Judging a Photo Contest

From the Photographer’s Perspective

The one constant in photography is that every photographer at some point makes a decision to enter a photography contest. The first one, or perhaps more accurately, the first several are usually catastrophic. Novice photographers begin to ask themselves what went wrong. On Facebook, my friends and family give me hundreds of “Likes.” Why don’t the judges?
Let’s begin with the obvious! When most people look at a photograph, they process only one thought. Do I like it or not? It is such a simple question, and at a basic level, it is important. However from an artistic point of view, it is quite naive. Evaluating art is far more complex than a simple like or dislike test. There has to be a measure or standard by which to rate an image. The right side of the brain is definitely involved, but it should be up to the left side to quantify a rating.
After spending time on the photographic learning curve, aspiring artists grow and progress.  In time they hopefully begin to develop their own style. After more time, they eventually manage to gain enough confidence to again reenter the world of photo competition. They then begin to ask themselves a series of questions. What contests should I enter? Will the judges like my work? Is my work good enough? Finally they ask the ultimate question! How do the judges arrive at their decisions? At this point they begin to look at their photography not just from their heart, but from their logic.
My image, Geishas in the Snow – Honored by the Washington Post
This is the point when the photographer begins to think and act like a judge. They look critically at their own images, as well as those of their colleagues. They try to think like a judge and pretend to select their own winners and losers. A transformation has occurred. The photographer begins to realize that judging is far from a snap decision. They appreciate that the process is involved and demands discipline. The turning point is finally reached when they actually agree that their much-loved photo did not deserve to be recognized.
After being involved in many contests, winning a few and losing far more, I have come to realize the difficulty of the judging process. Yet as a high school math teacher for many years, I have tried to develop a rubric that can give some order to this process. After doing much research on the subject and listening to various judges that I admired, I have come up with my own criterion –The Magnificent Seven. These seven points are divided between two basic ways of looking at a photograph.

Phase I – The Initial Impression

The first three criteria can be determined relatively quickly in the process. They can be best described as an initial visceral reaction to the photo. When one first looks at an image, the presence and degree of influence of three factors should immediately become apparent.


Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
When the photo is first seen, does it produce any emotional feeling for the judge? This is by definition subjective, but who can argue that “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange does not fill you with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Even in viewing a landscape photo, the question applies. Does the natural beauty of the lake or mountain overwhelm me? Is the photo simply pretty or breathtaking? The ultimate question is simple. Is there an innate sense of joy in simply viewing the photograph?


Snow Patterns by Richard Eskin
This is a slightly more involved, but extremely important. All judges have their own favorite genre of photography. and that is natural. Many perhaps even have a genre that does nothing for them. Personally, I love Street Photography, while Abstract Photos are not my thing. The issue is then when one looks at a photo from any genre, the task becomes to compare it only to other photos within that same category. So if I am looking at an abstract photo, my question is how does it compare to all the others I have seen. I do not compare it to “Migrant Mother.
The photo above was taken by a friend and colleague, Richard Eskin, of the Baltimore Camera Club during our recent snow storm. When I first saw it during our monthly contest, I must admit it intrigued me. I could not take my eyes off it as I studied it. It definitely deserves a high mark in this category.


The Tetons and the Snake River  by Ansel Adams
This domain relates to the perceived difficulty in creating the image. Is there something special in the nature of the photo that demonstrates an inordinate amount of skill on the photographer’s part? This could be in terms of the science of photography or the psychology of the moment.
In the iconic black and white image above by Ansel Adams, the use of his grey scale of light to lead the viewer’s eyes into the subject is unprecedented. This B&W photo represents more an image of power than beauty. Achieving what he accomplished with an enlarger and trays of chemicals is one of the major accomplishments in our art. His use of B&W set the somber stage needed to showcase the magnificence of the Tetons.

Phase II – The Rational Process

These four criteria relate more to the concrete aspect of the judging. They concern the more artistic decisions the photographer considered in capturing the image.


Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry
The first question is whether the photographer clearly established the subject in the photo. Are we mysteriously drawn to this subject? Do we care about the subject? Do we have to search for the subject? Do we have to choose among subjects? Is there a story about the subject? Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl is all about the strength of the young girl’s eyes. The use of color draws our own eyes to hers. We are drawn to the mystery of that little girl.
In my photo above by my friend and colleague Sandy Nichols of the Baltimore Camera club, the subject is clear. The use of leading lines further directs the viewer’s eye to the subject. The silhouette effect adds to this and also suggests an intimate story concerning the relationship of this father and his son.


This is perhaps the simplest test. Does the composition of the photo compliment the image or distract from it? Does it aid in establishing the subject? Is the space used in a way that helps direct the viewer’s eye to the subject, or does the composition offer distractions away from that subject?
In the photo above by Arnold Newman, the composition is the key. This is one of my favorite images, and it is all about composition. The black lid of the piano and Stavinsky’s coat frame him is such a unique way. An interesting point is that the actual contact sheet with the proposed crops was preserved, and we can follow the photographer’s thought process in cropping during post processing
Broken Fence by Richard Eskin
The above image by Richard Eskin of the Baltimore Camera club is a beautiful example of using composition to enhance an image. Richard utilized the entire canvas to depict the interconnections of the fence and the tall grass. The creative use of light only enhances the photo as the eye is drawn into the spiraling world of a seashore.


Photography is by definition the art of light. The creative control of light is critical in any photograph. Light is the paint that defines the subject. The question here is simple. Does the use of light draw the viewer into the photograph, or does it push them away? Soft light may be good for one image, while harsh light may work better for another.
The portrait above by Yousuf Karsh is considered one of the best black and white portraits ever printed. The range of light on his sweater and beard is used in such a creative way to frame Hemingway’s face in a manner that showcases his self-confidence. This powerful image uses light to capture the very essence of the subject.
Untethered by Sukumar Balachandran
The above photo by my colleague from the BCC is an ideal example of the creative use of light in defining the subject. The winding trail of the lighted rope leads the eye of the viewer over the steps to the subject. The use of the four circular objects further helps establish the frame of the subject. This image is all about light.


An interesting debate in photography would be which is more important, Light or Color. Let’s simply state here that the effective use of each is indispensable for any great photo. Creative use of color, whether we are dealing with a RGB scale or Ansel Adams’ Zone System in B&W, is fundamental to any image. Color enhances the art, yet it should never distract from it. A stray uncomplimentary color on the outer edge of a photo can destroy an image.
Photo by Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry’s photo above is all about color. The striking contrast between the green surrounded by the red is breathtaking. The color draws the viewer in while trying to imagine a story for the image. Besides being stunning and beautiful, it is simply mysterious.
In my portrait above, Cosplay Girl, it is again simply about color. The red in the girl’s eyes is framed by the color of her hair and coat, The added red of her scarf further serves as leading lines to her eyes. The color in her eyes contributes to her strange and mystifying appeal.

Final thoughts

The goal of this article was to establish a framework for the individual photographer to judge and compare photographs. However, we must realize we are always talking about art. Perhaps it is in some way an oxymoron to judge art. Art is first to be enjoyed and valued. However, there is something about photographers that make us all seem to enjoy competition. So the final word is that even though we strive to compete, we must never forget that we are artists. We travel through the streets and fields with our cameras in hand to capture small glimpses of our existence. Creativity is the ultimate end. Competition is just for fun!

A Thank you

iExam by Roy Sewall
Let me end by thanking a great photographer and also a great judge, Roy Sewall. He presided over the BCC’s last contest, and his words concerning the complexities of judging ignited my interest. Listening to what Roy said, reading the opinions of other judges, and my own personal experience relating to photo contests formed the framework for this article. Roy, thank you.

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