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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Professional Photographer Column: January 2014


I’m hopefully going to be drinking vino in Cape Town when you read this but right now I am still nursing my post PPOTY awards hangover.  It may feel a bit like old news by January but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed meeting many of the successful entrants at the awards ceremony.  The standard of work was fantastic and certainly varied in content and style but it’s fair to say I loved some of the images more than others.  I arrived home a little tender to find heated debates surrounding the Guild of Photographers monthly competition results.  Having been involved with quite a bit of competition judging over the past few months I’ve realised that the results tend to cause considerable discussion among entrants.  With the judges and judging process getting quite a lot of flack – generally concerning a lack of consistency in the results and clarity in the process .

So I wasn’t surprised to read Sean O’Hagan’s recent comment in The Guardian “Last year, I was critical of the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize. This year I helped judge it – and now realise how tough it is to pick a winner…There were opinions. There were agendas. There were disagreements. It was tough. It was exasperating. It was emotionally and physically draining but, despite many moments of disappointment as favourite images were rejected, it was utterly rewarding. And, of course, I anticipate much scorn/derision/dismissal by the online photographic community and the general public alike. It goes with the turf and I am thickening my skin as we speak”.

At the end of the day photography is both art and science and anyone invited to judge the work of others will bring to the table their own photographic experience, expertise and preferences. Yes I am referring to the issue of taste and subjective response.  The obvious and necessary solution to this is the panel or committee approach   My experience is that fellow judges are quite passionate in their stance – whether in support or not of an image and the obvious potential outcome of this, sadly, is compromise. 

If you are considering entering a competition it may help to review your imagery by considering these 3 issues separately: technical competence, creative approach and impact.

By far the easiest of these as far as reaching a judging consensus is technical competence. At this point it is worth mentioning that when you are judging across a number of categories you have to be mindful of how challenging some shooting scenarios are – with technical issues on location far outweighing the control of studio set ups. 

I’m not going to discuss the most common technical flaws that I see in detail because it’s fairly obvious that the issues are found in areas such as exposure, focus, contrast, cropping, distortion or over processing etc.

The second issue – that of composition – shouldn’t really catch out as many people as it does either.  It’s about demonstrating an understanding and sympathy for compositional techniques that are proven to appeal to our aesthetic senses.  This goes much further than the rule of thirds so if you don’t feel confident about using colour, texture, balance, harmony etc in your work go and read one of the hundreds of books or articles published on this fascinating subject.

Where it arguably gets more interesting is when you judge the impact of an image.  You have to understand that inevitably we see the same images repeated again and again.  They may actually be exceptional in terms of the technical competence and composition but we will have seen it many times before.  The most obvious examples being well known landmarks or newborns in a studio.  In these cases the image has to be exceptional to get our attention.

Photographer (and competition judge) Lucian Perkins in a talk to the International Photographic Society in Washington DC advised that a winning photograph, “must have something that drives me further than the norm. Subtlety with complexity, and that you are compelled to study more, which grabs you.”  A competition winning image should demand your admiration and this feeling should be maintained every time you look at the image fresh.

I have found that an image that connects with me on some level emotionally will fare better than a technically perfect shot that lacks impact. Over the past half century the most accepted means of defining art in photography relates to images that evoke emotion – from a very positive, happy response to much darker negative reactions.  It is definitely worth pointing out that I also find myself (and others) scoring images with powerful lighting highly  - whether this light is naturally beautiful or created by artificial sources.

When Sean O’Hagan talked of judges needing to have thick skin the same could be said for the entrants. Don’t be disheartened if your work does not deliver the scores or prizes that you were hoping for.  I don’t really enter competitions myself because it’s a rare day that I shoot under the conditions that create images with impact, strong composition and no technical flaws.  One could argue the real judges are your clients and I know that I make them happy.  Of course what I should do is set aside some time for a 2014 personal project with the aim of creating award winning imagery…

1 comment:

  1. Good judges should leave agendas outside the door on their way into the judging room.
    Fully agree a personal project is vital to keep the creative juices flowing though.



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