Just some thoughts on Photo judging that I penned after the last meeting

The following is from an email discussion James Allan started earlier this week. With his permission, I’ve included the email and appended the initial reply (from me). James certainly started a lively discussion in the club! I’ll post the other replies as other authors give their approval for posting here.


Why don’t they paint great pictures any more? I contend that the artists are intimidated. It’s because photography is now the superior artistic medium. The great artists can no longer compete with the skill and sophistication of modern photographers. Let me illustrate the point. I will take a random selection of famous paintings from the worlds galleries and give you an example of the kind of flack (the yellow text) they would attract at the humblest of camera clubs.

Take this Boticelli for instance:

The Birth of Venus (1485) by Alessandro Botticelli

Certainly a good attempt at a group interacting at the seaside, however there are a few pointers for some one new to photography. My eye is travelling hither and thither trying to find somewhere to rest. There are 4 characters all looking in different directions and none of them seems to be interacting very convincingly. Surely it would have been easy to get them all to huddle together, give that girl a towel, and get them to look in the same direction. Perhaps it might have worked better had you taken a different vantage point, perhaps from the shoreline so that you could get rid of the distracting element of those trees. Now I must say that the lighting is very flat. You should have arranged this scene in the early morning or evening. As I said a good attempt, perhaps a bit busy, but I would have given this 9 points had it not been for that horizon. It’s 1.3 degrees off horizontal, so that’s what I’ll give it 1.3 points.

Now lets look at the picture by Paul Cèzanne:

Paul Cèzanne - Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque at National Art Gallery Washington DC

I must congratulate the artist on the use of the rule of thirds. The building is nicely placed on the thirds. However I am very concerned by the overall softness of the image. Really a landscape painter should be able to do better than this. I really can’t see what the artist is focussing on at all. There is a strong diagonal distortion of the highlights that makes me wonder if there was some blurring due to movement. Perhaps the artist should have used a tripod and taken more time taking the picture. I also note that the contrast is quite stilted. If you play around with curves you should be able to adjust the image so that you get a good dynamic range with dark textural blacks and brilliant whites. Lastly and most importantly there is a pervasive colour cast to the image. It looks like the artist has spent too long inside under an incandescent light and now that he is outdoors he has the wrong white balance. Everything is bluey green. Again you can correct this in curves. Really it’s worth the effort, you will see the full depth of colour return to your work and you will be much happier with the result. I will give this one 5.

And this Renoir:

Dance at Bougival - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (from Leisure in Art, MFA, Boston) A lovely pose with the two dancing in a crowded village space. You have captured a nice intimacy between the two characters. It’s a pity that you spoilt it all with your treatment. You have cropped in too closely to the pair. You should leave a little space from them to move into. I can understand that in a crowded situation like this you probablly had a lot of competing details to crop out, but I can’t see why instead you don’t just clone them out and retain that sense of balance in the image. The couple are dead centre and again I would have liked to see them a little offset, perhaps on the thirds. However the greatest probelm with this image is that you have turned up the saturation far too high. This picture is positively garish and for that I will subtract points. 3.

And this Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh - Bedroom at Arles
It is always difficult managing to deal with interiors. This is a good record shot of where you slept on your holiday to Arles, but I can’t see that it’s much more than that. The lighting is flat. I can’t see any shadows or comtouring. My guess is that you used the on camera flash, either that or it has been heavily procesed with HDR. You have made an attempt to correct some of the deficiencies in this picture in the post processing. Again the saturation has been over emphasized and there is this dark halo around most of the edges which suggests to me that you have oversharpened the image. Really it hasn’t had the desired effect. There is no more detail in the picture, just all of this extra noise. I think it would be better if you spent a little more time with the camera and less in the darkroom. Use natural lighting. You may have to bracket a bit to find the correct exposure. Show the light from the window streaming across that floor. Let the corners of the room remain dark. Use a tripod. An heroic attempt to rescue a mediocre image, 5.

Lastly lets have a look at a Turner:
William Turner - The Grand Canal, Venice, 1840

I am having a lot of difficulty with this image. I’m struggling to find anything positive to say about it. It’s out of focus, all of the detail has been washed out, it’s over exposed, it was a terribly overcast day. I really can’t see what inspired you to make this painting. Well I guess it’s printed on nice quality paper and at a good size so I should give it at least 6 points for making the effort.

Well there you go. Do you see what I mean? I think that the modern painters should bow their heads in shame. They have got a lot to learn from modern photography. I’ve got no idea why more of them don’t attend a local camera club.   After all the camera clubs would always be happy to teach them a thing ot two.  They are always scratching around trying to find new members.

James Allan

First reply
An interesting piece James – and timely given the feelings after the last competition. It seems after most competition nights we all feel a bit let down or frustrated by our perception of the quality of judging, and your essay highlights those frustrations. Some members even don’t enter images due to their poor experiences with judges understanding of their images.

I fully agree that the judges would regard these famous artist as inadequate in their view – but then again, many art critics of the impressionist era regarded them poorly as well. Consider the low regard for van Gogh during his lifetime, or Monet who was initially unsuccessful in his endeavours, but from whose work the Impressionists are named.

