Ruminating on the peer review process

Its been an interesting time since we decided to implement the move from competition to peer review. Of course, these review nights have been a work in progress – rough around the edges, but slowly evolving into a night where club members can present an image and not be intimidated by a low score from a stranger. For newer club members, that’s even more important, and Ashley’s recent article in the SAPF Camera Club News (page 10 – One Easy Step) highlights the problems such a judge can cause for all of us.

The first question to ask is why do have peer review or even competitions? I suspect the answer lies somewhere between seeking praise from our peers and wanting to improve our skills.

Could it be that most photographers are all natural show offs? Its personally satisfying to share that little trick or image we’ve found and get a little praise. Its also the social aspect – like telling a story around a campfire and getting attention from your peers. It just makes you feel that little bit better. Regardless of the reason – constructive, positive comments work better than negative, destructive ones.

So here is a brief evaluation of the first half of the year and the peer review sessions (4 of them so far). I’ve included some images to entertain you too – examples of some of the experiments and images we’ve seen to date. See if you can work out what the photographer was playing at.

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Firstly, there was the issue of how many images to display. We started out with rounds of prints then digitals – up to 3 rounds in all with 1 image per photographer in a round. To say I was a bit overwhelmed by the response on the night is an understatement. We had a lot of images! So refinement one will probably be that we go back a bit and have 2 rounds, but still with one image.

Secondly how to present the image. The photographer had to describe what they were trying to achieve. Timing could be an issue here – so we gave the photographer 1 minute to describe the image and what they were trying to do. The problem is that people find it hard to say that in 1 minute. Which statement helps the panel more? “I saw these brilliant flowers and took a photo” or “I saw these brilliant flowers in the foreground of this otherwise drab landscape and tried to show the contrast. Does this image work or can you suggest how to make it better?” Do you get the key words? “tried to show” “make it better“. That’s what we need to help the discussion along, otherwise the panel has to fish for an idea to help the photographer.

Thirdly, getting feedback. The panel – followed by the audience – would discuss the image, and the two panelists 1 minute, then the audience could have a go for up to 3 minutes. The problem? You can’t stop people talking. That’s both a good and bad thing.

Well at our first attempt, it its generated a lot of interest with people from other clubs attending the review nights to see how they work. It was a bit rough, and we ran over time. So what? We at least had some fun.  We wound up looking at everyone’s first round of images, and then rushing through the last ones. Lesson learnt – keep to time and don’t over do it.

The second observation was that the panel tried to help by saying “a judge would say……but I think…..“. There you go – judges again! Seriously, if we are going to get out of the standard photography club rut we need to discard what the judge says and move to what we feel and think. Don’t worry as much about the technical as the art. We can all improve the technical with practice, but the art comes from the photographers mind. The photographers thoughts are paramount. Everyone else is viewing what goes on in your mind.

That brings me to the third observation – telling the audience what the photographer is trying to achieve. For any review night, we need to help the panel formulate their thoughts. So we’ve encouraged exhibitors to say what they are trying to do, and how the panel & club can help. Not always successful – but I think we are starting to get there.

The next thing is number of images and timing. Two rounds seems to be enough, and timing, although important, is not paramount. Let the photographer have their say. Let the panel mull over the image. Let the audience chip in with comments. Its a conversation as much as a critique session. The only limit is really the imagination of the presenter and their peers.

When we first proposed this concept of peer review (and its not a new one) I was surprised by a number of contacts from outside the club asking if they could come along. My natural answer was “Yes – we’d love to have external input into our little experiment.” But maybe that’s the sort of club we are – outside the main stream and a little bit “bolshy“. It led to some interesting email discussions too – which were very stimulating intellectually and led to a lot more thought about the process we had begun.

What I have seen evolve over the last few months is less of the what the judge says (or would say) and more of the “I like it. I wouldn’t change it at all. I love the way you…….” or “Its pretty good, but I think if you cropped/reframed/coloured/desaturated/changed aperture/shifted shutter speed/removed noise (etc etc) in this it would work a little better“. The result – we’ve had members bring back their images after a suggestion and see if it worked better. We’ve had images entered in competition (or not). They are not all main stream photo club images either – that’s a nice change!

The other thing I’ve noticed is that unlike competition nights, the audience doesn’t fall asleep – the conversation keeps going. There is rarely silence (some folk can’t keep quiet). Everyone gets involved. I’d call that sort of engagement success. And importantly, you don’t see the muttering around the room afterwards about judges with no idea what they’re talking about.

So in conclusion, how is the experiment going? I’d say fairly well. Its not perfect, its evolving as I said at the start. We will get better. Importantly its a conversation between people in a club that shares a passion. Isn’t that what the club is supposed to be about? If it produces better images that a judge likes then that’s a bonus – but I’m personally pleased that’s not the aim.

Chris 😉

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