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Digital photography contests rules…why?

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)

Keywords: postprocessing, concept, nikon, d800, 24, 120, 16, 35, contest, rules, via_the_lens

I belong to a local camera club, as I’m sure many other readers do, too.  In the last couple of years the club has started to hold a club contest in October.  The members seem to enjoy the opportunity to show their photos and, for those who do not print, it helps them to understand the printing process, either in-house or through an outside printer.  It’s required that the prints are matted, but not framed.  This year a new committee was formed to see the process through. Working on any kind of a committee can be fraught with all kinds of emotional hazards, as anyone who had done so most likely knows (and committee work is something I try very hard to avoid). Recently, the committee emailed their contest rules for the upcoming 2018 contest to the club members.  Apparently, the club voted on the contest categories (I missed this meeting) but the committee put together the actual rules of entry for each category.  

When I read the rules a certain line in the wording gave me pause for thought as did other wording about the specific category rules.  It seems to me that people are still struggling with what digital photography is versus what film photography was and there does seem to be confusion and misunderstanding about digital photography in general.  A paragraph from the official rules:

Landscape... These photos include but are not limited to landscapes, outdoor scenic, sunsets, 

and farms. NOTE: Not manipulated. No insertions, no merging. Must be single image. ALSO: We are encouraging contestants to use their true photography skills capturing beautiful landscapes in a

single image. Time of day, weather conditions, choice of lens, & location to photograph from are more important than post processing skills for this category.

The wording in italics (I put the italics in) particularly struck me as did the fact that they wanted the image to not be “manipulated” and no “merging.”  Plus, the committee said that taking the photo was “more important than post processing skills” for the Landscape category and this struck me as well.  I found these words of interest to me not necessarily in the context of this contest (if I don’t like the rules I just don’t enter the contest) but in the greater context of the newness and growth of digital photography.  How does anyone take a digital photograph and have it be “not manipulated” given that it must always be edited in some fashion to end up on the screen?  Why does it have to be a single image?  Why does it matter if someone chooses to do HDR given the complexity of the shooting situation?  Why encourage photographers to NOT use all the tools available in 2018 (it is, after all, not 1918!) to create a beautiful work of art?  And what the heck are “true photography” skills?  They obviously mean the part where I pick up the camera and aim but skillful editing of a digital photograph can make all the difference in the end, especially when I shoot in RAW and I do need to be skillful to get it right. I don’t let the camera edit for me by shooting JPEG.  In the end, however, both formats are edited, it’s just the way it is in this new digital world we live in.


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Paul Blais (PBlais) on December 29, 2019

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

As President of the James River Camera Club (oldest in Virginia) I can feel the angst. Technology has moved on and if Ansel Adams had had a digital Camera with Lightroom he would have hit the ground running into digital. It is said he anticipated the concept but didn't live to see it. Many of his manual processes are in Photoshop and lightroom. Historically, Photography has been an "embracing technology" with open arms running forward. How else would photography have progressed. The technology for making lenses and cameras was and is astounding. I don't know exactly how our club made that transition having started in 1945 but they are all dead now (it worked). We have a few pictures with men in suits wearing hats. at club meetings. It worked but it still is sad. Our club is all digital now and we do contests but we don't require images to be printed. They are uploaded to a closed web site and voted digitally and then we use a digital projector to display them at the meeting an announce the winners. The whole club votes. Annual awards are done by an outside jury and valuable prizes awarded In January. Tradition is not about process but about intent. To produce the best possible work with all options on the table is how it started. I embrace that tradition.

Prasad Dalvi (dalviprasadd) on October 20, 2018

An excellent article opening up the mind about PP. I do agree Connie. I would call this as a Photo enhancement, where people take privilege to enhance their shots. When I say enhance it has a limited sense where you do not do over processing to make your picture look overworked and the pp should be limited to make your picture sureal. And the Organisers of the Photo contest in the entire world should not have any objections to this except for Photojournalism, and Nature.

