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Those damned cats!

September 17, 2015  •  3 Comments

Thank you to all who left comments at the bottom of my last Picture Postcard, Judging from a soapbox. Normally, I would respond in the same place, but, due to the number and expansiveness of the responses, I think it will make for easier and more useful reading if I summarise the discussion with excerpts from comments, and better acknowledge and address some of the points made by readers, in a sequel issue of the Picture Postcard.

This is it. If the context of the summarised discussion below is unclear, or this is the first Picture Postcard you have read, you can get up to speed by clicking the Judging from a soapbox hyperlinks on this page and viewing readers' comments in their entirety. Previous PPs are accessible from the left sidebar menu.

First up, a big thank you to all who wrote compliments (I truly appreciate them) and those who gave the post extra legs by sharing it across cyberspace. I can see a marked spike in my website traffic statistics. It's wonderful (well, not really 'wonderful'!)...heartening to know that there are so many out there who are also disillusioned with the superficiality of judging that delves no deeper than technical and traditional craft attributes. We are not alone.

Besides comments on my website, I have also received personal emails, phone calls, and invitations to judge, speak, and run workshops. A groundswell of discontent has been building throughout the amateur photography club movement, it seems, and the calls for change are multiplying.

Let's get on with it. I'll respond to the (mostly) abridged comments in the order they were received.

"The depth of your vision has me go back and re study the photo, looking deeper to see if I can feel what you express, and I do. " — Brenda
I'm pleased, Brenda. One thing that I'm certain of is that if one makes the effort to study images and articulate thoughts and feelings that arise from that study, one becomes a more perceptive photographer. There's something about getting the words down that crystallises one's appreciation of others' work and what it is about that work that resonates. That's why I think online image evaluation forums can be so valuable. The pity is that it's been my experience that few people make the effort to participate in those forums in a meaningful way. "Wow!", "Brilliant!", "Top shot!" etcetera—as nice as they are to read—don't offer useful feedback to a photographer. The why is the most important component of feedback. A good critic can speak to the why.

"I couldn't agree more with you re the art of photography. Sometimes it seems a hard battle but it's one that must be won. I have to say that at Kiama Shellharbour Camera club (and yes it still is a camera club) we are moving quite distinctly into photography as an art but are still disappointed at times with the judges' comments. Keep on insisting and who knows one day we may get there. We have quite a few members who would like to do the judges course - mainly for experience." — Helen Woodward
Helen, I'm sure you'd be aware that a number of clubs in NSW have decided to abandon the traditional competition culture and reliance on external judging. Instead, they are developing image evaluation skills within their membership. The club that I belong to will soon debate whether that is a direction for us. Obviously, I'll be on the 'yes' side of that debate.

Incidentally, I think that articulating thoughts about photographs is a rich fringe benefit of judging/image evaluation: your own photography improves if you are forced to critically evaluate others' work. Importantly, the word 'critically' or 'critique' does not imply that comment is only negative, as some seem to assume. Praising the good things about an image is as important as expressing an opinion on how an image might be improved. A little encouragement works wonders.

"...I can sit and listen to your talks whilst enjoying your AVs every day, I learn so much from you and feel inspired by your comments, encouragement and creations. What a great night we had last week when you were the judge. Viewing members' images whilst listening to your comments gave us an uplifting experience and we feel positive and encouraged in our learning journey. Thanks for being a great Mentor, Rob." — Giang
You are very kind, Giang. It's the job of a judge in the photography club movement to try to be a mentor, an open-minded, frank and benevolent critic. The job is not to be superior or judgemental, to gratuitously expound one's knowledge of the tools (hardware and software), or to be technically picky unless technical issues significantly hinder appreciation of the image in terms of its ideas or expression.  I'm well pleased if what I do is encouraging you in your photography, because I have been encouraged by the best mentor whose comment, incidentally, was the next after yours.

"A vigorous blog. I hope it is read by folk far and wide with a love of photography and its power to stimulate one's imagined vision. Lorenzo did a great job of image analysis and its communication." — Des Crawley
Thanks, you.

"I am a admirer of good cameras, the technology that went into cameras, film, lenses and so on. So we can have a camera club, which discusses the latest technology, lenses etc...If the aim of a camera is to take a photograph and if the club deals with photographs then it is a photographic club. Is that correct? But does it matter?

