What goes through the mind of a photo competition judge when he or she is choosing which photos to select? Are there any tips or guidelines you can follow if you’re submitting photos? Is it just a matter of personal taste or are the best photos always selected?
In June 2019 I was very honoured to be asked to judge a photography competition organised by Sale Photographic Society, part of Sale Festival 2019. Previous judges included BBC personalities Phil Trow, the late Dianne Oxberry and Eamonn O’Neill, Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester. Gerry Yeung, also a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester, has judged the competition too.
The first thing I needed to do, one week before the awards ceremony, was to go to the venue, Waterside Arts Centre in Sale town centre, 20 minutes by tram from Manchester city centre, and select the photos. The prize-giving event took place on Friday 7 June, 2019. I was to talk about the photos, giving the reasons why I chose them, and meet the winners.
They always say it’s difficult to choose from competition entries. There’s some truth in that, but at the same time, some photos stand out more than others.
But before starting to select, there is one very important factor that you always have to keep in mind as a judge, and that’s the brief, and for this competition, the title was: “The living city”
I therefore decided that, for images to fulfil the brief, they would have to show life, human or otherwise, set against the backdrop of the city. I wanted to see both people – or maybe not people, doing things, engaging in some activity, and also I wanted to see the city in which they were located.
Just on this principle alone I was able to rule out many images. There was nothing wrong with them, many were excellent and I might have taken them myself, but they didn’t answer the challenge. For instance some were cityscapes with no people visible. Others depicted people but the city wasn’t visible.
Immediately one photo jumped out at me. That was the one I awarded the first prize. It’s this image, which, at first, I couldn’t make out. What was it? Some kind of abstract pattern with circles and rectangles? A firework display? And what’s that red blob at the bottom?
Quickly I recognised the subject – it was Manchester’s Albert Square with the Christmas Markets. The red blob was Father Christmas. The photographer had photographed the square from the clock tower of Manchester town hall after dark. Chatting to him after the event he told me he had deliberately booked the last clock tower tour so that he could take this photograph.
This is a good example of how the best images often result from good planning so that you can be in the right place at the right time. The image is well composed and the brightness is just right. The people thronging the square provide an abundance of visible life. They almost look like tiny insects. We can see some of the buildings on the opposite side of the square, which gives us a sense of the city. It is a very good photograph and a great example of low light photography.
OK, let’s continue looking at the winning photos, now moving to number two (senior category), taken in Bangkok. As soon as I saw this image, I felt that it deserved to win a prize. That’s because it’s a very high quality image, well composed and executed. It also fulfils the brief very well. The swarm of motorbikes moving down and to the left provides life and movement. The flyover above also gives a great sense of diagonal movement. Diagonals of course tend to give a dynamic effect while verticals and horizontals have a more static effect.
As I looked more closely I began to find interesting details – like the bus numbers and the indecipherable Thai language destinations. On the left is an elephant and there are more details hidden in the image. And the backdrop is a typical Asian cityscape of tall buildings. A great image.
I awarded third prize to this photo of the Bridgewater Canal in Sale, not far from the exhibition venue. Various things struck me about this photograph. First, it is in portrait orientation. I would probably have taken it landscape. The main emphasis is in the middle of the photograph, the people – and one dog – walking along the canal, with one person visible on the right watching them.
What’s interesting is that the point of focus is under the tree. The people in the distance are left out of focus. This gives a painterly effect, similar to reminiscent of 19th century painter Seurat, who used the pointillist style. Typically he painted groups of people on the banks of the Seine having a picnic. Here the people are are walking by the canal.
I wondered aloud whether the focus on an empty spot under the tree was deliberate. The photographer told me after the award ceremony that it was. Focusing on an empty spot made me think that perhaps the subject is invisible, they are not there, but still present in some way.
The next image was the junior entry. What I liked about this photograph of the bee painting in Stevenson Square Manchester, is that the photographer took it at an angle. I’ve often photographed these paintings – which are part of an arts scheme and are always painted over after a period of time.
I generally photograph them straight on, excluding the background and trying not to crop the painting. But here, the photographer broke some rules. She took it at an angle, cropped part of the painting and also included some details you wouldn’t consider photogenic – some scaffolding and a couple of façades. But these details are interesting and they place the subject in its context.
