12 Secret Rules to PPA Judging

I wrote this article a long time ago. Back then I thought competing at PPA was a worth while undertaking. That is no longer the case for me as I am active in the larger art world and this simply doesn’t benefit me any longer. But I’ve left this article on my blog as there are many photographers who would benefit from these insights.

When I was new to the PPA judging process (this was my 2nd year) I was eager to learn the secrets to scoring.

As you probably know a score of 80 or above is what you need to merit. Yes, I’ve read the 12 elements of a merit, but after watching hours of judging, there are other themes that get discussed frequently during the judging process.

  1. Sharpening is a Two-Sided Blade

The judges want the main elements of an image to be sharp, even if the image is hand painted. So for instance, if it is a portrait, the eyes, and lips need to be sharp. There are numerous ways to sharpen an image. Unfortunately, some of them cause more problems than they fix. Sometimes sharpening will cause haloing or white sharpening lines, both of which are bad. You need to sharpen your images without creating these negative side effects. For me that means I need to order a work print, because even if I look at the image at 100% I sometimes miss problems caused by sharpening.

If you have never heard of a work print, they are the saving grace of competing photographers. There are just some things I can’t catch on screen. I know at least one online lab offers work prints, they are less expensive than a competition print, but they have a big “work print” across the image. I finally settled on using my local lab for work prints because they only charge $20, and they don’t put the “work print” watermark across the image.

  1. Details, Details, Details

The judges really like to see details in every piece of your image. So that means no cloudless skies and no blank or totally white areas on your canvas. The exception is if you have successfully extracted your image and placed it on a completely white background for impact. If you do extract elements of your image, or create a composite, your masking has to be perfect and undetectable.

  1. Apply Your Effects Universally

If you are using an artistic effect, like hand painting, or a filter, this effect needs to have the same thickness or intensity across your image. For instance, if you have the original unpainted image on the bottom of your Photoshop layer stack, and the hand painted layer above, do not use a mask to paint more detail back into areas of interest. Your brush strokes can get smaller to add detail, but don’t lower the opacity of the painting or effect. I have repeatedly heard judges ding an image because the maker (meaning the photographer/artist) has reduced the effect in certain areas of the image. I don’t personally agree with this unwritten rule, I think painting the details back into certain areas is a great technique, but it will bring your score down, so I don’t do it for images I submit for competition.

  1. Controlling the Light

No hot spots what so ever!

The brightest part of the image needs to be the subject. If there is dappled light they will ding you for it. Do whatever you need to do to tone down the puddles of light in your image. It can be painting, cloning, healing, whatever, but non-uniform bright spots will hurt your score. I heard one famous wedding photographer describe PPA lighting as flat, I wouldn’t go that far, but there can’t be blown highlights, bright reflections, lens flares…

  1. Presentation

You will often hear the judges talk about ‘presentation’. All this means is every image needs to have a mat and a stroke between the image and the mat. Judges don’t normally complain about white or black mats, but if you choose any other color you may hear them say something derogatory. A few brave souls even choose to use a pattern, or something exotic on their mats. This is risky, as you will almost always hear one of the judges complain about anything out of the ordinary when it comes to the mat and stroke. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it just means be prepared for at least one judge to complain about it. Hopefully if it is artfully done one of the other judges will speak up for your brave new mat.

Guide prints are the small images that show the original image. You will commonly see them with composites or hand painted images. If you include guide prints I suggest you place them at the bottom or right of you image, so that the judge’s eyes look at your main image before they see the guide print. You guide prints need to have the same size and color stroke as your main image.

  1. Contrast

Blacks need to be truly black and whites need to be truly white. You also need to have a good tonal range between those two points. If you haven’t already studied Ansel Adams’ zone system, do so. For most images you need to make sure you have tonal representation for each zone.

  1. Saturation

The average consumer likes heavily saturated images, the average judge does not. There are exceptions, but in general go easy on the wild colors.

  1. Winning Images Vs. Images that Sell

The images you sell your clients on a daily basis may not be the same ones that will merit. Clients often want trendy images with things like lens flare or deeply saturated skies. The PPA judges generally want classic (think old fashioned) images. The exception would be something really out there that they have never seen before. If you can create an image that a judge has never seen before, it is unlikely that it will be something the average client will like. Judges see thousands of images and shocking them in a positive way is a major accomplishment. But the images I’ve seen that accomplish this goal are pretty far out and not likely something the average client will purchase.

