A Single Category for Open Competition

By Alan Haynes

At the October 2017 competition meeting, I will make a motion for a vote to change Poly’s competition rules and return to a single category for open competition as we had in 2016 and prior years.

For the past nine monthly competitions, we’ve split our open competition entries into two categories: category one where “all adjustments must appear natural” with compositing disallowed, and category two in which “there are no limits.”

The competition change was approved as a trial for 2017 only. We’ve tried it and it isn’t working. I’ll explain why later in this article.

The Origin of the Two-Category Proposal

According to our President, Dee Elwin, the idea of separate categories for competition came from a few members who mentioned it in an informal survey Dee had conducted by email. The survey results have never been made public, so we don’t know how many members made this suggestion or what their reasoning was.

Club meeting minutes show that on August 6th, 2016, Dan Palermo announced that a competition committee had formed and it was considering splitting the open competition into two categories, one for photo realistic images and one for artistic/creative images.

At each subsequent business meeting over the next few months, refinements to the two-category idea were presented to the club. In September, it was announced that the committee members included Dan, Ernesto Corte, Beverly Brock, Paul Shilling, Bob Howe, Dee Elwin and Diane Patterson. At this meeting, Dee said that if the change was approved by the membership, it would be a “trial change for 2017 only.” (As recorded in Poly’s official meeting minutes dated September 3rd, 2016).

On November 5th, 2016, the club voted – by secret paper ballot – on the final proposal. It was approved by a vote of 31 for and 11 against.

The Argument for Two Categories

The November 2016 edition of our club newsletter, Poly Speaks, contained several articles about the new proposal.

President Dee Elwin wrote that “Category 1 would be for members who prefer to do only basic (or light) editing to their photographs. These members would prefer to have their images judged against like images. This may be an advantage to members who are new to photography, or have limited editing skills or tools.” She went on to say that “Category 2 would be the same as we now have in Poly’s Open Competition. Any amount of editing, plug-ins, composites, etc. is allowed.”

Paul Shilling wrote an article explaining the committee’s views. Below are some of the main points from Paul’s article.

  • The committee felt that having two categories would better adhere to Poly’s objective to develop photographic skill through education, practice and critique and better address the needs of novice photographers than the single category system.
  • The committee believed that requiring members to develop “both photographic and post-processing skills” was a lot to ask. New members would no longer be intimidated by competing against the “great photographers and incredible digital artists in the club. It’s likely “that the digital art is even more intimidating and that is why some members have asked for a separate category for composites.”
  • The committee believes that “photography skills must come first” and once the novice feels more confident they can “jump into category 2.”
  • Having two categories would result in more winners. Although this was not the primary motivation for creating the two categories, it was seen by the committee as a positive result of the new proposal.
  • At the September 2016 meeting, a poll was taken and a “clear majority were in favor of making a change to two categories.”
  • The prior, single-category system made “the judging process more challenging.”

Poly Speaks editor, Jim Mildice, compiled a list of comments about the competition that he had overheard from other members. Some of the more interesting are repeated below.

  • “Realistic images do not do well when judged against Fantasy images.”
  • “This would be a violation of one of Poly’s founding principles. ‘Any and all images must compete on an equal basis.”
  • “I have no hope of winning if I must compete against highly-manipulated images.”
  • “Poly’s foundation was based on the principal that there are no limits on the methods and/or technology used to create our images.”
  • “I don’t like highly-manipulated, Photoshop images.”
  • “It’s time to face the facts of life – To be a serious, modern (amateur or professional) photographer, you need to develop your skills in picture taking and in post-processing.”
  • Poly also has always embraced change. Changes in image styles, and/or in equipment and/or methods and/or technology have always been accepted enthusiastically. So, we can try a new category that limits post-processing as long as the “open” category continues with no limits.”
  • “Having categories and rules about the tools methods used in artistic expression is the antithesis of art. If we aspire to be artists, we must resolve not to accept them.”
  • “We should all be able to use all the tools that are available to us to produce a finished image.”

The Case for a Single Category

What benefit is there in adding a second category for composite and digital art images? As mentioned above, the stated purpose for this change to two categories was to make it easier for novice photographers or those with limited post-processing skills to better compete against more experienced photographic artists. Has that goal been accomplished? Was it even necessary in the first place?

If composite and digital art images were, in fact, difficult to compete against, we’d expect to see those types of images dominating the awards in prior years when Poly had only one open competition category. It’s easy to see that that was not the case.