William Middleton (wrmiddleton) on October 4, 2018

An excellent article with great insight and perspective on the topic - and I fully agree with your points. From my view, even being a relative 'newbie' to digital, post processing in digital is no different than all the tricks that got used in the darkroom to achieve certain effects - and often to just make minor corrections necessary for the image to come into its full form that the photographer saw when he originally captured it. I've always loved Ansel Adams - and his works are classic examples of great images becoming even greater with carefully done post processing - he was known for dodging & burning, accelerating development in certain areas with the warmth of his hands, and doing other such things. I once saw a 'straight' print of his 'Moonrise over Hernandez NM' and it looked nothing like the breathtaking image we all know so well - it was flat, gloomy, and while everything was there - including the illumination on the village buildings - the finished print had much more 'snap' to it. Thanks so much for your views on this!

Peter Milton (miltonpics) on September 9, 2018

Great article Connie, like everyone else here I agree fully with your thoughts. One other thing that made me laugh about the rules was this section: "Landscape... These photos include but are not limited to landscapes,..." So it would seem that provided you did no PP you could enter any subject matter and it would meet the Landscape category rules

Leith Phillips (leithphillips) on September 5, 2018

An excellent and well-prepared article, Connie. I'm using my grads much less these days and now blend exposures routinely. However, I still have a problem with total swapping of skies. For example, removing a cloudy sky and inserting a blazing sunset sky. I think that's pretty much cheating, but my ethics are becoming more fluid. I have been justifying adding or enhancing sky if it is from the same shoot. But, the other day I shot a lovely misty sunrise with a lacklustre sky. I have to fess up that I went back and shot the same pano with a nice high-cloud sunrise and then blended the two. That's something I would have tut-tutted about, but I did it and I guess I'll do it again. What I don't do, however, and I know a lot of professional landscape shooters do this, is maintain a library of skies.

Koos Erasmus (Rassie) on September 5, 2018

Awarded for his win at the Nikonians Best 2016 Photo Contest Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Reading the contest rules stated in the article, and applying a very open-minded mindset (somewhat hard for me as I tend to be very technical and a stickler for facts) to the interpretation of those rules I reach the following conclusions: 1) Perhaps the contest organizers wish to see creativity in the choice of location, composition, subject, time of day, selection of appropriate equipment, etc. In other words, something that was afforded some careful planning rather than just a snapshot. So far so good. I fully agree with that. 2) Where these folks run into trouble is when they state that the image should not be manipulated. To put it bluntly, that's hogwash. In the film days we had to rely on the film processing labs to manipulate the images to some extent to make the best of them. With digital, each photographer now has to do their own processing, and as every RAW shooter knows, that includes processing. Processing, in my view, is every bit as important as capturing the image and forms just an important part of digital photography today as using the camera and lenses. An example I often use: The camera will not always get the white balance correct. Now what? We're not allowed to manipulate the white balance to at least approximate conditions at the time of making the shot? That would be a ridiculous position to adopt, no? 3) I notice the rules state one is not allowed to add to the image. To some extent I can go with that in that it opens a can of worms if someone takes a daylight landscape and merges a sunset into the image. Doing that would then rely perhaps too heavily on processing and might not really showcase the photographer's skills in selecting and capturing the image as stated in point 1 above. But what about that piece of tree branch that intrudes into the picture from the left and detracts from the image? We're not allowed to clone that out? In summary I think the folks who wrote the rules probably suffer from a lack of ability to properly communicate. In using the word "manipulate" regarding the image they really messed up in not properly defining what they mean by the word. Also, by saying "no merging" they exclude every HDR image. Seems to me these folks want to exclude all processing and concentrate on, dare I say it, MANIPULATION of the camera and lenses to the exclusion of post processing. The way digital photography works, processing is such an integral part of the whole process that it's just not practical in any way to exclude it. Now I'll get off my soapbox.

User on August 29, 2018

I think there must have been a disconnect at that meeting...too much coffee? Just converting to jpeg so you can print or post is manipulation. If you shoot RAW, what then? The committee needed to read up a bit first, methinks. Seems silly really.

Tom Rhyne (rhynetc) on August 26, 2018

Thanks for stating this point of view so eloquently. Photography does include much more than pointing the camera and clicking, now in digital just as it was in film days.

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on August 25, 2018

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Thank you so much, everyone, for the great comments and good discussion on this subject. At some point, we'll all get used to digital and just when we do something else will come along to "upset the camera bag."

