What is happening to club photography?

I don’t often do pieces on photography club competitions but things are changing in club photography and as such I think this demands some comment.

Competitoins to my mind need to have very narrow paramters in order to ensure a level playing field. Even then the joker in the pack is always going to be the judge and his or her likes and dislikes. It takes an extremely good judge to put aside personal preferences and tastes when judging the work of others. At a recent competition I was invited to, and indeed one that I had several entries included in, was, to all intent and purpose a demonstration in how Photoshop, and it’s various derivatives, is impacting on photography in its purest sense.

The beauty of photography means that you may not like what I like, or indeed that I like what you like. What I would like to think though is that good photography is about is getting it right in camera, a well used phrase but none the less acurate and a good rule for any photographer. If we all strive to create good content in camera then I can pretty much guarantee that we can meet in the middle as to what we consider to be a good image. Sadly though, all too often we are now being presented with photoshop’d images being presented as “photography”. For some, clearly in the competition I witnessed, this is seemingly OK but for others, myself included, I don’t think its right and I see it as a downward spiral into overworked and unrealistic images.

All too often now we are being bombarded with photo-art as photography, ie where a photo has been manipulated to such a point that the original composition gets lost amongst the editing. Worse still, I am now seeing judges support the overprocessing of images in competition which means that pure photography as we know it today will cease to exist being replaced by over-processed imagery better suited to the cheap prints section of many of our low-cost department stores. A personal perspective of course, but no less valid for being spoken out loud I would hope. Whether you agree or not is of course a personal matter, we all have our own ides about what is and isn’t photography but since this is my blog, you are getting my perspective. If you disagree of course, the comments box below is the perfect place ot tell me so. It’s equally useful to let me know if you agree.

There is no doubt that Photshop or whatever editing software you prefer to use can both improve and save an image. I have done it myself on many many occaisions. Changing the sky, applying blur, using limited tonality and colour, removing spurious objects, controlling noise etc are all tricks of the trade available to pretty much any photographer practicing today, whether professional or amateur. Indeed I can’t think of a situation where I have been looking at images for competition where I have not considered editing the image or indeed, have done some editing to “tidy it up”. Nothing wrong in my book in improving an image but surely there have to be limits on wholesale changes. When for example does an image become art, or artistic rather than factual? In competition, should being good at using Photoshop et al give you an edge? What happened to “getting it right in camera”, a mantra chanted by every great photographer that’s ever lived. Now of course editing of photographs has been around since, well, the birth of photography. Darkroom techniques are themselves an artform and to be admired. And yes, many darkroom wizards are able to do wonderous things when creating prints from negatives. Surely however there has to come a point where editing isn’t the most important feature of a competition and as such, shouldn’t there be rules associated with the use of “significant editing” within club competitions. I think there should but do you agree!

A good many of the images on display a few nights back relied on significant and obtrusive image processing. The eventual winner of the competition for me at least had almost nothing to do with good photography and everything to do with how to manipulate an image using Photoshop. Several similar images from that same club did equally well, much to my surprise so I guess it’s a growing and acceptable trend. Now I applaud the blending of art and photography, especially as it is now possibe to do this with relative ease. Surely though we must accept that in competition there have to be boundaries. Straight photography is an art-form in itself, no need to puff it up like some preening Peacock looking for a mate. Good composition, good lighting, good content and a good understanding, control and use of the camera should be more than enough for any judge. In fact it needs to be enough. If not let’s just run Photoshop competitions and do away with the pretence that the results have anything to do with photography.

Is this all sour grapes? Am I just reacting to “a bad day in the office”? I don’t think I am because as a fairly straight photographer who enjoys social documentary alongside my own use of tools such as Affinity Photo, I do use post-processing to lift my images. What I don’t do though is to convert my SOOC images into works of art and then present these in a photographic competition. I certainly could, I have the skills but that’s not what I consider to be pure photographic content. Of course it could be that I am now sitting on the outside looking in, who knows, but I really feel that a competition should be about skill with a camera, a good eye for an image and a good understanding of lighting and subject composition. I don’t feel that being a wizz on Photoshop has much if anything to do with good photography other than as a tool for minor improvement. I strongly feel then that the rules of interclub competitions need to be better thought out and clearly stated and that modifications to images should follow the time honoured processes adopted in the darkroom. This gives the photographer sufficient opportunity to “modify ” an image without losing it’s integrity. It also re-focuses the photographers skill sets back on what they should be, getting it right in camera.

Nuff said!

My entries in this particular competition are shown below and processing was fairly basic in all three images. For Dirty Windows, which is of course a documentry image, most of my images are, I toned down the blown out car headlights (this would be called dodge and burn in the darkroom) just to help lesson this distraction. This was not enough though for the judge though, he wanted it fully gone and I respect that. For Roll Up Roll Up, this was a tricky hand-held shot so very low speed so I mostly relied on what I captured SOOC. However I did add a little bit more contrast to the clouds to make them pop and I added a litle more saturation to the blue of the sky. For Catchlights I simple controlled shadows and highlights to make sure the image was in balance and added a vignette and stroke around the edge to focus attention on the subject. I also applied a little more light to the face to make it pop. Again, all techniques available since the early 1800’s. You’ll have to believe me with regards the detail in the shadows, it’s there but a 72dpi image here isn’t going to show you much. As an aside, this image was voted top entry in a recent battle of the clubs competition between Paignton and Kingsbridge Camera Club so it shows how judges views and marking can significantly vary. It only managed 14 points here, one of the lowest ranked. In fact all of my images, as selected by a panel of highly competent photographers, all bombed in this competition. Now I’m not as dissapointed in this as it may seem as I take “Marmite images” which some adore and others hate. It’s just the way I see photography and to be fair, I can take or leave competition for this reason.

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