Judging at the 2022 San Diego County Fair Photo Contest


Note:  Updated 03-04-24, and still relevant today!


2022 SD Fair Photo Tier 2 Judging in 5 seconds …


NOTE 1:  This could be one of the longer blogposts that I’ve written, but I believe you’ll find the insights well worth spending time with, regardless of the Calendar Year.  To assist you, I’ve divided this post into 6 sections – feel free to click through and/or study as necessary:

•  Introduction

•  Let me Start with this Premise

•  Familiar Images

•  Post-processing Issues & Specifics

 Mounting Issues & Specifics

•  Judging & the Photo Contests’ Tier 2 Reject Policy


NOTE 2:  This post is attempting to carry on in the tradition of David Kings’ classic & timeless series of blogposts, Observations from Judging at the Fair” – I hope that I can do them justice.  Sadly, Dave passed away in October of 2020.  He will be sorely missed – not only as an accomplished individual in his chosen fields … but also as a friend.  This post is dedicated to Dave …


•  ALSO:  keep in mind that my observations are from the point of view of a custom photographic printing professional of almost 40 years. 




Back in late-May, I was again privileged to be a Judge at the prestigious San Diego County Fair Exhibition of Photography, always one of my favorite contests to judge (and one of the largest!).

I’ve been judging at the Fair since 2003.  I don’t say that to toot my own horn.  I just want to give you a point of reference – I’ve “seen things” (not ghosts or dead people, haha).   Although most judges would probably agree with what I’m going to say, the following points are my opinions alone – based on observing what generally works, and, by extension, what generally doesn’t – – both in a professional AND contest environment.

This post is mostly about my observations from Tier 2 (print) judging …

To those that advanced to Tier 2, congratulations – you’re to be honored!  Only 1 out of 3 images submitted to Tier 1 (electronic entry) advance to Tier 2 (prints).  You’ll especially enjoy this post because it’ll help you fine-tune your future prints to “earn a ribbon” and other honors (discussed below) – as well as getting the best out of your fine art printing in general.

    • And if you’re not familiar with the overall Contest format,  visit my SDC Fair FAQ page for lots of fun information.
    • This year (2022), there were 3501 total entries to Tier 1 (electronic entry), of which 1107 advanced to Tier 2 for printing. 
    • I should also note that there were 34 image Entry Categories (Portraits, Nature, etc.), and that the judging was done in groups of three individuals per Category.
    • Also, the same group of judges (three individuals) judged the same Categories in both Tier 1 & Tier 2.


3 Judges at one of 15 Judging Stations – click to enlarge


OK –  let me start with this premise:


Generally, all of the captured images that advanced to Tier 2 were quite good.  But most did not earn a ribbon, or “place”, in their printed form – and that should be the goal of every entrant.  

By “place”, I’m referring to those prints that earned additional honors & prizes (1st though 4th per Category, Honorable Mentions & Donated Awards).

So, the question is – why will a select few prints “place”, but most prints will not?

  • Except for what I’ll discuss below in “Familiar Images”, I really won’t be covering specific “Subject Matter” issues in this post – although it is indeed a major ingredient in what “places”.  Again, see Davids’ posts mentioned above for lots more on Subject Matter:  “Observations from Judging at the Fair”
  • At this point in the judging process (Tier 2 – prints), it’s nitty-gritty time – it’s down to the wire, and this is where the judges get critical – and it can indeed be quite subjective (much more on this later).  They’ll narrow all of the prints down to only those prints that they believe are good enough to “place”, and start awarding those ribbons and honors.

Again, leaving aside the Subject Matter (yep, hard to do, I know – but still…), here are some of the reasons I observed on why most prints didn’t “place”:


“Familiar” Images:


It’s bound to happen, regardless of the Category, or whether it’s Tier 1 or Tier 2: as judges, we’re going to get a lot of images/prints of the same or similar subject matter.

As an example: one of the Categories that I judged was Color Nature-Wild Animals-Mammals, and easily 30% of the images that we judged from Tier 1 were brown bears – and in Tier 2, it was close to 20% of the prints.

So, you may have a really nice Brown Bear print in Tier 2 (hey, it’s definitely above average, as it advanced from Tier 1!), but it didn’t “place”.  Remember – in a lot of ways, it was judged against ALL of the other Brown Bear prints, and the judges thought that some were just a wee bit better.  Remember, “nitty-gritty”, “down to the wire”, etc., etc. …

Other examples of geographically local “Familiar” images:  the Coronado Bridge, the Children’s Pool, the Flower Fields, Sunsets at a coastal Pier, etc.

