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Thursday, May 24, 2007

How to win a photography contest

When it comes to competition, it works like this: As one of the judges, I choose the 10 photographs I like best. For round 1, that meant choosing 10 out of 491 photographs. In other words, for every 50 photos, I can only choose one. Words can’t describe quite how difficult that is: A lot of talent and creativity goes into competition entries, and a lot can be said about.

I won’t lie to you - while I am a moderately successful blogger (hey, you’re reading my blog right now, aren’t you?), a soon-to-be-published author (my book goes on sale in about a month and a half) and a washed-up freelance / stock photographer who decided that I could only do photography as a hobby, because doing it for the money was soul-destroying - I have never actually judged a competition before. While the guys at Crestock were quite helpful in offering guidelines and ideas as to what I should be looking for, it got me a-thinking: What can you, as a photographer, do to maximise your chances in the battle of shutter times and lighting, against the rest of the pack?

A quick disclaimer: I’m writing this before I’ve seen who the winners are of round 1, and as such, some of the ideas and thoughts below might be completely contradicting the people who actually won. On the other hand, there are 13 judges, each with 10+1 vote, so in theory, 143 votes could be cast. On my own, I have very little (well, a thirteenth, or about 7.7%) influence on the final decision.

It’s also worth noting that everything in this posts are merely my own opinions, and for all I know I might be the rank outsider: All the other photo judges in the world might very well disagree with me.

1 - Stick to the topic

First off, you would be amazed how many people submit photos that don’t actually fall within the area of the competition. To use a concrete example: In the 1st round of the Crestock competition, the title of the photo was to be ‘The Meaning of Life’. Now, I’m all for having a wide array of possibilities and interpretations, but there’s something to be said for at least tenuously staying on target.

Take the image shown at the bottom, for example (check out the much bigger version over at Crestock).

On its own, it’s a pretty good photo: It’s okay lit, and from my days of LAN parties, I can totally see how caffeine-laden drinks and computer keyboards can be part of the meaning of life.

What you have to remember, however, is that a lot of the judging that is done is based on people’s own experiences: To most people, the meaning of life will not involve a can of Dr Pepper, and while I imagine it could successfully be argued that it might be the meaning of life to some, that is an ascertation which would fill the viewer with sadness.

The closer you manage to stick to the target, the better. It doesn’t matter if it’s an illustration (a pair of lovers, as in ‘the meaning of life is love’) or a more abstract take on the subject (a beach chair in sunset, as in ‘the meaning of life is to relax’). Making the audience (in this case, the judges) think about what they are looking at is great, but don’t push it too far.

In the photo shown above, for example, with the lady with the red hair (see a bigger version here), initially seems to be way off target: What does a middle-aged woman with bright hair have to do with the meaning of life? But at the same time, the photo sent me into a train of thought: Of course it makes sense. She’s ascending. She’s on a journey. She’s going somewhere. And she doesn’t care about the rest of the world. Hell, that’s as good a meaning of life as I’ve ever heard of…

2 - Know the rules - then break them

Ansel Adams, seen by many as one of the greatest photographers to have ever lived, said something along the lines of ‘there are no rules for great pictures, there are just great pictures’. What he meant by that? Beats me, but it sounds good, no? Okay, just kidding. What I think he meant is that there’s no way to create a set of criteria which guarantee a good photo. Photography is viciously subjective, and ultimately your audience will think what they want. Take the rule of thirds, for example (as discussed here, and in more detail here): It isn’t an iron-fast rule in itself, but people who don’t understand it, break it in ways that are un-pleasing to the eye.

The trick is to do something that works. In my experience, this means that you have to know all the ‘rules’ of photography (Get the exposure right, mind your backgrounds, have a vision, and get it all to work together), so you can choose which ones you want to break for a particular photo. Take the photo up there (I am, right now, pointing in vain at the photo, realising that you can’t see me point. Hmm. I can see this might be a problem. Try here for a bigger version, either way), with the person walking on the train lines. Composition-wise, I would have done this photo very differently indeed. Barefoot might have been better. Throwing the rails off-centre would have helped. And yet, the pale colours, the reflection, and the notion of travelling somewhere by walking on trainlines somehow resounds strongly with me. It’s not the done thing. It breaks with rules and regulations, and it’s awesome. Just like this photo.

3 - Keep it simple

When submitting a photo to a photography competition, it’s tempting to select a photo you’re particularly proud of, or one that shows off a vast amount of different things at once. That’s not necessarily the best strategy. Remember that what you’re trying to do is to a) stand out from the masses of other photos and b) tell a story.

