Teaching Grandma to Suck Eggs - Phil Ray
I have put this together to give members an idea of what I as a judge and member of the Selection committee often look for in photographs submitted for club competitions. These are solely my opinions and do not represent those of the Club or the WPF. I would never presume that my advice will turn you into an award winning photographer, but it might just up your average monthly competition score a point or two.
Judges are sometimes criticised for repeating the same comments when appraising competition images, indeed certain phrases have achieved something of a mantra status: Place the point of interest on the third; avoid sloping or centrally placed horizons; include diagonals to give the image dynamism; indicate a lead-in or lead-through the image; try to convey a sense of movement and leave space for the object to move in to and don't forget to look out for those burnt out highlights and blocked up shadow details. We know all this - but funnily enough some judges also moan about constantly having to say the same thing!
Before moving on, I cannot convey firmly enough that camera club photography is a hobby, the purpose of which is enjoyment and satisfaction. That notion exceeds everything else. I totally agree with the premise that we take photographs for our own enjoyment, not to please the judges, but it makes me uncomfortable when I hear that expression hi-jacked as an excuse for mediocre photography. As Bill Brandt said: “Photography is not a sport - there are no rules” (but he knew what they were supposed to be).
As photographers, the expectation is to render a view within a frame on a two-dimensional surface with as much as possible under the creative control of the photographer. Slight compositional or technical faults may be forgiven, but in club competitions the photograph must have enormous impact in its own right if this is the case.
What do you want me to look at? The most successful images have a clear subject or clear point of interest and the background supplements or enhances the image, or emphatically places it in context. This is why good wildlife photographs fare so well. Common background distractions include:
• Bright colours especially reds and yellows
• Bright or white highlights. Try to avoid highlights at the edges and corners of the image
• Human figures
If necessary, choose a larger aperture to throw background distractions out of focus, or apply selective blur or depth of field filters in image software. However, one of the main causes of “failure” in selection or competition is lack of sharpness of the main subject. I see far too many photographs that are simply not sharp, usually due to camera shake or inaccurate use of the focus lock. Ideally, eyes, nose and lips should be sharp in portraits even in “soft-focus” (sometimes applied, with other effects filters, to conceal lack of sharpness). Sharpen from foreground to background (selectively if necessary). Don't worry too much about some fall off to the rear unless it was possible to control this in the camera, although landscapes should usually be sharp front to back. Marginal lack of sharpness can sometimes become less evident by simply reducing the final image size. Take care not to over sharpen - watch out for the artefacts at the edges that this causes. Similarly with saturation: selectively increase specific colour saturation if needed. This is often better than applying it to all the colours.
I'm sure you remember the last time the judge complimented the colour of the mount. This is because coloured mounts only rarely enhance competition prints, that's why it was worthy of comment – so mount on black or white (as galleries do). If necessary use a narrow border around the image or use mounting board with a contrasting core to define the edges of the photograph. Always add a key line to DPIs to define their edge. 7 pixel black then 3 pixel white is a good starting point and avoid enormous borders on DPIs.
Pre-cut 500x400mm (20”x16”) mounts are commercially available, but unfortunately the print aperture is usually too large for an A3 print. So people often choose a smaller mount. However it is better to mount 500x400mm regardless of print size: small prints in a stack of 500x400s are a damn nuisance! They can cause pressure marks on the prints above and below them and can skate across, and scratch the surface of another print when the stack is picked up.
Offset horizontal letterboxes to the top, verticals to the left. Often bigger is better, but do not print larger than necessary as this can show image degradation especially if image is cropped, and remember to crop mercilessly – ideally in the camera to maintain image quality. Don't forget to check and service your printer regularly and watch for banding which often appears at the top and bottom edges of the print and can be very small. Use the recommended inks because third party ink suppliers often change to a cheaper, i.e. worse manufacturer to cut costs.
It is much neater to flush mount than to have a badly cut recess.
Brown parcel tape is the instrument of Satan.What is a “record shot”? A term I try to avoid - better an illustrative shot. These are fine and may have a lot of commercial mileage but often fare less well in competition. Consider:
• A sailing boat on calm sea on a sunny day (illustrative)
• A sailing boat on rough sea and stormy skies (dynamic movement)
• A sailing boat at sunset (tranquillity)
• A sailing boat being rescued by helicopter (documentary)
• A sailing boat travelling through space into the heart of a super-nova (Mike Davies)
There are some superb club photographers who specialize in altered reality and Surreal images. They have an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of these art-forms. Strive to exceed them, not to emulate them. Avoid applying effects filters to the whole of the image. The best examples are always applied to selected parts of the photograph (look at Jan's pics and see how pro photographers do this). HDR is another situation where less is more. The objective is to heighten reality not to make it unreal.
I have covered a lot of ground here but fear not – many of the issues raised here are more important than, for example:
• Worrying about your equipment (many of my most successful images, even in my CPAGB submission were taken with a 5M pixel compact ).
• Calibrating your monitor - if you are happy with your prints don't fiddle. Regular calibration is more important for pros when they have to produce identical prints, often months apart.
• Choice of paper – experimenting is OK, but when you are happy stick with it.
And finally: Go to exhibitions, galleries and external competitions; look at salon guides; look at the PAGB, FIAP and WPF websites and the photography website of The Independent; look at photographs from Magnum, The Picture Post, Life and National Geographic. Find out what the pros are doing. Look outside camera club and photo magazine photography (remember the Selection Committee do).
Do your CPAGB.
And remember what the man said: Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop. - Ansel Adams.