Perhaps the issue here is the myopic views of critics and judges. They follow a fashion or a set of rules which they cannot see beyond. As James points out in the discussion, if your image doesn’t fit their limited criteria it scores poorly.

I would appreciate it if someone could succinctly list the criteria used in judging – because (as some have pointed out to me) you adjust what you present to suit the judge (and it probably pays to know the judge). If thats the case, then we all need to know what the judges look for if we just want high scores. I’m aware of the need for sharp focus, no distracting highlights, a clear region of interest to draw the eye, appropriate contrast, colour etc. The paintings James has presented break those rules. But they also succeed because like a photograph, they are also a personal expression of the individual – the persons style (I like to use interesting angles – but thats frowned on – and I can’t have converging lines!) – and how do you judge that?

Interestingly, many great photographers would probably score poorly too – there is a good article which I think James first pointed out about Problems in Judging Photo Competitions – http://www.studiolo.org/Photography/Judging/Judging01.htm that highlights this.

A good judge (and we have seen them) will have what my father-in-law called “catholic tastes” – wide ranging and broad experience – and therefore see images in different ways and be sensitive to personal expression & style. An image should be judged on what one judge we had described as the “wow factor” – and which I would extend to include the “makes me think” factor. These need to be encouraged if we are to improve as photographers expressing ourselves and not as just technicians.

However, the perfect technical image is not necessarily the image with the greatest visual appeal. Therefore downgrading an image due to what the judge perceives as the wrong highlight or symmetry or distracting object or direction of flow (left to right vs right to left) or the degree of focus (soft focus is a useful tool!) is to be questioned – and I have on occasion done this. As some have suggested, judges seem to think over-sharpening or cloning things out in Photoshop (like a pesky human or stalk of grass) or cropping to exclude an element in the image (despite its importance to the story) is the method of choice.

Additionally, a good judge needs to provide constructive criticism of images – what is good and what is not so images can be improved. The judge needs to be honest too – one judge recently declared his opinions were subjective and not to take offence. Fortunately, he also provided constructive criticism.

Perhaps the method to move judging beyond the purely technical and so encourage stylistic expression is to use tools like the “peoples choice” votes that James mentioned at the last meeting – which has been used at the club in the past. At least its a consensus view, not just one persons (possibly jaded) opinion, and even reflective of current stylistic influences. Importantly, it demonstrates what your peers think of your image – not some judge with no understanding of the image. They even have that method in awards such as the Archibald Prize. At least then we get beyond the sausage factory the one rigid technical style can engender.

To change the quality of judging and encourage stylistic expression, the issue should be raised in a larger forum such as the SAPF or APS. These bodies provide and I believe train judges, and therefore have a responsibility to raise the standard of judging and respect the personal expression of our vision. The methods need to be transparent so we all benefit, and if the judging criteria are too esoteric or technical then the question has to be asked “Why?”.

Thats my two bits worth for now – thanks for raising the issue James.

If I may be so bold, James’ article would make a good blog article. Ashley had suggested he was going to write one, but now that James has made a start, then with his permission, could we put it on the web site? And we can continue the discussion in full view of the internet community.



So there is the start of the discussion – a few emails have flown about since then – most supportive, and some suggesting if we want change, we need to lead from the front and take up judging ourselves. I’m considering it – along with a few others.

If you’d like to contribute to this discussion, feel free. And if you’d like to take up judging and change the world then have a word to the committee – or the SAPF – about the judges training course.

Chris 😉

3 responses

  1. Mark Swain

    But if you look at the Boticelli pic it’s not the eyes looking in the different directions. It’s the pyramid shape of all of the bodies that are formed in the the picture.
    P.S Nothing to do with rules of thirds….
    Regard Mark
    P.S.S See u @ next meeting 🙂

    24/03/2011 at 9:19 pm

  2. Henk

    Hi All – If anyone would like to read another view on this topic then find a copy of the October issue of “Australian Photography + digital”. Peter Manchester wrote an article titled “Commenting on the critics” – page 76 (it may also be on their website).


    28/10/2012 at 3:24 pm

  3. David Douglass-Martin

    It is easy to make an assesment of a particular image when time is not restricted by the requirements of a Club programme. Mostly the judge has 10-15 seconds to view & consider an image followed by no more than 45-60 seconds to make a comment. In a session with anything up to 100+ images to judge that takes about 90 minutes of highly concentrated effort to hopefully do justice to the authors & their work. Hardly reasonable when you consider it & no wonder that judges do get it wrong from time to time. I agree that there has to be a fairer way & applaud the suggestion that group discussion, maybe followed by a views choice, would probably be a better way to go & do more to encourage participation & learning than the single judge system. However where a points score is required it would probably be better if all competitions were judged by the panel system with three judges . This works well for all levels of competition from club to international level & would be fairer to entrants where aggregate scores are important to their success for annual trophy awards.

    09/12/2012 at 12:54 pm