The Judge’s View
Back in the day, all photo competitions were judged by entrants sending in prints to the organisation running the competition. Things have changed – today, outside of small scale camera club competitions, where prints are still often the norm, many of the large international competitions are judged entirely digitally, and have judges sitting in front of a screen for hours or days viewing images projected from a computer via a high end projector. The organisers would have sorted and ordered the images and the judges sit back and comment and vote. Those that make the short list in each category of the competition are presented so that the images can be viewed both individually and as a group for comparison purposes.
Technology allows us to view images this way and when handling a very large number of images it makes sense to do this, but only up to a point. There is sometimes an advantage of seeing something very large, but I believe the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages for several reasons.
First of all, why do people enter photo competitions? It is very rarely for the money or prizes, but usually for the recognition that they have produced compelling images which stand up against their peers. Ultimately, they hope that they will gain recognition from doing well in a competition, or even winning, and hence it will either progress their career or at least get more people interested in their work than they could ever reasonably expect from their own online and other marketing efforts. Realistically, most successful entrants of major photo competitions will get their work in to print and hopefully a recognised exhibition as well.
Print media still has the credibility that online media does not. It is simply too easy to post your image online where people may see a small, low resolution version and quickly pass it by and forget it. The viewer has no idea what the optimal size for the image is. Yes, you can share your image with friends and family and even millions of strangers but it is meaningless out of context. And how many images stay on a mobile camera or laptop when they are changed for a newer model? Print media has a much longer shelf life and a much more committed audience. In my world, I am always referring to books, magazines, exhibition and auction catalogues for information and inspiration about photographers and photography. When I find something I may then go to a website but it is rarely my starting point. When I am talking to photographers I still prefer to see a “book” rather than simply being directed to a web page.
So if the aim of entering a photo competition is ultimately to see your work in print, it makes sense that the judges see the images in print format, the format for which the images were intended. As mentioned earlier, in the old days, the printing of an image was an integral part of the submission to a photo competition. It gives the entrant the opportunity to perfect the image to exactly their vision. Images viewed online tend to all look the same. It is often very hard to pinpoint the quality of one entry over another. Prints are tangible and invariably in those competitions which are judged by prints, the overall presentation of the image gives a definite advantage to those entrants that have taken the time to consider how they want their images to be seen. This does not necessarily give an advantage to professional photographers who may have the means to spend a lot of money on expensive prints. Good, simple, commercially produced prints are fine as long as they look how you want them to and how you want the judges to see them.
Finally, from a personal point of view, I have judged photo competitions for many years both ways, from prints and from digital files. I find looking at projected images in a cinema-type, darkened environment, very unnatural and much more stressful on the eyes. Perhaps entrants do not always realise the level of concentration over many hours, and even days, that a serious photo competition judge has to have. Often you are required to look at literally thousands of images, and the ability to work in natural light looking at prints is much less tiring and hence easier to give full attention to everything being presented to you. It is simply too easy in a digital world to “pass” on an image in a second and instantly forget it and never reconsider it. Physical images can be held up, shuffled and discussed. Often prints that initially are not considered highly have a habit of coming back in to the shake-up for the prizes as they have remained on the judging table and gradually are permeating the consciousness of the judges. I rarely see this happening in digitally judged competitions, where “once it’s gone, it’s gone” is the norm.
TPOTY Judge, Colin Finlay