Camera Club Competitions

Camera Club Competitions: Conform for points – rebel for greatness.

In this blog I talk a little about camera club competitions, what judges seem to value and why competitions should only form one part of a photographer’s creative development.  Over the last three years, on and off, I have been participating in my local camera club’s competitions.  My results have improved of late not because my style has improved, but rather, I take heed of the technical rules.  This month I wasn’t prepared and hurriedly processed a monochrome landscape that I took at Kings Canyon back in 2011, matted up the print and went off to the comp.  I wasn’t expecting to do well because it was a rush job but I was surprised when the judge went on for far too long about a few small areas of blown highlights in the clouds before dismissing the image with no other comment.   Surprised not because of the judges lampooning, but rather, that I had completely missed the obvious and inexcusable violation of approved photographic practice.  On reflection, though, this shouldn’t be a surprise because our eye’s compensate for variations in dynamic range all of the time, and we don’t notice it because it is part of the picture.  Ironically common practice amongst camera club members is to add some noise to the image rather than display it as it was.  There is a lot to be said for good old fashioned film.

Camera club judging seems to be technical affair and I don’t wish to criticise the judges as they have all worked hard for their recognition and are also very generous with their time.  At my club judges are often expected to judge several hundred images in a few hours.  To do this they need to be able to cull images effectively and there are a number of fairly general rules that are used for this purpose, which I will address later.

Today I visited the World Press 16 photography awards in Sydney (follow the link to view the winning image).  The winning image, Warren Richardson’s ‘Hope for a New Life’, captures a man passing a baby through a razor wire fence at the Serbia-Hungary border.  It is a very moving image and a deserving winner.  However, it suffers from soft focus, significant motion blur, the subject is not looking into the camera or at anyone else, there a no catch lights in the subject’s eyes, the image is obviously noisy and I could go on and on.  Not one of these trivial irrelevant technical inadequacies matters, not in the slightest, it is an exceptionally strong image just the same; but it would have had a hard time at the camera club comp.  I am yet to see an image this powerful at any camera club comp because the power of the image comes from the subject as caught in the defining moment, not the camera or the settings.  The context is immediately evident and the message compelling.  Better examples of applying the comp ‘rules’ to famous images can be found at two Blackwood Photographic Club articles from March 2011 & April 2014.

Success in a camera club, or other amateur photography competition, reflects mastery of the judging conventions.  Some of these conventions are listed below:

Common conventions used to cull images in camera club competitions:

  1. The horizon must always be straight
  2. THe horizon must never be in the middle of the image
  3. Present the front of the subject not the back
  4. Portrait subjects should be looking at the camera to engage the viewer
  5. Studio portraits must have a substantial catch light in both eyes
  6. A moving subject should move from left to right
  7. There should be space for a moving subject to move into
  8. Leading lines should always guide the eye from left to right
  9. The subject should have been reversed
  10. The subject should be positioned on the intersection of the thirds
  11. You should not cut off the top of the persons head, feet or hands
  12. It should be sharp throughout
  13. Landscape images must have a clear and obvious foreground, subject and background
  14. A superb sunset in a landscape itself is not enough, there must also be a unique subject of interest
  15. There must be a single obvious focal point
  16. Lighting should not be flat
  17. Lighting should not have too much contrast
  18. The image must be taken at the right time of day
  19. A bird in flight must be ‘frozen’ to preserve detail in the wings
  20. The photographer should have stood in a better position (my personal favourite)
  21. There must be no burnt out highlights nor any bright spots on the edge of the image
  22. There should be detail in the shadows
  23. Grouped subjects must be in odd numbers of less than 10
  24. Symmetry does not make a good photograph
  25. There may be no imperfections in the paper, no matter how small

This is a useful list when assessing an image for entry into a camera club competition.  The candidate image should be tested against this checklist to identify technical items that must be corrected.  Failure to do so risk the immediate rejection of the image, except in the odd case when the subject matter is of personal interest to the judge.

In my view entering these competitions will help to develop improved technical skill and will definitely help to master competition success factors.  It also means, however, that your focus will be on the club set subject rather than on your personal passion or project.  Always find time to make images for yourself, as well as the club, and let the competitions help you on your way.  Never forget that many of history’s most famous and loved images break all the rules and conventions, even today.

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