My Top 10 Tips for Judging

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This week's article is aimed to help a more niche audience - our brave photography judges!

With these tips I've tried to condense my experience of judging & having my work judged as well as discussions I've had over the years with judges & photographers alike.

Keep To Time

Easily the most important skill is the ability to keep to time while judging. It can be hard... busy sessions with many images can introduce time pressure but woe betide any judge who infringes on the half-time tea break!

Use a timer if need be and although it's preferable to give each image the same amount of time, practically some will need more time than others.  Just don't overrrun!

Define Your Style

Judges & judging styles vary considerably but in my experience tend to stick to a "bell curve". Most are OK albeit fairly forgettable but you also get extremely poor ones and extremely good ones. The good ones, without exception, take time to explain how they approach judging. After you have "set out your stall" you can then refer back to it later, adding context to your commentary. Simply standing at he front of the hall dispensing judgement without context makes for a forgettable experience. 

Your audience don't have to agree with your judging approach but understanding it means they will get more out of the session. Just as there is room in the photographic art for all types of pictures there is room for all types of constructive judging.

Avoid Anecdotes

It's very important to create a bond with your audience early on and as the saying goes, starting with a joke can help. Just be careful with the anecdotes and remember you are there to educate & assess first and foremost, you're not there to give a live reading of some rambling Norse saga. If you have a personal observation then weave it into your judging where it's relevant, snappy & backs up a point you are trying to make - otherwise, stick to the judging.

Target Your Feedback

Many clubs split their photographers into broad skill/experience categories. If this is the case, tailor your feedback accordingly. For beginners, make sure you cover ways to prevent basic errors but do it across multiple images if you can - don't pick on one image when you can teach the same tips across multiple different examples. Spend time explaining why things work well or hurt the image and suggest realistic ways to improve it.  At all costs avoid cliched judging remarks (see the later tip for examples!).

Do not assume you know the shooting conditions, just judge what's in front of you.

For more advanced classes you can point out possible improvements but you won't need to waste time explaining in detail - the photographer should know & you have probably covered it in the beginner class. Focus more on the artistic vision & creative elements that differentiate average images from excellent ones. You don't need to spend the second half of the evening repeating lessons given in the first half.

Have A System

All photographs are different and the ability to quickly assess a huge variety of images in quick succession, give meaningful advice & judge is hard to do well. When I first started judging I researched dozens of different guides before settling on my own style. Having a system or mantra you can fall back on to provide consistency is a big help. I'm going to cover my own system in a future blog post but broadly speaking I have half a dozen aspects I evaluate before giving critique and a score. By asking the same questions of each image 

Consistency is another hallmark of a great judge, especially when scoring. It's also more likely to see you invited back for future competitions. 

Understand The Competition

Some competitions & clubs specifically want judges to choose the best images on the night, effectively asking you to arrange the photos into a hierarchy. In my experience most do not, preferring you judge each image on it's own merits. Put another way, if you have 20 equally fantastic images, under the former system you need to rank them from 1-20 and under the latter you can recognise & reward all of them equally. Make sure you know what you audience wants!

It's especially important not to compare images for the latter type of competition. Avoid phrases like "this image is OK but there are better examples tonight" - this creates an implicit hierarchy and even though you don't know the artist behind each photo your audience probably does. You don't need to pit specific photographers against each other to give good feedback.

Cut Out Cliches 

  • "This would be better if you took two steps to the left"
  • "It's just a record photograph"
  • "I need to find a reason to knock a mark off somewhere"
  • "This has too much Photoshop"
  • "I've seen this view/mountain/sunset/whatever before"
Just a record shot.

Just a record shot.

Glib remarks drive the viewing audience berserk and, in my opinion, throwing out dismissive one liners seriously undermines your judging credentials. Even though you may see similar photographs a LOT in your judging career you need to be fair to photographers and approach each picture as though it was the first time you've seen it.

Throw Out The Textbook

Club photography has a reputation - whether it's correct or not - for promoting & producing very similar images. It's a whole debate in and of itself but judging does play a part.

There are a range of common, basic items judges look for in images and, in my opinion, this can lead some to following a pattern by rote. In some cases I've seen judges remark that they can't find any mistakes so they award top marks irrespective of artistic impact. Literally, photos of old rope given the highest accolades of the evening because there were no distracting highlights...

I think that judges need to play their part in pushing photographers and promoting a creative, artistic eye rather than someone who gets the "right" combination of settings. I like to reward images that make me laugh, think or inspire even if technically they could be better - focus on the art, not the aperture.

Don't forget to advise what the photographer could consider to improve the image but if you are presented with animage with flaws and yet is still beautiful & stimulating you have been handed the ultimate teaching tool! Make a big deal about those images you see which show genuine vision & creativity.

Forgive the nature of this example but imagine you are potty training a puppy. If he does a widdle in your living room you can berate him, point out his flaws, remark how you would have done it generally tell him off. It has no effect.

On the other hand when he widdles in the garden you make a big fuss, showing that this behaviour is just what you want and heaping on the rewards.

Spending time rewarding mediocre images doesn't make anyone a better photographer. Throw away the textbook when you see something that emotionally resonates and use that to show your audience why we should be making art.

For the record I have nothing against old rope or bits of metal but these are the things we cut our teeth on, the inanimate objects we can experiment with and can take the time to learn our craft by shooting them endlessly. Simply photographing them well does not make them inspiring artworks.

Invite Feedback

Every single session I've seen judged, from club to national or international events ends with a brief thank you, a round of applause and rapid dispersal of participants.

It's such a wasted opportunity! Ask for feedback on the night, invite people to say how they feel in your opening words and remind them at the end. Offer your email to strike up a discussion about what they thought of your judging. The photographers get the benefit of one person assessing their images - you can get the benefit of dozens assessing your judging technique!

Your judging, just like their photography, needs to be constantly reviewed & critiqued to ensure it's still relevant & improving. Going to a competition and doing a "dump and run" with your remarks means you are missing out on getting an appraisal on your own technique.

Recognise Bias

We've all seen the judge who very clearly favours certain types of image and limits their judging to "I have the same image myself" or "simply beautiful, I have nothing more to say" or even the classic "this is a train photo and I hate trains, five out of ten. Next!".

That latter quote is true sadly, but at least the judge was never seen again.

When under pressure it can be easy to fall back into an instinctive, reactionary approach for viewing. This leads to snap marking and poor quality of comments because you favour what you like and tend to dismiss what doesn't interest you. Try hard to avoid this and be as impartial as possible.

Also, some people might try to game the system based on perceptions of your bias. I've done it myself. For example, when I was hell bent on winning my club competition I would research judges' personal websites to get a feel for what they liked and tailor my entries. It works if you let it. Try to keep personal preference as only a small part of your assessment but make a point of saying out loud - announcing it verbally stops you falling back on personal bias as a crutch.

You can acknowledge your personal preference as part of a balanced judging approach, for example when two strong, similar images warrant some form of differentiation, but you need to make it clear that you're using it as a last-resort tie breaker.

And Finally...

Judging is a thankless task. It's up there in terms of audience apathy with football refereeing as maligned, barely-tolerated requirement. Even judges moan about other judges!

It's important you choose to judge for the right reasons, be it a love of teaching, a pure passion for photography, a way to make a little pocket money, because you love seeing new art, a desire to contribute to your photo community or any other of a number of reasons. Personally, the first two are my main driver.

Don't let the feeling it can sometimes be too daunting or let the muttering from the back row put you off. Standing up to give an honest critique for 50 or 60 images is hard work even though it's rewarding!

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