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I don’t understand photography competition judging

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Really, I don’t.

Four-spotted Orbweaver, by John H. Brackenbury

This spectacular spider image, captured by John Brackenbury, is a highly commended entry in the “Hidden Wildlife” category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards. As it should be. It is a striking composition. It is original. It is beautiful. And it is technically challenging to create. Properly lighting a small, backlit subject sitting that close to a wide-angle lens requires a masterful knowledge of exposure and strobe.

If Brackenbury’s orb-weaver is a runner-up, certainly the winning entry must be incredible. But no. Not in my opinion:

Scorpion Fly on a Leaf, by Leslie Holburn

The winning scorpionfly is a fine image. It is properly exposed and focused. It is better, in fact, than any scorpionfly photo I’ve ever taken.

But I would not have picked this over the orb weaver. There’s nothing novel or technically challenging here. The composition is standard bug-on-a-leaf. The light is ambient. The backdrop is distracting and not particularly thought out. Dozens of similarly composed, and similarly competent, images are uploaded to flickr every day.

Maybe I’m missing something. What about the scorpionfly merits a higher ranking than the orb spider?

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. MorganJackson 12:32 pm 09/26/2011

    I’m with you on this one Alex. Nothing wrong with it, just nothing special either (photographically). My guess is that scorpion flies are such charismatically looking insects that they may seem more “unique” or perceived as rare compared to a spider which everyone finds in their backyard.

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  2. 2. ktkeith 12:52 pm 09/26/2011

    The spider photo is gimmicky: technically deft but bizarre-looking; the spider appears to be some kind of monster falling from space; the distortion from the close-up lens and what appears to be a star filter putting rays on the sun just adds to an unnatural-looking scene. And the photographer went to lengths to get a distorted image – a perfectly good image of a natural-looking spider in natural perspective could have been obtained just by backing off a few inches.

    The fly photo is simply beautiful, naturalistic, and pleasing. The composition is classical (straight rule-of-thirds image placement; the fly is in a natural relationship to its setting, not larger than the sun), and the subtle shades-of-green background is beautiful but not distracting. Even the shape of the leaves balances the composition – the slanting leaf the fly is standing on leads the eye in from the edge toward the fly itself, and the vertical rib and mass of green color on the left stop the eye from leaving the visual center of the image. The careful control of focal plane, leaving the background in the background but keeping the fly perfectly sharp, also keeps the eye where it belongs. Everything about this image contributes to presenting a sharp, clear, informative, naturalistic, and pretty picture of its subject – no monsters, no blazing raybeams, no sparkly highlights, no warped masses of irrelevant clouds and earth and plants on a curved horizon. This photographer is like a master chef who is confident enough to display their skills using just a few ingredients in a perfect presentation, not trying to overwhelm with a flashy hodgepodge of stuff all thrown together.

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  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 1:16 pm 09/26/2011

    I wonder what the criteria could possibly be to get both of these in the running for top-spot?

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  4. 4. hsheridan 1:28 pm 09/26/2011

    ktkeith’s comment reminds me of the critiques leveled at early modernist paintings in the Salon. Why couldn’t the painters just present things naturally? Why did they have to be “gimmicky” and ignore the established rules for good paintings? Manet and the Impressionists wasted their technical skills on dramatics and overstepped the bounds of good taste.

    I’m not a wildlife photographer and certainly not a contest judge, but if I took the above comment as a grading rubric, I’d apply nineteenth-century values to judging the works: what is natural, classical, beautiful, and true is good. It moves the viewer to contemplate the perfection of nature, and not incidentally would look wonderful hanging in the hallway (or as a desktop wallpaper.) The spider photo, on the other hand, is much too brash, immediate, unnatural–as though the viewer wanted to be put in the place of a tiny insect in the grass, or be reminded of how bizarre nature can be.

    If I had to venture a guess why this attitude dominates, I’d say it is because photography in general and nature photography in particular has had to fight so long to be regarded as a proper art form. While “fine art photography” (a silly term) almost immediately leaped into modernism and beyond, nature photography hasn’t had a chance to move beyond the classical stage.

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  5. 5. OgreMk5 3:11 pm 09/26/2011

    I agree with keith’s analysis, but I’ll also add that because of the subjectivity of the entire process of art show judging, it could be as simple as the judge(s) don’t like spiders.

    Judge’s will often comment on why they chose a particular piece to win or place, but unless you can pin one down at a show, you’ll probably never understand exactly why they didn’t choose a particular piece.

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  6. 6. jtwatson 8:57 pm 09/26/2011

    I agree with Alex. The spider is the better photo. When judging a competitive competition, the judge often will look for reasons to “pass on a photo” as much as to pick a winner. the judges may have felt that a “star filter” was used and did not think it belonged in a nature photo. I suspect that the stared sun was from a very small aperture and not a filter.

    John Watson

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  7. 7. Jerzy New 9:42 am 09/27/2011

    Thanks for bringing this beautiful spider picture for me.

    I agree that the spider photo is the best. It is perfect recreation of a classic sci-fi book, Brian Aldiss “Hothouse”. In the book, giant spider-like creatures called traversers travel on a giant web spanning the sky over the jungles of future Earth.

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  8. 8. snofoam 11:49 am 09/27/2011

    I think the spider shot is definitely more striking. The winner is okay, but did they really get no entries that were more interesting than this? Surely someone must have submitted a photo with good quality, composition and something interesting actually happening.

    As a side note to the spider photo, my first thought was, I have a fisheye, I should try that sometime. Then I also realized that he is doing something that is actually quite common in underwater photography, often referred to as “close focus wide angle.” In UW photography the most common lenses are very wide angle/fisheye and macro, which are use to minimize the distance (and amount of water) between subject and camera. I think this type of photography is common underwater because a) it can be nice to focus on a detail while also putting it into a larger context, b) because fisheyes can usually focus quite close and also have a huge depth-of-field and c) because you can’t switch lenses underwater, so everyone will eventually find something small they want to photograph during a dive with their wide-angle rig.

    Anyhow, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a diver and if so, kudos to him for thinking out of the box in applying an underwater technique in a new setting.

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  9. 9. 12:11 pm 09/27/2011

    maybe it was death by committee? Too many judges and the only one they could all agree on was the blander of the entries?

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  10. 10. Sean McCann 2:18 pm 09/27/2011

    The skippers are better than the scorpionfly as well. What the hell?

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  11. 11. janeskid 5:29 pm 09/27/2011

    I would conjecture that you are looking at this judging of a photograph too specifically. Back off and consider judging of all contests. The judging of a dog show perhaps. There is somehting arbitrary about the finalists and winners in almost all such contests.

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  12. 12. HBG_Dave 12:13 pm 10/7/2011

    This is a good discussion, but I think the apparent discrepancy between the awards given to the two images has more to do with a ‘truth in nature’ ideal. This is a wildlife photography contest and the idea that we should try to represent nature accurately has a long history. The use of posed shots or captive animals is usually rejected in such contests.

    In the spider picture, technique trumps nature. My first reaction was that it looked like a great sci-fi cover painting, not a picture of a real spider. I suppose someone might stick their head out of a sleeping bag one morning and actually see something similar, but let’s hope not. Maybe the contest needs another category where more creative pictures can be judged.

    After reading ktkeith, I suspect that the winner is also a picture where technique has triumphed over nature. If a picture like the acorn weevil that one of Alex’s students took at his BugShot 2011 had been submitted, it should have blown the scorpionfly out of the vegetation.

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