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Passing Judgement: Making the most of judging photo contests

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BY JULIE HAMMONDS
If you’ve been roped into judging a photo contest, the person who wrangled your participation may have promised that, for someone of your tremendous skill and unerring taste in fine art, the task couldn’t be simpler.
Don’t let the promises or the flattery fool you. Judging a photo contest is hard. It provides plenty of opportunities to miss deadlines, offend colleagues and irritate fellow judges.
To avoid these pitfalls, it’s important to be the type of judge you hope will sit on the panel for the next photo contest you enter. Here are a few tips to help you accomplish that goal.
1. Review the rules and make sure they are compatible with your ethics before agreeing to judge. Some contests (not OWAA’s, of course) are designed specifically for collecting a cache of photos for unspecified future use without payment. Sponsors rarely spell that out in the rules. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable entering your own work, either talk with the sponsors about rules that make you squeamish, or reconsider judging. As a judge, you become affiliated with the contest and your reputation is precious.
2. Make sure you can judge without bias. Many contests claim they are judged “blind.” If you’re seeing identifying information, raise a red flag before you continue judging. If identities have been obscured but you know the personalities, locations or subject matter so well that you can easily tell who took what, it could be time to recuse yourself. You want to be able to look any photographer in the eye after the contest, whether you’re congratulating a winner or consoling an also-ran.
3. Use the process as an opportunity to recharge your fascination with photography. If you are a photographer, photo editor or photo librarian, you’ve already looked at thousands of excellent  images. It can be tough, under those circumstances, not to see every photo in the contest as just a slight variation on something you’ve seen before. Boredom can lead to bad judgment. Open your mind to the possibility of being surprised all over again, despite your experience.
4. Pay close attention to the judging criteria. Your sponsor did provide criteria, right? That score sheet, with its carefully arranged list of items to consider and the total points awarded for each, is not merely a guideline prepared by eggheads. It’s meant to provide structure and support for thoughtful consideration. You can still listen to your gut instinct, and you should. But keep an eye on the criteria, too.
5. Give photographers their due. Sure, everybody carries a camera in his or her pocket these days, but to make excellent images still requires a huge investment of time and money. The learning curve is steep, and the patience required to capture just the right moment is legendary. To judge a photo contest is to be reminded of the skill and thought necessary for good work, not to mention that elusive quality we all crave: Talent. An appreciative attitude also comes in handy if you’re asked to provide constructive criticism.
6. Let’s be honest: Judging a contest is not just an opportunity to come face to face with the new and surprising. You’ll also see the banal, the blurred and the badly composed. Some entries may make you wonder what the photographer was drinking when he or she submitted them. Keep in mind that photography is a skill that develops over time. Challenge yourself to think critically and identify specific flaws in bad photos. If the contest allows it, provide constructive feedback on how the entrant could improve the work.
7. Listen to your fellow judges and try to see their vision. When judges get together as a panel to view and rate images, you soon learn that everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a winning photo. Training and experience in the room may vary. You may think your fellow judges are not only misguided but just plain wrong in their assessments. Be prepared to provide criteria-based reasons to support your position. Keep an open mind; it is possible someone else may be right.
8. Use as much of the scoring range as you can— even go beyond your comfort level a little. I’ve seen judges deliver a set of scores that all range from the equivalent of A- to B+. Judges who score in such a narrow range aren’t making their true opinions known. If your scores will be added to those of other judges, confining yourself to a tight range is like saying all the photos are “not bad.” Your opinion won’t make much difference, once all the scores are combined. Don’t waste your own time. You were invited to judge because you are capable of more nuanced distinctions. Take a stand!
9. Here’s a final guideline, guaranteed to make you so popular with contest sponsors that you’ll be invited back to judge again, even if you’ve broken a few of the other rules: Hit your deadlines. ♦
— The associate editor of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine, Julie Hammonds has edited thousands of photos and judged and chaired several photo contests, from which these guidelines are drawn.
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