Judging pictures and time travel

Earlier in January I was in Dubai on the jury of the Hamdan International Photography Award (HIPA). While there, I gave a talk, on the 14th, about judging photographs. It was a contentious topic and I did not want to be drawn into specifics of judging photography awards. While of course there is common ground between some, the differences are bigger: you can expect an international wildlife photography competition to work differently from one for Czech news photography which is again a long way from a New Zealand camera club.

The most marvellous memory I have is of the audience: Arab men and women – some in traditional clothes, some not – Philipinos, Europeans, Chinese and Indians all sitting together, having coffee together. All united in their passion for photography.

Here is the text of my lecture. It’s longer than what I delivered as I was running out of time. So those of you who were there, it may be worth your while reading the whole thing. It’s about an hour’s worth of lecture, so pour that espresso, turn Bach’s Goldberg Variations, put your feet up and read on …

Every hour of every waking day we make judgements. We’re interested here in value judgements about images: good or bad, lovely or ugly, high-quality or low-quality, beautifully composed or clumsy.

Those who work in photography make many more judgement calls than most. With more than a trillion images on the planet, we would be drowned in a grey mush of images if we did not make judgements that filter out the unwanted, to find the jewels in the dust. A typical professional picture editor views more three thousand images every single working day. Out of these he or she selects perhaps only ten to twenty images to use.

Image confrontation

You don’t have to be a picture editor to be confronted with thousands of images. We know the average person living in an American or European city sees a thousand to fifteen hundred separate images every day. Images really are a distraction from the contemplation of God and nature!

Without knowing it, each person assesses each image they see.

Is it a new car they’d like to drive? They see beautiful shapes expertly lit and composed. (Below, Ferrari PR shot, but apologies to the photographer, and please correct me if wrong.)

Is it a holiday destination they dream of reaching? They think, ‘Lovely! I want to be there!’

I mention these examples to introduce the idea that judging pictures is a highly complicated process: what happens depends on the context and purpose of the judgement.

In this talk I will share my understanding of how judging at the highest levels – such as for international awards – relates to picture selection at the amateur level. But this talk is not a workshop on picture editing – that is a different aspect of the subject.

From the past

The basic level of picture judgement is something we all share. We aren’t looking for merit in photography but at the subject of the photographs. All that matters is that at the moment we captured the image, the photograph holds something that we want to remember.

Our judgement of the amateur picture is therefore pitched squarely in the past: did our friend capture the moment? Can we see everyone in the wedding picture clearly? If it succeeds in these tasks we are pleased with the images.

Of course, there’s a simple proviso: the image quality must be such that our attention is not drawn to defective technique. It’s when image quality interferes with the subject, that we object to poor quality.

These are the basic criteria for quality assessment. I won’t go into these in any great detail. They are standard and uncontroversial.

Basic quality criteria 

  • good sharpness: details are resolved to good contrast
  • rich tonal quality
  • variety of colours appropriate to the subject and treatment
  • depth of field should be appropriate for the subject and treatment
  • correct white balance correction: correct colour reproduction with no fringing
  • no artefacts due to stray light reflecting around inside lens
  • resolution and file size should be adequate for final size
  • image noise level should be below perceptible unless required to be visible
  • camera should be aligned to the subject and to verticals and horizon as appropriate to treatment

The prime characteristic of amateur picture assessment is that it comes from individual response: that’s what we hear from comments like ‘That’s a great shot’ or ‘Wow!’ or ‘Lovely’ on websites like Flickr or Facebook. No-one references anything apart from their response to what they see before them.

And present

In contrast, picture judgements made in higher education, workshops, competitions, and in professional situations are all made under the scrutiny of the present. By this I mean that we are asking questions of the photos such as

  • ‘Does this work?’
  • ‘What is the photographer trying to say?’

These are questions which attempt to relate what is visible in the image to overlying layers of context and purpose.

Notice that we take for granted the qualities of the image which the amateur judgement concentrates on. The image has all the technical qualities necessary, it shows the subject clearly, it is artistically and technically a well-executed image.

So we are asking for more. For specific genres of work we may ask:

  • Does the portrait express the character that we want to show?
  • Does the view show the beauty of the building, and in a good light?

In the professional context we will also ask more penetrating questions:

  • Is it legal?
  • If it is legal, are there any aspects which may lead to legal challenge?
  • Has the image be been manipulated in any way, and if so, is it acceptable?
  • Will it cause offence to any religious or cultural groups?

In the educational or training context, we pursue different agenda from the publisher. We therefore examine different aspects. We try to work out what the student is trying to communicate. We ask whether the student shows an understanding of how the images relate to the tasks set. We ask: does the student have a strong control of the medium, or are the results somewhat unpredictable?

Consider musicians or actors: these artists must be certain that they can deliver their performance note- or word-perfect. Simply we should expect the same standards of reliability of a photographer.

