The top five reasons we need a new competition.

PPA’s (Professional Photographers of America) photographic competition was created in a time before the Xerox copier and the pocket calculator by men leaning over a light table peering into the depths of a 4×5 transparency with an 8x magnifying loupe. Necessitated by having only one copy of the image and equipped with only pencil and paper the creators of our competition did the best they could. Technology has moved on yet our judging remains stuck in the previous century. Below is the top five reasons why we need to change our photographic judging.

In my next entry, I will propose a new system of judging that remedies these problems.

5. The scale is too small

4. There is no standard by which images are judged

3. The difference between 79 and 80 is too great

2. The overpowering judge

1. There is no feed back loop
Number 5: The scale upon which an image is judged is too small.
I know what you are thinking, “100 points is too small?”
When was the last time you saw an a score of 58? Or a score of 35? The vast majority of images score in a narrow 15 point range between 73-88. Yes, there are the occasional scores in the 90s. But the judges are working in a 15 point range and that is not enough range.

Number 4: There is not a standard by which we are judged.
Yes, we do have the 12 elements of the merit print. Unfortunately, we just pay lip service to those. How often do you hear a judge say that a print does not have a style? Years ago, judges were trained to start with 100 points, and to deduct points in every element as necessary. Now the judges look at an image and determine by their own internal standards as to what range it should go into. This often emotionally biased decision is evidenced by the difference in scores from competition to competition and from judge to judge and year to year. I could show you images that merited 10 years ago that would not merit today. Did the “12 elements” change?  No. We have no standard. Without a standard by which images are judged, we are nothing more than a beauty pageant contestants in draped loosely in revealing clothing trying to catch the eye of the judges with our over-Photoshopped bodies and pithy titles.

Number 3: The difference between 79 and 80 is too great.
80. The magic number for a merit. 79 – the infamous “we like your image but not enough to merit it.” It takes a lot more work to go from 79 to 80 than it does to go from 78 to 79 or even 80 to 81. Nowhere else in the grading scale is there such a gap between the numbers than between 79 and 80.

Number 2: The overpowering judge
Imagine what sports like diving or figure skating would be like if the judges had to agree on a score?  I cannot think of another place where the judges must concur.  We have all watched print judging were one judge will not give up on a image. We have seen great images drug into the dirt and we have seen weak images lifted up because of one judge on the panel. If you wait until late in the day on the judging, you will notice the other judges just capitulate to the overpowering judge. One person should never have that much effect on the final score.

Number 1: No feedback loop
PPA and its affiliates all promote competition as a way to improve your photography. When my image gets a 77 and is discarded without discussion, all I learn is that the panel did not like my image. Really, I do not care if you do not like my image. Tell me HOW TO BE BETTER! Tell me how to improve my photography.  Just telling me “no” does not help me improve. Yes, PPA offers video critiques and often competitions will make judges available on the day after judging. I purchased a video critique – once. For 15 minutes two judges that were not on the panel rambled on aimlessly about the images providing no constructive information. I have cornered judges about my image(s) that received a 76 that was not hanging in the display.  “I don’t remember that one.”  And if you are not present to talk to the judges post-mortem, then you are out of luck. If PPA is going to“sell” competition as a way to improve my skill then they need to provide some feedback – preferably without charging me again – that will actually help me.

I believe it is wrong to complain without offering a solution.  My next post will have my recommendations for a new competition.

Author: Larry J Foster

Professional Photographer since 1989. Certified in 2008. I received my Master Photographer degree in 2015.

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