I felt in over my head as I sat down at the Canadian Geographic executive boardroom table. Across from me was Mike Beedell, a photographer whose work has appeared in magazines ranging from Time to National Geographic. To my right was Laura Stanley, Canadian Geographic’s photo editor. I was there to round out the three-person judging panel for the 2012 Canadian Wildlife Photography of the Year competition.
What would I bring to this expert table? My day-to-day duties have me coordinating the Canadian Museum of Nature’s DNA research lab. Would my opinions be of use in narrowing down 500 images to the 15 winning photographs?
As a young kid, I pleaded with my mother to let me take photos with her camera. Eventually she deemed my arms strong enough to hold up the heavy thing, my finger nimble enough to press the shutter release button. I have enjoyed taking photos ever since.
With a camera in my hands, I can become transfixed by seeing the world through the viewfinder. And then snap, snap, snap, snap. I have to remind myself to come up for air, to see the “full picture” sometimes and not just that limited little view.
The museum releases me from the DNA lab sometimes to dabble in other things. I’ve ventured North to help collect and photo-document Arctic plants. And the exhibits team seconds me now and then to help develop photo-based exhibitions that showcase the museum’s research.
But, I have never been more than an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For my co-judges, the evaluation of images is central to their every day. In Mike and Laura, critical reasoning and intuition were at the ready as the first of the 500 candidate photos flashed onto a large wall-mounted screen. I had to make it up as I went along.
Grizzly bears, eider ducks, hemlock trees, swimming salmon seen from under water: image after image flicked by, each one needing a decision. Should this one go to the next round, yes or no? With three judges, each with one vote, no tie results were possible. Hands were wrung whenever the last judge to vote was forced to break a tie, either eliminating a photo or letting it continue.
Intuition ruled this first elimination round. Four hundred and fifty images rejected by gut reaction. After two hours we were down to 50 photos, 10 for each of five contest categories.
For the final voting round, we switched from intuition to reasoning. Aspiring contest winners, take note! Visual impact, composition, technical quality, content and originality: these are the final criteria used to pick the best of the best. Over a quiet hour, we privately considered each photo, deconstructing overall impact into the four criteria. The combined scores gave us the three winners for each category, which are now on display in the museum’s Stone Wall Gallery until July 7, 2013.
A photo is a fleeting moment captured. A small peek at the world through someone else’s eyes. Deconstructing these personal views of nature felt a bit cold-hearted. But it wouldn’t be a contest without winners! And the process gave me insight into the elements of an exceptional photo, one that turns heads, making us stop and look: “I’ve never seen that before! Amazing…”.