Judge: Don Pittham for Prints
This competition is for the Natural History

In May 2020 the Natural Hisotry Digitals were submitted  - 2 images allowed. These were judged by xxxxx 

In July 2020 the Natural History Prints were submitted - 2 images allowed.  These were judged by Don Pittham. 

Points are awarded and the trophy winner is across all grades.  The overall winning print and winning digital will each have a trophy awarded at the annual prize giving in 2020.

Two trophies are awarded: one for the best print (Brian Thwaites Trophy) and the other for the best digital image (MCC trophy for Natural History Digital Images).  Print entries must be of NZ Natural History subjects only and must have a digital copy entered as well otherwise the entry will be rejected.  Digital entries may be natural history subjects from anywhere in the world.  Images that have been previously entered in Open Competitions may be re-entered into the Natural History Trophy competition.  Points will be awarded as per normal competitions.  Rules apply to both prints and digitals and can be seen on the Natural History rules on the Website


Set Subject

Natural History - Digital and then Print critique.

Natural History - Digital - May 2020 Entries for the Natural History Trophy



Natural History - Prints - July 2020 Entries for the Natural History Trophies - 

Hello Marlborough Camera Club members this is Don Pittham in Nelson. Thank you for asking me to  judge the print images entered in your Natural History competition. I'm not a Photographic Society of New Zealand  Accredited judge so please direct all your  complaints, threats or possibly compliments and bouquets of flowers (ooh that would be something!)on my judging to me not to PSNZ. My thoughts about  your images are simply that MY thoughts based on years ... many years he said with a sigh ... of entering and judging photographic competitions and exhibitions at club, regional and national level. Please remember that another judge either with different sub-conscious biases at work or with a more perceptive mind than mine may well view and comment on your photographs quite differently to me.  My remarks on your prints are based on my four C's method of evaluating  images.

The first C is for  Compliance. That is the photographer's image has complied with the rules and regulations of the competition. In this case images must be consistent with the definitions given for a Natural History entry.

The second C is for Competence meaning that the photographer has demonstrated their ability to use focusing and exposure appropriate to the subject matter, has captured the subject matter in a compositionally  agreeable manner that informs the viewer about the subject  and has presented the final image well. This last aspect, presentation, is particularly important for print entries.

The third C is for Creativity this means that I'm looking to see if the photographer has made an image that is either original in its treatment of a well known subject or is significant because of its unusual subject matter.

The fourth C stands for Communication this is the most important of the four C's and means that the photographer has produced an image that has a strong story producing an emotional effect on the viewer. 

I'll comment on the prints in the order that they were shown on the entry list sent to me.

There are five entries in C Grade

Black Swan - Cygnus atratus

A well composed and well presented print. The swan's head and neck are most competently depicted with good feather detail exhibited. The colourful but non-intrusive background successfully keeps the viewers' attention on the bird. This 'Black Swan portrait' drew  to my attention the natural white marking on the bird's beak,  something that I might easily have overlooked in an overall view of the swan. A most successful and particularly for me informative entry. Honours.

Not-so-happy Piwakawaka

Another neatly presented print. The photographer has chosen a difficult subject to capture. The fantail is a real flitting, fidget-bottom that doesn't like sitting still while we make careful compositions and achieve precise focussing. In this instance the photographer has done well to provide a picture that defines the main features of the bird. The background is nicely blurred and I suspect that this has been achieved by choosing a large aperture setting for the lens. The consequent limited depth of field has resulted in the bird's tail being out of focus. Although some might think this to be a fault in the picture others will say that it emphasises the 'for-ever on the move' nature of the Fan Tail.  The oblique branch adds compositional strength to the picture but the bird is relatively small in the frame and the white flowers are distracting. Perhaps cropping the picture to a vertical to eliminate the flowers and increase the viewers' attention on the bird is an option to be explored. A note about titles - in the past only formal names or accepted common names were allowable titles for PSNZ Natural History entries; 'cute' names would result in instant rejection of the image. Currently I can see no PSNZ reference stating that titles need to be formal and further, many prestigious Natural History competitions abound in titles that are either cute or express the photographer's feelings about the subject matter. I would however advise caution with informal titles. In this particular case perhaps the Piwakawaka was obviously agitated when the photograph was made but does the image show that it was 'Not-so-happy'?  A good attempt at photographing a tricky subject. Merit.