The bee symbolises Manchester, its industry and the hard working character of its people, so the picture exactly fulfils the brief, whilst disobeying many so-called ‘rules’ of composition. As I often say it’s important to know the rules – or more exactly, guidelines – but they are there to be broken.
After the prize giving, the photographer told me she took it on a school trip and it was taken spontaneously. She told me she had just received her GCSE photography results and received an A*. I’m always very keen to give encourangement and support to young photographers,. I hope she will take her photography further.
In addition to these four prize winners there were four images selected for special recommendation.
This one of guys doing parkour stood out, partly because of the photographer’s excellent timing. Using a very fast shutter speed, they managed to catch the guy jumping at just the right moment – le moment juste – as I often like to say. Another thing I liked was that a woman in the background was photographing the performance on a mobile phone. The setting is the former UMIST campus, now Manchester University.
I liked the photograph of four figures – dog, human, human, dog – walking through a park. It’s actually Longford Park, not far from Sale. The vista reminds me of 19th century French painters such as Corot.
As I mentioned in my presentation, I often find inspiration for photography by going to art galleries and looking at paintings. Every photographer should do this, as you can learn so much about composition and lighting.
I liked the fact that the right hand figure – the small dog – was off the footpath. All four expressed a sense of gentle movement away from the viewpoint. The lines of perspective are striking. The splash of colour from the hats, scarf and boots are also pleasing.
I was happy to be able to include in my selection a very impactful black and white image. Two people walk across the tracks at the top of Mosley Street in Manchester city centre. The sun is coming from behind and casts shadows on the ground.
The figures and their shadows form a V-shape that gives a pleasing composition. Again, we see the skill of the photographer in choosing ‘le moment juste’ – the right moment to press the shutter, capturing the movement at just the right point. Further along the street, another person crosses in the opposite direction and they are placed between the two figures in the foreground.
In the distance are the new residential towers under construction south of the city centre, so this image is up to date and topical. The person on the right is looking at a mobile phone. This image captures a very familiar subject and location in a new and visually captivating way.
This photograph of a man sitting on a canal boat, with Manchester’s Castlefield basin and bridges in the background. I felt that this image also illustrated life, though in a more restful state – the man is reading Canal Boat magazine. The saddle of a bike is also visible as well as the usual paraphernalia of boats, including ropes, with a glimpse of the interior of the cabin.
On the outside we can see people, cyclists and walkers who have just crossed the bridge. Maybe a tram or train crossing one of the bridges would have been nice but it’s not necessary. That was the scene when the photographer pressed the shutter. I don’t like the phrase ‘should have had’ or ‘should have been’. I once heard a picture was rejected because the door of beach hut ‘should have been’ a particular colour.
I like the composition – the photographer has placed the right hand side of the boat parallel with the edge of the image, leaving a vertical strip of water on the right. It highlights an important and often overlooked aspect of life in Manchester: that some people live on boats or at least they are visiting from other parts of the country by canal boat.
All in all, judging the competition was a very interesting experience and I enjoyed explaining my reasons to the people at the awards event, alongside the Mayor of Trafford and members of Sale Photographic Society.
I was happy to see the photographers receive their prizes. The junior entrant won £50.
I have to say the framed photos looked great on the display board. They will remain there during June 2019.
Manchester Christmas Markets
Winner Senior Competition
Cheque for £100
Second Senior Competition
Cheque for £50
Third Senior Section
Cheque for £25
Bee in the City
Winner Junior Section
Cheque for £50
and the Commended authors were:
Relaxing In The City
Crossing The Tracks
Parkour Training in Manchester
Dog Walker Longford Park
So finally: some advice for people entering a photography competition, which I’ll formlate as questions:
- Have I fulfilled the brief? Have I thought carefully about the title and tried to respond to the challenge it sets?
- Have I depicted the subject in a new and unique way that few other photographers might have chosen?
- Is the picture technically competent, in focus where you want it to be in focus, with good image and print quality
- Does your photo look like it is the kind of picture that deserves to win a prize? Be honest with yourself here!
And one last note: If your photo wasn’t chosen for a prize, it doesn’t mean it is without merit! Photography judging is still partly a subjective thing. Some competitions are judged by several people, but as John Earnshaw of Sale PS remarked, the cream still has a tendency to rise to the top.