I recently had the honor and privilege of participating for the first time as a judge in a prestigious and long-running local photography contest. I was one of three judges tasked with evaluating projected photos on a large screen. (Printed submissions were judged by separately by another panel.) We individually scored hundreds of images in total. After narrowing each submission category down to a handful of selects, we jointly chose 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners, plus honorable mentions. The final step was picking an overall winner from all of the categories. It was a challenging but rewarding task.
My involvement was precipitated by the organizers having seen my work, and apparently thinking that I had something of value to contribute. The other two judges had strong art backgrounds, and frankly I was concerned I was out of my league. My anxieties were misplaced; the other two judges were down to earth and gracious. It was encouraging to find that for the majority of voting we all seemed to be on the same page regarding the winning selections!
Sitting across the aisle, as it were, and dispassionately viewing other people's photos afforded me a fresh photographic perspective. Unexpectedly, the experience helped me reconsider my own photographic approach. Honestly, I think I benefited as much from my contributions, and maybe even more, than my participation was beneficial to others. There were a number of takeaways for me.
Boring photos are the ones everyone takes, over and over
It's easier to look at someone else's work and decide that a particular image lacks interest than it is to see the same shortcomings in my own work. I'm by no means being critical here, as it can take many years to cultivate a style that's uniquely our own. I think most photographers go through those phases when we discover a new technique, such as using shallow depth of field or adding camera tilt to add a dynamic element, and use it ad nauseam. Every technique has a valid use, but when done for their own sake, even the most advanced tools can become mere gimmicks.
I've taken countless shots using shallow depth of field just because I knew how to do it and because I thought the effect was cool. But if the only "interesting" aspect of an image is a razor-thin plane of focus, you probably have a boring photo. Naturally, there are many legitimate uses for this effect (it's a favorite of mine), and sometimes conditions require it. Moreover, I look back at the dozens of pointless photos I've taken to be good practice for situations where it actually added something to the scene.
Some of the photos we judged were focused on celebrating technique rather than bringing something interesting to the viewer Judging this contest reminded me that I need to expand my vision beyond the usual to make really eye-catching photos.
Small details can make or break an image
There were a handful of submissions that made a strong initial impression, but the more you studied them the more apparent certain faults were. One particular image had a meaningful contrast between two people in the scene, but as your eyes roamed the frame they were inevitably distracted by visual clutter in the background that detracted from the overall impact.
I've gotten better over the years at watching for obvious distractions such as telephone poles growing out of the top of someone's head. It's easy to be so enthusiastic about a particular scene that your brain tunes out what the lens dutifully records. There are occasions where there's simply no easy way to exclude certain distracting elements. Most of the time, though, you can greatly improve a scene by changing vantage points. That might mean stepping just a few feet in one direction, or crouching instead of standing. This might also be a situation where a shallow depth of field can save the day by blurring out a background. When all else fails, you can edit the image after the fact to reduce or eliminate problematic elements.
The best photos usually work for viewers by excluding details from a scene. Less is more when it comes to composition. None of this was a particularly new revelation to me, but seeing this fault in otherwise solid work was a powerful reminder to me to be more attentive to what's going on around and behind a scene. My participation served as a good reminder that the details you ignore can tarnish an otherwise compelling photograph.
Emotional impact can matter more than technical perfection
People are emotional creatures, and we will overlook minor technical flaws in an image if the photo otherwise communicates something important. That doesn't mean the photographer should ignore those flaws - we should always strive to include the things we want in a photo, with perfect control over our gear.
However, a pleasing composition might have blown-out highlights in areas of the image that are undesirable but have negligible impact on the overall feeling of the photo. In the same vein, photographers generally avoid letting objects stick out beyond the visible frame. But there are so many examples (many seen in this contest), where violating these guidelines didn't detract in any measurable degree from the work.
I tend towards perfectionism, and it bothers me if minor elements seem amiss in one of my own photos. Rather than rejecting an image because of some flaw (perceived or real), the contest reminded me to stop censoring myself over minutia. That photo I didn't take because somebody wandered randomly into the frame might end up being one of my best!
Abstractions can make for compelling photos, too
When many of us think of making compelling photos, we think about going somewhere, finding an interesting subject, composing and shooting it. Several excellent entries (including the overall winner for our division), forcefully demonstrated that great photos can be made from humble materials - without the need to even leave your own backyard!
If you can't think of anywhere you want to go, or the weather outdoors makes you want to stay inside, look around your immediate surroundings for materials you can use to create your own fascinating scene. A pile of stones, common tools, discarded motor oil, paint, sheets of rusted metal, leftover Halloween candy, coffee beans, beads, or anything else that you can visually depict in an unexpected and novel arrangement can be transformed into a fascinating, abstract image with the right treatment.
I have a bag full of seashells and other objects found during our recent trip to the beach that I've been meaning to experiment with. The onset of cold and dreary winter days will be the perfect occasion to get creative indoors.
Photo titles sometimes make a difference
This last point is one that I struggle with personally. Most of the time I'll name a photo using very concrete descriptions of what's in the photo, like "Man Fishing at the Lake." While the description might accurately describe the scene, the best titles I heard while judging were more creative and playful.
The worst thing you can do is share your photos online with the filename from your camera. A picture titled "dsc_0476.jpg" tells us nothing about the content and suggests the photographer is lazy, or is mindlessly dumping photos online straight from the memory card. "Man Fishing at the Lake" is marginally better. Better still is a title that suggests something about the man's state of mind while fishing ("Cares Cast into the Deep"), or maybe something that hints at an environmental message. You can probably come up with something better than my suggestion, but you get the idea.
There are other lessons one might draw from participating as a photo contest judge. If you have the opportunity to do the same, I highly recommend it. You may well be helping your own photography as much as your own insights benefit others!