Beauty parade

Perhaps you are waiting for me to answer the question ‘How do you know when you have an image that is visually stunning’.

Extraordinary, exciting, thrilling, beautiful, brilliant, wow! 

These are all words that we might use of an image which gets top marks, wins prizes and awards. So how do we know when we have seen one?

I know this is a central issue, but notice I have wrapped around with many other considerations, and soon I shall place more issues on top. The reason is this: a brilliant, absolutely outstanding image does not, in itself, guarantee publication, fame or even winning of a prize. There are many reasons why brilliant images may have to wait their time.

One of the best known images of all time, Korda’s picture of Che Guevara (left) was almost unknown for seven years after first publication. And before that, legend has it that it languished in a shoe-box.

Back to the question of how we know a great shot when we see it? Is the response instant? Do we need to go through some kind of check-list? Or perhaps it’s a bit of both.

The great photographer Ernst Haas wanted to see

  • an eye,
  • a heart
  • a brain.

An eye that is sensitive to light, colour and design, constantly open to opportunities offered by the subject. The photographer’s heart tells us about the response to the subject: heart motivates and gives life to the image. Finally, we want evidence of the photographer’s brain  –  intelligence, experience and knowledge – being used. Well, Haas was an analytic, thinking artist and photographer, but my guess is that he is not suggesting you have to tick off his list of attributes when assessing an image.

Nor me. In my view, a great picture also has three qualities:

  • Resonance
  • History
  • Revelation

Resonance results from the photographer organising the contents of the photograph in a way that suits the subject. Image resonance makes the whole experience of a photograph stick in the mind – like a tune that will not go away – long after the finer detail of the image is dimmed.

Next, the historic element of a great photograph represents the conjunction between the taking of the photograph and a significant event. It may be the moment of the knock-out punch of the champion. Or the historical moment may be quiet like the passage of a figure through a landscape. It is the precise moment that a photograph and event come together that shapes the picture’s destiny.

Finally, a good photograph is revelatory. Its content lifts it out of the ordinary to an elevated or removed reality; it touches hearts and teaches minds by presenting an engaging, a fresh, unfamiliar insight.

I wanted a view of the famous Registan Square in Samarkand that was not the usual one. For a start it’s in the snow, and most views show it in hot weather. But I needed some life – and the children enjoying the snow were sent specially to put life and soul into the image. The rest was up to me – to time the exposure as well as I could.

So to the future

The process of judging photographs in international competitions builds on all these underlying processes, and of course, takes them further. In the same way that professional assessments take for granted that the photographer can produce a technically perfect image with flair and artistry and creativity, in international competitions we take all that for granted.

What we do at this level is to look to the future. 

Depending on the competition and its aims, judges may be expected to look far into the future. In others, the futurology is not so demanding, but it is nonetheless implicit in the scale and  prestige of the the award.

Let’s consider awards or grants designed to support the development of a photographer’s career or to encourage certain kind of work, often photojournalism and documentary photography. Assessors look at a body of work – related by theme or treatment. Here is a classic set by Eugene Smith – a textbook example of a coherent picture essay. Smith takes us, vicariously, into the subject’s life: each image stands on its own but contributes to the whole, each image tells us about an aspect of the doctor’s life and together the whole set (more than was published) tell a rounded story. Also textbook is the fact that some shots were set up for the photographer: a practice decried by some, but accepted by Smith as an occasional necessity.

Which entrant is likely to make best use of the award? Which entrant is most likely to overcome the difficulties they will surely encounter? Assessors must balance risks against success: the most ambitious projects – portraits of women in the Hindu Kush – are likely to fail because of great administrative and physical difficulties, even physical danger – but they could produce unique coverage.

The projects with modest ambitions – portraits of Olympics heroes where they train – may not produce remarkable pictures but it’s safe project almost guaranteed to produce work that can be exhibited.

As a judge are responsible for making sure the money is well spent. Do you vote for a high-risk, highly worthy project that may not produce any pictures at all (or worse the photographer could be killed) or support one on home ground that is sure to produce an exhibition?

Prize function

Not all high-level competitions are awards aimed at the completion of a specific project. Nonetheless, this future aspect is always in the background. What will the prize award be used for? What does the award say about the photographer, and the work?

The point of an award of any kind is encouragement. The celebration and approval are secondary because they relate to past achievements. Unless the award is for a life-time of achievement what we are saying when we award a prize is ‘We like what you do; go and make some more!’

In that sense, major awards are educational in the purest sense of the word. They show everyone what we applaud, what we approve of and find admirable. That way, photographers are drawn – being drawn out is the original sense of education – photographers are drawn to produce work of similar standard. Photographers are encouraged to match the creative, technical and visual standards that we point to.

That’s why, incidentally, it is important for the possibility that the first prize is not awarded. If standards are not sufficiently high to merit a first prize, you don’t award it.

