EP139 The Judging Is Done (And So What Have I Learned?)

The judging for the BIPP 2023/2024 International Print Awards is done and dusted and there some simply stunning images have been on the lightbox.

The results come out later in the year, but I thought I’d muse on some of the things I learned along the way by listening to the judges as well as some observations of my own.  Some of these you’ve heard me mention before, but one or two may be new to you (and to me for that matter – who knew that all judges have the same problem when it comes to picking out their own competition images?!) but all of them are useful.



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Episode Transcript

 Today is my birthday. So before I get any further, I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s posted on my Facebook timeline, in WhatsApp, in text messages. Every year, every year, I forget that the internet knows when we are all born. I even had a couple of birthday bonuses from a few of our software suppliers, which is weird, but very clever marketing.

Anyway, thank you to everybody who has, and as I look at it right now, still is, wishing me birthday greetings. I will endeavour to get to all of them to say thanks. I also have to say, this morning, I have just had one of the best gifts. Sarah has bought me an ice cream maker. I cannot tell you how excited I am.

I’ve always wanted one. I’ve always coveted them. I’ve seen them on, , MasterChef and these baking programs. And I’ve just loved the idea that I can pour some milk, some cream, some flavoring into this machine and out comes ice cream. It’s just the little kid in me, I can’t help myself and it’s just, I’m opening it this morning and I was beyond excited.

So I am Paul, tonight I will mostly be eating ice cream and this, well this, is the Mastering Portrait 📍 Photography Podcast.

Hello one and all. So what has happened or has been happening in our busy little studio? Well, a couple of highlights actually, one of which was travelling over to Limerick, or near Limerick, to a place called Adare in Southern Ireland to photograph Niall and Elaine’s wedding. Sarah and I took the opportunity of doing a

full on road trip starting in Belfast, heading up to Londonderry and then down through the West coast of Southern Ireland and ending or not ending, spending a couple of days at a Dare Manor in near Limerick, which is just amazing. The most beautiful. Intense wedding for a number of reasons, quite a high pressure one, but both Sarah and I were shooting it and it was just the most amount of fun.

The weather didn’t entirely play ball, we did see some incredible rain. Luckily I was ensconced in the church doing a final few bits of wrap up. Sarah, unfortunately, was trapped outside a gate trying to get back to the car, ready for us to scoot back to the hotel. And unfortunately got absolutely soaked, but it was still a stunning, stunning day with drummers, uh, Irish dancing, , more speeches than I think I’ve ever photographed in a wedding, and a huge amount of fun.

Some of those pictures already going up onto our Instagram feed, uh, but, uh, what an absolute week. A ton of portrait shoots, in particular one that stands out is a shoot we did for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the RI. Now, every year I get to this stage of the year and I am talking about, uh, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and this year’s no different.

Uh, we’ve just published an article with Professional Photo Magazine on one of the key shots we took of that. Uh, and having a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, as I do, makes this year’s topic absolutely Fascinating. This year, the Royal Institution, the lectures all talk about artificial intelligence, what it is, what it means, what the future holds, how we could benefit and some of the dangers of it.

And so we spent the day or half a day in London and half a day in Oxford photographing an incredible guy, Professor Mike Waldridge, who is an eminent, eminent an eminent scientist in this particular field. We photographed in the lecture theatres, we photographed in the streets, we photographed in one of the oldest libraries in the world, the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

We photographed with these huge robot dogs, which were frankly frightening, but also really cool as they strutted their way across the college grounds. And we photographed in a basement server room. Now these pictures you see. of people in server rooms. They always look flash and big and glorious. But of course, that was never going to be the case for us.

We were in a very small server room that was incredibly loud. People don’t realise how loud server rooms are, and so we spent most of the time with ear defenders on and only asked Mike to take them off when we needed the photograph, which meant nearly all of the setup was done using hand gestures. And trying to mimic things.

And then on top of that, we had to turn the lights off, the house lights, to be able to take the photographs because the house lights were not particularly attractive. So we’ve taken a couple of LED lights in with us to create the lighting. We want blue gels, as you might expect, but an awful lot of fun and a couple of really beautiful pictures.

And one of those I’ve just written up and put out in one of the future editions of Professional Photo Magazine . Last week, we, or the last couple of weeks, we’ve held two different guild, or two different workshops, rather, for the Guild of Photographers.

Both have been an absolute blast. The first was Oxford, and it was all about off camera flash. Which, in my opinion, is probably the hardest of all the aspects of portrait photography to learn, because… When you’re working in the studio, we’re using nothing but Studio Flash, well, the light is the light. When you fire them, that’s what you get.