Gib Devey (Bud Light) on August 22, 2018

If you cannot take a holistic approach to photography you may as well rely on a Polaroid camera and get a picture that is not subject to improvement via post processing. The continuous improvements in technology are beneficial and should not be ignored or not allowed. The entire spectrum of photography has grown from changes and from experimentation, so I feel that photography is an expression that should not be censored by strict rules that affect creativity. Thanks for your article, Gib

Rohinton Mehta (Rohinton_Mehta) on August 20, 2018

Thank you Connie. You have hit the nail right on the head. With the exception of photo-journalism, sports and scientific photography, I don't see a reason for telling anyone that you can't do this and you can't do that. It defeats the purpose of digital imaging. It is your image and no one has the right to tell you how to process/manipulate/edit your image. As for me, I stopped sending images to competitions years ago, because of this same 'anti-editing' rule that competition organisers try to impose on us. During the film days too we 'manipulated' (for want of a better word) our photos by using different types of negative developers, using films of varying contrast, controlling time and temperature to get varying results, using printing papers of varying contrast, taking clouds from one negative and placing them on a different print etc. No one objected then (may be the 'objectors' did not know of this) so why object now? Anyway, this can be a never-ending issue with some people. I do my photography for my pleasure and don't worry about what others have to say about it. If the 'nay-sayers' have their way, they might even try to ban image editing software!

Holger Wahl (Holger) on August 19, 2018

Awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Resources. Awarded for his wide variety of skills, a true generalist both in film and digital photography.

Perfect! I agree 100%. As general rules, it's just ridiculous to exclude the darkroom part, be it digital or analog. If your folks want a specific "just shoot, no darkroom" contest, they may limit a contest to JPG OOC only. Knowing that even that is plain stupid, since even the camera "modifies" the photons ending up on its sensor. To me, someone limiting photo contests in such a way has not really understood what photography is about. Even if you just look at a scene, our brain already "optimizes" the pictures it sees. And in the end its all about impressions, feelings, transport the soul of the scene to the viewer. You will find phantastic pictures among those edited in the darkroom, as well as you will find crap among those not edited, and vice versa. Limiting darkroom work on the digital side is like telling analog people that no darkroom work is allowed, just send your roll of film to the lokal shop and have it developed automatically. Hope there's more than one club in your area.

User on August 17, 2018

..totally agree with you on this.. nothing to add.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on August 17, 2018

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True photographers are image makers which include the best image capture and whatever tools allow the maker to present his or her vision. Rules are for those who want to be so challenged, but those rules may be an impediment to certain forms of artistry. Clubs educate, each in their way, the true image maker may seek mostly to follow a different standard. In my opinion, we have choices. If one group doesn’t work is, find another that fits our needs.

Larry Cador (lcador) on August 16, 2018

I once entered a rifle shooting contest which stipulated in it's rules that only small bore and non-optical enhanced rifles were to be used. I presumed that eye glasses were ok and accepted that the goal of this particular contest was to access native shooting skills. I was always quite skilled at producing quarter sized groups at 300 meters with a scoped setup but that wasn't the challenge on this particular day. I entered and produced close to 300 meter groupings (sic) at 25 meters. I enjoyed the challenge and went forward to shoot native on many more occasions. I never thought that the rule making committee was somehow attempting to make a philosophical or value statement but just establishing rules to be used for one specific contest. I also did not feel that the committee was somehow robbing me of the opportunity to use a particular skills set but instead offering me a chance to further develop another equally important and related set of skills. Many Photography Clubs are often about inspiring members to develop a diverse set of skills and have various contests in support of that goal. The development of non-post-processing skills may be just a single part of that goal. Perhaps next time they will offer a contest that provides a standard raw photo which contestants are asked to employ their post-processing skills only. In contrast, the contest that I enter the most is one where the judges provide no rules and care little about any part of the process other then the final image. I hope to continue to win many more of these with the sale of my work.

