Monday, March 31, 2008

Thoughts on Judging Print Competitions

I was thrilled to finally meet David Beckstead, "one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world" according to American Photo Magazine, and even more excited to hear that he was willing to share his thoughts on print competitions and judging after his recent experience of sitting on the panel for WPPI's print competition. He is a gracious and generous person, as well as an incredibly talented artist, and I'm so grateful that he was willing to share his thoughts here on photolovecat. Please take the time to learn from his wisdom before entering your next print competition! And now, for David's thoughts in his own words....

"Musings Of A WPPI Print Judge.
By David Beckstead

Now that my judging in the Photojournalism category is over, I wanted to tell you about concepts I have learned about entering prints into the WPPI competition in 2008.

There was some amazing imagery entered at this convention. Some of the prints, in my opinion, could have scored higher and I will explore this further in my article. The judging was fair, balanced, and most of the judges had more experience at judging than I. Some of the judges have been in the business for over 20 years and this did not affect their ability to judge the more contemporary style compositional concepts. Most judges were over 40 (myself included). The judges’ photography experience level was very high.

I learned a great deal here at WPPI this year. At my weddings I shoot 85% PJ. On forums I show 80% or more fashion-wedding-style imagery. I shot PJ for newspapers and I have photographed fires for the Forest Service. This is my second time at judging this style of competition. I knew I could judge impartially and with an experienced compositional eye.

That being said, most images just did not have the kind of dynamic PJ impact to win awards, much less score over 79. An amazing amount of money went into WPPI's hands. (Of course it takes a ton of money to run this competition, yet with all the 79's and lower, I believe they made a profit) This is not a game! You will surmise from this article that I believe it is better to win than to lose if you spend your hard earned money to enter print competitions. It is best to formulate a winning plan of action before entering these competitions. I hope some of these points will help.

Here is what seemed to take points off prints that were entered (not in order of importance):

1. Complex matting: especially mats with imagery around them.
2. No traditional cutout matting. No matter what, most prints that were not matted seemed to score lower. Digital matting is not as strong a frame for your prints. With the many categories I judged within the PJ section, digital framing rarely won any of the first 3 places. Digital mats collected dust and scratches. Colored digital mats seemed to bring imagery down in points. Some digital keylines did not work with the imagery. Glossy digital mats scratched easily. Colored mats did not do well. Simple cream or white did best with traditional cutout matting. Dark sloppy boarders did not do well.
3. Poor printing lowered scores. Textured printing did poorly and did not look good under the lights. Glossy images reflected the lights and caused problems with some judging angles.
4. Tone work: It seemed that toning an image often would block-up the darks and lights, especially the darks. Often you would lose depth, lose detail, lose subject clothing, especially in the grooms dark suits. I saw plenty of this and most were scored down for it.
5. Digital artifacts: This was a big one! If it was glaringly digital, it did badly even if the content was good. There were plenty of digital problems in prints, mostly color shifts.
6. Overlays were a big problem!! A newer problem. Often overlays would cause a distraction from a nicely composed print. Overlays were just not appreciated by PJ judges. 90% of the time, the use of overlays scored down a print. I felt like I had a little more of an open mind for overlays than some of the other judges. Yet many times overlays would just distract from a great shot.
7. Over processed work: Many prints would have done better without the heavy processing imposed upon them by well-meaning photographers. PJ judges do not appreciate too much processing in the prints they judge!
8. Many of the judges came from the news media. Horizontal format did better as a whole. Most judges would not admit to that, I think. Take this as you will. The vertical format is a harder landscape to tell complex storylines. Not to say that it could not be done.
9. For some reason, very simple compositional concepts scored less. Many shots were incredibly simple with amazing compositional concepts such as Shape, Lines, Light, and it seemed judges needed more complexity. This is hard to describe because I am drawn to simple, uncluttered compositions. One subject interplaying with no other person but architectural or natural elements seemed to not draw out more points.
10. Poor titles: If the title did not match the concept, it seemed to add a negative effect and score down. Prints called 'Reflections" got judges laughing in a bad way. It was over used. At least 10 images were called this and I think last year, many more.
11. Untitled prints with story concepts that needed titles.
12. Prints in the wrong category are a ‘BIG’ one! A person entering prints needs a second opinion. One print (no lie) would have scored extremely high except for the fact that it was an illustrative concept, beautifully processed and in the right category, a winner.
Everyone 'had' to score it low to make a point. They could not shift prints into the right categories because you don’t always know why a photographer chose to place it there. This was sad, but life!
13. When black and white was used for no apparent reason, (losing color depth that was important) many judges picked up on this instinctively and lowered scores.
14. The interaction between only the bride and groom was a touchy entry into PJ. It must appear to be PJ to get a good score. Most often the b&g image would appear to be 'setup', thus not being PJ and scoring lower. Just because you know it is PJ does not mean it is glaringly obvious to the judges.
15. A story that was incomplete and hard to decipher gathered fewer points, especially if it was obvious that the photographer was trying to tell one.
16. Just because there was a tear in the eye of the subject in print did not automatically score higher.
17. Imagery that seemed shot in the 80's, star filter use, imagery that has been seen over and over for decades, scored low. Spot coloring did badly.
18. Abstract concepts in print (I am very drawn to these) did not as a whole do well. Even if the abstract was PJ, they seemed to need a category on their own.