When you’re working outside with available light, or working in a building with just available light, again, what you see is what you get. It’s all very straightforward. But bringing the two together, that has its challenges. It’s not impossibly hard, but you do have to sort of understand which bits are doing what, the power of the lighting compared to the ambient lighting, when you adjust your shutter speed, it makes no difference to the strobes, when you adjust the aperture, it makes all the difference as it does with the ISO, and yet invariably you end up adjusting the wrong thing, and I’ve been doing this a very long time.

So that was an absolute joy, although Oxford Did throw the worst weather you could imagine, and sadly the hotel didn’t entirely, it didn’t entirely, uh, help us because the air conditioning unit wasn’t working. One of the hottest days of the year, we’re in a room with no air con, so we stepped outside, and no sooner had we stepped outside…

into the heat than a huge storm came and we all got wet. So then it was back indoors trying to find an area that was cool, but nonetheless had an awful lot of fun, created some beautiful pictures. So thank you to everyone who came onto that particular workshop. And then the second one we’ve we went up to Scotland just recently for a two day event.

Uh, up in Peebles, which it turns out is in the middle of nowhere. Uh, most beautiful, the most beautiful drive up there. Now we arrive late in the evening and it, I don’t know if it, if this is the same with you, but when you know you’re going somewhere and people are waiting for you to have a meal and have a drink and have a chat, then it’s just the loveliest thing.

It’s the best way to arrive at a hotel. So, uh, Jeremy, Neil, and Miranda, all from Graphistudio, we knew they were waiting for us because they were texting us. And we were heading there up through the winding roads of, uh, southern Scotland and it really was a little hair raising because we were in the middle of a torrential storm and even my trusty Land Rover Defender, uh, at one point I did think we were about to stack it, uh, as the road wound The road wound down through a valley, and we hit the most incredible, uh, wash of water that was running across the road.

And just for the briefest of moments, it was a complete whiteout. Couldn’t see a thing, and I knew the road had a corner coming up, uh, and it took a minute. Uh, and some very careful braking, and some very, uh, careful maneuvering to make sure we stayed on the road. Uh, but we arrived, the guys were waiting for us, and it was into the bar for some nice food.

A pint and a whiskey and some incredible conversations. So thank you to Miranda, Jeremy and Neil, who waited for us to have our food. And then of course, thank you to everyone who put on, uh, the, um, the workshop. So Steve, Leslie and Amy from the Guild and Gary Hill was there up as well. So it’s always just going to be the best.

A couple of days. The workshop, well that was a lot of fun. The workshop we were running this particular time was Available Light, which is my favourite kind of light, because it basically means whatever you’ve got available to you, let’s see what we can do. We then went off over to Dumfries, to just west of Dumfries, to spend a few days with friends.

As usual, customer service seems to run a thread through. Everything. So, we’re in this little hotel in, uh, Dumfries, west of Scotland, and the couple have just taken the place over. And the big tick box is they were lovely. On the downside though, a little disorganised. When we came to pay the bill, uh, they had not put everything on it.

And, uh, to be fair to Sarah and myself, we were very honest and said, you’ve missed a night’s worth of drinks. And it was also the most expensive night’s worth of drinks, because it was the first night we’d arrived. And we’d spent the night… So basically, we’d spent the night drinking and watching Sarah play pool.

So Sarah is an absolute demon, which she walks into a bar, and there’s a pool table. So, immediately we went and got some change, and we’re shoving pound coins in this thing. I think she only lost once, and that was the last game of the night to me. Every other game, she beat myself and our two friends repeatedly.

It was only the very last game, and I can’t help but think she might have left me. Win. Oh, might have let me win. Rather, just out of charity. She got her eye in, she’s drinking a pint, and, well, she is a pool demon. Uh, ArtCentre, there’s an incredible ArtCentre up there, which our friends work for. And they, uh, Had a couple of shows and a beer tasting, which we attended, and again, customer service, just wonderful, they made us feel so welcome, which, given we’re south of, we’ve come up from south of the border, isn’t necessarily, in this little village of 300 people, in this art centre, isn’t necessarily the way it’s gonna go, but everyone was so welcoming, it was just brilliant.

On the way back, uh, yesterday… Things didn’t go quite to plan. We’d done about 25 miles, I think, when an engine warning light came on, on the Land Rover, and the power dipped away. And I had just enough power to get us turned round and back to a Starbucks. So if you’re going to break down, it’s a rule of thumb, right?

If you’re going to break down, make it warm and comfortable. So, uh, we contacted the RSC, uh, and within an hour they arrived. They put the engine test stuff on it, and they could see that the, uh, secondary oxygen sensor was reporting, uh, the air quality sensor, whichever one it is, was reporting some errors.