Should you avoid “Familiar” images in a contest?  Absolutely not – just make sure that your image has a TON of uniqueness & “WOW Factor” (what the judges will be looking for) to set it apart from all of the other similar images.  See the 2nd half of Class 5 on”Edit for Success” one of five free live & online “Photoshop 101” series of Meetups (or free videos).


3 Judges at one of 15 Judging Stations – click to enlarge


Post-processing Issues & Specifics:


In Tier 2, you’d frequently overhear a judge say something along the lines of, “Yikes – I wish I had the original capture or RAW file of the image  – this print could have been SO much better!”.

Welcome to the wonderful world of photographic “post-processing” – where you can quite possibly turn a good image into a very good image, and a great image into a “WOW ” image.  As a photographer, you’ll want to be able to get the absolute most out of your original photographic capture/vision, whatever the final use of the file.

    • If you are a photographer who knows little or nothing about digital post-processing, I’d strongly recommend that you find someone to help you get the absolute most out of your image(s), such as a knowledgeable person at a print lab or in the industry (like yours truly) – or a friend or fellow photographer who truly understands Photoshop (not just Lightroom!), etc. –  you’ll want to have your images properly enhanced & printed for maximum effectiveness.
    • Or, perhaps it’s time to learn proper post-processing skills, and take post-processing as serious as your photography – it’ll make you a better photographer, too!  And yes, I can most definitely help (hey, that’s one those things that I do!)  –  see all 5 of my free live & online “Photoshop 101” series of Meetups (or free videos) for more.


Click to embiggen …


More Post-processing Specifics:

NOTE: You’ll notice that for most of the bullet-points below, I’ve included links for further study – like I said, Photoshop Education is one of those things that I do 🙂

    • Contrast, Color & Brightness:  Quite a few prints didn’t “place” because of issues in any of these elements.  Some examples of common problems:

›  The Contrast may be too high: A high contrast image has a harsh look when the subject matter doesn’t call for it –  It typically has a lot of dark areas and a lot of light areas, and very little in the way of mid-tones. Your highlights will be washed out and your shadows will be blocked up — in other words, no detail in your highlights and shadows.

›  The Contrast may be too low: A low contrast image is flat and lifeless when it shouldn’t be – it’s mostly mid-tones, with very few dark areas and light areas. Your shadows are washed out and your highlights are dull.

›  Improper Color Balance:  As an example:  in a print of an elephant, the elephants’ grey skin had a heavy unnatural purple/blue cast to it, rather than the more neutral gray color that it should be.

›  Brightness Issues: If your print is too light, it will looked washed out – you’re more than likely to lose critical tonal detail & color range,  If it’s too dark, it may not have the “pop” or sense of “presence” that the image deserves.

• See Class 2, “Control your Contrast & Color – one of five free live & online “Photoshop 101” series of Meetups (or free videosfor much more on Contrast, Color & Brightness.

    • Over & Under-sharpening:  If your print is over-sharpened, it’ll have a “rough” & “crunchy” look to it – perhaps even to the point of causing “halos” – making it look phony & unnatural.  But, if it’s not sharp enough, then you may not be properly showing the available detail in your print.  If either condition exists, then the judges have one more reason NOT to give you a ribbon!

•  For more info on proper sharpening techniques in Photoshop, check out my blogpost here with enlargeable sample pics.