Here are the points that seemed to bring the score up:

1. Great printing: Great matte-style prints scored higher then glossy. They looked better under lights.
2. Great toning seemed to do better especially when printed in matte. Toning done right and for the right reasons seemed to score higher than the same image-content-style in color.
3. Simple clean mats around the print.
4. Complex PJ moments with secondary (and more) storylines did very well, if they were not cluttered with overlays or heavy processing.
5. Unique titles: If the title matched the print concept and the print was great, the title would add points.
6. When b&w was used as a vehicle to draw your eye to emotional concepts, dull down visually chaotic backgrounds, decrease unwanted depth, and done with purpose in mind, points seemed to be higher.
7. Classy indented mats seemed to turn heads in good way.
8. Emotional connections between the judges and the image content always did well. This is not as subjective as you think. If the full complete story was being told to the viewer and many of the above points were also there, the print scored very high.

(The reason I have less points that bring scores up is that it was harder to quantify and more subjective than the points that brought scores down)

Psychology of size: It felt like those who entered small-to medium-sized prints have the confidence in their impact and compositions to take that risk. Printing too small was good and bad. If you make the judges get up and look at the image up close, then it would make them talk badly about this later, but did not seem to affect the outcome. Often a small printed image did better because of the risk factor. On the flip side, those who enter full -bleed prints as large as WPPI allows, believe that this will influence the judging. Suffice it to say that rarely did the large-bleed prints score in the top 3 spots. My conclusion is that most of the prints scoring high were in the middle-range size and the confidence was just not as strong with photographers entering full-bleed prints, thus most of these prints were not high scoring.

I have been hearing, seeing and feeling a buzz against over-processed imagery for competitions. I saw this at the PJ judging. I believe the next few years will see a downturn on over-processed imagery with an embrace of simple PS darkroom-style tools to get back to that clean out-of-camera-capture look. This is where I am going!

Other points:

1. Large prints do not sway the judges.
2. Untitled prints: Judges liked titles, but they were not always necessary. A title that made you laugh did not influence points.
3. Degree of difficulty: something to do with higher scoring shots. If it feels like it was a very difficult shot to capture, and a once in a few years opportunity to make, then they saw that right off and scored it higher.
4. Many, many images seemed to be straddling the category fence. Sadly, there seemed to be no category that worked perfectly for these prints. Some were very good, but did not fit anywhere. This was sad to me! But I leave this to you: if you are going to spend your hard-earned money to enter, you should get second opinions and squarely land your prints in the right category. If your image does not seem to land directly into any category, don't enter it. That is life. Yet occasionally a print on the fence would score well anyway. That is luck. Don't enter hoping for luck!
5. Do not forget that print competitions are not "JUST" about the image creativity. If you entered last minute, sub-par printing and matting, it glaringly showed and lost you money. Better not to enter than to not take the time to do the best you can.
6. The only reason I can see to enter the WPPI print competition is to win. Many photographers did not make this a top priority. No lie!
7. I saw no bias for b&w over color. There are very important reasons to make the choice between color or converting to b&w. These concepts need to be seriously studied by photographers who enter. Many prints would have scored better if photographers had a better grasp of these concepts.
8. Many prints could have been cropped better to add conceptual impact. Many images could have been cropped to improve mood, drama, tension, and to improve compositions. I noticed this as a very important part of why many images did not score higher. The image was there. It just needed better crop concepts. I wanted to get up and help improve crops and improve points right on the spot, but this was not allowed.

In the PJ category, the ‘degree of difficulty’ won the Grand award over a very wonderful, simple composition. Between the two, it was very difficult to decide the winner, but the final winner won because we all knew that this image-capture was something that does not come around often, if at all, for most wedding photographers. And that photographer captured it with an eye for creativity, art, composition and cropping. They went out of their way to display the print with the positive concepts I wrote above.

I also judged the "Wedding Details" section.
The more the degree of difficulty, the more the unique content not seen much before, the better the points. Simple dress and shoe shots did not do well. Same with ring shots. Details with secondary storylines did better.

I judged the “Humor” section and fun-contrived humor won 2 of the 3 top spots. Really it came down to what made you laugh along with the photographer’s art in framing the concept. It did not have to be just purely PJ.

My final point:
I think photographers owe it to themselves to become more informed on how to win competitions. I hate to say this, but it seems some photographers see competitions like slot machines: put your money in and hope for the best. Vegas was built this way! In print competition, it is up to you to increase the odds of winning by educating yourself and eliminating the guesswork.

Never be afraid to lose, just develop a healthy dislike for it!

Here are some links I found while searching for “how to win photo competitions” on the web. I did not fully read these but they looked good. I did not want to be influenced by these because the article above was about what I experienced and what I felt about my time judging at the WPPI print competition this year. (great place to study composition)
You have got to spend time here!! I have had this bookmarked for many years. "

To learn more about David Beckstead, visit these links...


  1. Excellent tips. Ive been in one competition, so these are some good things to know...

  2. Wow, this is some GREAT info!
    I hope to enter some prints next year, so this post is invaluable. Thanks!!

  3. Is there anyplace where we can see some of the work that won at WPPI?

  4. Wow Anne, this was super helpful!
    I have been thinking about starting to enter prints in competitions and was wondering if there was MORE to it than just submitting a strong image... and it sure seems like there is.

    Thanks to David for sharing his wealth of information.

    Sarah Hodzic

  5. David's workshop was mind opening for me and I know it only scratched the surface of his depth of compositio. Listen to this man!!

  6. awesome post!! I'd love to know where to see a gallery of some of the wppi winners too...

  7. Fantastic post Anne! Your summary and insight were extremely helpful. Its great to know about what happens behind the scenes--excellent advice, as always!

  8. Neesha - please give all of the credit to David Beckstead - it is his wisdom that is shared here. I was just lucky enough to get him to share it!!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...