A proposal for a new competition

In the previous post I listed the top five reasons why we need a new competition:
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 feedback loop

Today I propose a solution.
My suggestions for a new competition are based on a competition we had at our local affiliate the year I was president.

Images were uploaded to a website and judges would make their assessments from the comfort of their own computers on their own time. This eliminates the overpowering judge syndrome (reason #2) and also eliminates the problem of the problem of “judging fatigue” allowing judges to do their work as they wish.

Images were judged on a scale of 0-5 in each of four categories: exposure/color balance, composition, focus/depth-of-field and lighting. There are accepted standards for all these giving the images a standard by which to be judged (reason #4.). Images would also be judged on a scale of 0-20 on the treatment of the subject. This included things like posing and items that do not fall into the previous four categories. Though less objective, there are accepted guidelines in this area. The judge has up to five points that may given for excellence. The judge has a full range of 0-45, much greater than the effective range of today’s system (reason #5).

Judges would go to a special website where they would enter their scores. If a judge could not give an image a perfect score in any of the categories, they had to explain their score. All of this information – the scores and the explanations – were forwarded to the photographer. From every images submitted, the photographer received five critiques complete with comments on how to improve the image and their photography. This completes the feedback loop (reason #1.)

What I found interesting is that judges would pick up on different things. I had one image that scored moderately well, but each judge found something different I could improve on in the image. This competition made me a better photographer and I learned from every image submitted.
A typical result might look like this:

paige jones small
Exposure/Color balance (0-5): 4. Overexposed. Losing details in highlights on skin tone
Composition (0-5) 4: Head nicely positioned in the upper third, road through the middle is distracting.
Focus/DOF (0-5) 5: Good use of  DOF keeping the background soft
Lighting (0-5): 5: Nice lighting pattern. Ratio is good.

Subject treatment (0-20): 12 Nice movement on the lower half of the body. Hands look masculine, turn more sideways. Subject’s right hand appears out of nowhere. Fix the back of the shirt. Fix road in middle of the picture.  Add a vignette.

Final score: 30

The judges said their time commitment was not much more than a traditional judging session and they appreciated being able to do their judging on their own pace and schedule.  The judges also liked the system because they knew their comments would improve the photographer.

But what about merits? Our guild did not issue merits. What I would propose is issuing merits on a curve. The top 40% of the images receive a vote for a merit. It takes a majority of the panel to make the merit. If you have five judges, three of the judges would have to score the image in their top 40%. This way the judge is always focused on creating great feedback and not, “is this a merit image” and we no longer have the problem with cavernous distance between 79 and 80 being too great (reason #3.)

PPA has taken steps to improve the competition experience – digital submissions, live streaming and text notifications to name a few. Now it is time to say goodbye to the days of analog and utilize technology to make our competition something meaningful to all who enter.

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.

I am Insulted

Our own organization continues to degrade our image.

Is this really what PPA thinks a professional photographer looks like?  Imaging USA is supposed to be the premier educational event for professional photographers, not a cruise ship port of call.  If this is what PPA thinks professional photographers look and act like, I think I need to find another professional organization.


Professional Photographer magazine lays another cover-photo egg.

Disclaimer: I know what they say, “don’t criticize other people’s work.” I’m sorry, I have to part with that. As an educator in photography, I feel it is necessary to inform my students of both the good and bad. Our professional magazines should be upholding the standard of quality in this industry. What appears in the magazines is seen by the aspiring photographer as the standard to attain. When our magazines publish sub-standard material, this needs to be called out, so that the new people in the industry understand what true quality is. If we allow sub-standard to become the acceptable as “professional” then we are for not.

Cover: Professional Photogarpher Magazine, November 2011
Cover: Professional Photographer Magazine, November 2011

This is the cover of the November 2011 issue of Professional Photographer. This portrait is not flattering. It is lit with a small light source placed above the subject’s head. This type of lighting, called “butterfly” or “glamor” lighting and is not unique; but it is reserved for faces that are perfect because there are no shadows to hide the flaws in the face. You will most often see this type of lighting used in advertising for cosmetics. The subject of this portrait does not have a perfect face. Furthermore, there is no post production work. Every wrinkle and pore on this woman is painfully visible.

What really baffles me about this cover is that it was a contest, and this was the image selected by a skilled photographer that I used to have respect for.

Runner up image
(c) Don Weaver

Here is second place image. A wonderful portrait that is beautifully lit with a large light source (same type of lighting used on the cover shot, but with a larger light source). The face is beautifully sculpted and the hands do not interfere with the face.

Third place finish
(c) Babsola Bamiro

Third place. A wonderful image with some excellent tonal control. Here detail and pores are not a bad thing. Wonderful composition with the hood and the eyes just penetrate out of the darkness.

Yancy had better images to select from. To place that image on the cover is a slap in the face to professional photography.

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It’s not the camera

Recently I was attended Rick Trummer’s seminar on marketing at the Southwest Professional Photographers Convention. The question he asked was, “who is your competition?” A woman on the 3rd row replied, “the 19 year old across the street – and she has a better camera.”

Ok, let’s destroy this myth once and for all. The camera – any camera – is incapable of taking a good picture. Try this experiment. Take your camera and place it on the table. Come back 5 minutes later. How many good pictures did the camera take? Zero. The camera is incapable of taking a good picture.

Let’s try another experiment. Take a new camera and mount it on a tripod and take a picture of scene. Take an older camera, and using the same lens, settings and tripod photograph the same scene. Put them on your computer and compare. Not much difference, is there?

The camera manufacturers have done such a great job marketing they have us believing that if we get more mega-pixels it will somehow overcome our deficiencies in composition, lighting, exposure and focus control. We get so hung up in “better camera” we forget the camera is really just a single function computer – like a calculator.

So think about the woman’s reply again, but let’s substitute the word “computer” for “camera”.
“The 19 year old across the street, and she has a better computer.” Somehow that doesn’t sound very threatening. That’s because it’s not. The camera really doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is the photographer. Always has been the only thing. Always will be the only thing.

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