So, he climbed all over this engine, and it, uh, you’ve ever seen the inside of a Land Rover Defender engine, or the engine compartment, there’s no room at all. And variously, uh, between the two of us, we’re trying to find what might have gone wrong. And eventually he says, I think I can hear an air leak. He said, I’m going to drive it.

So off he went. At which point, Sarah and I did have a brief discussion about, uh, what happens if this was a scam. And I’ve been left with an RAC van and he’s got all of my cameras, all of our computers. All of the images we’ve photographed over the past couple of days in our Land Rover. Anyway, fortunately, he came back and he was absolutely resolute.

I think it’s down there. I can hear it. Sure enough, after another half an hour of hunting around. He found one of the hoses, a big air intake hose, that got actually a pretty small hole in it, but that hole was imbalancing the whole of the engine. So, uh, whipped that out, adhesive in it, gaffer tape, put it back together, and we were back on the road within two and a quarter hours.

So to Martin, the RAC engineer, who came out and fixed the car, I have to say thank you because the customer service was exemplary. He was absolutely determined to find this fault. He was convinced it wasn’t anything major, but equally, I couldn’t drive the car without fixing it because there was no power.

So thank you to Martin from the RSC. Again, customer service. Whatever else you do in your business, customer service runs through it. And then one other workshop we’ve run here in the time since the last podcast was the Mastering Dog Photography workshop. We’ve changed the format a little this time.

We’re still photographing dogs, but in the afternoon, so in the morning we’re photographing dogs, and in the afternoon I spent it going through the photoshopping. So we took some of the images. That, uh, we’d shot in the morning and then we finished them up and showed exactly how I would prep them, how we’d import them, how we’d name them, how we’d prep them, how we’d finish them.

So you get the full, uh, workflow, uh, and it seemed to work really, really well. The feedback seems to reflect that that is definitely a thing that we will do quite a lot more of. There are more workshops on our website and I’ll give you some dates at the end of the podcast. One other thing, and this is actually the topic of the podcast really, is as Chair of Awards and Qualifications, or Qualifications and Awards for the BIP, for the British Institute of Professional Photographers, um, I…

I oversaw the international image competition 20 or print competition 2023 2024. And during that, obviously, I’ve got six judges, brilliant, brilliant photographers, all fellows and experienced judges, looking at the images and scoring them one by one by one by one by one. And we’ve got 300 or so images to get through over two days.

And it was really interesting, not just. Obviously, I get to see these incredible images, but I get to hear the things that judges are talking about. So every time there’s some kind of challenge, whether it’s because there’s a wide score difference or whether it’s because one judge feels that an image is either been overscored or has been underscored, then there’s a discussion.

Each judge in turn states their case and the image is re judged. And of course, during that process, I get to hear the things that the judges are talking about, both good and bad. And so I’ll talk through some of those. And not only that, but when we went for a drink in the evenings, the judges also talked about things that are going on in their lives.

And so there’s a couple of little bits in there that I thought, or there’s one in anyway, that I thought might be interesting. So let’s have a think, or let’s talk rather, about some of the things I heard during the judging. The first and the most common is over sharpening. In theory, If you’ve taken a sharp image with a half decent lens, you probably don’t need to do any sharpening at all, certainly for a decent print.

Yet an awful lot of the images that we’re seeing, um, some were over sharpened, where clearly they thought I want some bite to the print, so I’ll turn the sharpening up. And what you actually get if you look carefully, and judges do look carefully, is you get little tiny halos. Around hair, where dark areas meet light areas, you get these sort of really weird tiny, we call it haloing, but it’s really where you get a tiny little light and dark line around the edge.

And that actually is what sharpening does. There’s no such thing as sharpening, it’s not a thing. What it does is it changes the contrast between darker and lighter areas, a variable amount, and if you overdo it, it becomes visible. But on top of that, there’s another effect that we’re seeing a bit more of recently, and I just warn people to be careful of it.

If you’re entering print competitions and it’s either called clarity or it’s called structure depending which particular package you’re using and it’s essentially a local contrast. So sharpening is a hyper local contrast. You really are talking about pixels next to each other, local contrast, clarity or structure are.

Still local contrast, but over a slightly larger area, and they add sort of texture almost to an image, and that also is playing into this. So we’re seeing these images where it feels like an additional layer of this detail enhancement, whether it’s clarity or structure or local. Contrast is being added in and you don’t really need to do it on a great print.

Um, you can use it for effect. Some monochromes really benefit from it. If you have got a picture of an old fisherman, this is the kind of effect that you see quite a lot, but I’d be very cautious of over sharpening. Also, if you have a grainy image, if you have an image with sensor noise on it, as you turn the sharpening up, we’re going to see that in the grain itself.

