Here are the rules I live by when judging a wildlife photo contest:
- Only judge in contests where judging is “blind,” meaning you don’t know who took each photo. A judge who knows the source of a photo can’t be expected to be objective. It’s hard to look photographers in the eye afterward, whether you’re congratulating them for a win or consoling them for a loss.
- Review the rules of a contest before agreeing to judge. If you have an ethical position about the copyrights of freelance photographers, make sure the contest lives up to them. To me, transparency is key: If the goal of a contest is to collect photos for unspecified future use without payment, the contest should at least spell that out in the rules. I only judge contests that award meaningful (cash) prizes to truly deserving photos and pay for any publication of those photos, pursuant to an agreement with the photographers.
- Like wildlife photography. This may seem obvious, but I think it’s key. One way to become a good judge of wildlife photos is to look critically at thousands of them. This develops your eye. But if you’ve seen thousands of images, it’s hard to find anything fresh; everything can look cliché. Keep looking for images that are surprising and unusual, but also recognize the well-done image even if you’ve seen a dozen like it in the past year. Appreciate skill, as well as surprise.
- Like wildlife photographers. Digital photography gear is expensive: These people can invest thousands of dollars in equipment before they step out the front door. Then there’s the cost of travel, and the hours spent patiently in a blind, holding still, staying quiet, waiting. The reason many wildlife photographers spend the money and take the time is devotion to the well-being of their subjects. These folks care about wildlife. They’re easy to love.
- Appreciate your fellow judges and their vision. I’ve judged quite a few wildlife photo contests, so I speak from experience: Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a winning wildlife photo. There’s not much point arguing that the ones you like are better than the ones they favor. The most you can do is explain why you like one photo more than another. There is an element of persuasion that can go on when photos are being judged by a group, but it’s just one element. Make your case, listen to their case, participate, then let go.