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Indiana State Fair critique

Titles are important. So is matting. Just a couple of tips from Sunday's annual photo critique at the end of the Indiana State Fair.

The photography contest annually draws more entries than almost any other category at the Indiana State Fair, and generates a lot of visitor traffic to look at those which get hung -- of which there were about 745 this year. (The official tally was 743, but I know of at least one photo that was hung but wasn't in the official list, so I'm rounding). It wasn't clear to me how many prints entered were not hung, perhaps 250?

A few dozen people usually sign up to have their prints critiqued by the three photographers who judged the prints before the fair opened, awarding points and ribbons: Merle Fox of Jacksonville, Ill., Rich Voorhees of Logansport, Ind., and Ken Heinen, assistant professor of photojournalism at Ball State University. It makes for a longish afternoon in some uncomfortable folding chairs, but it's a chance to hear three pros talk about what you could have done to make a better photo. Given the time constraints it's not the same as having a one-on-one evaluation session, and it doesn't replace tacking your prints up on the wall and staring at them until you realize what's wrong with 'em, but still, it's a helpful thing to do.

Last year's critique, for example, was where I learned that a contest like this is not a gallery showing, so for most photos, don't use white mats. Repeat: Avoid white mats, unless one happens to really work for a particular photo. The advice was repeated this year, along with a corollary that excessive matting -- apparently designed to distract the judges from the fact that your photo is flawed -- doesn't work, but is common. Not all photos need a mat, either -- a "full-bleed" 16x20 mounted print with no mat is fine.
Other suggestions (in addition to the obvious stuff like having your pictures tell a story, good tonality, avoid blowing out the highlights, etc.):

  • Titles: Lots of people didn't use them, and in many cases titles are (or would have been) helpful.

  • Categories: There are a good number of categories, but the descriptions seem reasonably clear to me. Nonetheless, a fair number of photos were entered in the wrong category.

  • Oversharpening: Lots of it was on display, with the tell-tale halos. Back off the sharpening, folks. (If you really want to better understand, and use, sharpening in Photoshop, try the late Bruce Fraser's book, Real World Image Sharpening with Photoshop CS2.

  • Lighting: A consistent criticism. Try directional lighting, use a reflector, try some backlighting to highlight those butterfly wings. Etc.

  • Printing: If someone else is doing your printing, don't automatically accept the first one. (This of course would require that I get my act together soon enough that I'd have time to get a print re-done. Heh.)


This year the judges used a high quality consistent lighting setup for judging for the first time (!) with quartz lights and dark draping to block out extraneous light (and noise). Prints are judged on a 0 to 100 points basis, with most prints that are hung ranging from 69 to just over 80. Over 90 is apparently reserved for prints that would change photography, if not the world, if they were seen beyond the confines of the Home and Family Arts building. Generally, you'll find that prints awarded ribbons have been scored in the mid- (honorable mention) to upper-70s or better (first place in the category).

Sadly, the talented organizer for the contest, Michael Sproch, passed away just before the fair opened, resulting in a few rough spots and a lot of scrambling this year. If you might be interested in organizing this contest and can't think of anything better than spending much of August at the Indiana State Fair, they want to talk to you.