Now there are a couple of excellent plugins kicking around at the moment. one is called DxO Pure Raw. Which is a phenomenal plugin for cleaning an image up based on the lens characteristics. It removes distortions, it removes aberrations, but you really don’t want it to be removing the lens softness. Because it is, again, applying a sharpener. And what people are not really looking at is they’re seeing this image and at first glance it looks nice and sharp, but the reality is these things introduce these halos.

So that was one and it was really… Really common. That came up over and over and over again. Right. Next thing, colour casts in the printing. So when you’re printing, you really need to see your own print. Now, I don’t know how many people have calibrated lights to look at their printing. I don’t know how many people use labs.

I don’t know how many people use printers in their own studio. But the truth of it is every person. Entering an image or print competition needs to have seen their own print and we assume as judges that you have. So when we’re looking at it, you will never see or never hear a judge saying, well, that could be the lab adding a colour cast.

It might be. the photographer never saw the image and it might be that there is a colour cast coming out of the lab. But that’s not the lab’s problem and it certainly isn’t the judge’s problem. It’s the photographer’s problem. Now, if you haven’t seen your print, Well, that’s still your problem. If you have seen your print, well, it’s definitely your problem.

So look carefully when you prepare your images on the screen, you should have calibrated screens. Calibration kit, the Spyder, the Datacolor Spyder stuff is really not very expensive now. It’s about 150 quid for a really, what, what only a few years ago would have been a thousand pounds worth of calibration is now done in a heartbeat.

You do not need to spend more than that. So yeah, 150 quid or so, and you will get. You’ll get your screen calibrated. Then you run a print and you check to see what your print looks like. If your print’s slightly green, then you know it’s in the print or it’s in the profile that you’re using to print with.

So check your prints. It’s up to you to do that. It’s not up to the judges to make allowances that might have come straight from our lab. And we saw quite a lot where the prints were… Just off on the color and the difference between what we’re seeing or I’m seeing on the chairs screen, because I see each original image come up on my screen.

The judges don’t see it quite the same way. But I do get to see it. So I get to see on a calibrated screen what the original image was and then I get to see the print. And some of them were… Worlds of different apart. Now that’s not necessarily an issue. It might be that in the print you wanted muted tones.

You wanted to print on a fine art matte paper. You didn’t want the contrast that you were getting out of the file. That’s fine. Got no problem with that. But there were times when we’re looking at it and thinking, I think there’s a colour cast off that paper. And the photographer, the person who’s entered the image, has either not seen it at all.

Or when they have seen it, it has ignored it. It’s down to you. Colour casting your printing, get your workflow calibrated. Uh, by the way, just because, I mean, I calibrate our screens here, but I’ve been running prints off our printers for so long. I know exactly what’s going to come out. They’re not quite the same.

I know that my calibrated screens and the printer are not going to quite match, but I do know in which ways they differ. And I know that because I’ve been just doing it a lot. So it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is, you know, a screen is always going to give you a slightly different set of colours, uh, to paper.

But I do know the difference between the two, and I prepare the files ready for it. Uh, right, OK, matching your mount to your print. This is subtle and it’s all to do with, or it’s generally to do with, either the primary colour of your image matching the mount or not matching the mount, or it’s to do with the colour of the paper not matching the type of board that the mount is made from.

As a general rule, it’s a good idea, the safest way of doing it is to have a matte. A mount mat that is made from the same coloured, has the same coloured surface colour as the paper on which you’re printing. Now that’s, it doesn’t, it’s not always like that, but if you print, let’s say you print a black and white print, so there’s no colour in your print, it’s just monochrome.

The colour of the paper is going to come through. Any, any, any parts of the image that are nearly white, the paper is going to be the same colour, or rather the white’s going to be the same colour as the paper. In which case it’s a good idea to have the mount made from… The same colored. Why? Well, if you’ve got a very blue paper with lots of brightness in it and you mount it in a vanilla mount, it looks really weird and vice versa.

If you’ve got a fine art paper with a slightly yellow tone and you mount it in a brightened or white, high white, bluish white mount, again, that mismatch looks really weird. One or two, um, Prints where the colour, the predominant colour of the prints, even though there’s no white showing through, the colour of the print didn’t suit the mount that came in.

Equally, one or two absolutely popped. There were one or two really beautiful, low key pictures, very dark, moody pictures printed into, I’m sorry, mounted into a blackboard mount. Absolutely stunning. So when you’re presenting your image, think carefully about how you want the judges to see the whole.