Or else you are saying that work that is not of the very highest attainment can is acceptable to the judges and organisers of the competition.

Leading by example

I have worked on international panels where it’s clear that the prize-winning image one year leads to an increase in entries of the same kind the following year. This shows that a major competition has a tremendous influence: it shapes what thousands of photographers around the world aspire to. Photographers look at the winners and think ‘That’s amazing; I want to try that!’ or they think ‘I can do that; next year I’ll send some pictures in.’

In short, the larger the competition, and the more prestigious it is, the greater are the  responsibilities of the judges. The choice of winners go much further than rewarding a handful of photographers who win the awards. The choice of winners makes very powerful statements that go far beyond the competition itself.

Subjectivity and objectivity

You may be thinking that so far I have left out a crucial discussion. Surely, you say out, judging photographs is a totally subjective matter. It is a matter of taste, of individual preferences.

We could spend many hours on this subject – it’s one close to my heart. I spent a year studying Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem which undermined the most cherished of beliefs (yes, mathematicians have them) in the provability of arithmetic. At the same time I studied the philosophy of science which showed that it is beset with subjectivity and, frankly, cheating. But enough!

I will cut straight to my view: objectivity and subjectivity lie on polar ends of a continuous spectrum of responses and assessments.

At one end, we conduct controlled tests to check our views before we accept them as theories. This is the theoretical ideal of the scientific test of hypothesis. At the other end, we accept the first feeling, or thought that comes to mind.

Much of our life is conducted in between these extremes. In the process of making a decision or evaluation, we often start with feelings, but we also test them and check them against other relevant facts. We may also seek opinions from people we respect.

If you think about the last decisions you had to make, you will find it was compounded from:

  • your feelings and desires (you love fast, Italian-designed cars),
  • but: you’re aware of constraints (you can’t fit the family into an Italian super-car)
  • add the facts you must accept (you and your wife need a practical car to move your family and all their stuff)
  • add opinions you respect (your uncle recommends this model of people-mover)
  • and other relevant facts (your father-in-law can get you a good deal on a Toyota but not on a Mercedes).

In the end the decision is yours, but all these factors – some subjective, some objective – all play a part.

In similar way, the quality of the assessment of photos varies with the viewer and context.

With amateur judgements, the process is generally subjective. People view with their eyes but respond with their guts. They like or they don’t like. They think it’s funny or it’s a bit boring. It’s all about their feelings.

With professional judges, picture assessment is surprisingly objective. Professionals look at pictures in a very different way from amateurs. Think of how any expert looks at something they are expert at – whether it’s a car mechanic, an oil-refinery engineer, a doctor – with how a lay-person looks at the same thing.

I see a mass of pipes and valves. A refinery engineer sees that one valve is shut off when it should be open and notices a dial is showing too high pressure (I didn’t even see the dial).


You see a picture of a pretty girl with a camera. A picture editor sees a slightly over-exposed image taken in not very interesting light, with the tower of Big Ben coming out of the girl’s head, and the image is strongly tilted. If the image gets any more attention a non-English editor will probably notice that the image is flipped: left and right have been reversed (an English editor would, of course have spotted that immediately).

Here’s a real, commissioned image. At the shoot, the art director said it was perfect. But how many flaws can you find? All these small flaws will have to be corrected in post-processing. Once I have an image like this up on screen, I can find these imperfections within two seconds.

At the same time, this image is not composed the way I would if I was free to do as I like. Instead it had to fit a layout, in order to make space for various items. So when the art director said ‘That’s perfect’, he meant only that it fitted perfectly with the scheme he had in mind.

In addition to these side-considerations, professional judges bring a lot of experience and history with them. They have viewed tens of thousands of images of the highest quality over tens of years. They have seen it all before. For example: the Twelve Apostles in Australia. There is a limited choice of viewpoints, so do we need three-quarters of a million pictures of more or less the same thing? (And that’s only what’s on the Web.)

So they look to be surprised, or better to be astonished. They will recognise work that is derivative – based on someone else’s creation. They know their history of photography, and will automatically relate today’s pictures to historic images. So they will know if they see work that is really innovative, that shows the world in a fresh way.

To this extent, assessments can be very objective. But because no-one has a full command of history or has seen the whole range of work – for example, a newspaper editor sees different work from a gallery director – we need panels of judges. This way we pool our experience, share our knowledge. This makes the process even more objective, more balanced.

Finally, I leave you with one key experience which I know all picture editors, photography examiners and judges will agree with. We spend the most time arguing or analysing work that is only very good. When the work is exceptional, something really special, there’s no argument. It’s curious but true: the better the work, the less time we judges (tutors, assessors, jurors) will spend discussing it. And that is an objective measure. 







That’s me trying to learn wisdom from a stately Gyr Falcon.

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