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What do the International Garden Photographer of the Year judges look for?

Philip Smith
1 October 2010
Blog team: 
We are now entering the final phase of the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) competition 2010 and many people will be getting their entries ready for the November 30th deadline. So what are the judges looking for?

This is one of the most frequent questions we are asked. It’s a difficult question to answer in a nutshell but we’re going to give it a go…

Are they are looking for a certain type of image?

It’s a mistake to think that IGPOTY judges start with the idea that they are looking for a particular kind of photograph. They really do come to it with an open mind – ready to be bowled over by images that don’t necessarily conform to any set pattern or idea. They love being surprised, moved or inspired by individual images.

This entry made the judges smile. 'Acrobatics in my Garden' by Silvia Demetilla. Finalist in competition one.

Isn’t it all subjective?

Well, yes and no. The judges bring with them their experience and taste. But each photograph is assessed by at least four people along the way, so we do aim for a balance of views. All of the judges are experienced professionals, involved in some way with professional photography, publishing, exhibitions or teaching. So they each bring with them a professional objectivity.

All the big names seem to get through – I’m a nobody in photography, so what chance have I got?

All of the photographs are judged anonymously. The administration team reveal the names to the judges right at the very end.

I only have a small cheap camera – I’ve got no chance

It’s true that most successful entries are made with DSLR cameras. But these are by no means ‘high end’ or ‘the latest’ cameras. We do have finalists who use compact cameras, pinhole cameras or other devices, film or digital. What counts is the eye behind the camera.

Fish at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens by Christine Whatley. Nikon Coolpix E4300. Finalist in competition two.

Aren’t the winning images all 'photoshopped'?

We allow the use of image editing in submissions. All of the photographers on the judging panel or admin team grew up with black and white printing in darkrooms. We know that we spent hours burning and dodging our prints to get the best out of our negatives. To be able to do all of that, and much more to get the best from our digital ‘negatives’ is, to us, part and parcel of the photographer’s art.

What we don’t allow are effects which create an artificial image which is ‘passed off’ as real. This particularly affects the wildlife section. We scrutinise any image that we think may not be what the photographer says it is. We don’t mind if you create an artificial image if you tell us in the caption that the image is – for example – a montage or created on the computer in some way. These images are then judged on merit just like any other photograph.The judges are experienced enough to know that however much manipulation is done on the computer, it is artistry and technical ability which always wins through over tricks and gimmicks.

Welsh poppy by Richard Freestone. Third place in competition one.

Are captions important then?

They can be. If there is a story or context to the picture then the judges enjoy knowing that little bit more about the photograph. But nobody would be disqualified for having a bad caption. You can edit any of your captions up to the end of the competition.

What does get disqualified at the outset of judging?

Very little. The vast majority of images are entered correctly in the right format. Our system is very ‘forgiving’ anyway. The judges would disqualify images which are clearly outside the brief. For example in the ‘Wildlife in the Garden’ category – they wouldn't accept a photograph taken at the zoo. The categories are designed to be general enough to encourage a wide variety of interpretations – so your imagination can be let loose. People in the Garden – a garden shed with no people in it? – fine. Trees – a single leaf? – great.

Occasionally, photographs are disqualified from the shortlist because once we get the hires file from the photographer, we find it is not good enough quality to reproduce, or there is some other technical problem with it, or we find it’s a Photoshop trick passed off as a genuine photograph.

So what is it that the judges are looking for?

It’s easier to say what they’re not looking for. They are not interested in the camera used, nor the photographer’s name and, nor, in the early rounds, the technical quality. They look for images that excite, amuse, engage the emotions, satisfy the eye. If that seems very general, it’s because the judges make their assessments exclusively on how they react to what they see on screen- the photos that make them look twice.

What happens if judges disagree about a photograph?

We allow full discussions which can become heated especially in later rounds. It’s the administration teams’ job to hold the coats and make sure each individual question is resolved.

Win or lose, I’d really like to know what the judges thought about my entry

We know that a lot of people find this very useful. You can apply by email after the winners are announced to get some feedback from the team about your entries. You can also come and meet the judges at an event at the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Kew Gardens, during the summer.

How should I go about making my final selection for the competition?

Go with your instinct. Be bold. Have a go. If you win, your achievement could be a life-changing event. And even if you don’t win, you will have taken part in a project that can help you develop your appreciation and understanding of not only your photography, but also of gardens, plants and the natural world.

Good luck.


- Philip - 

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