My Thoughts on Club Competitions

Cat Humphries Muses on Circuit Judging!

Although (some of) our camera club judges have changed since I started participating in club competitions at Croxley CC over 15 years ago, the discussion surrounding what is the “right” way to judge or run competitions has remained constant. Despite the often-negative comments from my fellow members about comments, scores or sometimes the entire concept of judging, I took the plunge and became a CACC judge back in 2016.

Our experiences inform our opinions and as camera club members we should hear a wide range of different creative voices and approaches. At the time there was only one club judge locally who was both female and under 40. That’s not to say that I felt that the existing pool of mostly male, mostly retired, judges were not doing a good job, far from it, but photography is both a technical skill and an art form. We will all have slightly different opinions because our life experiences affect how we interpret images. What is inspiring to one person may not strike a chord with another, just as with other artforms. Expressing why an image resonates with me or explaining how an image could be improved in an empathetic respectful manner is key to my approach.

Let’s be very honest with each other. The technical & creative execution of the vast majority of camera club competition images will be capable but not exceptional. Seasoned camera club members know a lot about how to control cameras but when comparing a range of photographs on a club night, very few will be a good deal more impactful and creatively successful than the majority.

Distinguishing between these average camera club images can be difficult so judges often give them a very average score of 16. I understand that this can be frustrating but compare it to judging panels for inter-club or international competitions where so often a limited scoring range is used and the judges are effectively choosing to rate the image as “below standard = 2”, “standard = 3”, “above standard = 4” or “exceptional = 5”.

A fair number of images in a regular camera club competition will usually have technical issues or be a poor choice of subject so these will be easily given something in the range of 12-15, with the scores depending on the range of “faults” among those below average images and how severely they affect the judge’s opinion of the image. You may also find an image which has a lot of potential but major faults to be given a very low mark.

Many of the lowest scoring images will never have the potential to be winners but the above average images that don’t achieve the very top scores are usually because of minor faults in technique or creative execution. These are your 17s and 18s. Individual competitions may have a lot of 17s and 18s, or they may be quite scarce. In some competitions I’ll award only a couple of 18s, in others there may be over a dozen if I feel the images have comparable merits.

Then we come to our top scores – 19s and 20s. Images which stand above the rest, creatively and technically. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be as highly rated against a different selection of images, but they must be significantly better than the other photos in this competition.

Scoring images between 12 and 20 has its faults, but for an average club competition this format allows the members to understand how each image compares to the rest of the field that night. Some clubs don’t ask for scores as they prefer the judge to pick their 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices, but I feel this doesn’t give you an idea of how the rest of the images compare to each other. Picking your “favourite” of the night is often going to come down to personal taste, rather than being able to award several 20s with different styles or themes so this becomes a different type of competition.

So, do we scrap scores altogether? Or have the club members score the images and so have a winner by consensus? Perhaps no more league tables, no more trophies, just a group of people sharing their images and giving each other constructive feedback? Often I wish that camera clubs would be able to live up to this utopian ideal but let’s face it, we all feel good when someone gives us top marks, which is another reason why it’s hard to be impartial with our opinions of judging and judges. Too often our views are clouded by the scores we received, or our own view of someone else’s image that we feel deserved to do better.

Let’s be honest with each other once again. Photography is both a medium of communication and an artform. There are proven techniques we can use to help us tell the story in our images more successfully, improving how we as authors communicate with the viewers of our photos. Good judges help us understand why a successful image resonates with them and explain how different techniques have helped or hindered that success. In turn, listening to their critique enables us to learn how we can make our images more successful in the future, subconsciously absorbing the judges’ comments and referring to them when we are taking and making images in the future.

A range of scores can help to demonstrate how successful a specific image was to a particular judge compared to the other images that were in the same competition. When you think of it in those terms, the score itself is relying on such a specific set of circumstances, it really shouldn’t matter past the end of the club night. Images have many different purposes. Competitions are just one. Images can score low in a competition and still be successful for different reasons.

