Driven to distraction?
A common criticism we hear is that our pictures contain ‘distractions’ that divert a judge’s eye from the subject of a picture. This could be a bright area in the background, or something not quite out of focus perhaps. Or some text on a sign. ‘My eye goes straight to it’, they say.
I suppose we are all used to the idea that it’s our job to guide the viewers eye and control how our pictures are looked at. But it’s quite acceptable I think to offer an image that invites the viewer to explore the picture space and enjoy the complexity of the composition.
One of the most frequent complaints from a judge, and our last competition is no exception, is that it was a pity a face or the eyes in the picture couldn’t be seen properly. Our eyes are immediately drawn to any face in a picture and will try to read it. Our brains are hard-wired to do that. Any face is going to be a massive distraction if our aim was to concentrate attention on details we felt were more important. There were 4 or 5 instances in last week’s mono competition where this criticism was levelled, some inappropriately in my opinion, and the scores reflected that.
This is not meant as a criticism of our judge who I felt on the whole was a pretty sound judge. But I do feel that judges in general don’t always appreciate that their own impulse to ‘read’ a facial expression may be one distraction that the photographer is seeking to avoid.
I couldn't agree more with DD's views, I had two images that met with that criticism, a profile portrait called waiting which i thought reflected the title well, seeing the white of his eyes would have brought a completely different visual response. He commented similarly with "runners" meant as a noun not an adjective so they were not in fact running, and their faces were hidden, their exhaustion was the point. However judging is not an exact science, I thought overall the judge did ok.
I find myself having to agree with you both. It's all dependant on what the photographer is trying to achieve. In a previous competition I entered a photograph of a tiger, which the judge liked but said it could have been improved if the tiger had been face on to the camera. Personally I didn't want the tiger looking directly at me, primarily as I think it would have altered the whole atmosphere of the moment, but also as I had omitted to pack any spare underwear. Needless to say, despite the judges comments, I was very happy with my photograph.
DD, Alfred and Kevin make valid points. It still baffles me that so many judges make one assumption of what they are looking at and stick to it relentlessly whilst they review the image. Of course, it is guesswork but how many times do we hear the judge say "what is it you want me to look at?". The answer surely is the whole frame. That's why the images are entered as they are. Yes, the judge can comment about the technical side or suggest a crop, etc. but when they jump in and misinterpret what they see and turn that into a negative, it can be frustrating. Even with titles, the judge can just take a different meaning, such as with Alfred's, or find reasons to tell us the image does not fit or the title doesn't work.
Everything is subjective but with faces - human and animal - there is frequently a greater impact to the picture when the face is not straight on or staring at the lens. As you all said above, it is more often than not a deliberate decision to take the image in that way. So why do judges assume it is a negative to the photograph so often?
I did enjoy our recent judge, certainly when compared to some we have had. I suppose no judge will ever get it "right" all night for everyone in the competition but he did a fine job overall.
DD many congrats in kicking off such an interesting conversation. And yes I agree with all your points. The important point for judges is to firstly try and understand what a photographer is trying to achieve with their image before diving into its contents. And only with that initial understanding should the details be interpreted. And it then should become clear how far lighting and faces are or are not important. That's what we train new SPA judges to achieve and it's a shame that some of our more experienced judges don't seem to follow this principle. Maybe something that we can take up when we have our next SPA judging forum.
In my own case on Wednesday I had, in my opinion, a very atmospheric image of an elderly gentleman walking amongst distressed trees on a beach in Suffolk. The judge commented he didn't know what the man was doing (pretty obvious he was walking) and then quibbled about the light being in the wrong place. In part correct but what was left out was the mood of the image.
I, too, thought the judge did a good job on our first mono competition of the season (he gave me two tens after all), particularly as he was judging on Zoom without the opportunity to look at the images in advance. Whilst I know that members prefer that, it must make it harder for the judge who can only give his/her first reactions to pictures without the benefit of more lengthy consideration and reflection of both the pictures and their comments.
Not sure I share all of DD's views (if I have understood them correctly) on exploring the whole image without being guided by the composition. If a photo is to be judged, there has to be some criteria against which that judgement is made. By all means have a picture with lots of elements in it to discover and explore, but this should not, in my view, be at the expense of the basic composition drawing the viewer in. Just consider how the old master painters produced their complex images, often with large numbers of people within them but composed in such a way as to lead the viewer into and around their artwork.
I do agree with the comments re whether it's necessary for a subject to be making eye contact with the viewer. Certainly this can make a stronger image in some cases but felt this would lose the whole point of my photo of TV historical presenter Ruth Goodman (clearly unfamiliar to the judge), as she is very expressive and the photo was of her pulling such a 'funny' face. It seemed to me that the judge wished for it to be a more 'glamorous' view of the lady, presumably in typical (dare I suggest boring) studio portrait type pose.
It is easy to think that others will see our pictures in the same way as ourselves, but this is seldom the case. We all see the images in our own way and have our own preferences, so it should be no surprise that this includes our competition judges.
Thank you everyone for your interesting contributions to this topic.
You may have misunderstood me Dave; I never meant to imply that composition wasn’t important.
What I said specifically about faces is true more generally of composition. We have come to expect judges to be analytical when it comes to composition. There are plenty of ‘rules’ they can refer to which makes the job easier. Its on a diagonal (dynamic), leading lines (take your eye to a focal point), intersection of thirds (the right place for the focal point) - all good then, and the points stack up.
But as with faces, a good judge would be conscious of potential knee-jerk responses and concentrate on what the photographer was trying to achieve and how well the image works. We could be forgiven for believing that provided we have these ‘rules’ foremost in our minds when we look through the viewfinder, we can’t fail. There may be some truth in this as far as club competitions go, but unfortunately it can lead us into a kind of tunnel vision where we lose confidence in our own instincts. If we are not careful, it can make our compositions look self-conscious and unduly contrived.
A good example of what I am talking about is the one Martin mentions above, ‘On Covehithe Beach Suffolk’. I can’t see any attempt to follow rules in this image but for me it just works. Eddie questioned whether the clump of trees on the left should have been cropped out. Put your hand up and try it - I think the composition loses something as a result, although I’m not sure why. As Martin said, the picture is about mood, and it defies any analysis beyond that.
So I say, aim your camera and when it looks right through the viewfinder, take it. Let the force be with you.