Accreditation: What are Judges Looking for?

By Jen Alston, CPA

I have heard many photographers who say that getting their work assessed, or judged is “for the birds”, their clients love their work and judging doesn’t take into account their “style”, therefore the judging process is wrong.  My acerbic visceral thoughts are, “Really?”

I do admit that I’m from the perspective of doing anything I can to increase my photographic knowledge and having my images judged is something that I completely and humbly participate in – so I do not understand why they shy away so vehemently. I wish I could infuse them with the courage they need.

Why is the judging process so important to our industry?  (especially now?)

If you think of the great Master painters of the Renaissance whose work we continue to revere, who spent incalculable hours learning their craft to create the works we enjoy today – they had rules to follow that ensured their subject looked the most flattering, under the most flattering light.  Portrait photographers today inherited our profession from the Master painters of the past.  If you go to art museums, there is a change when the camera was invented.  People no longer paid for an artist to paint their portrait, they paid a photographer to capture their portrait.  Photography in modern art museums is documentary in nature vs. family portraits, like paintings completed long ago.

Every photographer has their style they adhere to, but there are very few ways to learn the ‘rules’ a portraitist should know in today’s photography climate.  The same rules DaVinci learned and taught are rules we need to know today before we break the rules to add our personal style to make sure our subject looks their best.  Accreditation and competition are two of of the vehicles to learn how small changes and subtle nuances can make our subjects look their best, then adding our stamp of personality and style to the finished image whether it is portrait, fine art, or commercial work.   What do you have in the end?  Your style of photography, properly posed, properly lit and much more dynamic than before.

These opportunities exist to make us stretch and grow.  It takes our best effort and gives us advice and the avenue to be better, individually, starting where we are currently at.

I’ll get to it.

What exactly are the judges looking for?  It’s complicated.  Accreditation rewards proper technique, crafting, and an element of imagination – it sets a standard for professional and saleable imagery – like getting a hair-stylist license before you enter hair competitions.  For Image Competition, technique and crafting is a given and clever use of techniques and the dynamic level of imagination displayed is what rewards you in that arena.

1)  The basics...make sure your image is in focus, does not crop out bodies at weird places, and has non-offending skin colour tones.  Is there detail throughout the image, including a white wedding dress alongside a black suit? (i.e., in light areas and dark areas).

2)  Think of each image as a sentence.   What is the subject of the image and is it clear?  Sometimes it is a person, a mountain, an could be anything – just not confusing to find.

3)  Does your attention, through your eye, mind or heart go to the subject first?  Your eye is normally drawn to the lightest subject, except in high-key images.

4)  Consider the category you are entering under and read the description carefully.  The category will direct the consideration the photograph is given.  Wedding Photojournalism has a different list of priorities than Wedding Portrait, for instance.

5)  The image needs to have a “feel”, a message, expression, story, impact or a reason why it would enter the viewer’s experience on a deeper level and cause them to look a few seconds longer.  Remember the judges are looking for something special, not the same image they have seen over and over (especially in Image Competition).

6)  The image needs to have solid use of the elements of design (texture, line, shape, form, colour, pattern, symmetry-asymmetry, reflection, frames).   Not all in one image, but use them like a colour palette, or tools to further add impact.

7)  How is your composition?  Is there room for the viewer’s eye to roam through the image gathering the story you are trying to tell?  Do the elements of the image encourage the viewer to ‘look around’?  Are any distracting elements removed?  (poles out of heads, big bright spots in the background, etc.)  Is the image burned and dodged properly, not heavily?)

8)  Is your posing refined?  Does your bride’s pose look natural, effortless and beautiful vs. awkward?  Does the couple look like they love each other, or hate each other through their posing?  Are the hands placed well so that they aren’t distracting?

9)  Is your lighting creative and flattering?  Is it coming from a direction?  Is it creative or dynamic?  Is it showing that there are curves to the face and body?   If the flash is on the camera don’t enter the image into judging.

10)  Are the expressions sapid, not vapid?  (I just learned those two words myself, go grab a dictionary if you need – I’ll wait.  )  Is there life to your image through the subject’s expressions if it is a portrait or animal image?

11)  Are you using your imagination, or adding the spark of “clever” to your image when producing it?  If you break rules, make sure it is clear you are deliberately breaking them and doing it with impact.

12)  Are you using your gear or software to its fullest potential?  The right lens, making sure it is at proper resolution, not over-editing, or making mistakes when editing?  Did you use the proper exposure?

These 12 points are most of the considerations that judges use to assess an image.  Each judging panel might add more or variations of what I have listed, as judging is done by different human beings with opinions and creative expertises rather than robots or computers.

When you are writing an important essay, you might get someone to proofread your work even though you have read it 100 times.  This is the same thing with getting your work judged.   When you are narrowing down your submission, find a group of people who you can show your images to who successfully enter their own images and get their honest opinions.  Sometimes we can be too close to our images and they mean the world to us and our clients, but wouldn’t do well in accreditation or competition.

Photography is a symphony and once you learn all the different instruments, it is a matter of increasing your skill with each one and keeping your overall orchestra in-tune.  This is what image judging helps you with – keeping you in tune and current with styles in the industry as well as increasing your own skills.  Watching judging is a huge inspiration because you are seeing the best of what other professional photographers are producing in the most astringent competition in the country!  Image competition is also progressive.  If you look at the images that win most of the main awards, they are the ones that have a clever message to them and are new, unseen,soft, or loud, untried, and inspiring, not ‘old fashioned’.

What this process will ultimately give you is increased skill in your own work and your pictures will bloom with soul that they didn’t have before.  As you keep competing or attaining accreditations, the timbre, depth, and creativity will increase and you deliver images with even more soul, year in and year out.  It is a wonderful process!

Jen Alston is a multi-award winning photographer, including being named Alberta’s Portrait Photographer of the Year in 2012. She has earned the Craftsman of Photographic Arts designation and is also nationally accredited with the Professional Photographers of Canada.


Great article Jen.