Friday, March 11, 2016

Don`t Criticise the Critic

Before you trash a photography judge, remember, judges have between 3 to 5 seconds to make several decisions when first presented with an image to be judged. Sometimes even less. 

First they need to have the image create a first impression. This is the impact stage or the wow factor of the image that can garner extra points. More on Impact later…. Then a general evaluation of the image is done where overall qualities are noted including any emotional impact the image may have and then the image is scanned for flaws or devices that impact the image in other positive or negative ways. Finally, a score or mark must be given often in changing scales from 1 to 5, 1 to 10, 5 to 10 and sometimes even with half marks. I have even had to judge out of 30 and once out of 100.

Judges are even sometimes asked to judge based on Photographers Levels where the maker’s skills are taken into consideration.

Judges also need to understand Judging Standards or Practices as used by their federation or world photographic societies. Even something as simple as understanding that extra points are NEVER given for the effort made to get an image or for having spent a lot of money getting an image. It's not about how far you travelled or how much it cost you, it's about the image! Photographers are not to be rewarded because they climbed a certain mountain or paid $10,000 dollars to get somewhere remote. A bad or even an average photo of a rare animal should not score more than average marks. Unfortunately, bad photos of rare animals often score way too high.

These are the easy parts! These decisions must be made in a fair, educated, and most importantly in an unbiased way no matter what the image is or what genre it is.

How does a judge do all this in such a short amount of time?

First and foremost a judge that is capable of doing it in general must be somewhat accomplished as a photographer themselves. Or at the very least have a lifetimes knowledge of photography. This often entails years of photography work, often learning many new and varied skills along the way, and always includes having seen thousands of images in clubs, galleries, the Internet, magazines and books. For print competitions a judge should understand what a ‘good’ silver gelatin print is and what a good digital print is.

At some point in their career these photographers have learned that they have had to start judging and critiquing their own images. This is usually the point where these same photographers realize that they need to evaluate most images they see. The question, “Why do I like this image?” creeps in. Why are my images not this good? What do I need to do differently to make my images better? When they see an image they do not like, answering 'Why' they do like it becomes a powerful learning experience.

When discussing these things during casual critique, experienced photographers learn not only how to use a vast array of photographic elements and devices and skills but more importantly how to communicate what they see within an image. Properly understanding advanced composition elements that are beyond the basic and dysfunctional “Rules of Composition” while using the appropriate vocabulary to describe an image without being given much (if any) time is no easy task.

This process needs to be entrenched into the photographer so that the process of giving the critique becomes natural and requires little effort. Once the judge struggles with any of these elements, problems ensue. Pauses in speech, stutter steps, using the wrong vocabulary or incorrect words can cause the judges skills to be questioned. Worse, errors like guessing incorrectly on a technique used can be disastrous.

During those learning years accomplished photographers have received critique and criticism, words of praise and disappointment and then usually at some point have most likely been asked to give feedback and critique to someone else's image by friends, family, colleagues and peers. This natural progression from receiving to giving criticism is usually a long slow.

At this stage in the photographers’ life they may not be ready to judge, but the foundation for good photographic critique has been laid.

Pushing this long progressive step into a shortened timeline with an in-experienced photographer that lacks the skills and understanding cannot possibly result in good, valid, fair, nor consistent results.

What skill might these photographer/potential judges be missing?

First and foremost the actual process of giving formal critique. This process can be taught and learned and even developed and fine tuned with proper training and study. A part of this process should include some sort of etiquette training so that judges are fair and complimentary. Judges should never bash an image or the photographer no matter how blatant the faults are. Learning to give tactful positive feedback (called critique) is an art. Personal people skills are important. The judges critique should be honest but not brutally honest. It should be fair and encouraging while pointing out any flaws in a tactful manner.

An excellent understanding of composition (and NO not the 12 basic rules of photography) is required. It needs to be based on the arts and numerous genres of photography and even some ethnic art devices. Think Notan, Wabi Sabi, Gestalt Theory, Art History, Anthropology, Balance, Tension, Minimalism, Abstract, etc.

