What It’s Like To Judge A Photographic Competition

Judges class

First, Some History

There are all kinds of photographic competitions and they are judged different ways. This particular system of judging is based on the one used by the Professional Photographers Association of America. It is used at The International Photographic Competition (IPC), the District Competitions that feed into IPC, Many state competitions and local groups as well.

To be an IPC certified judge is a long process that involves classes, traveling, judging and review. It is, I believe, the most detailed training of any competition judge.

I am not an IPC Judge.

I am a Master Photographer with the PPA, which means I have participated in the IPC for years and have achieved the required success (13 merits) to receive my Master Degree. When local photography organizations are having a competition they hope to get IPC qualified judges but if they can’t (there aren’t that many) they usually settle for Master Photographers. We have had no training at all but we have been judged for years and the hope is that we have learned enough to be able to approximate a score that is close to what IPC judges would give. For most, the local competition with it’s un-qualified judges is just a testing ground to prepare images for District and IPC where they will be judged by certified judges and their merits will count towards their Master status.

This article is meant to convey what it’s like to be a judge for the first time with no training or certification and should in no way be seen as having any weight or expertise other than me sharing an experience that few ever get to have. I am not a judge. I’m just a guy who got asked to judge because they couldn’t get a real judge.

Also, they call themselves jurors but I say judge because I think it’s more clear to my non-photography friends.

How Photographic Competition Judging Works

At the local level, which is where I was judging, there are 3 judges. We sit in front of a monitor where the images are displayed. The image appears on screen and the technician says the title. Each judge enters a score into an Ipad. The Jury Chair (person running the show) announces the average score. In most cases, that’s it… the image goes away and the next image appears.

The scores fall in a 30 point range from 70-100. Your average score for the image must be 80 or higher for you to receive a “merit.” At the local level, a merit doesn’t usually mean anything but at the IPC it means everything. You need 13 merits to become a Master Photographer. You can only submit four images a year so every merit is crucial to your journey. Typically, only about half the images in any competition get a merit… sometimes less.

Sometimes, after a score is announced, there is a challenge. Any judge can challenge the final score. When this happens, the challenger then says his score and explains how they arrived at it. Then, each judge speaks a bit about their score and finally the challenger gets a rebuttal. Then everyone re-scores the image. The purpose of the challenge is to stop the process so that a judge can make a case, for or against, the average score. So, say I score an image 87 and the final score is 78… I would challenge so that I could point out some things about the image that led me to my score in the hope that my fellow judges would change their score to one closer to mine. At the same time, I’m looking for some explanation as to why they scored the image so much lower than I did. I might show the judges good reason to score higher or they might point out some things I didn’t see and I will re-score lower. I suppose the idea is that, whenever the judges are far apart on their scores, there should be a discussion and a new consensus.

Challenges are the best part of competition by far.

There are also some cases where there is a mandatory challenge. For example if a majority of the judges score an image as a merit but it still doesn’t have a final score that is a merit, the jury chair will call a majority challenge so that the judges can discuss the image and arrive at a better consensus. The same happens if the majority is no merit and also if the judges scores are too far apart in general.

What I’m Thinking Before It Starts

“Please don’t let my scores be too far away from everyone else’s”

I suppose that when you are a certified judge with years of experience, you are more fearless but I was just hoping that I would be in the same ballpark as the other judges. You don’t want to be at 91 on a score when everyone else is at 78. That’s fine when you have years of experience and training to justify your reasons but first time in the chair? You just don’t want to look stupid. This is particularly hard because I’m only pretending to be a judge. I’m not giving the image a score based on what I think so much as giving it the score I believe it would get if entered into IPC. I personally have a great many opinions about how the judging is done and how the scoring works but once you are in the chair all that is moot. My job is to help prepare the image makers for the next level of competition by giving them a score that is as close to what they can expect there as possible. Luckily, I’ve competed for six years and hosted a show from the IPC for four of those years where I interviewed judges about their process so I’ve got a lot of information at my disposal.

The first 5 images my score either matched the final score or was very close. Big sigh of relief. It’s one thing to watch the competition and “arm-chair quarterback” but entirely different to be in the chair.

What I’m Thinking When Scoring

Let me be clear: This is what I was thinking. It is in no way the proscribed method for judging by the PPA. I have never been through the judge’s course. I don’t know what they teach. Left to my own devices, this is what I came up with and I thought it might be interesting to share it. Especially if you are thinking about judging and wonder what it’s like.