Paul Blais (PBlais) on August 16, 2018

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

Ansel Adams invented most to the operations we now do in digital. Photographs are not Taken - they are Made - and by hand! He said it and meant it! He foresaw the age of digital but was never able to use it. He would have embraced the details because he would have seen how much less toil it required. It requires no less "Art"! In the world of digital we can do all that Adams did but so much easier - and more. So we should ignore the advances of the possible because we are tied to the gears of the past? Only a fool would do so. I don't and never will. Sometimes contests are foolish. Use anything you can to MAKE a better image. We are at the end of the day - Artists. Images are made by hand even if we use digital tools!

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on August 14, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Well, even traditional Black & White photographers could not enter the competition at your club. Ansel Adams, W. Eugene Smith and Bill Brandt -to name a few- would have their submissions rejected. Nikon Corp has no rules for its annual contest. Nikonians has no rules. Our intention has always been to help members derive from their photography the most pleasure and satisfaction. Whether on film or digital media, post-processing has played and continues to play an important role.

Joanna Pecha (PixiePixels01) on August 11, 2018

Excellent article! The local photo club where I live has had an ongong battle with this very thing, and they aren't likely to "get over it". I originally joined many years ago, everyone was a film photographer. I was eventually the first member to shoot digitally. I entered the "contest" with a sunset image that had been slightly saturated in post. What I didn't expect was a member standing up, pointing at me and literally screaming "That's Cheating!!! I slunk out of there and didn't return for three years. Over the years, I amassed mountains of ribbons for my work. I go now, not competing, but have watched as the club continues to have an "enhanced" category, where all images post processed to any degree have to go. It's horrifying! I don't believe that a small town photo club is a helpful thing anymore. It gave me so much value when I began, but people tend not to want to learn how to maximize the digital tools available today for whatever reason. I've given up trying to educate them.

Tom Rhyne (rhynetc) on August 11, 2018

Good treatment of the continuing argument for-and-against learning/using post-processing tools available to digital photographers today. Simplifying the choice leads to jpg images SOC versus processing raw images to draw out details and nuances possible with today's equipment. For me, the thrills of photography as a hobby come from composing and taking an image as well as from processing the raw file to draw out those details. I don't want to separate these two aspects in my hobbyist approach to photography because both bring me pleasure and satisfaction and occasionally produce an image worthy of being viewed by others. But the point of the process is what it does for me, since I'm not encumbered by marketing my images. Thanks for this article, and for the productive discussion I hope will ensue from it.

Wayne Barker (Waynebarker) on August 11, 2018

Connie, I enjoyed your article and do agree that those photo contests still promulgating out of date rules are missing the point. I have a somewhat different take on the issue. The "as-shot purists" are, in fact, attempting to limit the depiction shown in a photo to the technology available in the past, rather than embracing the current technology which (somewhat) more faithfully renders what our eyes see. They are already fighting a losing battle. One only has to look at the "Fading Away" (made in 1858, as you note) photo in your essay to show how far photographic technology has come since then. We may still have as far to go! Since the human eye has more capability than the current camera technology, many of the techniques we use to post-process a photo are, in fact, attempts to replicate what our eyes actually saw at the time the photo was taken. Your "processed" pictures of Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon are much closer to how I remember seeing them than the "before" pictures. Perhaps those "photo purists" might consider the "three submissions" (1. as-shot, 2. post-processed as desired by the photographer and 3. HDR) of the same photo idea that Kevin Hoag suggests in his comment earlier. The process might open a few eyes.

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on August 10, 2018

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Imagine where nature photography would be today if someone with the stature of an Ansel Adams (or insert your favorite photographic pioneer here) were denied the ability to manipulate negative development and/or use print making techniques in the darkroom to create their masterpieces. I shudder at the thought. Digital post processing is not an evil thing, and in fact is necessary today. I would venture to say that those who are dead-set against its use either do not understand its importance or are intimidated by the learning process needed to do it well. It is easier to demonize something you do not understand than to open one's mind to new ways and methods. I would suggest to those who deny this integral part of today's photography to at least relegate themselves to shooting JPGs and taking full advantage of the camera's built in image controls. At least in this sense they can possibly compete with the more rounded digital photographer who has taken the time and effort to learn at least the basics in digital PP skills. If you really think about the positions on post processing that these competition rule makers have adopted I can't help but conclude that the end result of banning post processing ends up punishing those who have taken the initiative to learning skills that enhance their photography and hence whole experience. If someone, whether intentional or not, wants to impede my skills arbitrarily then I won't play.

