Have you participated in a photo contest or a monthly photo competition and wondered how the judge sorts through and assesses the images? In this article, I am going to unveil the mystery and explain my process.
Entering a photo competition or a camera club monthly photo competition is a great way to have your work recognised and more importantly, receive some educated and experienced feedback from someone who does not know you.
If you only receive biased feedback from your friends and family, they will likely tell you to start selling your images at the local market. For us passionate photo enthusiasts that sounds amazing, because we want everyone else to enjoy our photos a much as we do.
As a smartphone photographer educator, I often deliver presentations and workshops at camera clubs. I also have the absolute privilege of judging monthly photo competitions – either for a smartphone category or open theme. I really enjoy this opportunity, because I too am a student of photography and analyzing images helps me to better break down an image and better articulate why some work and areas for improvement in others.
As a human being, I am acutely aware that I come with prejudices and that my assessments, interpretations and assertions are subjective. I also understand that submitting your images for assessment and review can leave you a little vulnerable and excited to hear the judges’ thoughts and recommendations.
Initial Formulated Sorting Process
As I have always been a technically minded photographer – I naturally start the process with a formulated approach to be fair and consistent.
I am looking for a WOW photo. When sorting submissions to the monthly photo competition, I initially sort the images into three sections (best, middle, least favourite). To help quickly determine which category to initially place each image, I have broken this down into five main stages of the image creation. If, for example the judging is scored out of 15 points, I will assign a numeric value to each stage to obtain an initial score:
- Intention – 3 points
- Composition – 3 points
- Lighting – 3 points
- Equipment – 2 point
- Editing – 4 points
You may have noticed that I have placed the least amount of value on your equipment. That is because I strongly believe that great photography is not about the equipment. Do not succumb to lens envy! No one looks back at the photography greats of our past and reflect on what gear they must have been using.
This really is the difference between a happy snap recording a scene and a deliberate capture to create an image intended for an audience. Whenever you lift your smartphone to take a photo – take a moment to pause and think what motivated me to take this photo?
This moment will provide you some clarity around what the subject should be and experiment different ways to capture and communicate that same intention, story or message.
Telling a story in your images can really assist you make an emotional connection with the viewer. This can range from the context evoking a universal memory that we all share or something surprising, shocking or simply telling part of a story through visual cues, to allow the viewer to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks.
This refers to the structure of the photo – positioning of different elements (objects, lines, colours, exposure, tones) and how they all interact with each other to direct and hold the attention of the viewer. There are a number of basic compositional guidelines that I look for; including cropping, rule of thirds and leading lines.
I personally, place a lot of emphasis on strong composition in an image. In a world of filters – nothing demonstrates visual literacy more than composition. This cannot be automatically applied by the engineers behind our iPhone and smartphone camera technology.
This is very under-rated in photography. The light direction, quality and quantity can really add to the intention of the image. The most gorgeous location and perfect composition can be exponentially improved with improved lighting. Check out this article on the use of lighting in your smartphone photography.
Many photographers place a lot of emphasis on ‘getting it right in camera’. This minimizes how much editing you need to undertake after the image is taken. Although you can apply image sharpening in mobile apps and desktop photo editing programs – there is no turbo button for fixing a blurry image. Knowing how to get more out of your iPhone or Android camera, all the features of your camera and camera replacement apps and accessories for your smartphone can really extend the capability of your photographic tool.
I love editing images and discovering new techniques and workflows to enhance my images to further emphasize the intention of the image and composition. Through editing, you can apply either whole image (global) or specific area (local) adjustments to fix or enhance the image.
Mobile editing apps like Snapseed, Adobe Lightroom CC, Pixlr, PicsArt, Retouch, After Focus and Polarr are all available on the Apple Apps store and Google Playstore. Here is an article and quick video listing the top 100 mobile photo editing options achievable using mobile editing apps. For the most comprehensive photo editing option on the iPad – you cannot go past Affinity Photo.
