Winning at the Margins.
Following the Learning Curve.
Know the Contest Specifics.
Strive for Originality.
Fads Are for the Feeble.
Beware of the Black-and-White Trap.
Quality vs. Subject Matter.
Create an “Ah-ha” Moment.
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PhotographyTalk wouldn’t want to suggest that a rubber hose and sleep deprivation were used on a few judges of photo contests to learn how they pick the winners (actually it only required a large tub of chocolate ice cream), but we did manage to discover a few of their inside secrets to share with you.
If you can’t be self-critical, and even downright brutal, about the photos you are considering as contest entries, then you aren’t much of a photographer. Photography is a bit like sports: you’re primary competitor is you; and if you can beat yourself, then you’re apt to create images that will be winners.
This honesty begins by eliminating the images with the fundamental flaws, such as soft focus, bad lighting, poor contrast, bloomed highlights and dense, impenetrable shadows. If your photos easily reveal that you don’t have good command of the basic concepts of photography, then you need more learning and practice before entering photo contests.
Even if you think you can be objective about the quality of your photos, ask others, photographers and non-photographers, their opinions. You may save yourself an entry fee and/or discover that an image you were ready to discard receives broad approval.
Yes, you’re entering a landscape photography contest and all the entries you want to submit are clearly landscapes. Congratulations! That is not what will attract the attention of the judges, however. They’re looking at the small details: if you had lowered the camera a foot for this shot, it would have been a finalist. If you had studied the ambient light more carefully, then you would have known to stand in a better place. You cropped an image too tight and lost the subtle and pleasing balance of a small object in contrast with a panoramic scene.
One judge (who had to be tickled violently to spill the beans) said he often looks through all the entries to determine if the submissions, in total, are strong. If that is the case, then he is much tougher when judging each photo’s small details. Conversely, if the category is weak, then he is more forgiving. Of course, you can’t know which it will be, which is all the more reason to concentrate on the small details of your photos.
If you’re already having trouble with the first two tips above, then the brutal truth is that the quality of your photography may not be ready for photo contests. In that case, turn your attention to improving your skills before displaying the lack of them to the world. A good place to start is to request a free course catalog from New York Institute of Photography. As the world’s largest and oldest photography school, it has been educating photographers at all skill levels since 1910.
The NYIP’s four-week, home-study course, Fundamentals of Digital Photography, may be the best winning strategy before entering any photo contests. You can request the school’s free course catalog anytime by visiting http://www.nyip.com/requestinfo/. Not only will you receive a link to the online version, but also receive a printed version in the mail and an email with course details and offers.
Many photographers never read their equipment manuals, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that many also fail to read (carefully) contest rules and procedures and category descriptions. You could lose a photo contest by simply submitting a great photo in the wrong category. Here is another opportunity to ask the opinions of others as to whether your submission belongs in the category you think it does.
One of the best methods for improving your photography is purposely trying to copy the great photos of the great photographers; but this is only an educational tool, not a photo contest strategy. Judges see through this ploy quite easily and most won’t give your submissions a second thought or look, regardless of how well you emulated the masters. Learn from the greats to be better, but travel your own road to greatness by being as original as possible.
Photography like any art form goes through cycles (also much like fashion), with a specific technique or subject matter as the hot, new creative statement. This also refers to the originality issue. Regardless of how well you’ve used a tilt-and-shift lens, for example, or whatever is the current trendy piece of equipment, it will be difficult for any contest judge to select your image if you’re just following the crowd in the latest direction.
Judges don’t like to be hit over the head with a photographic fad, but they do take a positive attitude toward contest participants who are able to use the trendy equipment or portray the hot subject matter in creative and subtle ways.
What irks many photo contest judges is photographers who think they can score points by simply changing color photos to black and white. You could score points if there is a very good reason for making the conversion, such as emphasizing the message or story of your image. Here is another opportunity to ask the opinions of your photo buddies before taking this often-fatal step.
A technically flawed photo of great subject matter receives very little consideration from photo contest judges. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of a landscape or an amazing pet trick, focusing all your attention on capturing an once-in-a-lifetime image, but forgetting to compose/create a quality image.
Photo quality is the biggest weapon you can wield in a photo contest. If you can evoke an “ah-ha” moment in the judges, causing them to stop and stare at your photo with genuine wonder, then you’ve increased the odds of winning, significantly.
The bottom line of any photo contest is that the judges, despite their photography skills, experience and achievements, will still select finalists and winners from their personal perspective. A photograph that is barely given a glance during one contest could be a winner in another, so don’t take the judges’ subjectivity as a consensus on the quality of your photos or your skills. Once the finalists and/or winners are published, compare your photo to them and learn from the comparison. If you still like your image, then enter it another contest; or take what you’ve learned and reshoot the photo to give it that extra oomph to make it a winner.
Image credit: norebbo / 123RF Stock Photo
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