The 30 point range is divided into six categories, each with five points. The first thing you do is decide what category the image belongs in, then you decide what score within the category. I thought about this a lot on my drive to Tallahassee ( and had some suggestions from judge friends).

My goal was to try and give a score each time that had purpose. For example, the Merit category is 80-84. I never wanted to give an 80-81 unless I was prepared to have that image score in the 70’s (no merit) as it’s final score. If I gave an 80-81 I was saying “I’m on the fence… I’m going to err in favor of the maker but if the other judges see cause to score lower I won’t argue.”

By contrast, a score of 84 that ends up being an 88 would not be challenged. I scored it at the edge of that category (85-89).

But, a score of 84 that gets a 78? That one I challenge. I’ve scored it at the top of the merit category and so I’m prepared to defend that score if someone thinks it doesn’t deserve a merit. If I score 81 and it comes in at 79 I can’t challenge because I obviously didn’t think it was very strong to begin with or I would have scored it higher in the category.

I found that selecting the category was not that hard. Most of my thoughts went toward figuring out where to place it within the category because that’s where you really state your conviction. If you are trying to convince me to change my score to the 80’s and you scored it an 81 well it’s obvious you aren’t exactly in love with the image either.

The Challenge

The challenge is the hardest part of being a judge. You have to say out loud what you liked or didn’t like about the image. But it’s not as simple as that because you have to speak in photography terms and address the 12 elements that are used when judging image competition:

Technical Excellence
Color Balance
Center of Interest
Subject Matter

These 12 elements are what judges are supposed to be… well… judging. So, when you speak about an image you need to speak in those terms. You don’t say, “I think this is really neato!” You say, ” This is a tough subject to photograph but I really love the lighting and the color harmony between the subject and the background. The leading lines really bring your eye straight to the subject and the story this piece is telling is obvious.”

Yeah… not so easy to do on the fly believe me, even for me a guy who never shuts up. It’s easy to see that an image isn’t a merit but trying to describe why in an articulate and clinical way? Not so easy.

The hardest part is not talking too much, believe it or not. Your first instinct is to want to say everything you can think of to justify your score but I’m told you should just mention a couple of things to give the other judges a chance to say things too.

I challenged a couple of images up and at least one image down (painful to do but necessary. You aren’t doing anyone a favor if you give them a good score only to have it tank at IPC)


After the competition, all the images are brought back up at the meeting and the judges talk about each one. This is only done at the local level as the whole thing is seen as a test run for IPC. This part of the night is both good and bad. Good in that you get to explain your scoring, bad in that you have to explain to someone why their image isn’t going to score well up the line. People are emotionally attached to their work and it’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t think it’s as great as you do.


I really enjoyed the experience. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done and I’ve been approached to do it a few more times locally in the state. In the past I’ve been asked to judge at state conventions and I’ve always said no because I wasn’t a Master Photographer. Now that I am, I would do it if they needed me.

I’ve always loved the competitions and some of my best friends are judges. I’m known for speaking out quite a bit about problems I perceive in the scoring process and I’m sure that sometimes people take it personally but I can assure you that I have nothing but respect for the folks who judge.

Congregation Beth Am Tampa Bat Mitzvah Photography

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

What Happens at a Bat Mitzvah

Over the years I’v posted a lot of bar and Bat Mitzvahs on the site but I don’t know that I’ve ever really explained what happens at a typical Bat Mitzvah. So, if you’ve never been to one or are planning your first one, allow me to break down exactly what happens at a typical Bar or Bat Mitzvah using this one from Congregation Beth Am in Tampa.

Bar Mitzvah Temple Portraits Congregation Beth Am Tampa

The first step is the temple portraits. These are usually done a few days before the service, typically on Thursday or Friday. The Rabbi will have a meeting with the family to go over things one last time and make sure that the Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Miyzvah girl is comfortable and ready for the big day. The immediate family will show up dressed for portraits and I’ll photograph them as well as the child and the clergy.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

There are some temples that do this on Saturday, the day of the service, but most tend to do it in the week prior, like Congregation Beth Am in Tampa. Occasionally, I’m asked to come in the day of the service and do extended family portraits right before show time because that’s when everyone is there and dressed. Other times (most of the time) we do these portraits before the party that night. There is one temple in Tampa, Schaarai Zedek, that actually does a complete dress rehearsal right before the service and I get to photograph that as well as family portraits. Recently, someone told me that a lot of the Orlando temples do that as well. But in Tampa, most of the temples I work at don’t do a dress rehearsal on Saturday.

