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.