"What does it take to make a good judge?"

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    Ian McNab

    I’ve only just got round to reading Brian Law’s L&CPU article “What does it take to make a good judge?”, which was mentioned in John’s Latest News post of 17 Sep 2012. (You can download a copy of Brian’s article here.)

    It’s an interesting article, because it’s really a discussion of photography, and especially club photography. What bothers Brian is the often marked separation of club photography and the judging of it from an awareness of the place of photography among the visual arts. The result is that some photographs are grossly misunderstood and undervalued. (He gives some ‘real life’ example images.)

    Of course, the tension he refers to isn’t new: it’s a tension as old as photography, between people whose interest is mainly in the technical refinements of optics or in the precise mechanics of  photographic equipment or in the exercise of the craft skills and those who emphasise the artistic and expressive aspect of photography as a visual art. It’s the tension that led to the birth of Pictorialism in the nineteenth century with the exodus in the 1890s of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring from what was, by then, the Royal Photographic Society.

    Brian’s contention appears to be that club photography and its judging concentrate on the technical qualities of photographs at the expense of creativity and artistry. So judgements and critiques deal with the sharpness of images, whether they’ve got bright bits near the edges, whether they use ‘rule of thirds’, foreground interest, and other simplistic notions that have become tokens of ‘good photography’. There is little appreciation of – or even, it would seem to Brian, awareness of – the place of some images in the historical or modern context of visual arts or among current artistic developments in photography.

    To be a bit controversial for a moment, I wonder if this emphasis doesn’t go some way to explaining the relatively greater success that nature photographs enjoy in club photography, where technical, documentary precision is the name of the game. Creating (or appreciating) more expressive ‘general’ photography images is, in a way, more difficult – though, of course, that’s not intended to belittle the great technical skill and biological knowledge of good nature photographers!

    Reading Brian’s analysis, I was reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famously startling remark, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. Cartier-Bresson elaborated this point more subtly, and in a way that echoes Brian’s analysis:

    “I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique — a notion which reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this ‘trompe l’oeil’ technique, to get to closer grips with reality? In either case, they are just as far away from the real problem as those of that other generation which used to endow all its photographic anecdotes with an intentional unsharpness such as was deemed to be ‘artistic’.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson (1999) The Mind’s Eye: writings on photography and photographers. USA:Aperture. Page 39)




    That commentary should really be added to Brian’s article, it elucidates the issue beautifully.

    I worry that club photography does get obcessed sometimes with the pursuit of perfection of the image in a technical sense. I liken it to woodwork where the perfect execution of the joints overrules the overall look, aesthetics and  utility of the piece of furniture.

    Many of my favourite photographs I fear might not do well in a typical club competition.

    Is this encapsulated in the difference between the RPS and PAGB distinctions? In the former your work is viewed as a panel – and that panel can have a very broad means of expression (even mixed media) – in the latter your images are judged individually using more or less “club” criteria.

    In defense of club photography, it does teach you how to give your work more impact and deliver its message more clearly and make it more “attractive” (even beautiful). It is also a community where we help each other achieve. But let’s not take a narrow view of the work. 


    • This reply was modified 6 years, 3 months ago by  ajroyle.


    “What is a good Judge”  ??  answer that first, then volumes could be said as to –what does it take to be a good judge.  I myself find it easier to indentify   a judge that is not so good. Where I find some judges are lacking is not their   ability to appraise photographs on both pictorial and technical sense, for most are competent  in that respect. I see a deeper problem that some  cannot be  balanced -fair and equal in appraisals and allow themselves to be subjective. There must be a problem in present times finding enough  judges as there are so many competitions making huge demands. In the dark days  there  was just one annual competition  each year.  Most seem to appraise the technical aspects ok–whether most would identify  the level of sharpness due to –out of  focus–camera shake– or a good old three element lens–that I doubt –but does not occur much now with modern all auto camera”s. Some appraisals on the pictorial aspects  at times make me cringe.  Last year we had an example of a print having  very favourable remarks–with a   person cut in half down almost the full length  of the print.   Now what would you prefer—a most magnificent   photo with glorious country scene with church spire and that–taken on a box camera—or  a technically perfect photo  taken on the best of modern cameras–of a boiled egg. All my opinion only.




