Inside the WPPI Print Competition With Ken Sklute

May 1, 2012

By RF Staff

During his 37-year photographic career, Ken Sklute has received many awards and achievements, including being named one of Canon’s Explorers of Light, winning 14 Kodak Gallery awards and 15 Fuji Masterpiece Awards, and collecting 32 Photographer of the Year awards along the way between New York, Arizona and California. These days, most of his time is spent not only photographing but also teaching and lecturing, both nationally and internationally. In February, WPPI attendees had the pleasure of experiencing Sklute’s presence as  Chair of the Print and Album competitions (previously, he ran the Wedding room for 12 years).

With so much experience in print comp—as participant, judge and now event chair—we were curious to hear from Sklute about how print comp works, as well as why people enter it and what they hope to achieve. We also asked him break down the criteria used to determine a score, and discuss how judges “battle out” direct challenges (when one score is very low or high in comparison to the rest).

Rangefinder: Why are people so passionate about getting their work critiqued in public?

Ken Sklute: This is a very important question, and the answer is because this is where we get a chance as artists to excel, create and be recognized for excellence and unique work. Most of us work for our clients and we will often have good days, mediocre days or great days at work. In this creative element of working for clients, they always love what we do, but we don’t get a real chance to put it up against the best in the world and ask, “How did I do?” It’s amazing to get that chance. And that’s where print competition becomes a bit of a subculture…it gives us all the personal drive each year to push ourselves more and more.

RF: When an image pops up, judges are expected to go by more than just their gut reaction, right? How does the maker prepare for potential low scores?

KS: There are definite criteria used to score the prints [see sidebar on next page]. And the judges, who this year included David Beckstead, Jerry Ghionis, Bambi Cantrell, David and Luke Edmundson and more, have all been on the other side of that table time and again, sitting in the audience hearing their work be critiqued.

To put your photos in front of a panel of judges that have a formal education and specific knowledge about a subject, you have to have thick skin. The judges will either compliment or possibly critique or dissect the work, and not always in a positive sense, but it’s certainly intended to help the maker improve. People may get offended or hurt and leave…but if you really do admire that judge then you’ll recognize that their words are valuable to you.

And remember, all of the judges have gone through the process themselves. We’ve all risen from sitting in the audience with our hearts pounding waiting for that score to come up. Now, we are the ones affixing the score. When your image comes up, and it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been entering for just a year or 35 years, your heart still pounds the same way it always has.

RF: How can the competition be maintained as a positive experience when oftentimes judges have very polarizing scores for the same print?

KS: In the Premier room this year, for example, there was an instance where one judge gave score of 65 and the other a 92. Not everyone sees something the same way, so it takes that one judge who did score it a 95, to say, “Folks, you might be missing the boat here, let me share with you what I see,” and then offer persuasive arguments. You’re arguing for something generally you are not connected to, other than that it just popped in front of you 12 seconds before and stirred something inside of you—maybe a memory from childhood or a technique you haven’t seen in a while.

That’s where the differentiation comes into play, and you can now persuade your fellow jurors to see “the light” in a sense…to point out composition, the metaphor implied, etc. and all of a sudden the other judges say, “Hey, I didn’t see that before, I didn’t realize that, it got by me.” Suddenly that differentiation between the 95 and the 62 becomes a smaller gap, like between a 95 and an 89, and you’ve persuaded your peers and now the print is resting where it should be.

Sometimes there might be an overzealous juror who is so emotionally out on a tangent that [he or she] ignores all the technical flaws and go just on pure emotion until the other judges have to rein [things] back in, and say “Yes, but it’s crooked or scratched or off color...” All these things come into play and unfortunately kill that emotion that we saw with the super high score. Now that judge would of course have to back down from his or her 95, and maybe join the others in the higher 60s and say “Yeah, I got lost on this,” or “I was so moved, I didn’t realize that it really isn’t of a professional quality.”

Everyone needs to be aware that there are so many variables at play. And that is our job as judges is to point both the strengths and the weaknesses of the piece.

RF: You’ve offered a perfect segue into the actual guidelines the judges use to score prints. . .

KS: That is what I am working so hard on right now, trying to re-establish guidelines. When you evaluate someone’s photo, you want to take into consideration certain elements like those outlined here [see sidebar on right]. I’ve recently expanded from 12 to 13 elements that ultimately construct a successful competition print. I am creating a new list of rules for 2013, and we will be presenting a platform roundtable program on “Succeeding in Print Competition!” at WPPI 2013. And in the coming year, folks like David Williams, Bambi Cantrell and I will be writing articles to help readers better understand what is involved in competing with photographs.   

13 Elements that Help Guide Judges During the Print Competition:

Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these 13 elements.

Technical Excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.

Creativity is the original, fresh and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.

Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.

Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.

Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.

Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.

Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.

Lighting—the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is manmade or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.

Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.

Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media and more are part of the technique applied to an image.

Storytelling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.

Degree of Difficulty—There is often a consideration for an image created in the field using diminishing light, movement and cooperation, as compared to a studio-made image that might have had lots of time and a controlled environment to capture.

Jacqueline Tobin is currently the executive editor of Rangefinder magazine. Previously, she was an editor at Photo District News for 26 years.  E-mail her at