No temple allows you to photograph the service. It’s simply not allowed.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

Bat Mitzvah Party Photography

The Bat Mitzvah party can be many things. Sometimes it’s a luncheon at the temple, sometimes it’s a giant party at a ballroom… I did a pool party one time. It all depends on what the family and celebrant want.

The parties usually have some sort of theme and the decorations and table centerpieces will reflect that.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

Typically, the party is four hours long and there is a pattern to them.

First, there’s the cocktail hour. The parents are in one room and the kids are in the main ballroom. The parents eat Hors d’Ouevres and the kids play games. One of the most popular games is called “Coke/Pepsi” and involves splitting the kids into two groups on either side of the dance floor, each person across from their partner. Then the DJ calls out different words and you have to do a different action for each word. So, “Coke” means you sit on your partners knee, “Pepsi” means they sit on yours, “Dr. Pepper” means you meet in the middle and do something, etc… It’s chaotic with a lot of running back and forth and you get disqualified if you don’t do the right thing. It’s kinda “Simon Says” meets “Musical Chairs. “

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

Oh, and there’s socks. Because all those 13-year-old girls don’t want to wear heels all night so the family provides socks. It’s one of my favorite little things about Bat Mitzvahs.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

After the cocktail hour, everyone comes into the room and gathers on the dance floor for the entrances. The family is introduced and then the guest of honor. Sometimes they go straight into some dancing, sometimes not… but either way it’s a short hop to Dad’s speech and the candle lighting.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

The candle lighting is a little ceremony that the Bat Mitzvah girl does where she brings up people important to her and they light a candle together. The way she brings them up always rhymes. So, she might say something like:

You’ve always had my back
Even when we were bad
We used to play for hours
And hide from Mom and dad

You love to play on Xbox
And wrestle on the floor
Will my brother Bobby please come up
And light candle number four

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

There’s 13 of these usually. Parents, grandparents, uncle and aunts, friends, etc.

After the candle lighting it’s time for dinner. During dinner there will be a montage of pictures played on the big screens that the DJ provides. All the kids usually sit on the dance floor to watch it. Then, there might be a few more games to entertain the kids while the adults finish up their dinner. Scavenger hunts are popular.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

After dinner is when they usually do the hora, which is the traditional dance where they put everyone in a chair and raise them up. Everyone in the immediate family goes in the chair. From here we go straight into dancing for the rest of the party (usually about an hour at this point).

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

There’s always a candy table with bags. The kids can load up with all they want. Sometimes there is a dessert bar as well with ice cream and cake.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

There are usually other activities as well, I provide a photobooth that is always popular and because it’s big, you can get a lot of people in the picture. Sometimes there is someone airbrushing t-shirts or doing henna or the like.

Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa
Congregation Beth Am Bat Mitzvah Photography Tampa

All in all it’s a great event. People really have a blast at Bat Mitzvah parties.

Best Wedding Beaches in Florida

What’s the best wedding beaches in Florida? Well, that can be a tough question since Florida is nothing but beaches. In fact, there is no place in the entire state that is more than 60 miles from a beach. Still, there are a few general things to consider when picking your beach wedding location in Florida that can really narrow things down for you.

Should I get Married on the East or West Coast of Florida?

There are fantastic wedding beaches in Florida but if you should aim for the west coast for one very important reason: The sun sets into the ocean on the West Coast.

If you get married on the East Coast, you will not have sunset pictures with the sun and water behind you. The sun sets over land on the East Coast. If you want something that looks like sunset on the water you will have to schedule a separate session for dawn when the sun is rising. You can’t even schedule a dawn wedding because by the time you finish the ceremony you will have lost the best light. Plus, who wants to go to a wedding at 6a.m.?

So, East Coast is the best for beach weddings in Florida

Beach wedding beaches in florida

What’s the Best East Coast Beach for a Wedding in Florida?

Now that we have eliminated half the state, let’s talk about what East Coast city has the best wedding beaches in Florida. Here’s another thing to consider:

What city on the east coast of Florida has the most people and attractions, the best airport and the best beaches?

It’s Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay International Airport is my favorite airport in the world. It is the easiest to navigate of any I have ever been through and it’s right next to downtown and the bridge to Clearwater.

Clearwater Beach was picked as the best beach in the country by Travel Advisor (again).

And of course Tampa is only about 90 minutes from Orlando and Disneyworld. (We even have a casino)

Which Tampa Bay Beach is the best for a wedding?

