How to judge rural photography awards & competitions

I’m sometimes invited to judge rural photography awards and competitions, which I really enjoy doing.

My personal preference is to find and reward the most skilled photographer.  A rising tide lifts all boats and I love to see talent and effort recognised while simultaneously promoting regional areas and rural industries.  Winning an award can make a big difference to someone who is genuinely dedicated to photography, it has done this for me, so I take judging seriously.

The ideal way to find the most skilled photographer is for organisers to require 3 images from each entrant and ask the judge/s to amalgamate the scores for each. This helps iron out minor judging discrepancies and eliminates the once-in-a-lifetime get lucky shot or rare subject, captured by a casual photographer for whom winning the award will not have a lasting impact. This is an important point to consider if one of the main organiser aims is to foster great photography standards in their region.

When photography award & competition organisers don’t supply judging criteria, I use my own:

General photography award/competition judging criteria:

  1. Technical excellence; sharpness, suitable lighting, composition (level horizon, no extraneous detail, best angle for impact). Have these technical aspects been done competently enough for the image to do what the photographer intended it to do?  A degree of technical expertise is required to produce consistently top-drawer images. Ironically, technical standards are falling at a time when there is the least excuse; given the ease of camera use now plus instant digital image viewing.
  2. Degree of difficulty. It might be a ‘nice’ image, but is it a common scene or cliché – or did capture require significant skill, effort, imagination?
  3. Originality/creativity. Is it a unique image (as distinct from being just a unique subject).  EG is it brand new take on an old subject? This wins over an ordinary pic of a new subject; as the former shows a lot more skill & effort than the latter.

2 & 3 above relate to the wow factor – without which the potential audience will ignore images – thus making them pointless wallpaper.

Extra considerations:

  1. Do the entered images fit the theme and meet all the organiser’s stated specifications? This is the most common fail I see – entrants have simply rifled through their favourite images & entered what they think is best, while ignoring the underlying aim of the award. Anyone who has disregarded the specs does not get judged. Pay attention to the organiser aims and exactly what they’ve asked for, and if the judge/s do a good job, you will be in with a much better chance of success.
  2. Style – what style is most appropriate – graphic design (a large amount of digital manipulation), or photojournalism (no more than very basic tweaks; IE no digital manipulation)? This relates to the aims of the organisers.  Most of the competitions I’m asked to judge are centred around photo documentary themes as they’re centred around promoting agriculture or regional areas, so believability is vital.

Is it an agricultural photography award? If yes, here’s the extra judging criteria:

  1. Clear relevance to agriculture/ag. journalism. Do the images tell an agricultural story on their own or do a good job of illustrating the agricultural story or caption they were published with?
  2. Do the images inform or educate?  Or provoke thought?  Or are they just pretty pictures, that would be better entered into one of the many general photography competitions, rather than a specifically agricultural one?
  3. Are the images constructive, from an ag industry/rural resident point of view? This knocks out technically perfect, creative images which reinforce negative stereotypes or actively undermine agricultural industries and life for regional residents. Ancient machinery, falling down sheds, empty shops, deserted country towns and ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’ type portraits – favoured by photographers only interested in creating cliches rather than helping the bush – are thus disqualified. I’ve never seen this stipulated by agricultural photography competitions however it’s obvious that the effect of these kinds of images would be the opposite to what was intended by organisers. The reason why the photography award or competition exists, must never be forgotten.

I can provide advice on setting up and running photography awards and competitions in a way that benefits all involved. For more information visit the Corporate Services – Photography Competitions.

If you enjoy photography you may also be interested in coming on the Top End & Kimberley Photography Tour – 10 days of fun and learning with like-minded people, in some of the most spectacular, remote landscapes in Australia.

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