B&W Challenge results!

Firstly, a big thank you to all of the entrants in the competition – there were 760 images submitted in total, which is a far greater response than I expected. Not only were there a lot of images, but the overall quality of submissions was incredibly high; one comment posted was along the lines of this being one of the best collections of B&W work on flickr. I’m inclined to agree with that: the submission restrictions were enough to make you want to enter, but not so frequent that you would post an image without thought. It’s clear that every single image in here had a considerable amount of thought put into its execution. I would say that almost all of the images scored 2.5 or higher on my usual evaluation criteria – light, subject, composition/ execution and the idea – many 3.5 or higher, and a considerable number managed all four; there were a lot of photos I would have been proud to include in my own body of work. This is in stark contrast to another recent photo competition I judged where very very few images hit three, let alone four.

We had to go through the entire pool several times to ensure we didn’t overlook any images; originally the process was supposed to take one afternoon, but it landed up being dragged on for a few days as we had to debate the merits of each image, especially those that were either very close or contentious. And let me tell you…this was no easy process. I apologise for the delay in results, but at the same time there’s no way we could have done it faster and maintained the integrity of artistic intent of the competition. There was consistency, though: the ones that stood out for us the first time were also the ones that stood the test of subsequent passes. The most attractive were those that were tonally rich and made the most of this to add depth and dimensionality to their subjects. High contrast – aside from being scarce – just looks somewhat crude.

Some general commentary/ observations of the entries:

  • There were a lot of images processed in a similar style to the way I would have done it; I don’t know if this was a case of accommodating the judge, or being influenced by him (!)
  • Similarly, there were a lot of subjects similar to those that would naturally appeal to me. This is a good and bad thing: A lot were attractive, but that also meant that the ones which stood out were the diametric opposites of things I would have shot on my own. It’s encouraging to see that such wide range of subjects were so well presented in monochrome.
  • Bearing in mind that the judging is – as always – subjective, even if moderated by another party, I can’t really say what effect it has on the results.
  • A lot of people I know personally entered: this doesn’t bias the outcome, because there were simply so many images that I just looked at the photograph first, and only the shooter if it passed shortlisting.
  • A surprising number of people didn’t read the rules: sepia toned and instagram/ iPhone app etc images were not permitted, and disqualified from the judging. Although the majority of these didn’t make it past the initial screening, there was one image that would have had a good shot at winning – toned, not instagram – please please read the rules if you’re going to enter a competition. Has to be a fair playing ground for all, including yourself.
  • It was interesting to see that there were images which had been entered in other competitions (my own included) present, as well as some that appeared to be a rehash of another concept – I have to say we tended to stay away from these as they didn’t hit the #4 criterion: the idea, which has to convey both the thoughts of the photographer as well as some degree of originality.
  • Some of the images could have been out of older editions of National Geographic.
  • Whilst the majority of processing was tasteful and respected the quarter tones, there was also a lot of over-HDR’d work that had overlapping tonal ranges, resulting in a confusing frame which the eye had trouble following; none of these made it past the first round of screening because they failed on two counts: firstly, it required too much viewer effort to find the subject – simply didn’t stand out – and secondly, the processing stood out more than the composition or story.
  • Some people also submitted the same image twice (I have no idea how, because flickr shouldn’t allow it). Since it wasn’t a lucky draw, it didn’t affect the results. Duplicate entries were ignored.
  • It’s interesting to see the influences of both popular culture and the work of famous photographers (perhaps these are really one and the same?) in the pool – I spotted a couple of HCB-alikes, a lot of Ansels, several Dorothea Langes, a Mapplethorpe/ Weston or two, and I suppose the over-HDR’d ones were aiming at Salgado (but not coming remotely close: he didn’t HDR, he was always careful to maintain sufficient tonal separation between different areas so you always knew where the focus and subject was).
  • I’m a bit surprised there weren’t any creative interpretations of infrared or UV images; or at least if there were, they weren’t obvious. Perhaps that’s why you all need a multispectral camera…
  • Film is very much alive, kicking, and doing wonders in the hands, cameras and darkrooms of the right photographers.
  • Overall, we had to actively look for weaknesses in images rather than merely picking out good ones – that’s how strong the competition was.
  • Thankfully, there weren’t that many cat photos.

