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Good judge bad judge

December 17, 2014  •  16 Comments

Retire? Retire from what? Life? I will only retire when I am dead! — Alfred Eisenstaedt

Towards the end of 2008, four years after being lured back into photography during the digital revolution, and having joined a camera club and the Australian Photographic Society, I was increasingly dissatisfied with where my photography was heading under the prevailing influences of the camera club movement. I wanted to do more than become a competent camera operator who could follow accepted rules and produce photographs that met with the approval of the establishment. I could do that stuff. I wanted more. There had to be more.

The catalyst to escaping from the rut was growing frustration with the general run of judges encountered through my camera club. Few were inspiring. Meeting after meeting I found myself listening to and questioning voice-recorded or written comments from judges who volunteered their time, it must be said, to critique members' competition images. I'd mutter under my breath things like: "Can't you make any comment other than a techno-centric one"; "Does it matter so much that there's subject movement?"; "Does everything have to be 'tack sharp'?"; "Do all shadows need to reveal detail?"; "Must all compositions follow the hoary rule-of-bloody-thirds?"; "Is a centred horizon or centred subject always to be shunned?"; "Does depth-of-field always have to be deeper?"; yada-yada.

So many judges were, in my opinion, visually constipated. I decided to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi's words―Be the change that you want to see in the world.

Visual constipation: inability to pass the Rule of Thirds ― Rob Smith
In 2009 I enrolled in a creative photography course conducted by two retired academics I had never met and who are now friends: Emeritus Professor Des Crawley and Dr Roy Killen. On one weekend per month for five months I drove to Sydney to attend lectures and workshops presented by Des, Roy and some prominent figures in the Australian photography industry and photographic art world. The curriculum was designed to give students an appreciation of the history and heritage of photography, the tools (visual literacy) to develop their photography as a means of self-expression that remains true to the heritage of the medium, and the ability to visualise and make images that meet the communication objectives set for them by the maker. In short, it was focussed on the art of photography rather than the craft of photography; the creative and fulfilling stuff as opposed to the tack sharp rule-of-thirdsy stuff!

I was hooked and remember saying to myself within 15 minutes of listening to Des's opening presentation..."This is where I need to be. This is where I must go with my photography".

On the final weekend, those of us who aspired to become accredited judges were put through our paces doing stand-up judging of panels of images we'd not seen before to an audience of fellow students and mentor judges. It was a revelation to me. I discovered why so many judges talk about The Rule of Thirds, sharpness, and all those other dry craft attributes of photographs. It's so easy...compared to studying images for design and ideas that photographers may have been trying to express...and giving photographers encouragement and principles (not rules) they can explore in order to develop their own artistic voice,  the art in their own photography. It wasn't easy to evaluate images in terms other than technical attributes. But it was necessary.

The role of a judge in the camera club movement is to be an agent of change, a mentor, and a coach to aspiring photographers. It's not good enough, in my opinion, for a judge to simply rate an image based on its compliance with 'rules'. There are no rules for art.

Photographers should follow their own judgment, and not the fads and dictates of others ― Bill Brandt

I know that my own photography has improved as a result of endeavouring to critique others' images on more than a superficial level. It's a pathway available to all, even those who do not aspire to judge photography. Oh, and by the way, 'critique' does not mean criticise. I'm delighted if I can find nothing but good things to say about an image I'm critiquing. Some judges, I feel, seem to think that their job is merely to point out perceived faults, or deviations from the way they might have approached the opportunity.

Cold caw1/250th · f5.6 · 260mm · ISO 200 · tripod

  • Visualisation: a sense of cold and mystery in the mist
  • A formal, centred composition
  • High key treatment punctuated by the raven
  • Raven composited—absent from the tree frame but present at the site that morning (raven call in video recorded in western NSW)

Indeed, I feel the simplest approach can often be most effective. A subject placed squarely in the centre of the frame, if attention is not distracted from it by fussy surroundings, has a simple dignity which makes it all the more impressive ― Bill Brandt

Gondwana robesEbor NSW: The ramparts of New England's Great Escarpment are the shoulders of the ancient Ebor volcano. Come with me for a taste of Gondwanaland.


Thanks, everyone, for your comments and encouragement.

Perc, we can only hope that the old rules-based judging types will eventually be replaced by those who seek (and see) more than a competent document.

Di, the music is available from The track for the video was written by Yuri Sazanoff and is titled 'Requiem for your soul'.

Kim, your teacher is wise. Similarly, Joseph Campbell wrote..."There is an old standard saying about the arts, 'You need to learn all the rules and then forget them'."

Donna, Robbie, Timo, Lesley, Robyn, thank you for your comments. Robbie, yes, I think you are right: the old technical advantage/superiority syndrome.

Denise, liberated by Des Crawley? That makes two of us!

Robert, glad you liked my visual constipation quote! I have it on a tee shirt. :-)

Tom, doing photography to please yourself is the best reason. Any pleasure that your work may give to others is a bonus.

Gilly, I can understand why you don't submit photographs to competitions. But don't let that hold you back from doing work that fulfills you. On the other hand, you can always submit to challenge the judges. I do. ;-)

Helen, I don't have any secret techniques or ideas. Happy to share if it helps others. We can give everything away but that which makes each of us truly individual—the sum total of our ideas, values, experience and sensitivities.

Peter, old friend, yes. There is more to a good photograph than the subject matter.

Cheers, ®
anyone who only saw A bird (which ever way it was going)in the image, sadly missed the plot entirely!
and I feel sad for them?
Tut---Tut Rob know as well as I do...its equal----some judges avoid constipation and take laxative. therefor hand out merits and credits with luster We Need more 'Gongs!

Have a great Christmas
Helen Brown
Hi Rob
I so appreciate your creative photography and that you are willing to share this with many, Gondwana Robes has such peaceful yet strong emotions, the free flow of the water with background birds singing, it is as if one is there.
thank you
Wishing you and your family a wonderful Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year 2015.. I look forward to your continuing posts..
Thanks for expressing my exact thoughts on why after several years of belonging to a camera club I decided this year not to submit any of my photos.
Have a Merry Christmas Rob and thanks for providing inspiration
Tom Francis(non-registered)
I've always used the excuse that I do photography to please myself, but I must confess I really enjoy having somebody competent look at an image and give sound advice. As you know, I enjoy the odd image, the abstract, the absurd, etc. Which is not "mainstream", but I enjoy it.

Really liked the Gondwana video - amazing and a very clever demonstration.
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