Banner image by Mark Lynham: Gold with The Guild of Photographers
Winning Photographic Competitions: Art or Science?
Over the past five years, I’ve been on the photography judging panel for a number of organisations. During that time, I’ve judged thousands and thousands of images. I get why people enter. We all want to take great photographs and winning a competition is a pretty good measure of achievement. Winning also carries a certain amount of kudos and, if you’re a professional photographer, there are very practical advantages to getting your photographic talents recognised. It would be nice to think that there’s a precise formula for winning but that would be just too easy. Bear the following two things in mind though, and you will go a long way towards shortening the odds.
- Get the technical stuff right
- Treat each competition as a separate ‘client’
Sounds simple but, as with life itself, there’s more to it. Below are a few pointers which might help.
Technical faux pas
There are a number of errors and oversights which, in technical terms, can ruin an image. Off the top of my head, here are the most common:
- Marks made by dust spots on your sensor or lens - get rid in post
- A wonky horizon - annoyingly distracting and easy to rectify in post
- Colour casts on skin (alien green from surrounding foliage is singularly unattractive) - eliminate in post
- Chromatic aberration, often manifested as a purple halo around areas of contrast - remove in post
- Halos caused by excessive use of clarity or poor .jpg compression - remove in post
- Poor exposure - recoverable to an extent in post but less of a headache to expose correctly before taking the shot
- Poor retouching - no wizardry - just a case of acquiring the necessary skills
- Use of filters that do not complement or enhance the image
- Excessively heavy vignettes
- Lack of thorough checking - be meticulous and check all final images at 100%
Horses for courses
There are zillions of photographic competitions out there. Some are run by photography clubs and societies while others have no affiliation to photographic organisations: for example, trade and industry associations. Just like clients you might be working for, they will all have their own criteria for a successful outcome. Yes, it’s obvious but, because they are all different, it means that you have to play by each one’s specific rules. Perfectly respectable images can be passed over or even disqualified because the photographer inadvertently flouted a rule. Oh, and rules can change over time so check and check again.
So, you’ve read the small print but will that be enough to get into the heads of those pesky judges? Researching past winners is a really effective way to work out what kind of images the judges currently favour in any given competition. It could reveal a preference for the classical over the avant-garde, or something more subtle, but there is often a discernible pattern. While you’re about it, take the opportunity to gauge the quality of the work that’s made the grade and compare it with yours. It really is worth investing a bit of time in this exercise.
Lastly (and this is quite difficult to do), it’s essential that you sever your emotional connections with the image you are submitting. You’re human; you’re inevitably going to have formed associations but here’s the danger. Like music or a particular smell, a visual image can evoke feelings which affect your ability to be objective. The fun you had on the shoot; the glorious weather and stunning views; the way you connected with your subject. All these and more can colour your judgement. The obvious risk is that you will overlook shortcomings and fail to evaluate the image as a judge certainly will - with supreme detachment!
The long and short of it is that you need to satisfy the judges - artistically and technically - whilst conforming to the rules of the specific competition you're entering. Aim to give ‘em what they want. Most photographic societies give you plenty of scope but, if you don’t want to conform to the styles, genres and subject matter of one competition, learn from what you see and find another one. There are enough to go round.