How to judge & how to enter rural photography awards & competitions

I enjoy judging photography awards as much now as when first invited to, more than 20 years ago.

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 put a lot of thought into weighing up whose work will recieve the awards.

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. Finding and awarding fabulous role models is an important point to consider if one of the main organiser aims is to foster great photography standards in their area or industry – which is often a primary objective of photography award run in regional Australia.

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

General photography award/competition judging criteria:

  1. Technical excellence; appropriate sharpness, suitable lighting, ideal 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 as it’s not fair on those who have. 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.  It’s also the kind of displine that makes your photography better.
  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.  It may be appropriate to run two separate categories or just concentrate on one style.

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.

The competitions that are the most successful are those which genuinely consider the interests of everyone, equallly. Not just organisers & sponsors, but entrants as well. A quick summary of 3 main mistakes organisers commonly make:

  • Using entrants images for commercial purposes – if the organiser or the sponsors wish to use any entries for commercial purposes then the entrants should of course be paid for image use. An exception to this is if they’ve received a cash prize that equates to what they would otherwise have been paid for usage; in which case this should be spelt out in the T & C.  Yes, many photographers know when they’re being taken advantage of and not only will they not enter, it tarnishes the image of those involved in organising and sponsoring.
  • Popularity contests – unfortunately more often than not these boil down to who has the most relatives and friends prepared to vote, or which entrant is the most shameless in cajoling others into voting for them.  I’ve seen more of these than I could shake a stick at and it’s very disheartening to see the best photographers ignored. They are often the least likely to think their work is perfect enough to win an award, so less likely to go vote-scrounging! Hold popular vote contests if you must, but at least leave the prize money for awards that have been independently judged & just certificates for popular votes.  (If you don’t have faith in the judges to choose the most talented photographers & best images, then get new judges.)
  • Too many categories, or unclear titles! Too much division splits prize money too much and creates confusion. Ideally there’s just under 16 & over 16 categories; with a clear theme (which may or may not change annually).  If more categories are required then it’s common to divide entries up into these subjects: people, native flora & fauna, history and farming/livestock.

Ideally, photography awards:

  • Are judged anonymously.
  • If titles & captions are included then effectively they’re part of the judging process so this should be made clear to entrants. (Unfortunately, rarely happens.)
  • No more than 3 images per category entered, and each image can only be entered into 1 category.

As part of my business, I can provide advice on setting up and running professional-standard but simple photography awards and competitions, which benefit all involved. And – set up in a way that avoids management headaches. For more information visit the Corporate Services – Photography Competitions.

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