Judging Photo Contests can be interesting…


Updated 09/01/21, and still relevant today …



06/03/2008 – A few weeks ago, I was again privileged to be a Judge at the San Diego County Fair Exhibition of Photography, always one of my favorite contests to judge (and one of the largest!). It is always lots of fun, and I get to spend time with other pros in the industry whom I haven’t seen all year.


This year I judged in 2 categories: Nature (Plants) and Underwater Photography. My fellow judges in that category were two individuals; one that I’ve known for over 25 years, Lee Peterson, and one that I just met, Larry Stein of Warp 9 Imaging. We clicked together well as a judging “trio”.


Suffice it to say, it was a great day. This was not quite as intense as last year, when I was judging one category with 800 entries (Can you say “speed judging”?). This year, we judged around 500 images in two categories – LOTS more fun and relaxed.


By the way, what was the one thing that made an image stand out from another? That’s easy – – Impact. I like to call it the “WOW” factor, because when you look at the image, you want to say “WOW!”.


So, what are some things that we noticed about the entries this year, both good and bad (and this is why it was interesting)?


First, the “good”:


  • The quality of the inkjet prints has drastically improved over past years. Lee, Larry and I believe it is less about improvements in the hardware, and more about the people doing the printing: The knowledge level and expertise of the folks doing the printing has obviously increased!!!


  • For the first time in ages, a black and white print won “Best of Show”.


Now, the “bad”:


  • For some reason, the composition of quite a few images got a little sloppy – not sloppy enough to keep an image from being accepted into the fair (only 3 out of 10 images are accepted), but sloppy enough to keep an image from “placing” or getting an “honorable mention”. And it was little things: An obvious edge of a finger that could have easily been cropped out, or even the edge of a building that obviously wasn’t part of the subject matter of the image.


  • One of the other things that stuck out like a sore thumb was the careless manner in which some prints were mounted. Again, it was little stuff – – Bent matte board, crooked matte cuts, wrinkles in the prints, dirty finger smudges and so on. Haphazard and slipshod mounting can destroy the overall effect of a great print – There were some very strong images that did not get accepted because of the manner in which they were mounted.




•  San Diego County Fair Photo FAQ’s: https://wattsdigital.com/sdc-fair-photo-faqs

•  Here’s my San Diego County Fair Photo “Print Special”: https://wattsdigital.com/sdc-fair-print-special



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•  By the way, this is all based on my Photoshop book designed for photographers, “Not just another Photoshop Book”, available exclusively on Amazon:



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


Thx again, and cheers,


John Watts 🙂




6 thoughts on “Judging Photo Contests can be interesting…

  1. Thanks for the comments on my blog and good reading here. I met Larry last week and we were discussing these aspects of the fair as well.

  2. Interesting post about the judging. Unfortunately, IMHO, photography has been ‘reduced’ to the WOW! factor. There is little time, understandably in a contest, with which to sit and admire the content of an image. It must strike at the judge rattlesnake-fast!

    This is similar to the amount of time that people spend on a blog, for example. If there is a long article, perhaps with points for consideration, it is rarely read in its entirety. People have short attention spans. We are used to the 15 or 30 second commercial.

    Deep, or perhaps, profound photographs have seemed to fallen out of favor. Late last year, I took a Better Photo course on making money with your photography. The whole thing, in a nutshell, was about the WOW! factor. It was about hyper-saturated, greatly modified prints. I was turned off immediately. Interestingly, even though I didn’t finish all of the assignments, I was awarded top honors in my class. Go figure. 🙂

    Congratulations of your judging. It sounds like it was fun!

  3. Jeff,

    Larry is a great guy – I really enjoyed getting to meet him…

    BTW, I did not mention in my comments on your website how much I enjoyed your baby and maternity portraiture – – It’s especially relevant to me as my middle daughter is expecting her first child in August (Yeah, I’m gonna be a grandpa!) …


    John 🙂

  4. Paul,

    Good analogy between “speed-judging” and longer posts and folks’ attention spans…

    I judged a contest for one of the local camera clubs about 6 weeks ago, and this one was different – – I was the only judge, and they wanted me to make comments on every image – – and most of the photographers were in the room! Talk about enlightening, and having to be diplomatic in the rare instance when an image just didn’t work…

    WOW factor is very important, but I must say that you’ve given me food for thought…


    John 🙂

  5. It’s interesting, the role of a judge. So many people will put their whole faith in what a judge says and frankly, it’s all opinion. The judge is saying what he/she likes or doesn’t like. This is not an absolute right or wrong, but more of ‘this works for me’.

    During my class I had a picture that I particularly liked. It reminded me of a Norman Rockwell moment. I am particularly fond of his work, even though I don’t own any. Anyway, it was simply a picture of a mother and daughter walking under a huge eucalyptus tree on the way to the beach. It was, in my mind, the capture of the quintessential mother/daughter moment that would be remembered forever.

    The instructor didn’t like it. He said that it was a weak picture and that it should not be included in my portfolio. Well, for advertising, perhaps, but not to be included at all, I strongly disagreed because it portrayed what I wanted. It was my art, whether he liked it or not. 🙂

    So, I look at judgments as opinions. I guess that I have a thick skin or perhaps a healthy ego. 🙂 I do, however, like constructive criticism and, if I can see your point, I certainly will make a change to improve my photography.

  6. An excellent post, as usual, Paul!

    I can relate this to surfing – – I’m a surfer, and in the surfing world, there can be 2 kinds of surfers: Those that follow the surfing contests, and those that don’t. I don’t really give a rip about the contests – – I’m involved in surfing for my own physical/mental/spiritual well-being.

    Same with Photography – – You, obviously, are in it for your own well-being, not to “please” a judge… I think it is a healthy attitude – – There are definitely those out there that shoot for the judges, just like the pro surfers tend to surf for the judges…

    BTW, I love your image listed in the comments above – – very peaceful… not that it makes any difference, but I would score the image highly, LOL!!!


    John 🙂

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