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So I Judged A County Fair

As we move from summer to fall, county fairs across the United States are in full swing. I recently had the pleasure of being asked to be a judge for the photography division at a local fair. It was a great experience, and I wanted to write a little about my experience and some takeaways.

There are different methods of judging photography at fairs. Some fairs will use one judge, other fairs will use multiple judges. For the fair that I judged, I worked with another judge. Although we had never met before, we basically had the same criteria for judging the images.

My criteria for judging is pretty simple: - Does the image grab my attention?

- How are the technical aspects (composition, exposures, sharpness, noise) of the image?

- Was there any post processing done to image, and could the image have been improved with post processing?

Overall, we had a pretty easy time choosing the images that deserved recognition throughout the entire division. We did have one hang up for a few minutes as there were two images that could have been the top image. This is where we started to nitpick over little details. We looked to see if the composition of one image stood out over the other. We looked to see if one was a little bit sharper than the other. Although our decision could have gone picked either image, we went back to the start. Which image grabbed our attention the most. The difference between the two images in the attention grabbing department was minuscule at best.


Everyone who reads this will have their own opinions, their own hang-ups and what they look for in an image. The one thing I would say is to keep an open mind. For me personally, I am a dynamic range junkie. Outside of some vary rare examples, I do not like to see crushed shadows and blown highlights. Other judges might be purists and prefer an image straight out of the camera. The old phrase, "photography is subjective" is very much in play. For most of the entrants, they might not have the knowledge and experience to create an image that in the same vision we would. There might be certain issues that you will have to overlook.


The one big takeaway I had in regards to the photography was the amount of work that could have benefited from basic post-processing to fix crushed shadows, blown highlights, and flat colors. I saw a lot of images that could have been improved with some minor Lightroom adjustments such as contrast, noise reduction and cropping.

In the image below is an example of one of my images that illustrates a lot of what I saw. On the left is the straight out of the camera shot and the right is the post processed, delivered to the client shot. While my process might be more intensive than other photographers, the initial image could have had some simple adjustments to remove the flat appearance.

"Presentation is the key." A lot of images appeared to have been printed at home or at the local discount store. Take the time to find a print lab that specializes in producing quality prints such as WHCC, Bay Photo, Millers, ProDPI and Nation's. In the end, the biggest difference will be in the quality of print and not the price.

One other tidbit about prints is "go large." Look at the rule book and see what the largest size print that is allowed and go with it. A viewer's eyes will be attracted to a 16" x 20" print more than a 5" x 7". A quality 16" x 20" print is going to stand out compared to a 5" x 7" printed on the home computer.


Several years ago, I saw a decision that was not made public until the week before the fair do possibly irreparable harm to a fair's photography department. People who planned on entering could not because they had no time to adjust to the rules change. The entries for that year's fair dropped probably at least 50%. Although I do not have exact numbers, the fair was seeing at least a couple hundred entries a year. There were so many entries, that the space devoted to photography was overflowing. There was no empty space to be seen on the racks. Since that year, there are rows upon empty rows. I have seen the same kind of rule change shenanigans in racing kill off participation and tracks close the doors because of it. Two years after the rule change fiasco, my photography club came together, approached the fair board and was able to be put in charge of the photography division.

The reason for the story is because in a lot of cases, the volunteers who work at the fairs are over worked and under appreciated. I would like to think that most of us would like to be a positive influence on photography, and being involved with the fair is a good way to do that. A lot of fairs put their yearly books online these days. If you can find it, download it and chances are you might be able to find out who is in charge of the photography division, and if that fails, it will have the names of the fair board members listed. Approach them and ask them if you can be involved. In the case of the club I belonged to, it was a wholesale change. The club was in charge of setting up the display area, revising and changing the rules, and choosing the person(s) who would be the judge for that particular year.


If you just want to enter, or get involved, hopefully I have been able to offer up some tips to help you. When I first decided to enter the local fair, I was somewhat intimidated. My first year was somewhat disappointing, but I continued to learn on how to make my work better and it showed. The short time I was able to be involved behind the scenes was very fulfilling as I learned new things.

Make the plunge and enter your work. Take a chance and go behind the scenes. Do what you can to have a positive influence on the photography community.

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