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"Noise" and the Surrey Photographic Association Individual Competition

The judge comments that your picture is noisy. Did you hear anything? So what did it mean?

The term ‘noise’, like many terms in digital imaging, has been hijacked from another technology – in this instance, sound reproduction. Any of you who remember the old valve radios will know about the background hiss (unwanted random noise) behind everything you were trying to listen to. This was something introduced by the electronics. The lower the signal strength, the more amplification was needed to hear the music. And the more you turned up the volume (amplification), the more unwanted noise there was.

The ‘Signal to Noise Ratio’ is a measure of how easy it is to listen to. The higher the ratio, the better you can hear the music against the hiss.

Image noise is analogous to this. It is introduced by the electronics, and shows itself as a speckling in the image (noise) that tends to hide the image details (signal). As in sound reproduction, the more you try to amplify the signal, the worse the image noise becomes. When you turn up the ISO setting on your camera, what you are doing is asking your camera to apply more amplification to the signal it is getting from the sensor, and you get more noise. (So set your camera to the lowest ISO you need to get the exposure you want.)

What’s this got to do with the SPA Individual Competition? I’ll come to that.

For those of you who have never attended this bun fight, I’ll describe how it works. The SPA hold two inter-club competitions each year, one for prints and one for PDIs. A few years ago, they introduced a third, the Individual Competition, mainly as a ruse to lure as many people as possible to attend the AGM.

Any member of a club in the association can enter this, as an ‘individual’ as opposed to the other two competitions which are aimed at ‘club’ entries. All three competitions are judged in the same way. A panel of three judges are shown the pictures in random order and have to mark each on a scale of 2 to 5. So added together, the maximum score attainable is 15.

The drawback of these events arises from the sheer numbers of images that have to be evaluated. With the majority of clubs from Surrey and parts of Sussex attending, there are hundreds, which means the judges have to assess and decide on a score in seconds. I’ve timed it and it is generally less than 10 seconds.

Admittedly, with all of mine getting middling scores, there may be a touch of sour grapes in this, but I think most of us came away with the feeling that there were quite a few very good pictures that were unaccountably awarded low marks, and just as many poor images that were rewarded more than they deserved.

There were some very good pictures that were justly rewarded, but my overall impression is that there was a lot of random in the marking. Too much. I am not complaining at the competence of the judges, all very experienced at this job. I think it’s the system that is at fault. In other words, I believe the System to Noise ratio is not high enough to consistently separate the good pictures from the pedestrian ones.

Four of us attended – Mandy, Mark, and the Daves S and D.

A selfie of the ambassadors for PhotoCraft before the competition…


And after…


Actually, now I’ve got all that off my chest, I’m feeling a lot better about it. I guess after our performance over the last 4 years when we walked off with medals, any disappointment at not getting any this year is not warranted. And two of us didn’t do at all badly with two pictures awarded 13, a very good score.

These were ‘Gunship’ by Mark



and ‘Unnatural History’ by Dave S


It was a very enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon and a great way of making our existence felt on the Surrey camera club scene. Hopefully, next year more of our members will give it a try and help us to stake our claim as the small club with a big voice!