Put your best shot forward – How to win a photo competition
You’re in the right place at the right time, your camera is ready and the serendipitous (or well-planned) moment is happening. Your shutter is clicking and instinctively you know you have it. It’s a special feeling and, as photographers, we live for this instant. Many aspirant photographers’ careers have been jump-started by winning contests. Here are a few things to think about when entering a photo competition.
Picture editing: be ruthless
It’s tough to be objective with one’s own work, but you can work on this with experience, or with somebody whose aesthetic opinion you trust.
When you get home from a shoot, go through everything and throw out technically imperfect images, those where the subject is midway through a blink or the auto-focus lens has brought the background into sharp focus and the subject is soft.
I find if I leave an assignment’s top images aside for a while, my subconscious will choose the best image. Often it’s not the one I initially thought it was. Whatever your method, the bottom line is: be totally ruthless when you edit.
Submit only the strongest image from a series. Don’t ever send in more than one shot of the same subject expecting the judges to select your best image for you. You’re giving the wrong message. It says you think all your images are excellent, or you’re not sure of your own work.
Tip: Join a photography club or on-line forum to get some feedback and learn skills. Join Getaway’s Facebook page and submit images.
Processing: half art, half science, all-important
Digital image processing is the biggest reason pictures get rejected in competitions. The power of the digital age has tools that took professionally trained analogue film printers years to master, now available for the price of a software licence.
Lack of knowledge about these tools shows in many entries, mostly as prints that are over-saturated or over sharpened, sometimes both. Weird colour casts and image artefacts render a presumably initially good photo unrealistic and immediately puts it out of the running. Bad colour reproduction is jarring to the eye and the number of people who appear to have processed their images with their eyes closed is astounding.
When poring over the settings that can be applied to ‘enhance’ an image, it’s easy to lose sight of reality. Prevent this by comparing the original image to the processed image as you go. Be aware of colour and how it can differ from monitor to monitor and again from screen to printer. Colour calibration is beyond the scope of this article, but there are books and websites dedicated to the subject.
Don’t over sharpen – ever. It accentuates the outlines of hard edges and makes an image appear to have been cut out. Digital sharpening is not capable of correcting soft focus or camera shake. Don’t waste valuable shooting time at the computer trying to make it work. There’s only one way to fix it, an old method called Re-shoot.
Cropping: it’s not cut ’n dried
There are two schools of thought regarding the cropping of photographs. Some think it’s imperative to crop. Others feel that if you’re a true artist, you should be cropping the image in the viewfinder.
The jury will always be out on that one, but the middle road says the subject dictates whether to crop or not. Wildlife, for example, seldom poses and capturing a moving subject doesn’t allow a photographer to exclude the nose of a charging wildebeest from sullying the graphic edge of a frame of a thousand stampeding beasts. Conversely, why should an architectural image need cropping? You decide, but don’t restrict yourself too much.
Printing: the first place they look
Printed submissions are what the judges look at, regardless of whether you submitted the digital copy on a disk. Make sure the print reflects the quality of the digital copy.
Don’t skimp, get the best possible print made that you can afford. Home photo printer prices have plummeted and you can get very decent quality print from one. Or put the file onto a flash drive or CD and drop it off at your local photo store. Don’t be shy to ask them to reprint if it’s not what you expected.
Presentation: speak up
You can engage judges by presenting your work in a clean and thoughtful manner. It’s a good idea to enter your image on the largest acceptable paper size. This creates a visual impact that will make it stand out from the competition.
It also affords judges the opportunity to dispel any doubts about sharpness, or to study subtleties in the background that add depth to the subject. Some entrants mount their work on black card (if it’s allowed) or print the image with a large white border to give it ‘breathing space’.
One of the most beautiful photographs I’ve judged was printed on large matt paper. It felt good in the hand and the moody landscape subject was complemented by the softening effect of the textured paper stock.
Fine print: just read the rules
All competitions are subject to submission restrictions. To avoid instant disqualification, carefully read and adhere to the minimum and maximum print and/or digital file sizes specified. A digital file needs to be a certain size for a publisher to print it. Bigger files allow bigger, more detailed prints to be made.
While fewer publications accept hard copies via snail mail, some still do. It’s a good idea to package the images with a hard backing board so that they can survive the postal system.
Digital submissions mean the image can be uploaded in a lower resolution and will look good on the screen. But it’s inevitable that someone will eventually want to print your great image, so it’s important to keep a high-resolution copy on your hard drive and a backup offsite. (You do backup your information, don’t you?)
Some competitions restrict the number of entries and it’s important not to exceed the specified number, as if the judges pick it up, you face disqualification.
Be mindful of your rights when submitting (especially high-res) images, not only into competitions but anywhere on-line. Read the fine print regarding further usage or prepare to see your image up in lights promoting a product without you deriving anything from it except perhaps the pride of having your image up there and the fifty bucks prize money.
Enter in the right category: break the rules
Some images may qualify for more than one category. If the rules allow, enter it into both and, if not, pick the category in which you think it’ll stand out next to the competition. Apply lateral thinking. For example, if a macro shot justifiably qualifies, enter it into abstract instead of the predictably macro category. The unexpected entry will set your image apart from the others. Make it something a judge will notice.
Tip: A good shot on negative or slide film, high-end or compact camera, or even a cellphone could win a competition if it’s entered in the right category of the right type of competition.
Move with the times
It’s very sad but face it, the analogue days are gone. This doesn’t mean it’s not acceptable in competitions anymore. However, judging slides is a chore for practical reasons: the room needs to be darkened for a handful of entries.
Embrace the digital age, have your slides, prints and negatives scanned, or scan them yourself (good scanners are cheap) and enter them as prints and digitally. Besides, as the old schoolers know, there’s something about the quality of a good neg, so use it to set your image apart.
This article first appeared in Getaway magazine