Remember we’re talking about print here. And as an aside, just as a short thought is… Why do we use print? Well the reason we use print still is we’re not really, and I’m talking, I’m going to talk a lot about the print quality, but what we’re not talking about as such is the print. We’re talking about the photographer’s ability to prepare a file for print and to prove that it’s good by printing it.

So if a print is over sharpened, it suggests that that photographer is over sharpening their images, even if… They don’t normally end up printed. It allows us to see detail in a way that on the screens is a little tougher to do. You can do it, uh, the high, high quality ISO monitors, some of the BenQ monitors will allow you to see detail, and of course, in theory, we could zoom in and zoom in and zoom in, but that’s not really how the photographer intended it to be viewed, so we don’t tend to do that too much when we’re judging.

Um, but when we’re judging a print, we see it literally as the photographer should have seen it. Essentially, you print it, you mount it, you as the photographer check it, you put it into a, into some packaging, you send it to us, we open it, we then look at it. It’s the safest and most assured way of ensuring, there’s a lot of insurings in there, it’s the best way of ensuring that the, uh, what we’re seeing is exactly what you, the photographer, Intended us as judges to see.

And the same when I enter competitions I make sure that I’ve had eyes on every single one of those prints and when it goes into the the packaging I know the next time a photographer looks at it they’re going to see. Exactly what I saw. Now they will find defects in that, that I didn’t see. That’s slightly different, but I know that it’s exactly what I saw.

Whereas if we did it digitally, if we did it on screens, that process is a little less certain. So if you’re working on an iMac and then we put it on an ISO monitor, if you’re working on a Windows machine and I put it on a Mac, all of these have subtle variations in the colour. Even if you’ve calibrated.

So, at the moment, the best way we have of knowing that what we see is what you intended us to see or what, you know, what judges, uh, for judges to be certain that what they’re seeing is what the photographer intended them to see is to use print, which is why we do it. Right, back to the things I heard. Uh, blown highlights and blocked blacks.

Fairly common these, uh, what do we mean by those? Well basically, a blown highlight means that when you lay down ink on the paper, all we’re seeing is the original paper showing through. No ink goes down onto it. Similarly with blocked up blacks, there’s no detail in there, there’s no shape, there’s no nothing, it’s just black.

Now you can have both of these things in an image and it’d be completely successful. If you photographed, uh, a snowy… scene with, uh, uh, I don’t know, a hare, or a, or a, what’s it, a snowy fox, arctic fox in a scene, then of course you can have highlights right up to the very top of what the paper will allow.

Essentially, as little ink as you could lay down. But it’s still a good idea to make sure that there’s some detail in those highlights. Because when we move around the print, you can see where there’s no ink that’s been laid down. Similarly, and I do a lot of these, uh, for the hearing dogs, is black dog and a black background.

You can have a completely black background if you wish to, and it can be very effective. But learn the techniques for making sure it doesn’t look like you’ve just got a floating dog in space. Um, if you’re going to do black, make sure that they are, it’s not quite black. You just notch it up a little bit because there’s an ink transition.

If you print something and it’s using only the black ink, that looks very different to something just a little bit lighter where it’s probably using all of the inks to lay down that colour. So just be careful of those. There’s some simple. Bits and pieces you can do to make that work. Also, if you’ve got a dog or an animal on a jet black background, there are going to be parts of the animal that would also be jet black.

Don’t just cut out an image and stick it on black and hope it’s going to work. If you’ve got scenes where there’s high contrast, you still want detail in those shadows. If it’s just a normal, let’s say it’s a portrait of someone in a dark room, you need to retain detail. Not only detail in your file, but detail in your print, and that’s a little bit trickier to do than people realise.

So check your prints, make sure that you haven’t blown out the highlights, uh, and you haven’t blocked up any blacks. Uh, okay, here’s one. You cannot… Pull back focus detail. If your image was out of focus, it’s still out of focus. No matter what Topaz will tell you, the guys that make these, the Topaz AI sharpener.

Now you can do certain things. There are techniques for improving using AI, improving a perception of a lack of softness, a lack of sharpness rather. But in the end, you’re still running very quickly into it being apparent that you’ve hauled that focus. Back because there’s, you’re still adding detail that wasn’t there.

You’re going to create halos. You’re going to create little tiny bits of detail that just don’t look quite right. And we will, or the judges rather, will spot it. And they did. A couple of really beautiful images came through in front of us that when we looked at really closely, you could see that at some point, um, They’d applied a sharpening filter to try and drag, uh, some sharpness out of an image that, uh, wasn’t quite the right bit of the image that had been focused on and was sharp.