Now the dog...I am no photographer but I was immediately struck by the shadows, the tragic forbidding scene. The cats with 3 eyes, I don't dig, (am I looking at it correctly?) but the photograph of a mongrel dog in trouble is just superb. It looks as if it's late in the day, the dog's race has run, all tuckered out, nowhere to go. Yeah! It's good." — GEOFF
Cheers, Geoff. I am also an admirer of good equipment. I appreciate good enginerring. I can geek on with the best of them. Well...maybe not the best of them...nor do I want to. I do think it matters that modern, progressive clubs are not called camera clubs. It puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, in my opinion.

Photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology" — Ken Rockwell
A camera is to photography as a house is to a home. It's necessary but not the heart and soul of it. A home is a place of love and family...heart and soul. It's not the bricks and mortar, the appliances, or the prestige of the address. Photography is also about people—photographers and their vision—not about the tools they use: cameras or any other kind of hardware or software...or the brand prestige that camera manufacturers want us to believe.

A technically perfect photograph can be the world's most boring picture" — Andreas Feininger
As for those damned cats!, I'll address that a bit further down!

"Rob, you did it again. Great blog, great story filled with the truth of life. This photo grabs the heart and squeezes it." — Tony Sullivan
Thanks, Tony. I wish the photograph was mine, and I think that's the best award that any photograph can receive from any judge. I often ask myself, "If this was my photograph, would I be entirely happy with it?" That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great photograph in anyone else's eyes. Art appreciation is subjective.

"Hi Rob, you are absolutely correct. You and I have had previous discussions about 'judging'. Now, I call it 'assessing' as to me 'judging' means the image is either right or wrong. Recently I read a ream or so of the importance of having triangles in successful photographs. No wonder we can't attract young photographers into clubs. Anyway at a recent club event I continually referred to triangles as I assessed each image. The sad part was the members accepted that triangles were an important visual element. At least they saw the humour in it when I told them I was joking as I awarded the usual gongs. Keep up the good fight. Common sense will eventually prevail." — Perc Carter
Perc, as fellow graduates of the Des Crawley school of image evaluation, we are going to see eye-to-eye. I agree that image 'assessment' or 'evaluation' is a better term than 'judging'. It connotes reasoned opinion that doesn't pronounce right or wrong. That's a gentler and democratic mode of learning and growth, especially in a group environment.

I put the image below together for your amusement. Click it to see a readable version in a new browser window, then click that version again to see it at maximum size.

TreeanglesTreeanglesFormulaic Foto Judging 101 by Lorenzo Schmidt

"Excellent photo, and excellent comment. I've always reckoned that a good "eye" for a pic is more important than the camera...It's also a MUCH more difficult thing to learn than using your camera properly. You did say "I'm still alive and uninjured" but you otherwise didn't tell us much about the reaction to your comments?" — David Ashton

It was a good night all round, David, for judge and audience. Lots of good feedback and satisfaction on my part that our members got some ideas out of the discourse that they can explore in their own photography.

"Your comments are quite inspiring to me. I haven't viewed 'judging' this way before, but I get this! Our club is a little different to others in some ways and I think your ideas on judging would be beneficial to our system of judging, which is almost always done in house." — Ormond

Ormond, it's so good to hear you say that. It's the path to greater enjoyment, meaning and fulfilment in photography. Go get it!

  Little boxesA parody of Malvina Reynolds' 1962 song 'Little boxes'. It laments the sameness and gear-centricity of much camera club photography.

"Great piece and, rightly, receiving supportive responses. Our Photographic Society is not constrained by a requirement to use accredited judges and primarily uses local professionals. The problem remains though as some of them place far too much emphasis on technique and composition rather than impact and storytelling. I enter because I believe in participating as much as possible in all the things I am part of, but all the non-competition activities are so much more appreciated (by me) precisely because they do not involve judging." — Brian Rope

I agree with you, Brian. You mentioned the word 'impact' which, in my opinion, also has its problems. I believe in the importance of composition as a foundation for imagery.

