Author Topic: Judging Photography  (Read 997 times)


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Judging Photography
« on: June 10, 2010, 12:01:43 PM »
I recently had the honor of judging the annual show for the Emporia, Kansas Camera Club.  As part of that process, I took the time to write down my thoughts on "judging" photos, and provided it to the camera club as a preface to the results.  It's a slightly different perspective than what you might read elsewhere, so I thought I would post it here in the hopes of generating some discussion on the topic.  Here are my thoughts:

                   "Judging" a group of photographs can be a wonderful exercise that can help us improve our understanding of photography; and in turn, improve our own efforts as photographers.  The temptation, especially when faced with the daunting task of judging a large number of images, is to come up with a list of criteria or standards with which to evaluate all the images.  Most often the standards are a good summary of generally appropriate photography techniques; however, they can also lead to "rote" creation of images.  For example, the "standards" might state that the horizon should be "placed in the upper or lower third of the photo."  While this is a nice general rule that often creates better photographs than if the horizon line splits the image in half, it ignores the fact that there are many compositions that might be stronger or more interesting if the horizon line is place somewhere other than on the line of thirds.  In addition,  the evaluation of "correct" exposure, focus and composition is dependent upon the subject and intent of the photographer.  The appropriate exposure for creating a "dark and foreboding" image will be much different than the correct exposure for creating a "light, airy and ethereal" image.  

The second problem with a list of criteria is that it forces us to come up with a method of "scoring" how well each criteria or standard was implemented in the creation of the image.  It's in the scoring of images that this method of judging typically falls short.  After all, how important should proper exposure or focus or cropping be in relation to the "story telling" success of the photograph?  The reality is that the importance or relative weighting of each criteria will vary depending on the subject and intent of the photographer.  So the purpose of each photograph should be the driving factor behind our evaluation of how well the photographer implemented specific techniques to achieve their intent.  

The purpose of most photographs typically falls into two general categories, the photograph is either a documentary "record of events," or an artistic creation of the photographer.  The reality is that all photographs fall somewhere on the continuum between a pure documentary record of events, and an artistic interpretation by the photographer.  Even a photographer that is attempting to record reality will gravitate towards recording their own perception of that reality, colored by the sum total of their life experiences and the multitude of choices they make with respect to composition and "context" included within the image.  Even an "evidence" photo of a crime scene can be sterile or shocking depending on how the photographer composes the image.  

Regardless of whether an image is "documentary" or "art," we can all agree that the purpose of the image is to communicate.  That communication can be as simple as stating "here's a record of objects at a specific point in time," or as complex as a heart wrenching image that alters our perception of life and compels us to change our beliefs or behavior.  It is the effectiveness and impact of this communication that drives my evaluation of the "success" of an image.  

When evaluating an image, my primary question is "how effectively does it communicate?"  Does it tell a story?  Does it tell that story with clarity, i.e., with clearness of perception or understanding, free from indistinctness or ambiguity?  Does it have clarity of reproduction?  Is it insightful?  Does it help me to see and understand something about my world that I otherwise might not have noticed?  Is it evocative?  Does it provoke an emotional response , vivid memories, or provoke me to imagine how an object feels, smells, or tastes?  Is it thought provoking, causing me to question my assumptions?  Is it compelling?  Does it change my beliefs or values, or cause me to behave differently towards a subject?  A photograph can be a powerful means of communicating, and the strongest images can compel a change in beliefs and actions.  

So what of technical aspects like exposure, focus, and depth of field, or composition techniques like leading lines, linear perspective, and balance?  These are just a means to an end.  A true artist will adjust his or her techniques to enhance or emphasize what they are trying to convey about the subject.  Does it matter whether these techniques are implemented during the process of capturing the image, or during post processing?  If the image is intended to be "evidence" or a strict record of events, then yes, it matters and the image should not be altered in post processing.  If the image is intended as art, or to communicate an idea, feeling or concept, then it is perfectly acceptable to modify the image to enhance our message.  Just remember that in order to be compelled, we must believe, so don't go overboard with the enhancements.

So we've come full circle, technical execution and composition techniques should be evaluated based on how well they support the intent of the photographer to communicate something about the subject.

This "preface" seems somewhat incomplete without my observations about the photo show entries that followed the introduction.  I've asked the camera club for permission to post the show results, and if they grant permission I will post them here.

I would be interested in reading your thoughts on this subject.


By the way, my emphasis on the "communication" aspects of photography is one of the reasons I think it is worthwhile to have a healthy mix of "thematic" assignments mixed in with the more technical and technique oriented weekly photography assignments.  A solid technical understanding and technique are important, but we shouldn't lose site of the fact that they are a "means to an end."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2010, 12:28:57 PM by keithsnell »