By popular demand, I’m going to do a short commentary on the final five before announcing a winner. These five will receive a complimentary copy of my new (goes on sale tomorrow) Intermediate Photoshop Workflow DVD. In no particular order:

RIMG0009 by Neil Hoyte
by Neil Hoyte
The subtle grays and good tonal range are the first things that draw the eye; the odd subject juxtaposition is what holds it. The attitude of the boat gives the impression it’s sailing a stormy sea, further reinforced by the ‘waves’ that appear to crash over it – until you realize the boat is on land, embedded in soil, and the waves are really vegetation. The image has great light, a clear subject, nice flow, and a couple of weaknesses: the empty top-left corner, and the dark bottom-right. Perhaps pulling out a bit might have helped, too.

Ionut Cirja
by Ionut Cirja
Good use of layering here: firstly the reflection, then the distortion added by the puddle, and finally the surrounds of the puddle – something earthy and muddy suggesting the countryside and everything that goes with horse-riding; effectively echoes of the main subject. Nice use of the surrounding dirt to form a natural frame around the subject; I like the overall tonal richness of the scene, too. However, I feel the vignette is a bit overdone, and perhaps the contrast pushed a bit too much; the whites are blown in places, and the blacks pure black – even though the horse and rider aren’t that well defined because of the muck floating in the puddle.

Childhood memories
by Juliaanto
This is an image that tells a story: one of longing, ages past, time elapsed, perhaps hardship, emptiness, better days. The subject stands out, isolated yet connected to the other objects in the scene; the child’s toy suggesting innocence; it being hidden and slightly worse for wear suggesting it was some time ago. The dishes, washtub, flaking paint and dirty window suggest neglect; the expression on the face of the man is almost one of resignation, or perhaps looking at the photographer – in the reflection – and wanting out into the world outside. Technically, there’s only one thing that bothers mea bout this image: the photographer’s reflection overlapping with the primary subject; stepping to the right would have placed it in the black space in the window, filling the gap.

by retooled11
The tones of this image are very much like one of those classical square seascapes you see so many of – but with a twist. The figure adds a degree of asymmetry to the image that draws the eye and makes the observer think: why the gap? Is he observing or trying to cross? Is there a virtual bridge between the two sides formed by the horizon? Good images are ones that make you think, whilst maintaining their perfect aesthetics. This image has a great tonal range (love the contrast between hard silhouettes and soft water/ sky) and good sense of balance, though perhaps the photographer might have compensated a little left-right for the addition of the figure.

by Alex Beldea Photography

Perhaps one of the most classical images entered into the composition – both in terms of composition, subject and tone; it’s a great study of the human form. Balance is mostly good, though perhaps a little right-heavy due to the form of the figure’s arms. A little more dodging on the hair would have added a nice textural symmetry to the cloth wrapping her waist, too. Personally, I find the horizontal texture in the tiles a bit distracting – not a deal breaker, but the vertical breaks in the tiles draw the eye away from the figure a little; fortunately it’s somewhat continuous with the cloth texture again. If anything, the image is a bit too safe – but very, very well executed, and a good example of a classical ‘style’ both reminiscent of early photography as well as painting.

It’s a tough decision to make – please note that all of the comments/ criticisms of the final five are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. All of these images had the special something that drew the eye of both of the judges – interestingly our shortlists were fairly similar – and had enough depth and layering to keep us coming back to look at them again. There can only be one winner.

So: Congratulations and well done to Juliaanto! You are the winner of the modified Sony NEX-5 Multispectral kit. Your image is the one which kept both of us returning back to look at it even after several passes and mixing up the pile; there’s an emotional connection built there between viewer and subject. It’s compositionally strong – though not flawless – and technically well executed, making good use of the available tonal range to convey feeling and mood.

I will be sending out emails/ messages to all of the winners shortly for further instructions on how to claim prizes. The competition pool will remain up on Flickr, though the group will of course be closed to any new submissions. Please note that if you made the shortlist, you’ll need to give me your facebook usernames for verification. Thanks for participating! MT

Note: I’ve still got another unique camera up for sale here!