    • Not enough digital information from the original capture (and the resultant over-processing):  Digital photography is built on the foundation of digital information – the more you have at the original capture, the more you can do with the file – including properly enlarging to print specifications (pro tip: you should be shooting in RAW for your important stuff – much more here).
        • By the way, if your file doesn’t enlarge well to your desired size (say, 11×14 on 16×20), simply reduce the print size to something like 8×10 on 16×20 – the judges would much rather see a good image a bit smaller in print size, versus a bigger print size that looks pixellated & blown out.
    • Digital Noise:  Especially in night photography & dark shadow areas – the print (or areas of the print) will have a “speckled” or mottled look, and it’s usually not desirable.  It’s similar in look or feel to bad “grain” in film photography.  See Class 3 on “RAW Fundamentals” – one of five free live & online “Photoshop 101” series of Meetups (or free videosfor much more on reducing Digital Noise.
    • Bad or Incorrect Masking Techniques / Halos: – In post-processing, dividing your file into “Zones” of Contrast, Color & Brightness is a wonderful & effective technique to get the absolute most out of your image – – but only if the transitions between those “Zones” are clean, free of defects, and look natural.  Too many prints had halos & unnatural breaks between Zones – they looked “manipulated” & artificial.  This is especially noticeable in hair, feathers, difficult horizons, and so on – just one more reason for the judges to NOT award you a ribbon.
    • Minor Distractions:  I’d suggest cloning out minor distractions that subtract from the overall images’ impact – such as branches, fence posts, power lines, trash and so on.
      • Now, the “Purist” in you may say, “but, it’s part of the original scene” – and I might even agree with you a wee bit (being a reformed ‘Purist’ myself!).   That being said, here’s a suggestion: if it’s minor, and distracting to the images’ overall success, then Crop it or Clone it!
      • I’d suggest not being such a “Purist” that you don’t take advantage of some of the amazing tools available to you to remove MINOR distractions flawlessly, which will contribute to the images’ overall success.
    • Bring out the eyes of “‘Critters”: especially animals like cats, birds, etc – and yes, occasionally even those of the human persuasion!  But don’t get too extreme, or it could look like something out of “Night of the Living Dead”, haha!
    • Full Bleed vs Matted (for all but the “Large Print” Category): The Question:  In this contest, is it better to print your image as a full bleed 16×20 (with no border), or is it better to matte the image with a border, such as 11×17 on 16×20, with a White or Black Matte?

The definitive answer?  It depends (how’s that for going out on a limb?) …

As the Fairs’ exhibition hall was originally designed for racehorse betting, it has a lot of visual distractions – we’re not talking about an art gallery setup here (although the staff does a superb job with the resources they have available). Having a Matted print allows the viewer to better focus on the image by breaking up those distractions – and I believe most judges, including myself, would tend to agree.  

So, which to use?  I generally believe that most need to be matted, but it truly depends on the image.  It has to be super-sharp, AND it would have to work with a 4:5 (16×20) crop ratio  – it wouldn’t work for, say, a Pano image.

The enlargeable pic below shows the 1st Place print from each category, set up to judge the “Best of Show”.  I’d guess that around 5 of the 34 First Place prints were full-bleed – I’d also guess it was about that same ratio for all of the Tier 2 prints.

By the way – for the “Large Prints” Category, I believe full-bleed is usually warranted, as they are displayed in the best part of the Exhibition hall for viewing prints, AND the print can be odd-sized, reflecting the optimum crop for the image.

      • For more on my LightJet printing & finishing services, Click here


Group Judging for “Best of Show” – click to enlarge


Mounting Issues & Specifics:


    • The 16×20 final print size is an “absolute” (except for the Large Print Category):  the specifications from the Fairs’ entry information are quite specific, yet over 30 prints were initially submitted that were the wrong size (usually smaller or odd-shaped).  Fortunately, upon initial submission, quite a few of these entrants had time to obtain a 16×20 foam board at the last minute, attach their previously-mounted print to that, and re-submit for Tier 2 by the final deadline – yikes!
    • Avoid mounting your print on a substrate that might be too heavy to hang (i.e.Acrylic, Hardwood, etc) – otherwise, it might fall & become damaged.  This happened to maybe a half-dozen prints at the Exhibition this year, despite a weight limit of 9 pounds.  Note that all images are attached to the display walls with industrial-strength Velcro by the experienced staff.  And Velcro is indeed wonderful stuff – but it has limitations.  By the way, because of continued problems, the new maximum weight limit for 2023 will probably be 4 to 5 pounds per print, the weight limit is 7 pounds in 2024, including the Large Print Category.
    • Avoid any physical defects in the mounting/matting process, such as a dirty or crooked matte board, the print being loose or wrinkled on the matte board, and so on.  If the judges see this stuff, it’s one more reason for them NOT to give your print a ribbon.  By the way, I consider major mounting & matting issues to be one of the few legitimate grounds to reject a print from hanging in the Exhibition (see much more in the next section below regarding  “Physical Presentation”).



Final Group Judging for “Best of Show” – click to enlarge


Judging & the Photo Contests’ Tier 2 Reject Policy:


This pertinent information appears in the 2022 Photo Contests’ Entry Information PDF:  “Advancement of images to Tier 2 does NOT guarantee that a print will hang in the show – images must meet Fair rules and judges’ standards for print quality and presentation … The decision of the judges is final.”   