Tui Loving Life or from the back of the print Tui Chatting away

Well done to the photographer for employing a different print presentation namely a triptych. This format increases the possibilities for depicting the Tui's attitude. In the left hand image the bird appears to be on the alert. In the right hand shot inquisitive and in the centre being downright Tui-ish, probably gurgling his high notes to alert everyone to his presence and his territory. Although technically the print is rather contrasty leading to burnt out white throat tufts, the contrast level does help to emphasise the iridescent nature of the tui's feathers.  Although I would like the images to be sharper and not include the annoying diagonal background branch this is a very cleanly presented entry that goes a long way to showing the character of the Tui. Accepted.

We were hiding - Mycena fungi species in Pine Valley

The presentation of prints is important and the first thing I noticed about this entry is that although the mat is very clean and tidy the actual print area is too small for the mat opening. This distracts from a well composed and informative image. The avoidance of extraneous background detail helps to concentrate our attention on the fungi. There is however an unwelcome  softness about the image that might be overcome by increasing the level of contrast or by applying an overall sharpening of the shot. Well done on capturing the fungi in their hiding place. Accepted.

White-fronted tern

Sometimes photographers need to make the backgrounds in their images as inconspicuous as possible at other times a detailed background is vital to the success of the shot. Here is a case where both background and foreground detail are necessary to tell the full tale. Dinner has arrived, caught in the background sea by the star of this picture and that dinner is destined no doubt for either a mate or a chick located somewhere amongst the crowd of terns for whom, for the moment, this rocky area  is home. This is an excellent Natural History story telling image. The landing tern is captured at just the right instant and even provides a visual link between the land and the sea. None of the numerous foreground terns are shown completely and this helps to emphasise both the major role of the landing bird and the busy nature of the nesting area. Although the flying tern on the left is compositionally too near the edge of the image and so distracts  the viewer, it does add the factor of graceful flight to the picture.  A delightful entry. Honours.

There is just one entry in B-Grade

Cicada Head

This print scores highly in the three 'C's of Compliance, Creativity and Communication. I don't remember seeing quite such close-up detail of a cicada head before. Unfortunately the image loses out in the fourth C of  technical Competence because of a lack of sharpness. A cardinal requirement for a Natural History image is that if eyes are shown then they should be sharply focussed. Sadly this is not the case here. A good idea for an interesting choice of subject matter that has missed out on its full potential. Accepted.

There are fourteen entries in A-Grade

Armillaria limonea

A well composed though tightly cropped picture that shows all the relevant parts of this fungus in various stages of development. I wonder if a reflector or flash was used to push light into the gills of the lowest fruiting body. The effect is one of the light direction coming from below the fungus; this appears unnatural. Although the caps are acceptably sharp focusing falls off at the bottom of the stipes. I appreciate the background mosses which help to give an indication of size without becoming distracting. Accepted.

Armillaria limonea (Honey Fungus)

I believe that it's not considered good form for PSNZ Certified judges carrying out critiques to make comparisons between one image and another. As I'm not a PSNZ Certified judge I can blatantly ignore that guideline. The fruiting bodies in this entry have a cap colour which is more pronounced and nearer to what I would expect from limonea than the previous entry where the colour seemed rather grey. The previous entry depicted well the main features of the fungus. This entry fails to show the structure of the gills or the annulus. It might have been better titled Emergent  Armillaria limonea. The background in this shot compliments the fungus well though the lighter area in the top left-hand corner tends to become attention-grabbing after a while. Accepted.