Uh, and we spotted it. Uh, right. Uh, paper to image. Uh, of course, when you print, you’ve got to make a decision about what. Paper to use. Uh, commercial images typically are going to look good on glossier papers with richer colours, those deep saturations. That’s typically the way you’d expect to see commercial advertising images.

Fine art, I mean the papers are even called fine art papers. Very often they’ll look great on a matte paper, but not always, they’re not, these are not hard and fast rules, but print your image on a couple of different papers and see which one you like best. Don’t just run at it and say, well, I’ve got a box of fine art matte paper, I’m going to do everything fine art matte, because fine art matte papers typically have Lower DMAX, they have a lower contrast, which means your blacks are not going to be quite as black as they would be.

Um, on a glossier paper, your colours are not going to be quite as rich and saturated, and that might suit the image, of course it might suit the image. But equally, you might find that a black and white portrait of, I don’t know, a centenarian. Might look better on a, almost a semi gloss paper where you get that richness in the black and white.

Have a look, print, print your images on different papers and try them out because quite a few images that we saw this year and this is every year. This is not any different to any other. I find myself every year after I’ve done a load of judging. Broadly speaking, highlighting the same issue. So there is some new stuff this year because there are some new plugins that are sharpening images that probably you thought previously you couldn’t use.

And now people are thinking they can use, but just be very careful. Make sure you print it, make sure you look at it in the cold, hard light of day. Uh, composition and layout. Quite a few images, the judges ended up talking about, or said things like, they needed to let the subject breathe. They needed a bit more room around the edges, or they’d say something like, it’s a shame that the subject is just clipped by the mount.

And I’m looking at it on the screen, and I can see that the original file had space around it, but when it’s gone into the mount, That space is now gone and whatever, you know, sometimes it’s the tip of a nose or the edge of a hand or something is now touching the mounting, it’s touching the mat. Um, be very careful, allow your images to breathe, let the subject do its job.

That’s not to say that we don’t like to see a really tight crop. My general rule of thumb is either crop or don’t. For me, I really like a tight crop, I like it. You know, no extraneous details, the subject is the subject, um, and everything else is gone. Equally, I love the idea of space. So my particular thing as a judge is I look for space around an image, or I look for that punch that is created by properly going in.

Now, not every judge will feel the same way about me, and that’s the point of having a panel of judges. Um, but all of us would agree, if your subject is just touching the edge of the frame, probably you need to allow a little bit more space. Making sure that your Photoshop work is in visible. Um, I taught this on our Mastering Dog Photography workshop the other day.

We were doing vignettes and you never want to hear someone say, Oh, that’s a nice vignette. The idea of a vignette is that you never see it. Similarly, when you’re doing. Any kind of Photoshop work. There was a couple of images where we spotted how the image had been created because we could see it. We could see the Photoshopping that had been done.

So be very careful, very, very careful when you’re Photoshopping to always go back to the original image and just check that the changes you’ve made aren’t drawing your eye to the changes you’ve made. It takes skill, it takes time, and you certainly can’t do it the night before the entry, the night before you have to enter your image.

So just be cautious of that. Overblurring of backgrounds, this came up quite a bit in various categories where your subject You wanted it to stand forward from your background or photographer wanted to stand forward from the background and then they’ve gone in and photoshopped it. They’ve removed saturation in the background, they’ve blurred the background, they’ve photoshopped the background, they’ve vignetted the background, you know, and it ends up looking sludgy and artificial.

That’s not to say if you do it well, it isn’t incredibly effective, but. We saw quite a lot of it, and by the time we’ve seen 10 images that have these sorts of techniques, you start to sort of, one of the top things we look for in an image is impact. And if we’ve just seen five or six or 10 images that are very similar in their treatment, with this strong blurring and darkening and sort of vignetting, we’re going to get a little bit sort of, the impact is lost.

To all of us, to the judges, to me, uh, and probably to the market as well if these are the images you’re selling. Uh, skin softening, particularly when it’s on children. Now, high end fashion retouching is a very particular skill and it… gives you a very particular finish to the image. There are plenty of techniques out there, even including using things like texture overlays to totally smooth out the skin and then you put artificial texture back onto it.

That works when you’re talking about really high end, high, highly retouched fashion beauty skin work. Particularly if the model has had incredible makeup on as well. But when it’s kids A couple of times it came up and there was, you know, one judge actually said it’s such a shame to see children’s skin so heavily worked.

They don’t need it. And I think that’s true. We saw a few, um, and just, it’s just kind of be careful of it. You rarely need to do very much to children’s skin. Okay, there’s the obvious snot, dribble, spots, bruises. Stray hairs, dirt, the occasional cut or scratch, but you really shouldn’t need to do very much more.

