"If I knew how to take a good photograph, I'd do it every time."
—Robert Doisneau

Photography Competitions


Photography competitions are, in part, a game of chance. Once the photos with clear deficiencies are culled from the entries, the remainder are subject to the prejudices of the judges. Better and more experienced judges are aware of this and try to mitigate their personal preferences in making selections. However, there is no such thing as an "unbiased opinion," so the final selection becomes a bit of a crap shoot. Enter your best prints and take a chance. The same judge on a different day might very well make different selections.

I have judged both local and international competitions. Sometimes the photographers are present during the evaluation process. I remind them that my opinion and reaction is nothing more than that: it is one person's appraisal, and someone else might rank the images very differently than I do - and I might rank them differently next week. If we all liked the same thing, there would be one photograph and we would all be looking at it. It is what each person brings to the photograph that accounts for different evaluations. We each have different expectations and look for different things, and I remind the photographers that, even if a judge gives a low appraisal of an image, "if the image works for you, then it is a successful photograph."

When judging with the photographers present, I often make recommendations regarding how I might attempt to improve the photographs. I remind them, though, that if they do everything that I would do, then they are making my photographs and not making their own photographs. Photographers may or may not agree with a recommendation - or any other part of the appraisal - but any review from any person has merit in that it gives us a chance to learn what other people notice and respond to.

Photographers should also keep in mind that the only thing being judged is the photograph. It doesn't matter how difficult it was to make the photograph. The image either works or it doesn't. If the best view you could achieve doesn't work...well, then, it doesn't work. And remember that it is the photograph that is being judged, not the subject. Your grand-daughter may be beautiful with a truly angelic personality and disposition, but if the photograph of her is unremarkable then you should expect a low evaluation. The only thing that the judge has for review is the image presented.

So the photographer's most important responsibility is to submit images that are intrinsically effective. The judge's most important responsibility is to try to understand what each photographer is trying to accomplish or communicate with the photograph. You have to know what you're looking at, what it's about, before you can evaluate it.

After determining what I'm looking at, I apply four criteria to evaluate each photograph. I consider Composition, Light, Technique, and Impact. These are the same criteria I use in evaluating my own photographs.

Effective composition keeps our attention in the frame and on the primary subject. Contributing elements to composition include angles, curves, patterns, dominant and subordinate features, areas of light and dark, angle of view, perspective, and placement of elements within the frame. Visual weight should be well-balanced. Make the image easy to look at.

The light should be doing something more than establishing an exposure. The quality and color of light can contribute mood, and the angle of light can define and separate shapes and textures through shadow and highlights. Light can reinforce the subject; soft light on soft subjects and hard contrasty light on hard subjects. By soft and hard, I am referring to the "sense" or "character" of the subjects, not their texture. An industrial building might benefit from hard light and the face of a baby benefits from soft light. Let the light define and complement the subject.

Occasionally, judges go on about "great color" and "perfect exposure." This is part of technique, but I don't give many stars for great color or proper exposure. I expect these attributes and usually discount images without them. Proper exposure isn't difficult to achieve, even if you must make multiple exposures at different settings to do it. Film and digital sensors do very well with color. When it turns out wrong, it can usually be corrected simply enough. The elements of technique I look for are those under the photographer's control. For example, depth of field should be appropriate to the subject. Moving subjects should be handled in a manner consistent with the story of the image (panned, blurred or frozen). Technique should provide a match to the subject.

Is the photograph just another pretty picture, or does it have impact? Is it fresh, surprising, or thought provoking? I do not consider Big Color, in itself, to be Impact, though some people seem to feel that it is sufficient. When all the elements of the image work together - the subject, composition, light and technique - we often get impact. But it's rather hard to define by those elements alone. Instead, impact is more visceral. We feel it rather than define it. This is where objectivity breaks down, and we are left with varied individual responses. A photograph that has impact for me might do nothing for you.

Show your best images at photography competitions. Consider the appraisals given by judges and agree or disagree. Whether you do well or not, move on, and make your next photograph.

Copyright © Ed E. Powell
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