As much as I am an absolute advocate for editing every image – I also scrutinize for it being over-done. Unnatural colours, unrealistic lighting, awkwardly cut-off objects and balance and visual tension can create a visual irritation for the viewer. Photo editing is a personal preference and subject to personal taste and preferences. I encourage photo enthusiasts to use it to create that clean, minimalist looking image that is strategically cropped and the colours and tones subtly manipulated to direct my eye around the image – bringing it back to the intention of the image.
Deciding placements and feedback
The next stage after sorting images into best, middle and least favourite is to write down and articulate what I like about each image and considerations to improve them. This process can be quite time consuming, as I am respectful of how much effort goes into submitting a photo to a club photo competition – particularly in the print category.
The second step removes any prejudice I may have toward a particular genre or my own personal preferences. A few times now an image initially outside the top three has been propelled to first place – because I find myself really analysing the preparation, visual literacy and creativity in the photo and myself struggling to find ways to improve it.
For each image – I document one or two positive observations that really work in the image. If it is the composition – I will provide specifics as to what compositional technique in particular worked best.
I will also provide one or two considerations. These are provided courteously and with the upmost respect – not knowing the photographer, their level of experience and visual literacy. My suggestions are just that, they are suggestions. Some people will like what I have to say – others will disagree. These comments are offered in good faith and with the honest intention of sharing my own lessons learned.
These suggestions are most commonly pivoted around the five stages of a great image, listed above. The most common suggestions are a re-crop to focus more on the subject and editing suggestions to make the intention of the image stand out further.
Delivery on the night
Depending on the requirements of the particular camera club, I arrive at the desired time to allow for the preparation of prints and display equipment for the electronic digital images (EDIs). After a quick introduction of my particular expertise as a smartphone photography trainer and presenter – I follow the provided program for the photo competition evening, delivering the results and comments for each particular image.
Where appropriate, I occasionally encourage the photographer to identify themselves and have a discussion about their image. Depending on their willingness to discuss in the open forum, this could be a quick exchange or a more substantial discussion about a common observation within the group submissions.
Lastly, guest judges typically have a 15-20 minute opportunity to present their own work and have a discussion around their workflow. I use this opportunity to discuss the latest developments in smartphone photography and share some images captured by myself and others within my community that have previously contributed to the weekly photography themes. Time permitting, I will quickly demonstrate a live photo edit using my six-step photo editing process using the mobile Snapseed photo editing app.
Camera clubs are a wonderful opportunity to surround yourself with like-minded amateur photography enthusiasts. I have found the many that I have presented and judged to be a supportive, non-judgmental environment for the accelerated learning of visual literacy and getting the most out of your camera. In addition to the monthly photo competition, some organise day outings and special guest presenters.
Many are now supportive of mobile photography and have been open-minded and progressive to include the smartphone camera as a monthly photo category. Just remember, it is not about the equipment – it is about those five stages of a great image….in my subjective opinion!
Need a smartphone photography presenter or monthly photo competition judge?
I would love to help – my first two presentations and/or judgments are free of charge. My presentations are jargon-free and practical. However, I can get as technical as your members want. As a photographer of over twenty years, a late adopter and now mobile purist – I have a newfound passion for photography and training others. Feel free to contact me to discuss a guest presenter opportunity or monthly photo competition judging.
Testimonial - Lynne Bryant Bellarine Camera Club
Mike James is an enthusiastic, energetic and passionate presenter with many years of experience using both cameras and phones.
It is often hard to find good judges that can give positive and constructive comments about the images they are asked to judge.
Mike has judged our photographic competitions in the past and his detailed comments, in jargon-free language, was well-received by all members.
His comments enabled them to feel they could improve their photography in areas he highlighted.
After the judging, Mike freely gave his time to talk to members individually when approached to gain further information in regard to their images.
Mike is a passionate mobile phone photographer who has also spoken at our club on phone photography and the apps that are available to enhance images, and how to use the apps.