Now, obviously, if your image is, you’re going for a painterly finish, as if it was painted in oils or painted in watercolour, or that’s the look you’re going for, then that’s slightly different. That smoothness in the skin will sit comfortably in the image. But if it’s just a straight portrait and you’ve overworked the skin, over sharpened the highlights in the eyes, over lightened the bottom of the eyes, particularly with children, is it just looks a little bit odd because they just don’t need it.

So just be careful on that front. Uh, connection with the subject. This is one, uh, we heard it a few times where. I think a few of the judges sort of questioned how miserable some children were being made to look in the photographs. Most kids are pretty joyous. And I know talking to Jeremy over at the Guild over the weekend, he was surprised when I said that you don’t see very many happy pictures winning competitions.

And I think it’s a shame, as does he. But I do understand why. If you think about the Mona Lisa, the most famous… Headshot in the world, really. Um, there’s an enigma in her gaze, her expression, the way she’s looking at you, the viewer, that enigma draws emotions out of you and gives you a sense of emotion. in your relationship with that picture.

That’s why enigmatic pictures, rather than anything too obvious, tend to do a little bit better because they, they draw a visceral response in any viewer. And that, of course, includes judges. But there is a difference between miserable and enigmatic. And one or two pictures we saw, and we see this every year, it’s not news, you couldn’t quite work out whether the child was sad or emotional.

There’s an enigma about them. Again, that line is very much about your personal style and what you like. But we did, it did come up in conversation a couple of times as to what’s the appropriate level of mood in the portraiture, particularly around children. Storytelling, I say this every year. It is the, it is the photographer’s job.

It’s the entrance job. If I’m entering a competition, it’s my job to get the story and the drama across to the judges. It’s not the judge’s job to figure it out. Now you hope the judges figure it out, but you’ve got to give everything they need to do it. So if it’s a dramatic image, if it’s a news story image, you’ve got to have everything that you wanted to convey.

That sense of moment, the sense of storytelling, the sense of theatre and drama, piecing all of the bits of the puzzle together, so that when somebody looks at it, they know exactly what it was you were either telling, what story you’re telling, or what moment you’re covering. And it’s… Down to the photographer to get that across.

It is not down to the judges to spend hours figuring it out. Uh, Titles. Titles on competition images. Now I’ll be honest here, I hate them. I don’t like titles because I’m a reasonably good photographer. Uh, I am not, uh, I’m a writer. I’m, you know, I do some writing, but that’s, my strength is in the creation and the production of the imagery.

It really isn’t in me thinking up titles for my images, but they’re there. And given they’re there, you have to make use of them and you have to spend some time thinking about them. So, you might as well use them to help either create emotion or draw the judge’s attention to something, or preferably both.

So, thinking off the top of my head, and I’m making these up, alright, these are not titles that we saw. An image such as image number one is not going to do as well as, let’s say, Lockdown Lovers, or The Last Goodbye, or Her First Smile. Try… And think of a title that adds a little bit of romance, or a little bit of drama, or a little bit of theatre, or draws the judge’s attention, uh, to, you know, maybe, maybe it’s something like his first black eye.

If you can’t Photoshop out a black eye, make it the subject of the story. I’ve no idea. What I do know is that having titles in a competition, and they’re there, means you have to use them, and you have to use them well. Don’t think that just because you, like I, don’t like titles, then you can just call it…

Image number one. That’s not helpful. Uh, another thing I noticed about the judging was that the judges rarely agree completely. And that is the point. We have a panel of five judges with one sitting out at any one time. And I think only after having judged 300 images, I think I saw five where the scores were in two or three.

Over the five judges, nearly all of the rest of the time, there was wider, much wider disparity between the scores because each judge is seeing things in an image based on their experience, based on their particular passions and skill sets. And that’s why we do it that way. It’s so that if you have a judge who is passionate about Let’s say print quality, if there’s a judge who’s passionate about storytelling or colour or black and whites or monochromes or particularly photographing wildlife, you know, all of these judges work together and come to a conclusion on balance as to which images or what score each image receives.

And that’s really, really cool and really, really interesting to be a part of. It’s a shame at this stage that we can’t get everybody to come and watch the BRPP judging, but the Society’s judging is live. You can go and sit in the auditorium and listen to the judges critique when they’re asked to or when they have a challenge.

And it’s fascinating to hear what each judge does or does not see, does agree with, doesn’t agree with, has awarded points for. And sometimes you get a judge who might award points for a certain thing and another judge may have deducted points for a certain thing. It depends entirely on their viewpoint and their skills and their experience.