The photographic schooling of the judge also plays a factor and becomes evident when they do not have a more global understanding of photography. Photographers in clubs, groups and organizations are often guided (or misguided) by what these organizations decide makes a beautiful or a perfect image. These photographers and judges from these “schools” often do not understand why images have won 1st place in National or International competitions. If they lack the basic understanding of why those images are worthy, how can they be ready to judge other peoples’ images?

It is very important that the photographer/judges’ basic photographic skills be perfect. Done. If someone has no understanding of how to create a well exposed and tack sharp image, how can they judge and understand the virtues of such images? How can they be tactful and use critique to help a photographer whose image is not perfect?

Along with a great understanding of the basics a vast knowledge of a lot of the obscure photographic skills should be available to these potential judges. Again, how can a judge critique or help a photographer, when they have no understanding of how an image was created? Without this technical understanding, how can a judge understand why (and if appropriate) a specific technique used was helpful (or a detriment) in the creation of the image? Think Highspeed, HDR, Ultra Long, Stacked Focus, Compositing, etc.

Worse yet, by not understanding new techniques (and new trends), the judge can make glaring mistakes in the judging process and the judge can also be wowed by a new and way overused “single button” creative filter that often leads to mediocre images gaining higher scores that they deserve because the judge “has never seen anything like it." Again, this is something that happens way too often in judging circles. Judges need to be up to date on techniques, styles, genres and trends. Remember that creating a new unique image is art, copying one is not.

In this day of digital photography editing skills and specifically knowledge of proper editing and knowledge of what can be done with good editing skills is paramount. This isn't so important for when photographers exhibit beautifully edited images but rather when badly edited images are presented. There is little worse than a judge giving high marks for an image that has blatantly and badly been edited. (Sample below)

Some of the problems come from old time photographers only having in depth knowledge of the classic darkroom/film techniques. Some of these judges blatantly disregard edited images. They are staunch supporters of in-image perfection that should never be altered in any way. Remember, they are supposed to be un-biased. I have seen first hand, judges in action that have stated as much while breaking ties suggesting to the other judges that because an image had been edited, it should not score as high as a un-edited image. Really? How about judging an image simply based on the values of the image itself?

Note however this is not exclusive to old timers. There is a large group of young digital purists that think along these lines also always citing editing should be limited to what could be done in the darkroom without the actual knowledge of the wizardry that was done in the darkroom. Think, compositing (yes, compositing), Dodge & Burn, localized bleaching, toning, multi light sources, double exposures, filters and other techniques. Think ‘TREE HOUSE’ by Jerry Uelsmann.
Image shot with film and created in the darkroom by Thomas Barbèy.

Judges need to look beyond the beauty. This goes with the "schooling” component in that judges should not be guided by specific or classic notions of beauty. Often, this results in Classically Beautiful images winning over the most spectacular Journalistic or Street or Abstract Photography. Should the best ever most perfect Journalistic Image not score higher than an average beautiful photo? Should the image not be selected because it is not beautiful even if it has the most poignant and beautiful story to tell?

The last component is emotion. Many judges are not trained or are not even comfortable talking about emotion. Yet, some of the most powerful images are very emotional in nature and tell very emotional messages. Should an image not win or score high because it's not “uplifting?” What about a perfectly depressing image or an image that makes you angry? Remember, photography is not about happy or beauty.

So, as easy as it may be to criticize a judge because you do not understand their decisions, can you say that you put this much thought and process in your photography when creating your images. Have you laid your biases and schooling aside? Do you know enough to sit in judgement?

Francois Cleroux

I value and welcome comments and suggestions. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me (good or bad).




2 comments:

  1. Nice to hear your side of the story. Gives context to the conversation. You happen to be a great judge that we can all learn from. I found judging in a club setting are very rushed. I really missed the explanation part of the critique, that's what I would learn from, not the score.

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    Replies
    1. Yes when I was at LCC last I thought that it was a shame NOT having critique on many of the images. There were a few that would have made a great learning experience. Nothing is learned from a score.

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- Francois Cleroux