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on August 10, 2018

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I have had criticism of some of my photos in the past who judge everything from exposure adjustment to cloning with contempt justifying their position as if such work was dishonest. I agree with Tom that we have the opportunity to learn and use wonderful techniques that make our photographs live. What a gift!

Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on August 10, 2018

Awarded for his continuous knowledge and images sharing with community members Awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2016 Photo Contest Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas. Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest 
Winner of the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2020
This member has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art and science of photo Winner in the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2021

Excellent article Connie. It's still rather a very common practise in photo contests I see around to 'ban' the manipulating of your capture. I have the same opinion as Geoff (GBaylis) as I suppose it has to do with people who took the time getting to know digital PP and others who don't like it, and where (as you proved with your sample pictures) often the results are very obvious better looking. I myself took a great time out of my own spare time to try to learn digital PP (which is an art on itself), and we should be aknowledged with that too, not skirmish it away. Have a great day :) Tom

Gary Worrall (glxman) on August 9, 2018

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Oh so true, excellent read, well done Connie! I'm a photographic dinosaur, started out as a 10 year old using contact prints, In the days when I was shooting weddings, I said to the proprietor of the pro-shop, in the D1 days, "digital will never ever replace film", how wrong I was, back then using a zoom lens for professional work was even taboo, "how things have changed" Well, this "old timer" just loves digital, and I need every bit of PP help I can get ...........Gary

David Summers (dm1dave) on August 9, 2018

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Outstanding article!

Kevin Hoag (Grandpaparazi) on August 9, 2018

Your excellent article gave me an idea that I might want to propose to our local club for its next contest. Have a category where everyone submits three versions of the same image: 1. right out of the camera, as shot; 2. Photographer's choice post-processing; 3. HDR. I think it would be a lot of fun trying to do one's best work with the same image for all three versions. And it would stretch everyone to think further about the roles of initial composition, camera settings, and the wealth of creative and artistic things we can do with post-processing. Kevin

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on August 9, 2018

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Connie - my argument was rather more structured than it appears, but the editor has removed all my paragraph breaks!

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on August 9, 2018

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his generous and continuous sharing of his high level skills with the Nikonians community Writer Ribbon awarded for his contributions to the Nikonians Articles. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2107 Annual Photo Contest Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

(Edited by bgs Friday, 10 August 2018 ) Connie, you have documented an issue that seems to persist regardless of the number of times that it is argued in clubs, forums and societies. In the case that you document, I believe it is because of a fear that those who have mastered post processing skills to enhance their images will have a commanding advantage over those who have not. I think it's likely that those who believe that images should be pure 'out of the camera' images have also, throughout their lives, been satisfied with the return of an envelope of prints that some huge processing lab has developed and printed for them and therefore that philosophy should continue. They perhaps also fear that they will be left behind because they see post processing as a ‘dark art’ that is beyond their ability to learn, when in truth, the basics are easy if only one is prepared to submit oneself to the understandable butterflies that come with being back in year one at school. It is natural to resist change and companies like Deloittes and Accenture have made millions out of helping companies break through the ‘change cycle’. What we see in the ‘out of camera’ camp is the demeanour of those in the first two stages of the cycle: denial and resistance. It is perhaps the most challenging part to break through before some optimism and re-education can start; usually by addressing the “WIFM” question – What’s In It For Me? In our case, the answer is obvious: better quality images, more chance of winning in competitions and the satisfaction of knowing that we can continue to improve our skills. Many businesses dwindled and died because they did not respond to the opportunities that computerisation offered, or they only responded once the competition had already started to steal their business. As post processing software makes the art of image enhancement and manipulation easier and easier, those who refuse to acknowledge the benefits will be left to an inevitable future. It is only a matter of time before the rule makers are either out-voted or give in to the tidal surge and move aside to permit the rest of us to compete at the best of our abilities, without being confined to an ‘Open’ category. There still needs to be control over what an image portrays, especially relating to ‘natural wildlife’ in order to prevent artificial environments or circumstances, but how the images are produced – the type of brush, paint and canvas – should reflect the tools that are widely available today. Geoff