This was posted on Facebook earlier this week – but you may not have seen it, so here it is again

(Please get your favourite beverage…. this is going to be a long posting)

Those of you who have attended one of my club presentations will know that I talk about the 3 images that I submitted in my very first club competition – you will also know how badly they did, they bombed and rightly so. But instead of giving up photography and taking up competitive knitting it made me determined to improve.

Having had that disastrous start in the comping world I learned 3 lessons

1. Ensure that the judge is in no doubt what the picture is all about – if he or she has to guess what it is, then their guess could be wrong. My picture depicted columns reflected in water (Albert Dock, Liverpool). The judge thought it was cricket stumps reflected in a puddle)
2. The judge does not have the same emotional attachment to the picture as you have. So if you have a picture of the landscape from your honeymoon bedroom and it brings back wonderful memories for you – remember the judge wasn’t with you (hopefully – unless you are married to them, in which case they shouldn’t be judging your work !)
3. Lots of judges judge on what they have heard other judges say…. what I personally call “tick box judging” and this is what I my NOTES are about today.

Having sat in the darkness for numerous external and internal club competitions I have been able to carefully listen to the comments of the judges brought in to appraise the prints/digital in front of them. Here are a few of the classic comments :-

It would be better if the @@@@ was on the third
The subject/model should be looking at the viewer not looking down/to one side
There is no connection with the viewer
The subject shouldn’t be in the middle of the picture
The horizon shouldn’t be in the middle of the picture
You haven’t left enough space/room for the @@@@ to move into
You shouldn’t have two catchlights in the eyes
You shouldn’t have the nose intersecting the cheek in a profile portrait
I would have moved a foot to the right/left
You haven’t left enough space at the top/side/ bottom
This @@@@ takes your eye out of the picture
I find this @@@@ a distraction
You’ve cut the models/subjects fingers, foot, elbow off
The model’s head should be tilted to one side
I have photographed this but……… (explains why his/hers is a better version than yours)

Why are we ruled by rules? Please don’t say that we are following the rules of art and artists because I can show you (and I do in my presentation) lots of examples of where famous artists do not adhere to “the rules”. For a start I will point you in the direction of Degas – have look ! Okay, I hear you shout, there are thousands of pictures/paintings that DO stick to the rules and you are right of course, there are . Sticking to the rules could indeed help you when your picture is being judged by someone who is giving out points in a club comp or awarding distinctions.

So, what happens the next time someone composes a picture or puts a composite together with competition in mind…. they try and adhere to the comments of the various judges they have heard and thus produce a picture that tries to ‘tick the boxes’. This then, in my humble opinion, continues to shape what is deemed “acceptable” in competition whether it be internal or external and so it rolls on year after year.

I’ve heard people say…. “I photograph what I like and if the judge likes it ,then it’s a bonus. I only photograph what makes me happy, I do it for my own pleasure” that’s fine, fill your boots but don’t be surprised if the judge doesn’t give high marks to your picture, especially if you enjoy taking pictures of shag pile carpets (or similar). If you are entering a competition you are … to put it bluntly, guess what…..being competitive, so why on earth would you put something in front of a judge that he or she may not like/appreciate and will therefore probably not score well. When I have judged (nationally and internationally) I have seen pictures of people eating hearts with blood dripping out of their mouths, a lady who enjoyed taking nude selfies, pictures of dogs wearing frocks…. but none of them scored very well, even though they were obviously the authors pride and joy – otherwise why send them out to the competition? So, if you don’t know what scores well then I would suggest that you look at the images in the various catalogues and see what IS scoring well.

But, thereby lies the problem – in my opinion, competitions are driven by what is popular…. Because a certain subject matter/genre is doing well people produce the same sort of thing hoping to catch the judges eye. I have seen puffins, puffins with a sand eel in their beaks, puffins with their beaks stuffed with sand eels, kingfishers on twigs, kingfishers diving into water, kingfishers emerging from the water with fish in their beaks, hares, white hares, white hares in snow, snow, snowy landscapes, lone trees, lone trees in snow etc etc etc. Some people it seems, think that if it’s popular and its winning medals then why not clamber onto that particular bandwagon ….. fabulous idea, until that particular picture/genre falls out of favour with the judges “Im sick of seeing that particular model”, “not another bloody kingfisher”, “white horses galloping…. seen it so many times before”, “wizened old ladies ….. not again ” etc etc

I personally have tried not to follow “the rules” and have endeavoured to break them whenever possible – which has been successful for me personally (except for the various club judges who don’t like the subject matter being slap bang in the middle of the picture or the colour green – tick box judging at its best). I will continue to produce pictures that catch the eye even though my pictures don’t have a particular story or have a hidden message. Some will have the subject on the third but most won’t , I will have the subject looking out of the picture especially if its a fine art nude, I will put the subject in the middle of the picture, I will continue to use green, I will carry on being slightly rebellious. But then again I have finished “going for” the various distinctions so don’t have to try and comply with what is deemed as being “acceptable” to the various judges who determine my fate.

Judges are given a hard time and I enjoy being a judge (I like to judge the picture and not “the rules)” and I know I will probably NEVER be invited to be an adjudicator at certain distinctions, but I can live with that. In the meantime I will continue to produce”pretty pictures” that don’t always adhere to “the rules” and bang the drum for other rule breakers too.




  1. Spot on………
    There’s no such thing as the rule of thirds…..or any other rules. What judges should be encouraging is each of us devloping some sensitivity and then trusting our gut feelings about issues such as composition, colour balance and story telling. The way to learn sensitivity is to look at lots of pictures, both photos and paintings.
    Keep up the good work.


  2. I’m a bit of a central composer too…. I win some, I lose some…. I enjoy judging immensely….. clubs must like me, because I keep getting asked back… LOL


  3. As a second level judge I do not seem to come up against those I see as self important judges of their own work. If I find the picture pleasing, I will give it a tick, even if I don’t like the picture but for some reason reason it works, I will give it a tick.
    When I first joined my local society years ago there was a ‘Clique’. They ruled the roost, slowly it changed, thank goodness.


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