Competition Winners: The Facts

Click on the 2016 Monthly Winners link on our website and you’ll see that only seven of the 33 winners were obviously digital art or composites. Only two of those won first-place. In four of the months, none of the winners were these types of images. During 2015, there were 10 digital/composite winners out of 33 and only two of these won first-place. Here’s a link.

Perhaps there were others that include techniques now allowed only in category two, but since they appear realistic, they would still be perfectly acceptable in category one.

What does this tell us? Despite protestations to the contrary, minimally-processed and “realistic” images do compete very well against artistic/composite images; they usually do better. The idea that artistic/composite images are too hard to compete against is not supported by the facts. The two-category solution was an answer to a non-existent problem.

Very few members enter category two regularly. The median number of entrants per month is nine. The median number of images entered in category two is also low: 13 images per month. Only one member has consistently entered two images every month in category two for a total of 16 images. Only two other members have broken double digits: one with 12 entries for the year and another with 11. Thirteen members entered three or fewer images for the year: less than half the number of entries allowed.

The Trouble with Two Categories

Lack of Participation

The main problem with having two competition categories is that there are not many entries in category two. The three or four members who enter regularly are competing among themselves. This is hardly enough participation to warrant a second category.

Novice Photographers

And novice members will certainly be reluctant to enter this advanced category. How could a member who is just beginning to explore Photoshop hope to compete against the artists in category two? So, the idea of reducing the “intimidation” felt by novices doesn’t fly either.

Another implication regarding novices is that they will be able to more successfully compete in category one. The high quality of images entered in that category renders that point absurd. There is a lot to learn for a novice photographer even without post-processing. How can a novice compete against skilled photographers who have spent years honing their skills, who have the best equipment and who travel to the most interesting places? It’s doubtful that any photographer’s early work will stand much of a chance against these accomplished artists.

Stifling Photographic Expression

Poly has always been open to all types of photography. Our bylaws clearly state that “All forms of photographic expression are allowed including color, black-and-white and manipulated images” and that “All images shall be judged on the same categorical basis without consideration of subject matter.” The two-category rules fly in the face of these guiding principles that have served the club well for many years.

Confused Judges

Our monthly judges have been confused by the requirements of the two different categories. At the September competition, Eileen Mandell stopped to ask if infrared images were allowed in category one.

In August, Sally Vogt Ries assumed an image was a Photoshop creation and, therefore, not appropriate for category one. This was John Kane’s image of a fish reflected in a drop of water. It was created entirely in-camera with minimal post-processing. Later in that same competition, she said she “forgot which category we’re in because we just transitioned to the new category.”

Monica Royal was also confused during the July competition. She said, “This is category 1, so we can’t talk about removing the water bottle or the sun flare, can we?”

There are many ways to make creative images in-camera which may be mistaken for post-processing work: a special lenses such as a Lensbaby, in-camera multiple exposures, shooting through textured fabric or glass. It seems that the method used to photograph creative images entered in category one will need to be continually debated during competition.

The competition committee contended that having a single category made the judging process more challenging. We now know that to be wrong. Multiple categories mean more confusion, not less.

Winning Is Everything

Although competition has always been a big part of Poly, should it be the main part? Is winning more important than learning? The only reason we have two competition categories is so that members can have what they think is a better chance of winning. Should members be willing to do whatever it takes to win? It seems like some do have this attitude, and it’s not new.

Here’s a story of a conversation I overheard a few years ago. A local bird photographer who is well-liked and known for freely sharing his knowledge was judging for Poly. Afterward, he decided to join Poly. One of our members approached him and said something like, “You’re not going to enter your bird photos into competition, are you? We’ll never have a chance to win.” Although he’d already paid for his membership, that expert photographer never returned as a member to Poly.

That member’s attitude is the same attitude that drove us to two categories: win more often by eliminating competition from better photographers.

The 2016 Vote

It was mentioned earlier that, in an informal poll of members a “clear majority were in favor of making a change to two categories.” This is not entirely true. The subject of that poll was whether it was worth the committee’s time to explore the idea of two categories and to develop a proposal. The proposal did not exist at the time of that poll, so it would have been impossible for members to approve making the change.

Once the proposal was ready, the club did vote to approve it by a large margin. But let’s not forget that this proposal was presented as “a trial change for 2017 only.” Poly has always been open to change. For example, we once agreed not to read image titles during competition for a year. The following year, we went back to reading them.


It’s time to end Poly’s two-category experiment. It’s not working. Conveniently, the bylaws were never actually updated: the latest revision is from October 3, 2015. So, we don’t even need to rewrite that document.  (UPDATE: the bylaws revision was uploaded to our Yahoo site shortly after this article originally appeared.) The proposed vote is to change our competition rules and methods back to the way they are stated in the in the bylaws as of December, 2016. At the end of this article, I’ve posted the text these bylaws. These are the rules that will be in place in 2018 if this new proposal is approved.