Um, but in the end, and trust me on this, is when we got down to the final images, the winning images for each category, they are, they are stunning. The cream really does rise and the process we use absolutely, uh, does that. It brings the very best of the images to the top. And those images that you’ll see in a few weeks…

As part of the BIP award ceremony, they are absolutely incredible. And there’s no doubt at all in my mind that, uh, well, I always say the same thing that if you have different judges on a different day, you will get slightly different scores. We may even have had a different winner because at the end of the day, you know, two or three images we right up there at the top.

And I’ve asked this panel of judges. to select the winning image. But you will absolutely see the most beautiful images and the process by which we get there is rock solid and it was a real joy to see. Now as a word of reassurance at the end, the most momentous thing I heard was actually over dinner when we’d finished and the judges got chatting about the Selecting their own images, how we as judges as well select our images to enter into other competitions, and how well we do at that.

And on the whole, every judge had at least one story where there’s an image that they loved. And when either they entered it or they showed it to a mentor, the mentor would either advise against entering it, or when it went into the competition, it just didn’t score very well. In spite of the fact that they thought it would.

As the author, they thought it would. And that’s even the judges. And you’d really think, as judges, we’d be better placed to select what to enter, to prep it, to finish it, and get it up to competition standard. And while that is true, to an extent, there is some truth that we do know what to look for. We certainly know how to print and prep a file.

Assessing your own work without bias is incredibly tricky, even if you don’t look at your images for a year or two and you come back to them, it’s still really hard because you are laying on top of it everything you were trying to achieve and everything you experienced at that moment, whether it’s with a client, whether it’s with a landscape, whatever, you will have memories that change your perception of the image.

So when you’re entering All In competitions, be aware that even the judges themselves don’t always get it right in terms of selecting their own work. Because everyone, and I do mean this, everyone who enters an image into a competition believes it stands a chance of winning. Or why would you do it? Every image from every contestant in every competition has that one thing.

The author thinks it stands a chance. And that’s true of every entrant. And that’s true of us as judges. And I mean that as a kind of reassurance, that no matter what the results to this competition, no matter how well each of The content of the entrance the authors did, it still stands for us to as judges, that we’re forever surprised and disappointed at how our own images sometimes.

Anyway, on that happy note, I hope that’s useful, if not interesting, or hopefully it’s interesting and useful. Quick outro then, before I wrap up. We still have a few workshops coming up in the next month or two. On October the 9th, we have a workshop here at our studio, which is called Mastering Personal Branding Photography, which is all about headshots and personal branding, so portraiture, but with different sort of mixes of lighting.

We’ll do some studio, we’ll do some available light. We’ll talk about, uh, styling. We’ll talk about how you represent brands and people and characterization, all of those things. If you’re into that part of the market. We have a couple of places or have a place I think left on mastering personal branding photography that’s on October the 9th that’s coming up in a week’s time.

October the 23rd we have mastering available like my favorite topic of the lot because you literally walk out with a camera whether it’s in a hotel, whether it’s in a street, whether you’re in your studio, whatever you have available to you to create imagery, to create beautiful portraits. That’s on October the 21st, sorry, October the 23rd, and on November the 6th, so the day after Bonfire Night, we’ve got Mastering Advanced Studio Lighting.

This is an absolute ball, this particular workshop, because we just play. We drag out every bit of kit I can think of. We try things, we experiment, we play, we use gels and gobos and focusing spots. You name it, we play with it. Not all of it will be applicable to everyone who comes, but the imagery we create with those is just a huge amount of fun.

So there’s your three workshops that we have currently in. Our list coming up, October the 9th, Mastering Personal Branding, October the 23rd, Mastering Available Light, and November the 6th, Mastering Advanced Studio Lighting. They’re all here at our studio, they’re full day workshops, they start at 9, they finish at 5.

We serve the best lunch of any workshop. Anywhere! I know that because we made it so and we get the feedback that says yeah you have and I’m very proud of that. I like to think we also teach some really cool stuff about photography but in the end if you get a great lunch, have a good chat, enjoy it, then you’ll leave with energy and confidence and you’ll want to go and try the things that we’re teaching.

So head across to paulwilkinsonphotography. co. uk and go to our training area. You can book those, uh, these workshops. If you are a member of any one of the associations, or even a member of Mastering Portrait Photography, there are discount codes for them. We try to make sure we look after people who are involved with the same things that we are.

So there are discounts. If you can’t find them, then drop us an email. And one of us will get back to you, uh, with a discount code that, uh, well, you know, savings are savings, right? It’s always good. Uh, on that happy note, thank you to get, for getting to the end of the podcast. I hope once again it was useful.

Uh, I have an appointment with an ice cream machine. I’m very, very excited. But until next time, whatever else, be kind to yourself. Take 📍 care.

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