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Camera Club Judging

by Bob Dachelet

Ten years as a camera club member, eight years as camera club print coordinator, six years of infrequent judging, plus two classes in how to evaluate images has allowed me to observe the strengths and weaknesses of camera club judging. Judges vary in quality and ability to articulate their opinions almost as much as the images vary in quality and feelings conveyed. What I have attempted to do here is to assemble some thoughts on what it means to be a camera club judge; what the club/members should expect from a judge and vice versa; plus a list of considerations that could or should be referred to when an image is being judged.

My recent class in judging began with the question "What makes a good judge?" I ended up with a definition of a JUDGE as: ONE LEARNED IN THE STYLES AND TECHNIQUES OF PHOTOGRAPHY WHO IS ABLE TO FAIRLY AND DECISIVELY RULE ON THE RELATIVE MERITS OF IMAGES AND WHO IS ABLE TO ARTICULATE IN AN INSTRUCTIVE MANNER THE REASONS FOR HIS/HER DECISIONS AND OPINIONS.

First of all to be a judge one should be knowledgeable about not only the technical aspects of photography but also know about different styles of photography. Many judges focus on some single technical aspect (image must be tack sharp front to back) or style (monochrome street photography is real photography) and miss the Gestalt of the image. The true value of any artistic work is the message it conveys as a whole. Technique is simply the medium by which an artist conveys his/her message. Technique, however, lets us know that the photographer understands his/her art and has mastered the craft.

A good case can be made for giving the technical aspects of a given image less weight in scoring and giving the message the most weight is scoring. Today there are innumerable technically superb images available for viewing but it is usually the emotive/challenging/original image that we remember whether or not it follows all the rules of composition, is tack sharp, and is presented well.

Secondly a judge must be fair and decisive. In the end a judge's opinions are always subjective and personal but judges should not allow personal preferences (I like photojournalism) or personal biases (I hate cats) to influence their decisions. Judging club competitions is like judging the finals at Westminster Kennel Club dog show where different breeds are judged against each other. The judge must understand the different styles/techniques of photography and be able to rank each image against standards for that style/technique and then be able to pick out the image which best measures up to standards of excellence for it to be chosen as "Best of Show".

Thirdly, a judge must be able to articulate in an instructive manner why they chose a certain image for a high or low score. If the judge has access to the images for a period of time before the club meeting then the judge should make notes with specific comments on images so that nothing is missed during the presentation. If the judge is presented with images at the club meeting then the judge's comments would be expected to be less thorough and organized. Some camera club members come to compete and enjoy the race to see who accumulates the most points during the club year. A member will be left wondering if the judge is not able to explain why a certain image image scored high or low. If an image scores high, then a good judge offers more of an explanation than "I really liked this." Other members come to learn and are not only looking for reasons why an image scored high/low but also want to be instructed in how to improve their images.

Camera club members vary in experience and artistic ability almost as much as the images vary in quality. A judge is generally at a disadvantage in not knowing who made the image and at what skill level the maker is. Judges should recognize effort when an image appears to have been taken for a particular competition topic or if an image was taken before dawn far from the nearest road at great risk to the photographer. The judge should be constructive, encouraging and informative. All members have an emotional investment in their work in addition to the time, energy, and expense extended to capture/print/present the image being judged. A new member might be discouraged by harsh criticism whereas an experienced member might ignore the judge's comments recognizing that judging can be very subjective or believing he/she knows more than the judge. Neither is an appropriate response.

Judging can be somewhat of an ego trip. A good judge realizes that camera club members do not attend meetings to listen to long harangues about the judge's personal experiences taking photos or about how he/she would have taken the photo under consideration.

It is not the judge's job to find and to point out every fault an image might have. Judges should judge the merits of images they are presented with and not try to reimagine the image as their own by suggesting a radically different technique, cropping, style, etc. On the other hand, members should listen to the judge's suggestions on how to improve an image and not take criticism personally. Members should recognize that the judge is trying to help all members of the club with suggestions on how to improve a given image. A good judge's criticism should be based on sound technical experience and knowledge that the judge is trying to share with the audience.

In fairness to the judge the camera club should instruct the judge in what is expected. Most clubs have competition rules that should be conveyed to the judge. When a club competition has a topic, the judge should be given the same definition of the topic as the club members received. The judge should know what to do if a given image is entered in topic and does not fit the definition; is the image judged with open images, or is the image eliminated from judging, or is the image simply disqualified from receiving an award? Judges should have a name/number to contact if such an issue arises before the meeting.

Judging is not easy. Members should be respectful of the judge's comments and should be open to constructive criticism. A picture might be worth a thousand words but most of us can barely find 10 or 100 words to articulate why we like/dislike a particular image. When most of us are able to say anything about an image, it is usually a comment about what is technically not perfect in the image. Members should listen carefully and try to understand what the judge is saying. For a critique to be successful the photographers should be open and willing to try suggestions offered. Seeing how others react to our image should help us grow as artists and technicians, ie grow as photographers.

The following list of Competition Judging Bullets was put together to provide a list of discussion topics for a judge to use in commenting on club images.