The season of photographic print competitions will soon be upon us. In fact the annual print competition of the Vermont Professional Photographers is now only a few weeks away. Ugh! I still have to do some final edits and get my entries printed and mounted for exhibition. I always plan to start early, but somehow the time seems to slip away; and before I know it, I am facing the possibility of needing expedited shipping to get them back in time.
Within the various affiliates of the Professional Photographers of America, you will always hear one common refrain - entering print competitions will make you a better photographer. Sure, there will always be a photograph here and there that you may have thought should score better than it did - and with some justification, since it is a subjective judgment after all! But there will be many more that you will agree could have been better - and picked up a few clues as to ways to do just that. Sometimes the clues relate to how to take the image differently, and other times it is how to post process it for better effect. At the very least, when you look through the lens to take a new picture after having been through print competition, you do tend to "see" a little differently, a little more critically, a little more aware of the light, and a little more aware of what translates to a print better.
It is always helpful, as I contemplate which images to enter, to go back and remind myself of what the judges will look for. It is not necessarily the same things with the same priorities that a wedding customer would look for, but they do have significant overlap.
Within the Professional Photographers of America affiliates and their various print competitions, there are 12 elements that the judges look for in an image to determine whether it rises to the level of being "merit worthy." That is, worthy of recognition at a national level.
The twelve elements are subjective and you will rarely find even five judges with similar backgrounds who will give the same score. In observing a few competitions, there are always a handful of images that will garner a 15 or more point spread from highest to lowest individual judge's score. For most prints, however, while they will rarely agree on an exact score, there is usually a pretty strong consensus for whether a print is a merit contender or not. Interestingly, it seems that if a print is a good example of most of the 12 elements, it will score high. If it seems to miss the mark on most elements, it will score low. It is usually where the image scores high on only one or two elements, but low on others that the judges will be widely split - depending on how they personally tend to prioritize the different elements.
The twelve elements have been defined and used within PPA to describe what is necessary for the success of an art piece or image. While other organizations will have their own lexicon, you usually find they are looking for the same things - just defining them a bit differently. The presumption is that any image, art piece or photograph will reveal some measure of all twelve elements, while a visually superior example will reveal obvious consideration of each one. The elements as defined within PPA are:
- Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements. For me it is a question of whether the image "grabs" your attention and make you want to look "deeper?" I have also come to realize that it should "grab" your attention from afar and then "hold" your attention as you come closer.
- Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought. One commentator refers to this idea as surprise. It is also why some really nice images do not score well - they have simply been done by too many other people before you, so that the judges get that "been there, done that" feeling.
- Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.
- Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.
- Lighting—the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.
- Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.
- Print Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used should support and enhance the image, not distract from it. In competition this might also include the title that the photographer has to give the print. I have seen more than once where the title detracted from the score because it did not seem to "go" with the print.
- Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.
- Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image. Again, sometimes the title can help or hurt the rating of this particular element.
- Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.
- Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.
- Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.
The Photographic Exhibitions Committee (PEC) of PPA uses the 12 elements above as the “gold standard” to define a merit image. They believe that the use of these 12 elements connects the modern practice of photography and its photographers to the historical practice of photography begun nearly two centuries ago.
Posted by Warren