    Have a read I think this sums up how judging should be approached



    Ian McNab

    Interesting article, Wallace.  A couple of things Eddy Sethna says seem to me  particularly important; and they also speak to the matters that Brian Law was concerned with. Talking about the main point of a photograph being its ‘meaning’, Eddy says,

    “Appreciation of all art, including a photograph, is not primarily an intellectual exercise but an emotional one, which may be pleasurable, depressing, moving or frightening. It is the feelings, emotions and mood that a picture conveys which is the core of the  ‘message’  and should form the basis of evaluation of a picture.

    “Good judging is done more by the heart than the head, with the ability to feel a picture and not just visualise it. It is the buzz and tingle which one experiences on seeing a good picture which is at the heart of judging.”

    This is ultimately to do with why a picture stops you in your tracks, makes you look twice, or makes you say, “Wow!” with either delight or shock. But Eddy also makes the point that such responses are harder to articulate than are matters of technical execution, which is why I guess many judges fight shy of addressing them. The objective questions about a picture – What does it depict? When was it made? How was it made? – are always so much easier to answer than the subjective ones – How does it affect you? What do you feel about it? Why does it matter? – and somehow so much less important, aren’t they?



    An excellent article Wallace that has actually helped me understand a little more about how to evaluate those who evaluate us!  I am sure that as the same images go before different judges it will help to remember some of these comments when deciding whether or not to make any recommended adjustments.



    Adi (Eddy) Sethna’s article is well known to recently qualified judges since it is used at the L&CPU Judging Seminar.

    Adi was a psychiatrist and so had a methodical approach to the process which really takes you somewhere (in what can be a very vague subject) and his writing has certainly been a big influence on my approach to judging.

    In Brian’s article he is expressing concern at the narrow approach some judges exhibited to the work. This doesn’t always mean a descent into technical nit-picking. His judges were failing to bring an open mind (not even necessarily an informed mind) to judging the pictures.

    But what do we really ask of our judges? I heard one national (and well respected) judge say that she could sit all day and mark pictures but couldn’t do what the club judge does – stand up and talk about the picture to an audience. In the end this is what we want, people who can explain why a picture works in a convincing and compelling way. Think about the judges we have – they usually get invited back because they can do this. The marking we know is a questionable thing anyway – very subjective.

    BTW do you know that many clubs do not ask for a mark out of 20? Many only ask for things like 1,2,3, Highly Commended and Commended. The rest (and that could be, say, 60 pictures in our case) only get a comment – no mark. Should we be doing that?




    Personally, I always think it is confusing when goal posts are moved, as half your work is judged by one standard and the other by another.  I for one would always prefer the more definitive points marking system.  This way it is easier to see your improvements and progressions even if initially a low scorer. To someone who scores an 11 the first 14 is a brilliant achievement.  It is also interesting to see exactly how widely judges marks differ for the same image.  The shock of last weeks winner getting a low score from another judge who just ‘doesn’t get it’! Great stuff and huge talking points.  It is also important that this variant is seen. It perfectly illustrates that this is just one mans opinion … be it a usually highly qualified one.

    For only the Cream to be worthy of points could possibly lead to a drop in entries or membership as the milk (the rest ;-)) turns a little sour as they wonder if they will ever realistically be that good and they tire of being invisible. With no fixed means to mark our progress unless in the club top 10%, it would be easy to become deflated.



    It would be fine if we could have some very objective way of marking but it isn’t possible. Some judges do apply some objectivity in allowing so many marks for this and so many marks for that. For example Andrew Brochwicz-Lewinski does this. He judged earlier in the year (you may have been there). But of course the judgement of each fraction of the mark is itself subjective. The system can fall down when you come across an image which defies the system.

    20 years ago marks didn’t vary as much as today – it is probably because some areas, such as colour printing, were an achievement to get right anyway – despite content and so the marks were more for technical things and so rather less variable judge to judge. (an old man told me that!)



    If anyone  finds out–tell them upstairs–Checked  Google  and its a Nationwide problem.

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