Monday, February 05, 2007

How (some) NPPA clip contests are judged

When I get my copy of News Photographer magazine, I always turn to the back section to see the monthly winning images. This month, all the images looked very familiar because the winners were chosen by The Beaumont Enterprise staff.

The following month, we chose the September winners of NPPA Region 4.

Consequently, it would be fitting to discuss the competition and give some folks some insight into how these are judged. Additionally, anyone entering the contest might take a serious look at the judges comments to understand expectations.

How photo contests are judged is often shrouded in mystery and confusion. They say newspaper editing is like making sausage, so is contest judging. So, let's clear up the judging process and learn how this sausage is made (hint, it's messy).

First, I'll vent about the judges comments I've seen in the past. I really dislike when judges try to make themselves look somehow more important with unnecessary comments such as, "The entire field was weak," or "None of these photographers are worthy of wiping my sweat."

That's garbage. It's an honor and privilege to judge the images submitted by these hard-working folks. Pick the best images from those presented and let the shooters enjoy their well-earned accolades. Say something nice and/or constructive or say nothing.

End rant.

When judging both contests, we used the same judging criteria. We spread all the entries on the floor by category, judged and moved to the next category. We gave plenty of time for everyone to look at every image and read each cutline.

Then, each staffer took turns selecting what they thought were the best submissions. These were set aside for second-round judging. The first PJ would typically choose about four images, sets or stories. The next PJ picked any additional images they thought should advance. After everyone was satisfied that their top three-to-five images were in the final set, the rest were collected and placed back in the envelope.

Next, we each said a positive sentence or two about why we thought an image should win or place.

Then, we voted on our top three choices. We assigned points to our votes. First got three points, 2nd got two points and 3rd got one point. These numbers were tabulated and placements were assigned.

If there was a tie, we held a head-to-head vote for the tying images. So, if two images tied in points for 2nd place, the vote decided which image was 2nd and 3rd because 1st had already been decided.

In the end, we were satisfied with the results. Yes, there are some images we have differing opinions about, but it was a fair contest. Instead of eliminating the worst, we selected the best.

This is basically the same process most PJs use to choose images for the paper. We don't scream about one soft-focus image (OK, we do, but it's rare). We pick a good set, narrow them down to the best, turn them out and move to the next assignment.

Judges rules
The photographers entering the contest should know the contest rules. The judges are given a set of rules as well. They are codified, but I don't have a copy. Nonetheless, here's the crux of the rules:

* There must be a 1st, 2nd and 3rd chosen in each category.
* Images must be judged in the category entered.
* Do not eliminate any entry without calling the national clip chair.
* Ignore reproduction issues (paper/halftone quality, color, etc.).

These rules should explain some of the choices. Basically, some images look fine in newsprint, but fall apart when published at full resolution in the magazine. We're required to judge for image content, composition and timing. We must give the benefit of a doubt to focus and exposure because those could be reproduction issues.

In the past, submissions that did not follow the rules (credit lines or paper affiliations were visible, no cutlines) were eliminated. Now, it requires a call to the clip chair to eliminate an entry. So, every image was judged, but these images must clear a slightly higher hurdle.

August 2005, National contest:   The results
Judges:   Pete Churton, Dave Ryan, Scott Eslinger, Jennifer Reynolds, Mark M. Hancock and Andrew Nenque

Spot News
1st Place:   Lannis Waters, The Palm Beach Post
2nd Place:   Matt Rourke, Austin American-Statesman
3rd Place:   Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic

Judges' comments
The winning photo got a perfect score with all judges selecting it as the top image. At the first vote count, only one point separated 2nd through 4th. Several strong photos could have been strong feature contenders. The category contained many natural disaster images. Dave Ryan said the images were overwhelming. "The magnitude of the events chronicled made for great photojournalism," he said. Scott Eslinger said he liked the tight, emotional photos in the category. Mark M. Hancock said, "I like the emotion and graphics of many images, but I prefer the action shots and dangers faced by the photojournalist to get the image." Pete Churton agreed. He said, "I think the action shows intensity and danger for both the subject and the photojournalist." Churton also liked an image of troops deploying while a mother of a newborn cries in the foreground by Marc F. Henning of The (Bentonville, Ark.) Morning News. Churton said, "I like the composition and play of light along with the motion and layers. Honestly, it is different than the other finalists."

