High Hopes by Ken Scott ARPS

What do you call a group of more than twenty photography judges gathered in a room?

Some suggestions have included a “bracket”, an “exposure” and a “contradiction”. No this is not an invitation for more! However, it made us smile.

Our 2014 SCPF Judging Conference took place at Knowle on 8th June, an opportunity for judges to come together to discuss issues, to practise and to share ideas.

Over the last three years we have trained more than twenty new judges, and this annual event is seen as an essential in our ongoing development.

SCPF Judging Advisor, Ken Scott says

“Judging is always the most talked about subject in and around the clubs. So we owe it to ourselves and to the photographers whose work we appraise to try to improve continually. By coming together to share best practice, we can enhance our craft individually and also, hopefully, better understand the issues and continue to move judging forward.”

Expanding Horizons

Our agenda this year started with a challenge put to the audience by Ken – a critique, offered by Francis Hodgson in the Financial Times Visual Arts section of the image ‘L’accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard‘ by French photographer Robert Doisneau– you can read the critique here and view a version of the image here.

Whilst Ken read the critique, many of the cliché comments and crops we might commonly hear (but not want to hear) in competition were laid on the image displayed on the screen.

Ken says:

“I am continually wondering where our judging conventions and ‘rules’ in club photography have come from.

The way we typically provide critique is vastly different from the type of response we might see in the art world. I wanted to demonstrate two positions at opposite ends of the spectrum.

I am not advocating that we should all become art critics in an intellectual sense. What we must do, though, is learn to appreciate photographs of all genres and styles for both their aesthetic and technical qualities and the meanings we can draw from them; we need to give a balanced appraisal … “

Presentations

Peter Walmsley gave us his experiences as a new judge on the circuit and thoughts on what he has found to be some of the more difficult styles to appraise – images with a strong story but technical faults, images where the judge might not have the assumed knowledge to ‘get the point’, and styles such as documentary / record shots of iconic locations or flowers, or still life.

Matthew White’s innovative presentation gave his own views on the key criteria of appraisal but also warned of the trap of simply applying ‘rules’ in tickbox fashion e.g. “the subject must be on the thirds …” Most notably Matthew touched on the intangible quality of art and its appeal to the emotions. Matthew’s presentation can be viewed here.

Discussion Groups

Judges told us before the event that among those topics that commonly present the most difficulty are: nature, street and contemporary styles and appraising what might be described as “competent but ordinary” images in a positive way.

These topics were discussed in three breakout groups, allowing us to share ideas and to consider the key aspects of a variety of images. These groups seem to be the most popular activity for the day, so we will be incorporating more into future events.

Marking – A Mock Competition

One of the great controversies in club competition is marking. Photographers often suggest, perhaps when our own images have been subject to a wide variation in marks, that an image should score the same each time in competition, i.e. that the marking should somehow be objective and consistent.

Readers will therefore be interested to see a summary of a mock competition, where all 20+ trained judges simultaneously marked a PDI class (assumed to be of advanced level) out of 10. Peter Walmsley very kindly crunched the numbers for us to reveal the following:

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  • Only 3 judges (15%) agreed on the top scoring image
  • No judges (yes 0%!) actually agreed on the top 3 images!
  • 13 judges (65%) agreed on the bottom scoring image
  • 5 judges (25%) agreed on the bottom 3 images

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Conclusions we can draw are:

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  • Selection of the top images in a competition is very much down to an individual judge’s preference.
  • There is much more consensus in the identification of the weakest images.
  • Particularly for middle-scoring images, judges’ scoring across a wide range of marks would not be unusual.
  • Our judges showed an average consistency of +/- 1 mark at worst from the average score with some showing consistency to +/- a half mark across a competition.
  • The variance of scores in a competition about panel average scores is remarkably consistent at between 0.5-0.7 across ALL judges.
  • Across a competition season, the statistical variation between judges will start to average out but with typically only 10 ‘tests’ per season (2 images in either print to PDI) such averaging may not eliminate extreme scores.

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It was also observed that five of the top six scoring images, by average marks, were what might be described as ‘in fashion’: a tern in flight, vertical ICM – intentional camera movement – in a wood, flowers treated with the ‘Fractalius’ filter, people ‘staged’ in historical context and stylised, and camargue horses running through water.

To what extent do we as judges reinforce the idea, consciously or otherwise, that photographers have to do more of the same to win? To what extent are we, as judges, influenced by trend? Questions for us to ponder.

A full summary is being issued to the attendees, and out thanks go to Peter for a very thorough and interesting piece of work.

Conference conclusions in summary:

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  1. Marking
    It is generally perceived that clubs would like to see a wider range of marks used in competitions, whilst retaining an emphasis on the quality of comment. We should issue a guidance note to judges and to clubs, especially relating to SCPF League meetings.
  2. The Story
    We have placed more emphasis in training on the “message” or meaning or “communicative quality” of an image. This was necessary to correct a perceived imbalance that biased comment towards the technical.
    Somewhere this has been misinterpreted by some judges and clubs as “we are looking only for the story”. This is not the case. Our advice is to give a balanced appraisal – using Dr. Eddy Sethna’s suggested weightings as a starting point.
  3. Judges’ Feedback
    Level 1 judges have all said that they would appreciate constructive feedback to help their development. SCPF also needs regular feedback from clubs – not just negative reports. It was agreed to draft a new process for obtaining judges’ feedback and to identify more mentors who can work with judges at all levels.
  4. Judges’ Upgrades
    The process for upgrading was reiterated. L1 to L2 may be on the basis of good club feedback and / or following a live assessment at the discretion of SCPF. L2 to L3 must always be by assessment following a minimum period of practice of three years accompanied by good club feedback.
  5. Plagiarism and what to do about it
    Various aspects of this controversial topic were discussed, from the use of third-party components such as background textures to blatant use of others’ images. It was agreed that there are processes in place through the PAGB and FIAP to sanction photographers. It is not the judge’s place to make any reference during competition, but we should raise a concern privately with the organiser if such a situation arises.
  6. Nature Definition
    The new Nature definition agreed by PAGB and FIAP was brought to judges’ attention and it was agreed to publish – See New Nature Definitions
  7. Creative Images
    Much discussion was had relating to the use of creative post-processing: recognition, interpretation, effect etc. This debate will no doubt continue.

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Future Conferences

We are committed to continuing to run the conference on a regular basis. It will be expected that all judges attend at least every other year. Look out for details of the 2015 event.

Big thanks in closing to Roy Lambeth and Caroline Colegate for co-hosting, not to mention Glyn Edmunds who would have been with us but for feeling unwell on the morning. Also to all the co-presenters – Matthew White, Peter Walmsley, Jon Mitchell. To Lynn Lambeth for keeping us refreshed with tea, and to all the attendees for a successful day.

… Ken Scott
SCPF Judging Advisor