As camera club members we often take our competitions to heart, complaining that judges are biased for or against a style or technique, that scores are not consistent, or that the judge simply didn’t understand a particular image. Instead, let’s acknowledge that camera club judges are human beings, who have instincts and reactions based on millions of different variables across their lifetimes. Each will see something slightly different in the same image so it’s ok for scores or opinions to differ sometimes.

Our response to viewing or making art is ultimately subjective – that’s the reason why viewing each other’s images can be so compelling and inspiring. If all photographers visiting one area all stood in the same spots and took exactly the same “winning” images, the world would be a very boring place. Capture what inspires you and learn to use the tools to communicate your idea effectively. A low scoring image can often inspire one that works more successfully, both for the author or for the people viewing it.

Be kind to one another, respect each other’s opinions and, most importantly, keep inspiring yourself and each other.

Cat.


Cat’s Corner

Congratulations Steve

This week marks Steve’s hundredth blog post as Chair of the club. Looking back through my inbox I found that this year will be his 10th anniversary of joining us so it seems like an appropriate time for us to say a few words of thanks.

Way back in the mists of time, when we could all meet in the hall on Thursdays AND some Wednesdays – but importantly before we started to enjoy Vanessa’s legendary cakes…. it was a dark time. Then some sunlight appeared through the clouds as Steve arrived at the community centre as a fresh faced, nervous but keen photographer. We took him under our wing, introduced him to studio portraiture and encouraged him to trust his very capable photographic instincts.

Helped by an eye for a good image, the “usual” processing techniques and a selection of interesting hats, we saw Steve rise up the league tables to become our own “David” Bailey, before twisting his arm to elect him to the committee in April 2016 as Vice Chairman.

Since 2017 Steve has been a fantastic figurehead for the club, supporting members both new & old and encouraging all of us to improve our photography. His vision has led us through the challenges of lockdown with virtual club meetings all through the past year, and recently we even reached the dizzy heights of the North West Federation of London Clubs Semi Final. (Just 1 point behind Amersham in the PDI section – who’d have thought it! Thanks Martin!)

I can honestly say that Steve is the embodiment of our club’s reputation for being “The Friendly Club”, even if he has made me cry on occasion, and it is with great thanks that we congratulate him on these milestones and give him a virtual round of applause!

Cat


Cat’s Corner

More than just a competition image

Photography can document and creatively capture so many different subjects and views on the world. The vast majority of the photos we take will not be “winning images”, particularly as we’re taking more images now than ever before in human history.

We’ve all had disappointing results on competition nights where a judge hasn’t understood our image, or simply didn’t like it, but does this mean we should cast aside photos that don’t do well in competitions? Should we feel that they are somehow failures in our photographic journeys to the nirvana of imaging success? Definitely not!

Here’s a few ways for images that wouldn’t necessarily be “winners” to bring a little joy to our lives.

Social Documentary

A common phrase a few years ago among camera club judges was that an image was “just” a record shot. Images documenting everyday life or local places sometimes only find their importance at a later date. You may need to know more of the story behind them to know their significance, or they need to be part of a bigger photo-essay to be effective.

Back in the 90s I spent a few afternoons wandering around the streets of my hometown documenting the buildings and the people. None of those images would have won a competition but looking at them now I have a glimpse into another world – people’s homes that have been demolished, a retired man outside a working men’s club that’s now the home of a glass-ceilinged shopping centre and skate-boarding teenagers long since grown up.

Who knows what social history we may capture today and then look back on in the future with different eyes?

Portraits of Friends and Family (and dogs and cats and rabbits…)

Your emotional attachment to people and animals you love is always going to give some photos a greater meaning. Learning to separate our emotions and experiences when we’re selecting images for competitions can be difficult and knowing how others will view our images can be almost impossible! Enjoy capturing the memories for yourself and others, just because it doesn’t have emotional value for a judge, doesn’t mean it’s not successful for you.

We’re not all brave enough to approach strangers in the street like Instagramer Alex Stemplewski, but giving a great image to someone you don’t know very well can be a huge gift to their self-confidence and a boost to your own wellbeing.

