May 12, 2009 / Photography

Catching the Judge’s Eye

Written by Bill Hankins

As I used to tell my students, you do not do journalism for the awards. There are many paybacks for student journalists just by producing a great story, photo, design or an entire yearbook to share with readers. But an award honoring a student’s hard work, creativity and dedication certainly is icing on the cake.

Most judges will provide a brief critique with the prizes, and some often comment on all entries in a category, but as with any creative evaluation some photographers are left wondering, “What was the judge really looking for in my photos?”

This is a good time, as contest entry deadlines approach, to ask one photography judge what criteria he applies when looking at the hundreds of entries he is asked to evaluate and honor each year.

Cliff White is a staff photographer on the Missouri Conservationist magazine in Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri with a photojournalism and teaching degree. Cliff has taught at the Summer Media Workshop and was a presenter at the JEA/NSPA national convention in Kansas City, Mo. Last year he took part in the prestigious Maine Photographers Workshop. For several years, he has been asked to judge the annual Missouri Interscholastic Press Association spring photo contest.

“I am always looking for the story-telling pictures,” Cliff says.

Whether photos are of club activities, academics or student life, he likes to see that photographers have worked to capture human expression and human emotion.

“I get a little tired of seeing people mugging for the camera,’ Cliff says. There is a place for portraits, but when it is an action situation, he says, subjects should be responding to each other, not the photographer.

A good example is at school dances. Often photographers will allow dancing students to turn and smile big for the camera, perhaps even asking couples to do so. A much better photo is one that captures the couple dancing their hearts out or smiling, laughing or just enjoying each other’s company.

Further, an award-winning shot is going to be tightly cropped with good composition. Nothing is in the photo that does not belong there.

Cliff judges a lot of photos of school assemblies. The stand-out images are those from photographers who find a different approach.

“Get on a chair, change your angle,” Cliff advises. “Look for some graphic elements that will lift the photo out of the ordinary. Bring your sense of art to it.”

Another category Cliff has judged in recent years is color photography. Although he believes color and black and white photography can compete equally, any photo entered in a color contest must have an element of color that is important to the content.

“The photographer must be using color to further the image,” Cliff says. “The color takes the photo to another level. The photo was not just entered in the category because it happened to be shot with color film.”

Cliff cites an example from several years ago. The photo is a portrait of a student leaning out a window looking at something. The window is used to frame him compositionally, but the frame is also a brilliant color and plays off the brightly colored cap on the boy’s head.

“Color was a strong element in the photo,” he explains.

A good example is at school dances. Often photographers will allow dancing students to turn and smile big for the camera, perhaps even asking couples to do so. A much better photo is one that captures the couple dancing their hearts out or smiling, laughing or just enjoying each other’s company.

Further, an award-winning shot is going to be tightly cropped with good composition. Nothing is in the photo that does not belong there.

Cliff judges a lot of photos of school assemblies. The stand-out images are those from photographers who find a different approach.

“Get on a chair, change your angle,” Cliff advises. “Look for some graphic elements that will lift the photo out of the ordinary. Bring your sense of art to it.”

Another category Cliff has judged in recent years is color photography. Although he believes color and black and white photography can compete equally, any photo entered in a color contest must have an element of color that is important to the content.

“The photographer must be using color to further the image,” Cliff says. “The color takes the photo to another level. The photo was not just entered in the category because it happened to be shot with color film.”

Cliff cites an example from several years ago. The photo is a portrait of a student leaning out a window looking at something. The window is used to frame him compositionally, but the frame is also a brilliant color and plays off the brightly colored cap on the boy’s head.

“Color was a strong element in the photo,” he explains.

Some final thoughts
Putting Together a Portfolio
Some contests require photographers to submit a small portfolio of their work. Any scholastic photographer who has aspirations of becoming a professional should start preparing a portfolio whether for contests or to show a potential boss.

In Kansas City, Mo., the Journalism Educators of Metropolitan Kansas City hold their annual contest in the spring. One aspect of that competition is the Bill Garrett Photojournalism Award, named after the former editor of National Geographic magazine, who grew up in Kansas City and began his love of photography there. The competition requires the photographers to submit a portfolio of five images.

Cliff White has some advice for portfolio creation

  1. Use your best images; your weakest photo also shows the judges what you can do.
  2. Be brutal in your editing; do not repeat content.
  3. Choose a variety of different distances, angles and lenses used.
  4. Show a range of images — sports, news, etc.
  5. Show your flexibility and technique.
Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.