  1. Delicate Darkening and Lightening

There are numerous ways to darken and lighten aspects of an image. If you listen to the judging they will frequently go on about the light on an arm, a plant, a background… there is much discussion about something being too bright. Even if the light makes sense in the story of the image, you will often hear a judge complaining about how the eye is drawn to a particular area of light.

You want to draw the eye to the most important element of the image without being obvious. If you can see the vignette lines, your score will suffer. Learn to dodge and burn in subtle yet effective ways.

  1. Composition

In general judges like the main element to be off center. You can Google the Rule of Thirds, Donald Duck Golden Mean, Fibonacci, they all say sort of the same thing different ways. Off center creates tension, and therefore impact. But I’ve also heard judges grumble about ‘there’s too much room to the right’ (or left or above). I know what the artist was doing, setting the image off center. But just setting it off center isn’t enough; it has to make sense in the story. For instance, if the image is of a boat, the extra space has to be in the direction the boat is moving, not above the boat or behind it. Just setting the image off center doesn’t necessarily improve it.

And of course, there are always exceptions, sometime dead center works, and when it does it can be magical.

  1. Remove Distractions without being Obvious

Many images start out with distracting elements. It is our job as artists to remove them without getting caught. If you clone, make sure there are no repeating patterns, if you patched make sure the tonal range matches, if you used the heal tool make sure there is still texture.

  1. Be Prepared for Blunt Criticism

Listening to the judging, even when they aren’t your images can be pretty painful. I actually find that I learn more when I am listening to other people’s images get judged, because I don’t have any skin in the game. I am more objective when I view other people images.

But even when it is someone else’s image, it seems like all the judges can do is tear images apart. I even get tired of the negative tone of voice they all use.

But, put yourself in the judge’s shoes. They are going to see thousands of images. They get tired, hungry and impatient. They want the judging to move quickly, and they want only the best images to merit. As a result, they are looking for reasons to keep images out. I wish it were a more positive process, but the reality is it is not. You will hear many more negative comments than positive.

The same will go for your Image Reviews if you paid for one. I had one judge say in a snarky tone of voice, “I’m not sure what you were trying to accomplish here…” I wish they had a checklist of items to cover both highlights and weaknesses, but the reviews tend to be pretty general, and unfortunately negative. Funny thing is they then close on this obviously scripted statement where they are trying to be positive ‘thank you for submitting and don’t forget to submit to National.’

4 thoughts on “12 Secret Rules to PPA Judging

  1. Kara Lane

    What I really liked about this article is that it provides intel on what the PPA judges really look for when viewing a photographer’s images. It’s one thing to read the 12 elements of a merit, which are listed on the PPA website, but those are general statements about impact, technical excellence, etc. It’s another thing entirely to hear from an award-winning photographer who has actually watched hours of judging to find out what the judges are really saying…both the positive and, all too often, negative comments being made. Very helpful for any photographer entering PPA contests.

    1. TennaMe Post author


      Thank you first for your amazing book on achieving gallery representation. Thank you also for taking the time to read this article and offer your supportive comments.


  2. David Coblitz

    Nice & helpful list. This sounds much like what goes on in the St. Louis Camera Club judging. I think it’s for the same reasons as you described. The shear number of images they have to cull through biases them to look for standard “errors” even when those “errors” are things that a pro will sometimes do on purpose for impact. I quick entering those after I realized they were biasing me away from my artistic center & sensibilities. When I would see an image have the audience reacting strongly & get passed immediately, that was one clue that something was wrong.

    1. TennaMe Post author

      Thank you David for your thoughtful response. Yes unfortunately established organizations tend to be so busy sticking to the rules they don’t advance and progress, like you obviously have done. I loved the artwork on your website. Cheers for listening to your inner muse instead of those in leadership at the St. Louis Camera Club. I did look them up too, and the spend a lot of time on their rules.

      Oh well, rules were meant to be broken and that makes it easier for artists like you and me!

      Best wishes with your continued art career!
      Tenna (Christine) Merchent


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