Composition is the strongest form of seeing" — Edward Weston
Images often rely on impact to be successful in traditional camera club and exhibition photography. It's because, particularly in exhibitions, judging is a rapid-fire process; there are just so many images to get through and judges have only a few seconds to assess and score. There are many fine images that reward the longer look and careful study, and these are disadvantaged by rapid-fire judging. That's such a shame. I prefer those images to: the rash of bullocks pulling chariots through mud holes; or rodeo riders being bucked off horses; or staged photographs of leathery old women in Kolkata cradling babies; or whatever else is flavour of the month/year in the salon circuits.

I remember a conversation with Graeme Burstow at Apscon 2011 in which he also lamented the potential superficiality of impact judging. David Johnson, below, expresses similar misgivings.

"Excellent article, Rob.

As a judge for the last 20 or so years I totally agree with you. Some images (whilst technically imperfect) can exhibit such emotion and expressiveness that it overcomes the imperfections. I too, have had the benefit of attending several of Prof. Des Crawley's presentations over the years and when I judge it's more about: 'What & how the image communicates?' 'How does it make you feel?'

I find that Clubs are still too caught up in Merits/Credits/Trophies these days. I'm not against awards, it's just that there are too many images to assess on competition nights. Having to assess 120-170 images in 2 hours means that one only gets a fleeting moment to view, comment and express. Some Clubs have gone away from the 'invited judge' all together, instead having members bring in one or two images that (in turn) get discussed at the meeting/ideas thrown about.

Too often, I think Art is turned into an 'Athletic race' re competitions, that it's all about getting Merits and that the actual act of producing a fine image is secondary.

At a recent judging, with a couple of possible exceptions (in a room of 50) at 52 I would have been the youngest person there...and unfortunately many of the comments I heard as I walked around before the night commenced were about 'gear', not the image which is inherently sad as it is the image that we come to experience, not the gear." — David Johnson
Thanks for your input, David. Agreed. " 52 I would have been the youngest person there". You whipper-snapper, you! I don't know what's wrong with the young people these days...trying to buck a tried and proven system! ;-)

"Clubs like ours request the judge make comments and suggestions about images. I find many of the comments really hard to handle. Having poor judging is one thing but to have some of the comments has really turned me away from entering into comps. I find competition “norms” can drag me away from what I would like to produce.

It is true to say when I looked at the image (Warmth for the ageing) at first glance it was unexceptional (lacking the required WOW factor that competitions demand) but the treatment that the photographer applied challenged me to look deeper.

The dark vignette, the harsh shadows, the central placement, mono, all asked questions of me, what is the subject? I suppose that to some extent that is the value of this image—it challenged me to look deeper. All of these make the image work. The central placement is perfect giving the image of the old dog a very passive resigned feel.

Unfortunately I then read your comments and I got into lazy mode and relied on your imagination, great. Your imagination never ceases to amaze me but yes its all there. I love the bit about the cats. The point I am making is that judges on the whole (generalising) don’t seem to have a natural ability to imagine but are stuck in the craft aspect.

[Is]Generational change the solution or the whole idea of competition, winner and losers? They have seconds to make a decision and that is one of the problems. Another issue is that most, and I generalise, club members are there to become better snap takers (and that is just fine) not creative photographers. Do we get the judges we deserve? Are we more interested in honours? So one of the solutions I believe is to seek out competitions that value creativity, interpretation and the feeling expressed in images...Great post." — John Stranack
John, we can see that the same  concerns are being raised in many quarters. I spoke with Ingrid (far north Queensland) who expressed the fear that many photographers, like you, are losing interest because of poor judging that doesn't foster creativity/individuality and growth.

"Your imagination never ceases to amaze me..." I'll let you in on a's my medication! (Joking)

"WOW. Thank you for this blog. You well know how much I agree with what you have written. As someone else has already commented, I also hope this is read far and wide. Let's make the world aware that photography is an art form, just as much as any other art.

Thank you so much for introducing me to the creative side of photography. I have always said I started using photography as a means of expression because I couldn't draw or paint like I wanted to. Getting out of the bounds of the thoughts of CC [camera club] judges and sharing many conversations with you and other likeminded people has helped me towards achieving what I am now.

First thing Wednesday morning I opened a message from Giang telling me about her experience on Tuesday night. I have since read through the comments and immediately understood her enthusiasm. I thank you for your comments on mine. Michael's image is a wonderful story, and your interpretation, as always, interesting. He deserved the gong. Rob, keep up the good fight, you are not alone in your thoughts, there are many of us." — Robyn Mussett

Robyn, your experience at the hands of many traditional style judges is illuminating. Your images generally don't do that well in our club competitions because your style is quiet, elegant and thoughtful. You don't hit people over the head with forced impact or processing, or slavish adherence to so called rules. Yet you are the most successful international salon exhibitor in the history of our club. Go figure.