General News
1st Place:   Tim Revell, Columbus Dispatch
2nd Place:   Dan Powers, The Post-Crescent
3rd Place:   Denny Simmons, Evansville Courier and Press

Judges' comments
The images tended to be clean and emotional. The one "happy" photo in this category didn't do well when juxtaposed with such painful images. Several images may have done better in features. Pete Churton said, "A whole lot of emotions were captured. The images show studiously planned access. They wouldn't get these images if the photojournalists were intrusive. We're eliminating some really strong stuff." Dave Ryan said the raw emotion of the first place image helped it win. Mark M. Hancock said the winning image must have been emotionally difficult on the photojournalist.

1st Place:   Chris Faytok, The Star-Ledger
2nd Place:   Stan Lim, The Press-Enterprise
3rd Place:   Will Lester, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Judges' comments
There were many clean images and lots of action in this category. Purely graphic images didn't do well when juxtaposed with action and humor. While there were extremely strong contenders in classic sports, many of the judges were impressed by the variety of non-traditional sports represented. Pete Churton said, "It's hard to go for elbows and armpits with so many great offbeat images." Dave Ryan preferred the winning image. "Covering golf as much as I have, something like that is a rare opportunity." Everyone liked the 2nd place image because it required attention. Mark M. Hancock said, "This is like encountering a new word. You must study it for a while and place it in context before it makes sense. The graphics and scale of the image are interesting and misleading. This image delivers visual rewards twice." Jennifer Reynolds' top pick of the day was the 3rd place image. "That is a very hard moment to get in baseball. The expression, the focus, the tight composition - it has it all." Bill Feig's, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, image of a center ripping the helmet off another player was extremely strong as well as a similarly painful looking shot by Sanford Myers of The Tennessean.

Feature / Single
1st Place:   Joe Burbank, The Orlando Sentinel
2nd Place:   Taylor Jones, The Palm Beach Post
3rd Place:   Janet L. Mathews, The Columbian

Judges' comments
Images showed good use of layers, graphics and emotions. Color was a dominant theme in this category. Dave Ryan liked the winning image. He said, "I've never seen that shot before. I've seen similar, but never that good. Jennifer Reynolds agreed. "It's unusual for a photojournalist to make a great feature image like that while covering spot news." Scott Eslinger liked the giraffe image. He said the photojournalist had to see the potential and wait until the moment happened. Andrew Nenque favored a state fair image by Erin Fredrichs of the Bangor Daily News. Nenque said, "It's an interesting shot. The lines, symmetry and everything else flows together. It's busy, but it's clean at the same time." Everyone liked the composition and timing of a hula hoop image by Shauna Bittle of the San Antonio Express-News, however it didn't make the final cut. Jennifer Reynolds asked aloud, "How many frames did it take to get that shot?"

Feature / Multiple
1st Place:   Patrick Schneider, The Charlotte Observer
2nd Place:   Elyse Butler, Concord Monitor
3rd Place:   Gary Coronado, The Palm Beach Post

Judges' comments
There were many fine photo stories and essays. Quality use of detail shots, gaining access to difficult assignments and working the subject was commendable throughout this category. "Rodeo kindergarten" was the second unanimous winner. It features good compositions and covered the emotional range of the subject. "Visiting Hours" allowed us to look behind the bars to the people and their families. "Retratos de Cuba" featured excellent use of light, composition and delicate timing for a quiet, fluid feel. Pete Churton said, "The combination of images works wonderfully, but each could stand alone. Together, they tell the bigger story."