Projects and RPS Distinctions

Like social documentary images, some of the most creative imagery doesn’t work as a single image. Committing to a photographic project can open your eyes to documenting a subject from different points of view. Trying the same photographic style or treatment on different subjects can help you see what works and what can be improved.

Online communities like Blipfoto encourage you to try and take an image every day, while working to gain photographic distinctions from the Royal Photographic Society can give you a sense of purpose. Whether it be the entry-level LRPS that challenges you to achieve a level of technical standards and create a harmonious panel of images to show your skills, or the next step up to the ARPS where you can explore the creative possibilities on a single theme. Many images that would not be “winners” on their own take on bigger meaning as part of a panel. Just as the opposite can also be true – three winners don’t necessarily make a successful triptych.

The Joy of Taking and Making an Image

Let’s not forget that sometimes the best part of photography is the challenge of taking the image or processing it afterwards – no matter what the end result is. Over Christmas I spent three hours in the near dark squirting a syringe of water at some fruit I’d balanced on cocktail sticks while using a remote trigger on a studio flash to hopefully capture the right moment. I then spent another three hours editing together a stack of 17 layers in Photoshop to merge together all the different splashes and remove the supports.

What I was aiming for was to get the fruit floating impossibly in mid-air while the water drops made it look mouth-wateringly tasty. The result…positively underwhelming! It definitely won’t be making it into our “creative or experimental techniques” competition later this month. Would I do it again? Absolutely! I learnt lots from the process and had so much fun splashing about in the dark, even if I did soak half the kitchen and end up an hour late for dinner. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter what comes out of the camera if you’ve had fun doing it.

Cat

Citrus Splash – Cat Humphries

Cat’s Corner

For the Love of Mono

Our own Cat Humphries muses on monochrome photography…

This week I was invited to judge a monochrome competition at one of the local camera clubs. Being asked to comment on images is always and honour and so I decided that I should do a bit of homework in advance of the competition to make sure I was up to the task.

The club chairman had given the advice for their members to “feel free to experiment, not only with black and white images, but also sepia, cyanotype or shades of any other colour.” This echoes our own club’s rules on the Andrews Cup for prints, so I was in familiar territory.

Looking back through my own competition entries I initially thought “I don’t really do monochrome” but then I realised that although my camera club images are usually in colour, I’ve been producing mono conversions for theatre rehearsals since the 90s. Removing any problematic chroma noise in low light shots and toning down the often-colourful notice boards in community centres and rehearsal rooms.

As Stewie Griffin will tell you “Ooh you took a black and white picture of a lawn chair” and you think you’re an artist! Well, the 17-year-old me certainly thought so, and she had the film enlarger to prove it. Maybe the winter lockdown is the perfect time to look through the archives and see if a monochrome conversion can bring some life to my other images?

Monochrome has been used since the dawn of photography and since the young upstart of colour came along, mono has been used by authors to distance their subject from the “real world” we see around us. Presenting the viewer with an image where form, texture and pattern take centre stage. It’s probably most well-known for street photography or photojournalism, but it can be used to great effect on almost any subject.

The grand master of the monochrome landscape Ansel Adams’ once said that “the negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when ‘performed’ as a print”. Not averse to the odd bit of dodging and burning myself, the equivalent today is the Raw colour image file being interpreted as a black and white photograph. As authors we can choose how we process monochrome images to produce our own unique view on the world.

Using Photoshop or Lightroom to adjust the lightness of a colour in a monochrome image can help us darken blue skies, change the tones in a grassy landscape, or lighten the red on a stop sign. If we need more help as a starting point we can use presets or specialist plug-ins like Nik Silver Efex that have a range of conversions to try on our images, fine-tuning them to our own tastes. The 2012 version of the Nik Collection is available to download from the DXO website for free and there are tons of freely available Lightroom presets like these from On1 (https://www.on1.com/free/lightroom-presets/), so it’s easy to give it a try.

How have I got on with my experiments in mono? You’ll have to wait for the next few club competitions and see.

Cat.