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  1. Hi Ming,
    I really appreciate your willingness to spend your free time on this. The competition was fun and challenging, and the results were stunning! I think you’re right that the limitations on the submissions greatly improved the images entered.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. A couple of thoughts here:

    1. Have you thought about portfolio submissions rather than individual images? The five finalists all have excellent images, and frankly in your commentary you (at times) struggled to really provide any criticism that couldn’t be easily defended as “artist’s intent.” Rarely have I been to any exhibition of an artist’s work where there’s just _one_ image shown. A collection of 3-5 images per photographer might actually make picking a winner easier, because at least you can determine if what turns you off of one image is either an intentional choice, or perhaps poor technique that repeats itself over a few photos.

    2. You’ll have to read this strictly objectively, since you are one of the few blogs (maybe there are three in total) that I actually come back to on a weekly basis… but have you ever wondered how you ended up in the position where you are the arbiter of “the best photos.” I believe there’s a line you cross where you are in the company of greatness and beyond that it’s just personal preference and tastes. I suppose I have no problem identifying “bad” photos, however trying to separate the “good” from the “better” must be agonizing.

    Curious to hear your thoughts on both.

    • 1. We had 780 entries. I’m doing all of this entire site for free at the expense of work that does actually make money. It took two whole days of my time and my friend’s time to judge this: multiply that by three or five and it becomes completely impractical. And trust me, I can tell the difference between artist’s intent and accident.

      2. I never claimed to be, which is why I’ve always said that ultimately photography is art and art is always going to be subjective. There are some hard and fast rules that make or break images – I’ve shot enough, exhibited enough, shown enough and gotten enough feedback on my own work – good and bad – that I think I have a fairly good idea of what works and what doesn’t. For the purposes of the competition, I’m judging because I’m hosting; my friend is judging because he’s supplying the prize. It’s completely voluntary, remember; submitting your images is also tacit agreement to submit them for assessment by the judges.

  3. Lots of great pictures! I would personally have chosen (from your shortlist) the shot from Ionut Cirja (the reflection of the person on the horse), because it’s easily the most evocative from my point of view. I think your choice of winning shot is – I don’t want to say “wrong” because as you said, it’s subjective – but I feel that the shot you chose is all in the story and nothing in the image. Indeed, you mention nothing about the actual black and white aspect of it, you only talk about the message. It’s a good photo without question, but I don’t know if I’d specifically call it a good black and white photo. With all the other pictures you allude to why it’s a good b/w shot, but the one you chose as the winner makes no reference to this. Curious.

    Still, art is in the eye of the beholder! And we get to see lots of excellent pictures.

    • I overlooked that because the story in itself is sufficiently powerful to be interesting. The tones are excellent, and I think color would have taken away from the overall feel and mood of the image, which now matches the story perfectly in monochrome.

    • Ionut Cirja says:

      Even if you are an admirer of my picture, I must disagree what you said Mark. A picture with a powerful story beats any perfect composition, shapes, lights and whatever you want. The story is the only thing that will make you to want to see that picture again and again.

  4. Franco Morante (Adelaide, South Australia) says:

    Congratulations to all the finalists. Well done Juliaanto.

  5. Carlo Santin says:

    Congrats to all the finalists, terrific photos. I don’t know how you picked even just those 5, there were so many strong photos in the competition.

  6. I’m a little late to the party as per usual, but I certainly enjoyed looking over all the entries. Thanks for the quality Flickr experience!

  7. Perfect Choice! The Image you selected does follow the long tradition of great Street Photography and Humanity! Great Contest!

  8. Congatulations Juliaanto, and all the finalists, fantastic images one and all. I did not envy you your job on this one Ming!

  9. Amazing shots and a well deserved final five and grand winner. I hope you have more competitions!

    One small question : what do you mean by “hdr … producing overlapping tonal ranges”..I’ve tried googling but cannot find what you mean – could you show an example or explain this a bit more? Thanks.

    (My faves were the boat and the seascape)

    • Thanks Bob. I don’t want to single out people’s images, but bad HDR is when what should be the highlights in the sky are about the same luminance as the shadows, and vice versa – the eye has no way to gauge how bright the real scene actually was because there are no tonal anchors. Basically, take a raw file and move your shadow and highlight recovery sliders all the way to the maximum – that should give you a rough idea.

  10. Well done to everyone who entered and the finalists. Stunning photos.

  11. Congratulations to all the finalists – outstanding images! Overall a very high quality competition and pool, it was great fun participating.

  12. Very tough choice and congratulations to Juliaanto!!!

    Ming, the last link in the article is now working…

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