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Focus Awards cops flak from entrants

The 2019 Focus Awards, a contest for Australian amateur landscape photographers, has responded to widespread criticism from entrants that judging lacked consistency compared with previous years’ contests.

The 2019 Focus Photographer of the Year is Graeme Gordon. This is decided by averaging each photographer’s highest score across all six categories of the Amateur Awards. Photo: Graeme Gordon.

Numerous members on the Focus Facebook group, the organisation’s main social media hub, claimed that judging for this year’s contest was harsher, with much poorer results achieved by entrants than in previous years.

‘The Focus Awards are designed to encourage photographers at all stages of development to improve their skills and confidence,’ the awards page says. ‘As such, every entry into the Focus Awards receives a judges’ aggregate score and a feedback comment. Gold, Silver and Bronze Certificates are assigned to images that achieve the requisite score. These features set the Focus Awards apart from most other leading photography competitions.’

This was a conversation on the private Facebook group. Inside Imaging has blacked-out names.

Focus Seascape and Landscape Photography Inc (Focus Photographers) is a not-fot-profit community group that’s registered under the NSW Associations Act. The group was formed in 2012 on Sydney’s Northern Beaches as a community camera club, with members routinely meeting to photograph landscapes. The group is managed by the voluntary Focus Committee, 10 members who are appointed by vote, along with permanent executive chairman, John Armytage,

It has quickly grown to become one of the largest ‘new age’ camera clubs, with over 8400 members registered on the private Facebook group across Australia. Members are encouraged to post their photos and the community reacts by providing critical feedback.

The group has long-standing sponsorships with Sony and Nikon, as well as other partnerships with the likes of Momento Pro, Kayell Australia, Canon’s SunStudios, NiSi, Peter Eastway’s Better Photography, and others.

Membership is free, but a very reasonable $5 annual fee for a Focus Plus Members provides access to discounts and special offers from sponsors. There are over 400 Plus members.

A couple of the many photo tours endorsed by Focus.

Sponsors also include seven photography education companies, such as Fotoworkshops, which promotes events featuring an impressive roster of professional photographers. In a way, Focus has partly become a vehicle for the crème de la crème of Australian landscape photography to reach a large audience of amateur photographers.

Yes, it’s a not-for-profit community group run by volunteers, but there does appear to be some for-profit motives by endorsing workshops that are designed to improve an eager amateur photographer’s skillset.

At it’s core Focus is simply a social media amateur photography camera club, and the vibe is overwhelming positive. This ethos carries on in the awards, and while this year was no exception, the were enough complaints to prompt the Focus Committee to respond.

No gold at Focus Awards
With over 2100 entries and $40,000 in prizes, the Focus Awards have grown to become possibly the largest amateur landscape photography contest in Australia, yet many entrants feel the awards failed to achieve its goal of improving their confidence.

Every year there are three qualified judges with landscape photography educator, Peter Eastway, who has judged every contest since the beginning, serving as head judge. The two other spots change each year, with Ignacio Palacios and Mieke Boynton taking the helm in 2019. Last year it was Tom Putt and Hillary Younger.

Entry is $12 per image – much lower than the average photo contest, and still garnering around $25,000 in entry fees.

There are prizes across six categories, and all photos are scored out of 100. Gold is allocated to images that score between 88-100, silver for 81-87 and bronze for 75-80. This year no gold certificates were handed out, whereas in 2018 there were seven.

There appears to be an understanding among some that, as the awards are designed for amateurs, the judging process should be generous in handing out gold, silver and bronze certificates. More so than a pro-oriented contest, anyway.

And in past years this was the case. In Facebook discussions, entrants point out it was fairly common to score a bronze or even silver. This became an issue that boiled over in 2018, resulting in numerous complaints about how ‘every child gets a prize’ devalues the awards. And this year, the complaints swung in the complete opposite direction.

‘Last year the criticism was that too many awards were handed out and this year not enough. We are working on ways to bring a greater level of consistency to the awards experience,’ the Focus Committee said in a statement.

Of course, not everyone agrees.

The problem seems to lie with consistency – entrants want their results to reflect their improving skillset. After entering images that were captured with previous year’s critique in mind, and probably attending a bunch of workshops and events, receiving a lower score is disheartening for some.

While the Focus Committee mentions the 2018 complaints, it didn’t suggest the complaints led to a more stringent judging process that caused fewer certificates this year. In fact, the reason for a ‘perceived’ drop in scores is attributed to there being more first-time entrants.

Peter Eastway, well-known as a photo contest judge and prominent in the APPA judging over many years, points out the average score is actually only down two points from 2018. Despite observations from long-time entrants about their own scores dropping, Peter thought ‘there was a big influx of competition first timers that maybe need a year or two to work on bringing their photos up to the award standard.’

‘If we were to add just two points to the average, the silver and bronze numbers almost double and we have seven golds added to the equation – once again resulting in almost everyone getting an award,’ the Focus Committee statement says. ‘That small two point swing​ seen this year​ can​ likely​ be attributed to the drop in quality that Peter noticed during the judging process​. With that being said we are committed to finding a solution that both brings consistency and also maintains an award as something to aspire to rather than everyone getting an award for just entering.

‘Although there were no golds awarded, the judges did in fact individually score 23 images in the Gold range, however as photography is subjective they didn’t happen to agree on the same ones, resulting in no gold awards this year.’

The Focus Committee has acknowledged the awards system is not perfect, and that consistency is needed. It’s currently reviewing the awards and judging system based on entrant feedback, and also reminded everyone that most positions are held by volunteers.

– Inside Imaging contacted Focus Photographers for this article, but did not hear back in time.


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