Cat’s Corner

Long serving committee and honorary member Cat Humphries gives us the final instalment of her four part series of her photographic relationship with Pentax & Nikon. Enjoy!






A Back Garden Busk and Decision Time

Lazy Sunday afternoon, there’s no time to worry… I’m sure there’s a song there but the Back Garden Busk crew were more keen on showtunes!

I had a fine afternoon in Chorleywood to compare the Nikon D7500 and a Sigma 70-200mm 2.8 with my trusty Pentax K-5II and a Tamron 70-200mm 2.8. I’d photographed an almost identical socially-distant event two weeks previously so it was ideal to compare how well the two set-ups worked.

Being able to set a minimum shutter speed while in Aperture mode was fantastic compared to Pentax’s Aperture+Time setting. This helped me avoid over-exposing the highlights as the lighting changed and ensured that I was always shooting fast enough to avoid camera shake or blurring movement.

Within minutes I wasn’t thinking about the controls on the Nikon – I was completely in the moment and able to change aperture quickly as the action developed. Although the Pentax has two control dials, the same as the Nikon, the rear control dial is nearer to where you rest your thumb so it’s too easy to change the setting accidentally. I was very pleased with the layout of the dials of the Nikon and felt like I was in control at all times.

The fact that the camera worked like a dream was nothing compared to how I felt when I saw the images in Lightroom. I’d grown used to adding a lot of sharpness to the RAW images from the Pentax – their shallow-focus vintage quality becoming my signature style. The sharpness of the Nikon images was a revelation! So crisp in the focus points, so dreamily soft in the background. Much less forgiving than the Pentax, but satisfying when you got the focus spot-on.

This was it, seeing the images from the day I made my decision to switch to Nikon for my theatre work. I accepted the trade-in quote and boxed up my beloved Pentax gear ready to go.

I must admit, I was quite sad packing up the Pentax kit. It had served me well over the years but as much as it felt like I’d been cheating on it for a younger model, I knew that it would be the right decision. With Pentax heading further out of favour, I would trade-in before it became worthless. And besides, a box full of lenses and a second-hand D7200 is on the way. No turning back now!

There will always be a place in my heart for my Pentax DSLRs… and a place on my shelf for my Pentax MX. Might need to buy another roll of film to go in it. Once a Pentaxian, always a Pentaxian.


Cat’s Corner

Long serving committee and honorary member Cat Humphries gives us the third instalment of her four part series of her photographic relationship with Pentax Nikon. Enjoy!


First Impressions and Testing Times

Bump! That was me falling back down to earth. The dreams of a Nikon set-up had carried me away, but the cost involved in making the switch soon made me come tumbling down.

One of the things that attracted me to Pentax was the sheer number of lenses available, and the reasonable cost of second-hand gear. Yes, I know the pre-loved kit was because no-one wanted them, but like my two rescue pups, I can’t bear to see things being abandoned.

I’ve been a bit of a magpie when it comes to Pentax gear. My other half always says that you need to use the right tool for the job so over the years I’ve collected many different lenses. The good news at the time was that all of them were bought for a “reasonable” price but now that means that I shouldn’t get my hopes up that they’re worth much.

A quick email to Wex’s trade in department should give me an idea on how much budget I would have. That’ll enable me to make a measured decision on what to do next…

5 minutes later.

… OMG what have I done? Ebay, why did you taunt me so? What happened to self control????

1 day later.

I appear to have in my hands a reconditioned D7500. How did that happen? Things are too easy to buy these days. At least I can return it within 30 days – no quibbles.

1 minute later.

What use is a camera body without a lens? Time to call in reinforcements!

The next day – a sunny Saturday.

Get up early to give the D7500 a test run before breakfast (too excited to lie in!). First impressions; not too heavy, fits well in my hand, dials in all the right places, menus look easy to navigate. Oooooo with this tilting touchscreen you are really spoiling us. Stop it Catherine, don’t let it distract you with it’s fancy new-fangled ways! This is about the images, not its attractiveness. Time to get a lens on it, courtesy of Mr Highet and his Sigma 70-200mmm 2.8 … Hang on, it’s all the wrong way round! It’s like a left-hand-drive car. Feels weird. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually?