Australasian Gannet

Another pleasing composition with plenty of space left in the frame for the bird to complete its dive. The small area of land at the top of the image adds further context to the shot. The white areas of the gannet have been well controlled with feather detail retained. The picture gains Brownie Points as far as this judge is concerned by being an action shot. We are not simply provided with a portrait of the bird, we are shown something of its life-style. All good news so far. The only fly in the ointment for me is that the gannet is sharp, very sharp, possibly too sharp for the action depicted. The presence of a halo effect around the trailing edges of the bird's wings gives the appearance  of over sharpening of the image. The mat corners look a bit tired I suggest trimming a little off the mat sides. As usual I'm nit picking but then this is A-Grade. Merit.

Blue pink-gill (Enteloma hochstetteri)

It's always a thrill to find this species. With its distinctive colour Enteloma hochstetteri is an unmistakeable fungus and this  picture is a good record of what the photographer has seen. However for an A-Grade worker this judge would like just a little extra. Perhaps more dramatic lighting, slightly sharper focusing even a glimpse of the gills, after all the title tells us  that they are pink ... show me, show me. Accepted.

Haastia sinclairii

A rather tightly cropped but otherwise well composed image. This informative shot shows the important attributes of this small but relatively common plant found in New Zealand's alpine scree areas. The image is quite dark particularly in the foreground. Perhaps reflecting a little gentle light onto the subject would have added more oomph to the shot. An increase in the depth of field might have resulted in a sharper rendition of some of the leaves nearer the camera.  Accepted.

Hypholoma australianum, Readhead fungi

Compositionally this is a very pleasing image. The multiple fruit bodies in close proximity mark out a diagonal line which adds pattern and dynamism to what might have otherwise been a very dull picture. The green of the background moss compliments the orange colour of the caps adding further to the appeal of the print. We are not shown the gills of the fruiting bodies but bearing in mind that this fungus maybe only a few centimetres tall with a cap edge that curves back towards the stype this is forgivable. I would like to see a version of this image with increased levels of contrast. Merit.

Kotuku in breeding plummage

The trick with these often-taken but still appealing White Heron photographs is to choose an exposure which shows the feather detail of the birds without losing the details in the dark background. I think that in this instance the photographer has come very near to pulling off the trick even though some areas of white feather are just a smidgen away from burning out.  The symmetrical composition of the birds within the frame together with their beautifully delicate breeding plumage set against  the leafy background make this a most striking photograph. Some people would suggest that the odd stick in the left-hand corner and the light leaf in the right-hand corner be darkened to ensure that they do not become distracting. But then some people are never satisfied. Honours.

Mycena fungi species

There are two prints labelled Mycena species. The following comments relate to the larger entry with a mat. There is a saying in photo circles that 'a good big one beats a good small one'. This does not always hold true. In this case I think that the print has been made too large. Mycena are usually very small fungi. I feel that seeing one depicted perhaps ten to fifteen times life-size detracts from the delicacy of the fungus. Additionally what might be small inaccuracies in exposure and focusing in a small version of the picture become magnified when an image is 'blown up'. These problems tend to remain even if the picture is viewed from a distance appropriate to the size of the image. This entry works very well in informing us about the structure of the fungus and its size relative to the foreground mosses. Unfortunately there are too many areas where the image is unsharp or lacking a suitable level of exposure for it to gain a high rating. I would like to see a smaller version of the print. Accepted.  

Mycena Species

Sometimes photo judges, especially when critiquing previously unseen images 'on the floor' as it were, find themselves in the embarrassing position of behaving like politicians and telling their listeners 'that's not really what I meant, let me rephrase that, this case is different, I think I may have been misconstrued' and making other even less convincing remarks to try and dig themselves out of the proverbial muck in which they have landed. I may be in the muck now. Here is another greatly enlarged Mycena. So, following my remarks on the previous Mycena entry, it must have lost the inherent delicacy of the real fungus. Er... well ... actually in this case no ... perhaps you didn't quite understand my previous remarks. Further, errors of focusing and exposure will be magnified in a blown-up image. Er ... well ... actually I should have said 'that's if there are any'! The significant point about this picture is that the technical aspects of focusing, exposure and the like have been so well handled that the image enlarges with no appreciable degradation. Further the lighting is such that the delicacy of the fungus is emphasised rather than denigrated in the large print. I enjoy the sharpness and detail of both the fungus and the background. My only area of concern is the rather intrusive grey area below the largest cap but I'll live with that. Honours.