For 2024:  “Advancement to Tier 2 delivery does not guarantee that a print will be in the show; images must meet Fair rules and judges’ standards for print quality and presentation. Accepted work may be disqualified if misrepresented or not ready for display. Each image will be evaluated on its own merits by photographic professionals. The decisions of the judges and coordinators are final.”

As judges, we get to define those “standards” – and, in a way, “make our own rules” (but always within the framework of the Fairs’ official rules & the Photo Coordinators’ direction, of course).

So – – keeping in mind that the same group of judges (three individuals) judged the same Categories in both Tier 1 & Tier 2, you’d think that if they advanced an image to Tier 2, then they generally should like what they see in the Tier 2 physical print – right?  Hey, they’re the ones who advanced it!

Yet, in my opinion, far too many Tier 2 prints are still being rejected to hang for the Exhibition solely for SUBJECTIVE reasons (about 20 prints this year – as many as 60+ in past years!).  

I personally believe that entries accepted to Tier 2 should generally NOT be rejected to hang based solely on overall subjective views of the print.

And before I explain why, it’s a good idea to separate the Subjective View of a print from its Physical Presentation:

    • Subjective View:  As we view a print, we may think, “It’s too dark, there’s not enough contrast, it’s too saturated, I don’t like it, blah, blah, blah”.  We ALL view a print subjectively –  it’s personal, intangible, illusory, abstract – and yes, even biased (I’m definitely not a Picasso fan, for instance, haha).  Remember, beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder – it’s one of the qualities that makes judging (and life) quite interesting!
    • Physical Presentation:  I’m talking about the physical appearance of the submitted print – the way it physically displays, presents & exhibits in a Contest environment.  The physical presentation of a print is more “objective” in nature, such as mounting or matting issues, wrinkled prints, within the rules of the Contest, etc.

So, why should we NOT reject a print from Tier 2 solely for “Subjective” reasons?  

    • The biggest reason of them all:  it’s SUBJECTIVE – it’s intangible, illusory, abstract and so on – – it’s based on a subjective read of a print, which would probably have a completely different result with a different set of judges, location and/or time of day (pro tip: read those italicized words again!).
    • It also discourages further participation in future Photo Contests – the Fairs’ contest and others.  Any Photo Contest should be, above all else, a learning opportunity for the entrants.  Think of the time, money, talent & educational opportunities that went into getting that physical print ready to display in Tier 2 – only to be rejected to hang solely for subjective reasons – – major bummer (pro tip: read the italicized words from the previous bullet point again!).  Plus, they usually won’t enter this contest again – which is truly a loss for everyone.

And, why (possibly) reject from Tier 2 for any physical “Presentation” reasons?

    • It’s just that – it’s “physical”, and you can control it – I mean, in an “objective” sense, 16×20 is 16×20, right?  We can measure it – it”s tangible, and an absolute.  Contrast that with a “subjective” view, where everything is an “intangible” – it can mean anything to anybody.
    • It also reflects on the Photo Judging process & the contests’ rules as a whole – generally speaking, it’s either right, or it’s not – –  ’nuff said.
    • Examples of “Presentation” Problems:  •  the matte board is attached crooked or is falling apart  •  the print is loose or wrinkled in the matte board  •  dirty matte boards  •  unevenly-cut mattes  •  major scratches on the print  •  wrong matte color or material
    • Oh, and why do I say “possibly” above?  Because, ultimately, it’s still up to the judges as a group.  Perhaps they decide to go ahead and hang it, because it’s a really strong “subjective” image – – even if the “physical” presentation of the print is poor.

Again, as judges, we get to set our own “standards” (but new future Contest guidance & rules may be on the way) – – so when I judge, I make my views on rejecting and not hanging prints known to our group of 3 judges before we even start – – I always suggest 3 things:

1):  that we never reject a print from hanging based solely on a subjective read of the print.

2):  that if we reject a print from hanging, we reject it only for really poor “presentation” – objective, physical, bad mattes, not within the rules of the contest, etc.

 3):  that as a group we agree to not reject any print at all, unless all three judges are in unanimous agreement.


The experienced leaders of the awesome SDC Fair Photo Contest crew giving out final instructions to the judges – click to enlarge




By the way, here are my San Diego County Fair Photo Contest FAQs with all sorts of fun & useful information: https://wattsdigital.com/sdc-fair-photo-faqs




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Questions? Please contact me – also, feel free to comment and forward this to your photography friends!


Thx again, and cheers,


John Watts 🙂





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