Segregation of competition images into categories based on the method used to create them is wrong for our club. The word from which our club’s name is derived, “poly”, is meant to convey Poly Photo Club’s shining difference from other clubs in the San Diego area: we welcome all types of photography. Whatever a photographer’s specialty, they’ve always been welcomed.

There will always be someone better than you. Be inspired by their great work. Learn from what you see and work hard to improve your skills. If you’re willing to do that, you won’t want to be categorized.

Vote YES to allow all members to again compete equally.

2015 and 2018 Bylaws Text

Section 1: A competition shall be held at the first meeting of each month. Each member may enter up to two digital images.

All entries must be the member’s own work and must be photographic in origin. Entries that are primarily illustrations with little or no photographic content may not be entered. All forms of photographic expression are allowed including color, black-and-white and manipulated images.

Entries may originate in a digital camera or in a film camera where the film has been digitally scanned.

All images shall be judged on the same categorical basis without consideration of subject matter. The judge shall not be a club member. In an emergency, a qualified member may act as judge, provided that such a member does not enter that month’s competition. Any member acting as emergency judge shall be allowed one makeup entry consisting of two images at a future competition during the year.

The competition date may be changed at the discretion of the Executive Board as long as the membership is notified of the change at least 30 days prior to the originally scheduled competition date.

The judge shall be instructed to critique each image and offer constructive comments as deemed appropriate. The judge shall then rate each image on a scale of 5-9 according to the following guidelines:

A.    5 points = some technical deficiencies; not showing any particular skill of the photographer

B.     6 points = average, some showing of the photographer’s use of good

technique and recognition of an interesting subject

C.     7 points = fairly strong in technique and interesting; worthy of being accepted for exhibition.

D.    8 points = well balanced; strong in interest, composition and technique and impact.

E.     9 points = exceptionally good; high in interest, composition, technique and impact.

It must be recognized that an image may be so strong in some areas that it overrides weakness in some other area.

Section 2: Images scoring a 7 or more shall be considered acceptances. Images scoring less than 7 may be re-entered. First, second, and third place images shall be picked by the judge in the following manner:

A.    First place shall be selected from those images scoring a 9.

B.     If no images scored 9, the selection shall be made from those scoring 8.

C.     If no images scored 9 or 8, the selection shall be made from those scoring 7.

D.    Second and third place shall be selected from those images remaining from the 9’s first, then the 8’s, then the 7’s as applicable.

Section 3: Judges shall be instructed to select first, second, and third place winners at each monthly competition.

Section 4: Points received by a maker shall be recorded and counted toward the year-end high-points award. A member may participate in any or all of the monthly competitions and elect not to participate and have his/her scores totaled and posted in the competition for yearly “High Points Awards.” The member may still enter images into the year-end competition as detailed in Article XIII – Year End Competition.

Section 5: Once an exhibited image has been accepted in Club competition (by receiving a score of seven points or greater), it, or a near duplicate taken at the same time, cannot be entered in any future monthly competition. Another image that is created from the same original digital file that is clearly different and not a near duplicate of the accepted image may be entered in any future competition.

Section 6: No makeups shall be allowed for any missed monthly competitions. Yearly high-points competition scores shall be determined by the total of the highest nine of the eleven possible monthly scores. If a member participates in less than nine monthly competitions per year, his/her high-points competition score will be calculated by using the total of the competitions in which he/she actually participated.

Section 7: A monthly “Project” competition shall also be held at the discretion of the members.

Section 1: Entries in the year-end competition shall be chosen from the accepted images from the monthly competitions. Each member shall choose eight of his or her images from those that have received a score of seven or higher. Submitted images may be improved versions of the original accepted images from the monthly competitions, as long as they are clearly the same image. Improvements may be based on the photographer’s judgment or the judge’s comments. The President or the Competition Chairperson shall make arrangements as they deem appropriate to judge said images. The judges shall select First, Second and Third place winners plus approximately ten percent of the entries as Honorable Mentions. First, second and third place winners shall receive inscribed medals. Honorable Mentions shall receive ribbons.

Section 2: High-points honors result from totaling the points accumulated from the monthly competitions as defined in Article XII, Section 6. The name of the high-points winner shall be inscribed on the High-Points Perpetual Trophy. An inscribed medal shall be awarded to the First place winner, and Second and Third place runners-up. In the event of a tie for first place, both names shall be engraved on the High Points Trophy and both shall receive inscribed medals.