New Zealand Seal

An extremely well captured and neatly presented entry. In theory seals should be easy to photograph. They just lie around snoozing and you might almost hear them saying 'I think you'll find that this is my better side'. In practice the resulting images often prove to be disappointing. Perhaps the light reflects badly off the animal's wet fur or the eyes fail to appear sharp. That's not the case here. The seal's coat exhibits texture, and its eyes appear alert and are sharply focused. The animal's head details are very well revealed  particularly the whiskers and ear. The background is sharp but not intrusive and is a totally appropriate setting for the seal. An informative and artistic representation of the subject matter. Honours.

Shags on Opara River

There is a lot to look at in this print. Apart from the three shags we have a considerable amount of background detail. Unfortunately that detail distracts from what should be the three stars of the show. The bubbly-looking water and the river-side foliage are interesting but are excess information for our full appreciation of the birds. The left-hand shag is striking a pleasing pose but our enjoyment of the other two birds is spoilt by the intrusive branches. I can image the photographer being excited by the 'three-in-a-line' picture opportunity presented by the shags and I fully understand such excitement, but I suggest a more successful image might have resulted by concentrating on a close-up version of just one of the birds. This entry supplies us with information about the shags but the full potential of the scene has not been realised. Acceptance.

Shining Cuckoo, Chalcites lucidus lucidus

I have only had a couple of opportunities to view a Shining Cuckoo really close-up but those opportunities enabled me to realise that the bird's description of 'shining' is most apt. This predominantly back-view of the bird enables us to appreciate its beautifully iridescent feathers. The eye of the cuckoo is sufficiently sharp with a pleasing  catch-light. Now if at this juncture in my comments you detect a 'but' coming you are correct. My 'but' comment is about the background. I find the leaves too obvious and too distracting. I suspect that at this remark the photographer will say something like 'It was only there for a few minutes I had to be quick with the shot!' I know just how the photographer feels but I'm a hard hearted beggar who likes a background that plays a secondary role to that of the main subject. Accepted.

Welcome Swallows

Although not influencing my critique of this entry, these are one of my favourite birds. Swallows nest under the eaves of my house. I can delight at their activities even though they seem to delight at pooping all over my deck. The background in this entry, although somewhat bland, is totally subservient to the leading players in the picture namely the two swallows. My interpretation of the story depicted is that of an adult bringing food to its offspring. I'm uncertain about the mid-air material. Is it dropped food or poop from the in-flight bird becoming over-excited at having its photograph taken? Some judges will object to the barbed wire as being evidence of the 'hand of man' and so making the entry non-compliant with the rules for Natural History. The wire does not worry me overly much. This is a bird that congregates and nests in areas of human habitation and so although a branch might be preferable I find the wire acceptable. The bodies of the birds are sufficiently sharp and the blur of the flying swallow's wing emphasises the movement that is taking place. A very well presented and pleasing print. Merit.

White-faced Herons

The herons are sharply focused, with well-shown feather detail, stand against a non-intrusive but complimentary background and are captured in beautiful light. The slightly different stances of the two birds are indicative of their at-rest and alert postures. The foreground branch provides a base for the image and also allows us to see in detail the claws of the nearer bird. I would prefer not to see so much space between the birds' heads and the top of the print but otherwise this is an excellent entry. Honours.

Well Marlborough Camera Club members we have reached the end of this judging. My apologies for such a lengthy session. In my defence I would say that I feel those people who have taken the time and trouble to enter a competition, particularly a print competition, deserve to have their entries assessed in reasonable detail. All of the entries in this Natural History competition provided information about their chosen subject matter and because of this I have made no 'Not Accepted' awards. In addition to the ten Acceptances and four Merits I have awarded six Honours. Those Honours went to the Black Swan,  White-fronted Tern, Kotuku in breeding plumage,  New Zealand Seal,  Mycena species and  White-faced Herons. 

From Don Pittham in Nelson, goodbye.