Photo competitions are a great to motivate oneself. I have personally participated in a number of photo contests over the years and I feel they have been cause for some of my best photos. But our recent Anniversary Photo competition was the first time I had been involved in organizing and judging for a traditional photo contest (and I’m not counting the ribbon contest we hosted in 2009). Judging has opened my eyes. I have never before considered every single other entry, nor have I really been able to really understand what makes a winning photo. I now look at competitions quite differently. And so today, I will share with you a few pointers that will help you select a photo to enter for your next competition:
- Read the Rules – For the 2011 contest, we had well over 500 entries. 33 of them were immediately rejected because they did not follow the rules. It’s a shame, because some of those photos could have been contenders. Pay close attention to details. For example, we specifically asked that sepia or tinted photos not be submitted. We also asked that watermarks or logos not be included on the photo. There are often minimum or maximum file (or print) sizes. It is not likely an organizer will contact you if you mess up, so double check your entry.
- No Place For Humor – A photo competition is about finding great photos. Amusing and humorous photos – unless they hold their merit in other ways – are not going to win a competition.
- No Time to Play It Safe – First impression is everything in a photo competition, and the safe photos are going to be overlooked. In a competition, it’s worth taking such risks. Push the envelope, introduce something disconcerting and try to throw your judges off-guard. The risky photos are going to be the ones remembered. Judges will have more respect for the risk-takers and the technical aspects of such photos will be given a little more flexibility.
- Formal Portraits = Difficult Path – Formal portraits are at a disadvantage. Lighting, composition and everything could be absolutely perfect, but it still may not stand out to the judges. Why? Because portraits are safe (see above). We had an exception this year: Our third place winner, John Fulton, submitted a portrait. But Fulton’s submission was far above and beyond the typical portrait. The lighting, the texture and the emotion in the photo is what earned him a place. But there were twenty-some other portraits that didn’t come anywhere close to placing. Bottom line: Portraits are the difficult path.
- Effort Is Not a Factor – The judges are reviewing a final product and do not know (nor do they care) about the effort put into a given photo. What matters is the final product alone. If such effort shows through, so be it – it will probably help your score. But the 2-hour hike to a location, the 25 strobes used, the 4-hour continuous exposure and all the time for post-processing doesn’t hold any water if the photo is not aesthetically pleasing otherwise. Remove your attachment to each photo in this regard, and select a photo that is most aesthetically pleasing.
- Subject Matters – Your subject should be clear and it should be interesting. It’s as simple as that. If the subject is not appealing in some way, it will likely be overlooked. You shouldn’t be afraid to select simple subjects – but make sure you use them in an interesting way. Again, first impression is what you’re after and an interesting subject will help that.
- Technique and Composition Matters – When faced with a large number of photos, judges will be less concerned about the technical and compositional aspects of a photo, unless the photo is that far off kilter. But when it came down to the final round and the field is narrowed down to just a handful of photographs, hairs get split and photos are weighed against each other. Very often it comes down to which is more technically or compositionally perfect. So make sure you’re photos are as technically and compositionally perfect as they can be in the event that your photo faces such a situation.
- Get A Second Opinion – I will admit it’s often difficult to think of your own work subjectively. There is no harm in asking for someone else’s opinion when selecting your entry. It may even be beneficial to ask someone that knows nothing about photography – trust their gut reaction (art is ingrained in all of us). Matt Beaty did just that, asking the opinions of his followers. In my opinion, he ended up submitting what I felt was the strongest photo from the lot.