How does it compare to the old K5II with my Tamron 70-200 2.8 (affectionately known as the big b****er) on it? Not bad. It’s actually very similar in size with the Sigma being a bit heavier than the Tamron, increasing the overall weight by about 200g.

Pentax/Tamron versus Nikon/Sigma

Let’s pop out to the garden for a quick snap before breakfast. Very speedy auto-focus, lovely big screen to check the images on, good sharpness and rich colours. What do you expect outdoors in sunshine with a good bit of glass on it? How about indoors and a black-&-white dog? That’ll test it.

What this needs is a ropey el-cheapo lens… thank you Mr Amazon! Bring on the Tamron 70-300mm Macro, with no HSM, no stabilization and a snail-like F4-5.6. That’s more like it!

Back outdoors and ewwwww the focus is so slow! No chance of catching birds or jets with this one, no matter how much the D7500 tries to catch-up with its 3D tracking. Looks rather soft too but let’s see what Lightroom does with them.

That was quick! Schoolboy error, the Nikon was just in Jpeg mode… must fix that!

Very pleased with the metering on the Nikon. It coped with my dog Kobe’s black and white fur amazingly well, something that the Pentax always struggled with. The Tamron was surprisingly sharp – at f10 at least – but disappointingly soft on the macro shots I tried. This lens will be going back where it came from pronto.

The yellow petals on the sunflower can be tricky to expose too and the Nikon’s done a good job. Comparing the colours on the Tamron and Sigma there is a noticeable difference.

I now have more photos than I will ever need of my neighbours TV aerials, as I tested the focussing speed on far-away objects. Blimey, they’re sharp!

I’m getting to like this Nikon lark. What I need is a socially distant informal gathering to test the D7500 and Sigma lens combination, so I can compare it to an almost identical socially distant informal gathering I photographed but two weeks prior to today…

Next time: A Back Garden Busk and Decision Time


Cat’s Corner

Long serving committee and honorary member Cat Humphries gives us the second instalment of her four part series of her photographic relationship with Pentax. Enjoy!


Finding a New Way: From Pentax to What?

You’ve had “the talk” and explained how you feel. It’s sad, after all your relationship has been going for several decades, but you know inside that it’s the right decision. Then you find yourself thinking “where next?”. How do you fill the void that has been left behind and start to move on with your life?

I was so committed to Pentax that I hadn’t looked at any other camera manufacturers specifications for a while. A round of speed dating was in order!

Over the years I’ve learnt that I need a camera that’s light and intuitive to use, flexible enough to accompany me on adventures “up hill and down dale” and has enough lenses to keep my genre-crossing creativity engaged. My theatre photography means it needs to be reliable, quick to turn on with fast responses and very good in low-light situations. I also need two bodies, each with a f2.8 lens, so there needs to be a good second-hand price point too.

Mirrorless? Too soon! I may be ready to move on from Pentax but mirrorless is a whole new ball game. Let’s start with little steps shall we? So a DSLR it is. Preferably with a crop sensor to achieve the reach I need with a 200mm lens.

Olympus: Like the bearded hipster in a vegan coffee shop (in a hand-knitted jumper, obviously!), I can see the vintage appeal but four-thirds format is an acquired taste. Small in stature and good for an enjoyable weekend away. Not the serious commitment I’m after.

Sony: Fond of urban exploration and around-the-world trips, this new kid on the block is a bit of a force of nature. It has expensive tastes (you can tell by the designer glasses) but it’s high-quality has seen it grown in popularity over the years so more third party lenses are on the market. Not sure I could keep up with this one, particularly with the expense of needing two bodies.

Canon: Reliable and dependable, this is the one you know will produce good results, a sensible choice. I’ve got friends who have very fulfilling lives with Canon, but as much as I try, we just don’t have that spark and I soon get frustrated with them. I have a history of unfulfilling flings with Canon compact cameras so I don’t think this is the one for me.

