At our meeting on June 13, Indianapolis professional photographer Joe DeFabis presented tips for entering the photo competition at the Indiana State Fair. It turns out that Joe is the new coordinator for the photography competition, so we got a lot of insight.

The photo competition is part of the Home and Family Arts Dept. You can download the complete rules here:

The photography section starts on page 41 of the PDF (it's marked page 188 because the Home and Family Arts section is part of a larger printed book).

The number one reason to enter such a print competition is to become a better photographer, Joe noted. Each print accepted into the fair will receive a point score from the judges, with the images getting the most points in each category receiving ribbons. In the past a critique session with the judges at the end of the fair let you get an idea of why the judges scored your images as they did. Unfortunately, they stopped having the critique session last year. At the meeting, Joe said he'd like to have the initial judging be open to the public starting next year.

Each print being judged starts with a 100 score, and points are deducted for shortcomings detected by the judges. There are three judges, and the score is the average of the individual judges' scores. If there is a big disparity, they may discuss and re-score. The judges take only 15 to 20 seconds to judge an image.

The images are judged under bright (daylight color balanced) lights, so you may want your print to be a little darker than normal. DeFabis definitely recommends glossy paper.

What makes for a high-scoring print? Joe referenced the "12 Elements of a Merit Image" created by the Professional Photographers of America (PPA), which can be found here. 

As you do your own judging of your images, considering the elements below, one trick is to turn the image upside down -- flaws such as distracting bright (hot) spots often become clear.

The PPA document follows, with Joe's comments inserted in italics.

12 Elements of a Merit Image

The Photographic Exhibitions Committee (PEC) of PPA uses the 12 elements below as the “gold standard” to define a merit image. PEC trains judges to be mindful of these elements when judging images to the PPA merit level and to be placed in the International Print Exhibit at Imaging USA, the annual convention. The use of these 12 elements connects the modern practice of photography and its photographers to the historical practice of photography begun nearly two centuries ago.

Twelve elements have been defined as necessary for the success of an art piece or image. Any image, art piece, or photograph will reveal some measure of all twelve elements, while a visually superior example will reveal obvious consideration of each one.

The Twelve elements listed below are in accordance to their importance.

1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.

Look at your print, and ask yourself honestly, is it going to make someone think, wow!

2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

Out of focus images are a big problem. As for exposure, ask whether there are details in the white/bright areas and in the shadows.

3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

Is the image original, or something people will think they've seen before?

4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

This is where the composition guidelines we all know -- the rule of thirds, the use of leading lines, diagonal lines, etc. -- come into play.

6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

This is not a fine art gallery show, and white mats generally don't score well -- the eye goes to the brightest part of an image first, and if that's the mat, that's detracting from the image. The mat should help the presentation in a color that complements the image. Digital mats are highly recommended, created using layers in Photoshop or another image editor. Another option is a full bleed image (no mat at all). Companies such as White House Custom Colour, American Color Imaging (ACI) and Burrell Imaging offer competition print services. (Note that with a digital mat, you can use Photoshop's color picker to find a complementary color for the mat. Digital mats also make it easy to do such things as apply the rule of thirds with image placement, or to rotate the image for effect.)

7.) Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

Skin colors should be accurate. Sometimes warmer tones may be good.

8.) Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.

What do you want the judges to look at? Everything else should lead to or support that center of interest.

9.) Lighting—the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

Light should be directional, avoid flat light.

10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

12.) Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.

The title you choose is your communication with the judge.

When selecting images for competition, choose an image that has more of the 12 elements over an image that you may like better but doesn't have as many of those elements. Images that score well in competition may very well NOT be the images your clients like.

Images stand on their own -- the judges don't care how hard it was to get the shot, or what challenges may have prevented you from getting a better shot.

Don't be afraid to crop for maximum effect, to make a narrow vertical or panoramic horizontal image.