Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. -- Walker Evans

Monday, September 12, 2011

NZ Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition Criteria

Richard Smallfield: Climbing Pakiri Hill
As a photographer whose work involves a documentary approach to landscape, I thought that the NZ Geographic Photographer of the Year  Competition would be right up my alley.

I prepared six photos for the photo-story category. Then I reread the competition rules:

Entries ... must not have been manipulated in any way other than global colour and exposure adjustments considered standard in RAW processing. Focus and exposure stacking, HDR, and stitched panoramas are allowed, but discretion is expected. 
Since when have local adjustments, in particular in landscape photography, been unacceptable? Dodging and Burning in the darkroom, or Layer Masks in Photoshop, have always been part of doing a professional job.

I have never exhibited a print that has not had local adjustments, so am excluded from the competition: images such as 
Climbing Pakiri HIll would not be allowed, because each part of the image was subtly, but separately, adjusted.

Under the 'Landscape' heading, NZ Geographic states: 'The judges will be looking for attention to light and drama.'

If they want drama, then they are looking for an idealised image, not an authentic one. So why do they rule out local adjustments – when all the photographer is aiming for is to get the best out of the image?

In my prints I try to present an authentic account of the mood of the location. Local adjustments are generally subtle enough that even a trained eye might struggle to notice them. So even though I aim for an authentic result, I'm disqualified.

HDR (that mother of a million abominations) is allowed. In effect, it could be considered akin to local adjustment, as bracketed exposures are merged into the various parts of the dynamic (brightness) range of the final image.

I wouldn't mind betting that whoever wins will have made local adjustments, but kept quiet about it.

Surely what matters is authenticity, regardless of how it is achieved.

I hope that the organisers read this and consider amending the criteria next year. 


  1. Rich, I think you should definitely enter no matter what.

  2. Thanks Barbara, sadly I don't think there's time to reverse-engineer six photos now.

  3. I received a thoughtful reply from the editor of New Zealand Geographic:

    Hi Richard
    Thanks for advising of this posting.

    You raise some interesting issues, but at the heart of the discussion is a difference in use. As a producer of art prints you work under a different set of criteria from what a magazine given to editorial photography might. As well as a creative mandate, we also have a journalistic one which in photographic terms demands a degree of verité more than in the art market. And the criteria for our competition echo those of the magazine. Indeed it is the editorial aspect of the competition that sets it apart from the many other photographic competitions that celebrate the image alone.

    I disagree with your content the drama must be idealised. The enduring popularity of documentary photography film and photography underscores the fact that there is little more dramatic than real events captured in a raw, unadulterated manner.

    I hope this explains the position we take. Feel free to add these comments to your blog.



  4. Hi James,
    many thanks for your reply, which has given me food for thought.

    I take on board your philosophy and the difference in use; perhaps my equation - drama = idealisation - was slightly off the mark. My initial take on this issue was that in seeking drama, perhaps the criteria encourage the unrealistic sort of processing that you are also discouraging elsewhere in the criteria. You are quite right that a dramatic image does not necessarily need a lot of processing - Cartier-Bresson's photo of the recognition of a German collaborator springs instantly to mind.

    However, an image that uses layer masks may be truer to the original capture than one that is wholly processed in the RAW software, if that processing is more aggressive - which would be permitted in the criteria (even if it would not get very far in the judging).

    So my suggestion is that what matters is the authenticity of the final image, rather than how that final image was arrived at.

    However, next year I will have six images ready in plenty of time, that have used no layer masks. :-)

    thanks again for your reply,

  5. Richard,

    The late and great W. Eugene Smith would also not qualify. You're in good company.

    Reg Feuz