I’ve photographed over 500 beach weddings in Tampa Bay and I feel pretty confident that I know the best wedding beaches in the area so let’s break them down:

Group wedding picture from florida beach

Best Clearwater Beach for a Wedding

Clearwater Beach is the busiest beach in Tampa Bay but there are still two spots that I recommend for a beach wedding.

Mandalay Ave. and Avalon St.

This is the closest you can get to the tourist center of Clearwater Beach and still have parking and beach access for your wedding. If you want to get married on Clearwater Beach, this is the best spot to do it.

Sand Key Park

Sand Key Park is a little more pricey with their permit cost but in return you get the biggest parking lot in the county (never full), a locals beach which means less people on a weekday, plenty of bathrooms and sand that is easy to walk on for older folks or people with disabilities. This is the beach where I photograph all my family portrait sessions (there’s no fee unless you are setting up arches, etc). I would be perfectly happy photographing every beach wedding or portrait on Sand Key Beach.

If you are eloping, this is a great beach because there’s no permit cost.

Wedding kiss on the beach in florida

Best Indian Rocks Beach for a Wedding

There’s a public access at 18th ave, and Gulf Blvd that is my favorite spot for an Indian Rocks Beach wedding. Yes, the beach is a little shallow here but the parking lot is never full. If you go to the other big beach access spot in Indian Rocks Beach it will be packed with tourists. For a wedding, I prefer this spot surrounded by condos and homes.

Best Madeira Beach Wedding Spot

Gulf Blvd and 144th street is probably the best spot for a Madeira Beach wedding. Honestly though, most people getting married on Indian Rocks Beach or Madeira Beach are staying in a hotel there and just get married right behind the hotel.

sunset beach wedding picture

Best Wedding Beach on Treasure Island

There’s three spots to chose from if you want to get married on Treasure Island. The first is Gulf Blvd and 112th ave.. This is a very busy spot, lots of tourists. South of there is a smaller parking lot but usually not as crowded at 104th ave. and Gulf Blvd.

Sunset Beach

My favorite Treasure Island wedding beach is Sunset Beach, 8000 West Gulf Blvd. This beach is a locals beach with a small but adequate parking lot (recently re-paved), bathrooms and even a small pavilion that can be rented for a reception. It also has a boardwalk for pictures and a rock jetty as well. It’s one of the best wedding beaches in Florida. Here’s a blog post from a Sunset Beach Wedding

Here’s another Sunset Beach wedding where we got rained on. :)

Best Wedding Beach in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg has two spots that I tend to photograph a lot of beach weddings.

Upham Beach

Upham Beach is kind of hidden from Gulf Blvd as it is a couple of blocks up 70th avenue to get there. It’s a good wedding beach, plenty of parking but can get crowded. It’s probably first on my list of St. Petersburg wedding beaches.

St. Pete Beach Access

This is the biggest parking lot in the area and you still might not get a spot. Always busy, it’s not my favorite spot in St. Petersburg for a beach wedding. The best thing about it is that it’s across from Chic-Fil-A at Gulf Blvd and 46th Ave.

bride and groom walking on florida beach

Best Wedding Beach in Pass-a-grille

The best wedding beach in Pass-a-grille is, well, the whole beach. Pass-a-grille is unique in Tampa Bay because it’s the only beach that has parking that runs the whole length of the beach so it’s just a matter of picking the boardwalk where you want to get married. That being said, I think the best spot is at the north end of the beach at the end of 22nd Ave. There’s more parking here than any other spot and it’s as far as possible from the big bathroom/concession stand area that is always crowded with tourists.

Bride and groom kissing on florida beach

Final Thoughts on Florida Beach Weddings

You may have notices that I mentioned parking a lot in this article. If you are getting married on a Florida beach and inviting guests, parking is a big deal. Make sure you pick a beach that people will be able to park at easily so that your wedding can be on time. I can’t tell you how many times a wedding starts late because the guests can’t find a place to park. When you are getting married at sunset, you don’t want to start late because you will lose your light.

Tourists are another consideration. Never get married on the fourth of July at a busy beach as you will be surrounded by drunks and hell-raisers. Try to get married during the week at a beach like Sunset or Sand key or Avalon where it’s less crowded and easy to access.

Finally, get a good beach wedding planner like Perfect Florida Wedding to handle everything for you. It’s worth it, believe me.

Oh, and a good beach wedding photographer. :)