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Pity the Judge

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

It’s not a phrase that’s often heard in photography club circles, but as the club season starts it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the challenges that face the average club judge.

Let’s start with the straightforward stuff. Regardless of the medium of the photograph - digital, print, slide - the expectations of any judge are pretty high. For a specialist competition, such as the Bowie, we expect the judge to be an expert in that genre of photography. For open competitions, as most of ours are, the expectation is higher; we expect the judge to have expertise in any and all genres represented.

The premise, of course, is that to understand the contribution made by the photographer and the difficulty of the challenge then the judge needs to have a good insight into the technical and creative challenges of any given genre, insight that we believe can only be gained through experience and practice.

The prevalence of digital arguably makes the task harder. While photographic manipulation predates Photoshop, and stretches back to the early days of photography, the shift to digital and the ubiquity of digital tools has made these techniques available to almost all. So, in addition to assessing the camera technique, we also expect our judges to assess post-processing skills. With the prevalence of filters, smart selection tools and the like the job of assessing the photographer’s contribution becomes harder and requires an understanding of an even wider set of tools and techniques.

Computational photography only increases the challenge. We’ve had in-camera filters that mimic film simulations or ‘lo-fi’ lenses for some time - more recently we’re starting to see some more fundamental computational techniques added. Focus stacking, for example, can now be done in camera to great effect while subject detection for auto-focus is coming on leaps and bounds.

A focus stacked image revealing detail in this African Daisy from front to back. This is done in software, but an increasing number of cameras can produce these images in camera.

So, while the fundamental question remains one about the contribution of the author, the technology is at a level where the answer to that question is not always obvious from an inspection of the image. We could, of course, go down the route of scrutinising the raw images, but that means finding more volunteers and seems guaranteed to suck the joy out of club competitions. Instead we will rely on the integrity and fair-mindedness of our members.

You need only look to phone cameras, however, to see the direction of travel. Post-capture decisions on depth of field, hand-held long exposures and portrait relighting are already implemented on higher-end phones and are only going to get better. You can also expect further innovation as camera capability is one of the major battlegrounds for phone manufacturers and you can be sure that camera manufacturers will be watching intently.

Despite the mounting challenges, it seems that as club photographers we still have a very high set of expectations and are quick to express frustration when those expectations aren’t met. The cliché, of course, is that the verdict in any competition is that one person thinks the judge is a genius, while everyone else regards them as an idiot. Experience suggests that as a group we’re more forgiving than that, but that we still have pretty high expectations.

I read recently on one of the club photography forums a suggestion from one photographer (whom you suspect feels that more than one of their images has been ‘mismarked’) that all judges, regardless of level, undergo training by the PAGB to enforce consistency of judging. The view expressed was that an image scoring a 16 in a competition in Axminster should also score 16 in Thurso and a 16 in national competition.

The idea, clearly, is as impractical as it is mad. Even leaving aside the costs of training, where are we expecting to find this cohort of volunteers who will willingly commit to the costs of training and a level of scrutiny that Premiership referees would find intrusive, for £25, a thank you and travel expenses.

And that really is the point. We’re mostly members of a club because it’s supposed to be fun. By all means take your photography seriously, but try to avoid taking yourself too seriously. We are reliant on volunteers, and this includes the judges who give their time freely and willingly. Some will be excellent, others less so, but all will approach the task with an open mind and a commitment to do their job well. We should thank them for what they do rather than berate them for what they don’t.

However, the judges are all human and despite the of best intentions we won’t always agree with each and every comment. If you’re still unhappy you can always find out about how to have a go at doing it better yourself - there’s information here.



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