National contest observations
As appropriate, the images at a national-level competition are better than the images submitted to a regional-level contest. Only the top three finishers in each category from each of the 10 regions make it to nationals. We didn't know the order the images had placed in the individual regions.

Consequently, there weren't any questionable images (rule breakers) in the national clip contest set we judged.

The only conflict we encountered was with a set of images we knew contained an image from the winning Pulitzer Prize group. Since I personally know, respect and like the PJ, I'll point out the problem with the entry so other PJs can avoid the same issue.

It's OK to submit sets of photos into individual categories. This may bolster their ability to win. However, the weakest image becomes the standard for the entire set of images. When competing against 29 strong individual images, every shot in a set must be better than any of the other 29 images to win.

Pete summed it up during the regional judging with a golf saying. He said, "Like in golf, your bad shots hurt you far worse than your good shots help you."

When you see other contest judges emphasize the need for a tight edit on photo stories, this is the laser point of their suggestion. If 12 images are submitted as a set in a category, ALL 12 must be better than anyone else's one image. It's a high hurdle.

The single image that won the Pulitzer Prize would have easily won if it was entered as a single. Unfortunately, it was entered as part of a very large set of similarly-angled images and didn't make it into the final three.

September 2006, Region 4 contest:   The results
Judges:   Pete Churton, Dave Ryan, Jennifer Reynolds and Mark M. Hancock.

Spot News
1st Place:   Denny Simmons, Courier and Press
2nd Place:   William A. West, Star Beacon
3rd Place:   John Dunham, Messenger - Inquirer

Judges' comments
About the first-place image Jennifer Reynolds said, "I like the composition. I like the moment with the mother holding the kids in traffic. Most flood shots don't have traffic as well." Pete Churton said, "I like the action of the event with the flood and family connection. Second place was tied for first until the final round of judging. Of it, Mark M. Hancock said, "The body language is so tender and fleeting under the circumstances. The image captures humanity during this crisis. The juxtaposition of the EMT's preparations makes this image stand out." Of the third-place image, Mark M. Hancock said, "This is a good capture. The photojournalist was on the scene and got access while emotions were still raw." One set of news images was strong, however the edit wasn't tight enough and weaker images brought down the whole entry. Churton said, "Like in golf, your bad shots hurt you far worse than your good shots help you."

General News
1st Place:   Erik Holladay, The Jackson Citizen-Patriot
2nd Place:   Jarold Tyler Klassen, The Truth
3rd Place:   Ryan Garza, The Flint Journal

Judges' comments
The first-place image won unanimously. Jennifer Reynolds said, "I really like the moment. We saw a lot of 'soldiers departing' shots (during national clip judging) and this stands out because of its lighting. But, I like the moment very much. The silhouette makes it a better photo." Pete Churton also liked the second-place image. He said, "It's an emotional moment that is emphasized successfully by a strong horizontal crop." Dave Ryan liked the third-place image. He said, "It's a nice portrait for an ongoing news story about the Rebel flag and fighting authorities."

1st Place:   Jimmie Presley, The Flint Journal
2nd Place:   John Dunham, Messenger-Inquirer
3rd Place:   Neal Vaughan, Herald-Palladium

Judges' comments
The entire category was strong. Pete Churton said, "This is a lot stronger category than the others. If the same talent and quality had captured the news photos, they would have placed in the top five." About the first-place image, Dave Ryan said, "I love it. It's a great victory photo. It makes you want to read the cutline." Jennifer Reynolds said, "The image has the emotion of the players as well as the action of the water. Part of its appeal is knowing the water is going to change the subjects' emotional expressions in a split second." Reynolds also liked the second-place image. She said, "That moment conveys all the misery the player must have felt." Mark M. Hancock said, "I like moment as well as how clean and sharp the image is. The crop emphasizes the weight within the image as well as the emotional weight the goalie must feel." About the third-place image, Jennifer Reynolds said, "That's a very hard image to get." "Choke" by Chuck Crow of The Plain Dealer also made it to the final round.