"Rob, As always, a provocative post. Reading your comments had me returning again and again to the image to see if I could see what you had seen. I feel pleased that I managed to see almost everything you noted, and can but agree with the comments regarding the "formulaic" judging that sometimes happens.

Unfortunately, time does not always permit such in-depth analysis of images, but the aim should always be to see what the photographer was trying to convey (or at least our interpretation of it) rather than "good leading lines and use of the 'rule' of thirds". These are simply a cop-out when the real comment could perhaps have been "a boring image with no real subject"" — John Attwood

John, I find that the hardest images to judge are ones that have no major technical faults and no apparent ideas in them, or scope for the imagination to roam. As a judge, one must always try to say something useful and never deliberately offend. You are right, sometimes it is just better to admit defeat. Here's an example from the recent judging...

"An unusual camera point of view, high contrast and repeating elements is a promising combination. The photographer has achieved a punchy black and white conversion with controlled shadows and highlights.

While commenting on another image I mentioned how an odd-one-out element in a repeating group can call attention to itself in a good way. In this image we see a partially unrolled towel on one of the deck chairs and discarded gowns and shoes beside another. Unfortunately, however, there seems to be too much going on in this image that’s not unified or given design by the composition or choice of cropping. It’s not holding my attention and I don’t readily see what might be done to make something of it. I’m disappointed in my own inadequacy!

Sometimes you just have to put the camera down and walk away if the scene isn’t working for you."

Walk away—it's OK.

"I was indeed privileged to be in the audience to hear (and see) your critique of our Club's digital image competition for last month. It was a great learning experience for me. As usual, I have always valued your critiques and presentations and this occasion was no exception.

I cannot add to what has already been stated other than to say we are indeed fortunate to have someone like you who generously gives of his time to energise and assist us to develop our photographic experience.

Thank you Rob" — Terry Rutledge

Very kind of you, Terry. My actions aren't entirely altruistic, though. It's a two-way street...

The best way to learn is to teach" — Frank Oppenheimer
"I haven't had as much time for club meetings of late, perhaps because I felt I would not get much out of the judges comments.

Thank you for being such a wonderful advocate of the art. I have always thought photography should be called an art. I try often to learn from you and others how to see my photos "more". By that I mean what can I do with a scene in front of me, to convey what I am feeling at that moment. It doesn't always work. So I will keep trying, keep learning and keep appreciating. Perhaps I will take more time for competitions and the meetings in the future, now that I know I will get something from the judging. Thanks Rob, you are my hero. " — Ruth Marquez
Ruth (blush), I'm just applying what I've been taught. Thank you so much. Here are some paraphrased quotes I wrote in my notebook while listening to Des speaking about judging in 2009...

"A good judge can inspire people to keep going. Keep exploring an idea...take an 'almost there' image to another level."
​"A good judge will educate and encourage personal growth. Give photographers something to take away and ponder."

Your photography will grow in quantum leaps if you try to express ideas." — Emeritus Prof. Des Crawley

"Well done Lorenzo! What a great image. The story is there, and with possibilities: is the old dog just trying to warm up in the feeble sunshine where the concrete is warmest (as the title might suggest), is it contemplating the shadow line through rheumy eyes, is it just dozing without a care, is it feeling the creaking joints and just pausing to catch its breath mid-stride before moving on, where was I going again? It conjures memories of old foxies I've known and observed, and how many of them carried a back leg like this old guy. Of course, it's a foxy- it MUST be done in monochrome! Importantly to me, the craft is all there such that I didn't even look beyond the captured image and the story: nothing irritates, so one concentrates on the story." — Peter Fleming
Thank you, Peter, for making such an important point about where the focus on craft should be in evaluating creative photography. I have been taught not to go too hard on the craft aspects of an image unless​ flaws are really getting in the way of enjoying the image for its own sake or​ the technical attributes are working against what may appear to be the intent of the photographer in making the image.

