scene resources:
Scenes sometimes have resources within them that can be used to enhance the image through their innovative use. How the photographer manages and uses those resources or sometimes makes the choice to leave them alone is important to the quality of the image.

Creative use of special effects:
Mostly, this boils down to a question. Does the use of special effects enhance the image rather than merely show off technique and/or possibly detract from the image?

Quality of submission:
This has to do with both digital and print submissions, though with print submission there are more issues to handle. For either submission type, are there streaks, blemishes, dust dots or imperfections within the image?

For prints, does the print have a finish streak or blemish? Is the image improperly bonded to the mount? Is the print paper the best choice for the photograph? Is the mat and mount right for the image? If framed, does the frame match the image?

These are the issues that must never be forgotten. If they are “off” then the image quality, story and impact will not be as good as needed.

Color/Contrast must be correct for the image, with consideration to such aspects as accuracy, saturation, choice of color versus black and white and contrast.

Lighting should be accomplished with the best source choices for the image to show or hide detail to the best effect and achieve the image's visual goals.

Exposure should be used to show off the scene to best effect. It can contribute to the ability to see or hide detail, show motion or freeze it and highlight or hide areas within the image, as desired.

Focus is important not just to be as sharp as possible, as what's not in sharp focus can be just as important as what's in focus. How well the photographer choose what's to be in and out of focus and how the out of focus areas appear, greatly affects the image's expressive clarity.

Other issues:
According to the genre there may be other issues that judges and therefore the photographer should consider. Both newsworthiness and commercial appeal come to mind.

For self-assessment, honesty is crucial. Without it, growth isn't possible. Self-assessment is about skill, art and craft development, not grades and marks.


Jen-Fort Worth said...

Great article Ned. There are several categories that I hadn't thought of at all and others you've helped bring into better focus for me to better judge my work. Your explanation of intent is really helpful.

I look forward to every article you publish. Thanks.

Nancy-LA said...

It's about time someone wrote an article that talked about judging photos that discussed more than tech and composition. Thanks.

Paul-NYC said...

Ned, can you say a bit more about special effects. I'm not sure what you're getting at.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Paul.

Here's an example I see often. A scene has lighting in a dynamic range that exceeds the capability of the camera. One solid way to tackle that is by HDR.

Unfortunately, too often we get crazy color saturation and strange alien looking affects from HDR rather than good combination of bracketed images to handle the dynamic range of the scene. The photographer has to learn how to set up HDR because it can look great.

Another one that seems to be all the rage these days is adding some haze on the moon in the sky to give a halo, ethereal look to the night shot for added interest. Too often that pulls the eye away from the main part of the scene instead of enhancing it.

On the other side of the coin, we can get some wonderful looks from a waterfall, for example, by not using a high shutter speed and freezing the motion, but instead showing the motion to bring the waterfall to life by using a slow shutter speed.

I think those examples explain what I'm talking about with special effects helping or hindering an image.

Dan-Miami said...

I've heard that every photo should tell a story at least a million times. I don't see how that could be. How could a star field shot tell a story?

Ned S. Levi said...

That's a great question Dan.

The simple truth is that not every image tells a story, but the really good ones do.

A star field image can show the story of the depth of the universe through a combination of stars, nebulae and clouds. Perhaps an image can show the story of the difficulty of travel to the stars with having some planets shown among the stars, etc. The really good photos tell a story.

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