Feature / Single
1st Place:   Jenny Sevcik, Messenger-Inquirer
2nd Place:   Bob Gwaltney, Evansville Courier & Press
3rd Place:   Patricia Schaeffer, The Morning Journal

Judges' comments
This category had the most entries. About the first-place image, Jennifer Reynolds said, "I love the swirl of color and the sharpness to put the subject in context. It makes you look twice. It's very different." Reynolds also liked the second-place image. She said, "I like it because it's a one-in-a-million shot." Mark M. Hancock said, "The rarity of having both lightning and a rainbow in one shot put it to the top." Hancock also liked the third-place image. He said, "The baby in the car made me read the cutline. I had to re-examine the image before I saw the pull rope. The separation of baby's car combined with the compression of other larger parade vehicles made the image work." Pete Churton said, "This is a much better than average parade shot." The rodeo image by Michael Blair of The News-Herald would have won second or third in Sports. A silhouette image of a high school reunion by Jesse Osbourne of the Midland Daily News also made it into the final round. The actor in suitcase by Ken Ritchie of The Madison Courier could have done better as an illustration.

Feature / Multiple
1st Place:   Sarah Rice, The Kalamazoo Gazette
2nd Place:   Jane Hale, The Flint Journal
3rd Place:   Matt Detrich, The Indianapolis Star

Judges' comments
Jennifer Reynolds said, "The photojournalist did a very good job of capturing the daily life of this young woman. Her sorting socks by feel is a mundane shot, but it shows the difficulty of doing what people with vision take for granted. The images show a great level of comfort between the subject and photojournalist to get access and find natural moments." Pete Churton liked the second-place story. He said, "By using this many photos, there was a danger of repetition. However, there's a good variety of sweetness, introspection and action. Editing was top notch." Churton also liked the third-place story. He said, "This story had a strong news angle with the cops killed instead of the standard feature. Consequently, it has a much stronger emotional impact." "Tuesdays at the track" by Brett Marshall of the Midland Daily News also made the final round.

1st Place:   Michael Blair, The News-Herald
2nd Place:   Justin Rumbach, Courier and Press
3rd Place:   Donna Terek, The Detroit News

Judges' comments
About the first-place illustration, Jennifer Reynolds said, "It's a fun way to illustrate this story. There's so much in it that draws me into the image. I really like this one." Pete Churton preferred the second-place image. He said, "The simplicity stands out. The image approaches what I think an illustration should do:   take a simple image to convey a complex thought." Jennifer Reynolds liked the lighting in the third-place image. Dave Ryan said, "I like the way the arm is suggestively enticing the child. It was done well."

Region 4 contest observations
Region 4 had it rough because we had judged the national clips the previous month. The standard was fairly high heading into the contest. Luckily, the images were up to the challenge.

However, this was a "raw judging" rather than a "winners only" contest as the national clip contest was. Consequently, there were some problems with a few of the entries. Specific problems included:   entire tear sheets, credit lines visible, and no cutlines. As I mentioned above, these would have previously eliminated entries. Two images were strong enough to overcome these problems, but the rest didn't.

Since this post has run long, I'll make a separate entry with some suggestions to give your images a decent shot at the monthly clip contest.

Enough for now,


Marie said...

Hey. I saw your photo on the site. I think you need to smile in your portrait. If'n I took your photo, I would make you do a full bellied laugh... and I'm having to judge a press contest right now. It is not nearly as simple as one would think...

Mark M. Hancock said...

Believe it or not, that is my smile (it hides in my beard). I wish I hadn't smiled because my cheeks hide my cheek bones and I look even fatter. :-(

Advanced contests are hard to judge because the images are emotionally draining.

Your daughter's music might cheer you up afterward. However, I find Yoyo Ma depressing - talented, but depressing.

Bryon Houlgrave said...

I really dig the hat though. :)

Mark M. Hancock said...

I've got one in every color except purple. ;-}