Nikon: I’ve always had a soft spot for Nikon with fond memories of my first compact camera. We spent a few years together and went on many adventures, exploring museums, long weekends in the peak district, getting sunburn in March in mid-Wales. I never should have let that one go… Sorry, I drifted off there for a moment! Maybe a Nikon is the way forward.

Let’s examine the specs…

The D7200 and more-recent D7500 look like they would fit the bill. Agile enough for theatre, wildlife and sports. Reliable. Creative in their compatible lenses and open to bringing different lighting options into the relationship. We may be onto a winner but don’t get too excited, we haven’t looked at prices yet – they may be above your price range and you don’t want to commit too soon. Why don’t you have a think and then take a closer look, after all, you wouldn’t want to give up your trusty Pentax unless you were sure.

Next Time: First Impressions and Testing Times.



Cat’s Corner

Long serving committee and honorary member Cat Humphries is kindly writing a blog series on her camera gear experiences. First instalment below – enjoy!


The Last Pentaxian in Croxley

There comes a time in every relationship where you have to assess whether you stay or you go. This is true for camera gear as much as it is for marriages. When you first decide on which camera manufacturer you go steady with, it’s all new and exciting. You’re amazed by the clarity of the images the relationship produces and you go on to add to your family of camera gear.

Suddenly you find yourself 20 years down the line, with a bag (or in my case cupboard) full of lenses, but the manufacturer you supported just isn’t keeping up their part of the bargain. You don’t get excited by them anymore, you know their flaws inside out, and you start to wonder whether they care about what they’re giving back to you. Are you worth more than they’re giving you?

This is how I feel about my relationship with Pentax cameras. They were the first SLR I got my grubby 5 year olds hands on, and I spent my formative years completely in love with my Pentax MX. We travelled the world (well, to Canada anyway), spent hours people watching, going to museums or the occasional Wimbledon final, and we took our first steps into the world of theatre photography together.

Later on, as both of us grew older, the world around us changed. Photography was going digital and in 2007 I took the plunge and bought a K100D. A new world of possibilities opened up. No longer was our relationship constrained to 36 exposures and processing fees. We had the freedom of a 1GB SD card and an A4 printer!

Slowly we evolved together, with new features drawing me deeper into the Pentax DSLR world, the K100D became a K20D and then, as the theatre beckoned me back, the K5II was so alluring with it’s low light processing and faster auto-focus. One body became two, and my collection of lenses grew to ten as I explored new genres and hoped that I could find photographic utopia. My evangelism knew no bounds – the two most popular religions in the imaging world held no allure for me. I would not be a slave to the tribes of Nikon or Canon like those I saw around me.

But like most utopian visions things became dystopian after a few years. The cracks started to show and what was once a great idea had started to turn sour. I searched around for a new body to replace my ever aging K5II, but alas Pentax removed the features I had relied on so much. They raved about their new full-frame cameras, but they were not what I wanted in a relationship. Too big, too heavy and with the same level of focussing options – they couldn’t satisfy my evolving creativity.

All around me lens manufacturers were abandoning the long-established third way. Limiting what was available to loyal Pentaxians like me. We saw our future stretched out before us, not the utopian vision we’d hoped for, but now a dystopian nightmare. Stuck in the past, hampered by unsupported gear and old fashioned lighting kit.

Despair surrounded me like a dark and stormy night, but after a while, the realisation struck me like a ray of light through the clouds. I didn’t have to stay in this sort of relationship. I was worth more than Pentax was giving me. I could be free to choose my future, unchained from the restrictions of the brand I had been loyal to for so long.

I could rebuild my camera gear collection. I could evolve.

Next time: Finding a New Way: From Pentax to What?


Left – Cat’s beloved Pentax MX – which still contained film at the time of writing!

Right – Selection of MX printsclockwise from top left: Venus Williams serving for the Championship at Wimbledon in 2007, couple on Lady Godiva Plinth 1998, Nuneaton Man (whole area was demolished to make way for a shopping centre), Strange Times at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 1998, Swamp Donkey at the Godiva Festival 1998