"Rob, your blog seems to have touched a nerve in many people and it is pleasing to read so many (mostly favourable) comments. Re Michael's dog photo, I didn't see exactly what you saw but it was a worthy Judge's Choice. I thought maybe the dog was sniffing at cat smell on the ground so as you say each photo is appreciated differently by the beholder. Thanks for your detailed comments on the last club comp, as few judges would spend so much time studying and then commenting on the entries. You are inspiring. " — Geoff Muscutt
Geoff, it's gratifying to know that my blog post has generated interest and discussion beyond my website. As Perc Carter has said, "Common sense will eventually prevail", and the more vigorous the discussion the sooner that will occur.


"Some disjointed thoughts your blog has provoked in my mind, Rob:
- do other art forms "suffer" from the inquisition regarding their tools? do painters have to comment on the brushes and paint they used, the canvas they chose? Does a sculptor have to provide the model number of his chisel? Do we even think of that when admiring the piece?
- does the reliance on "rules" and convention ring more true with photography because it relies more heavily on a complex mechanical (technical, if you will) appliance to deliver it's outcome?
- isn't it just easier to fall back on tried and true rules and conventions, in the name of fairness and "quality", rather than appeal to the more vague idea of "artistic quality"?
- are we sacrificing recognition of the brilliant, in the name of a consistent and reliable approach?
- have other art forms through the ages had to break through convention and those that decided what "art" was and was not? ("If it's not J.S. Bach, it's not 'real' music!")
- and lastly, not a question...everyone I have shown this photo to has responded with "WOW...what a photo!" And when I explained it didn't really meet the rules of a technically great shot, they have all universally replied..."really? why not? well, some of those rules need changing". Mind you, they're just folk, not specifically aligned with a club (of either camera or photography bent). Just folk, appreciating a photograph." — Di
Your expansive comments are appreciated, Di, and I don't think they are disjointed! Yes, in my opinion, photography's reliance on an apparatus (camera gear) is one of the main reasons why evaluation of images is so often focussed on the output of the apparatus.

Vincent's brushesA parallel. Would artists have cared so much about the equipment that their peers used? Why do many photographers obsess about acquiring improved equipment at the expense of investing in improved vision and creativity?

Would Vincent have cared?... Vincent Van GoghVincent Van GoghWhat Vincent might have said about his art if he was like some modern tech-centric photographers.

...the way gearheads care about their toys...

*caricature of Bill Gates used with kind permission of the artist, Achille Superbi

GearHeadGet over yourself, Gearhead!"Show me your pictures, not your toys" ®

"Des has a lot to answer for and all of it positive. You are further down this track than I but I fully agree/admire with the path that you are taking. It takes time.

I'm a little older than you and, on recollection, the first time I attended at the tender age of 15 the "Maidstone Photographic Society" in 1956 I was a junior trainee with a local studio.

Technique was necessarily king, but I got a first for an image I'd created in the studio. The technique was acknowledged but the prize was for the vision.

I've struggled for the last 59 years to repeat what came naturally then. Digital technology has freed me now to pursue that vision without the tech monkey on my back and I thank folks like yourself, and Des for helping open my eyes and mind once again." — Peter Cotton
Peter, one of the greatest things about pursuing photography as an art form—for me—is the knowledge that, provided I look after my sight and retain reasonable manual dexterity and my marbles!, my photography will improve the longer I live and explore it. Age has some advantages and one of the most important is visual maturity and discernment. I'm now more selective about what I photograph. There are so many potential photographs that I just don't need to make any more. I concentrate on the things that mean something to me. Salgado said it best, in my opinion...

You photograph with all your ideology" — Sebastião Salgado
Musing on a tagline for my own photography, I settled on this...

"If it moves you, shoot it!" — Rob Smith

Those damned cats?Here they are. The shadows could also be likened to the shapes of horned owls, but cats fit my imagined story. That's all.

Three cats on a fenceThree cats on a fence© Michael Sheppard 2015. The shadows are metaphors for cats. 115.150920


Thank you Rob for Little Boxes. I will never get tired of hearing it and it really brings your blog 'Judging from a Soapbox' message home.
Judy Lawrenson(non-registered)
Great! Love "Little Boxes", nail hits the spot on the box!
Fiona Brook
Absolutely wonderful Rob! I shall keep my words to a minimum, because "less is more" is not just an over-used cliche. You are a true inspiration.
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