Photography is very much about telling stories, and while you are using a visual medium to do so, you still need to be a good storyteller, and have an eye for what appeals to people.

I guess it says something about me as a person, but here’s yet another of the competition entries below (higher res here) that spoke to me strongly: The simplicity of this image: a couple walking towards the sunset on a road reflecting the light of the golden hour makes this photograph stand out strongly.

4 - Tell a powerful story

As always said in J-school: If it has a human element people can identify with, the story is far stronger. That’s why newspapers after a disaster will tell the story of Mr. and Mrs Smith and their individual tragedy, rather than the much drier factoid that 300 people died: We need to be able to feel that the people involved are related (or at least relevant) to us in one way or another. The best photographs, in my opinion, do the same thing. It doesn’t have to be a tabloid story of murder, deceit, or deception, but if you manage to get an emotion in there somehow, you’re onto something.

There are several levels of involving your audience emotionally. At the most shallow level, there is a recognition of emotion: A photo of a mother looking at a child might invoke this: You might feel that the mother loves the child, but the photo could leave you cold. Another photo would cause you to feel with the mother: Where you understand the feeling at a deeper degree. Finally, an image might be so strong that not only do you recognise and understand the emotion, you might actually feel the same.

The photo of the lovers in black and white, above, for example, works strongly for me at all levels. I recognise it as passion, I sympathise with the people in the photo, and I empathise strongly, in that this particular photo (not really safe for work, but look at the bigger version if nobody can see your screen anyway!), with the feeling of pure, unbridled love and passion.

Similarly, I am affected by the photo of the young woman above. The image (bigger here) is titled ‘religion’, and while I’m not a religious person in the slightest, I recognise it as a powerful ‘meaning of life’ force driving many people. It helps that the photo has a beautiful girl in it and is cleverly captured. The same photograph could easily have been slanted in the opposite direction, with a mosque towering over the same model as an imposing, powerful overlord. The fact that the lady is much bigger than the spire representing ‘religion’ speaks to me, in that the human element is far more important than religion: Religion is built up of people. This interplay of symbolism, great photographic skill and tangential on-target-ism means that this photo definitely deserved one of my points.

A final example of the same is the photo of big feet / little feet (bigger here). The pure simplicity of using two pairs of feet as a symbol of family, love, and a meaning of life? Sheer brilliance.

5 - Technical perfection in pair with strong vision

As you may have guessed from the name of this website, I love doing photo criticisms. I’m a right opinionated little bastard, in fact, and some times, people disagree. A while back, I had a vicious argument with someone over a photograph which was - objectively - technically superior. His strongest argument was that I should ‘look past the technical imperfections, and see how beautiful the model was’. Love makes blind, but you can’t afford to be blind about photos you are going to submit to photographic competitions: You’ll be up against some brilliant photographers (like SUBA, who captured the intensely likeable photo of the laughing girl to the left - check out the bigger version, too!), and even small slip-ups will cost you enough points to lose you a competitions.
The thing is, creativity and originality can make up for some things, but there’s only so much I’d be willing to forgive. A slight over-exposure on an extremely good, unrepeatable action photo? I can forgive that. Not getting the focus right on a studio shot? Not good enough. Go back, learn from your mistakes, try it again.

As a camera operator, you are a technician. Photography, in many ways, is pure physics. Optics, to be exact, but physics nonetheless. As with everything in optics, everything can be calculated. Exposures, refractive indexes, focal distances: Everything can be described mathematically. With modern cameras, you don’t have to worry about much of it, but nonetheless, you still need to get it right.

The analogy is often drawn as such: A snapper that is technically perfect but lacks vision will never be a great photographer. You can imitate, but not learn true photographic vision. On the other hand, having a great vision of what makes a good photo is not an excuse not to acquire the technical skills you need to express your ideas.

In my opinion, all arts are the same: As an artist, you need a message (ideas, vision, originality, inspiration) and a means to express this message. It doesn’t matter if you use a keyboard (poetry, prose), a paint brush (watercolours, oils) or a photo camera (polaroid, pinhole, SLR): If your means of expressing your message aren’t up to scratch, your art simply isn’t good enough.

When it all comes together, you end up with photos like the person laying down in the hallway, above (bigger here).

6 - The X factor

So, you’ve worked hard, and everything seems to be coming together. You’re on topic, you’ve carefully chosen which rules to break, your photo isn’t over the top, you’ve got a story to tell, and your technical skills are as sharp as they come. What could possibly go wrong?

The final thing you need to keep in mind is that you’re up against hundreds of other photographs. If you submit a photo that is similar to what other photographers have done, you both lose impact, and will probably both not win the competition. The key is originality.

And yet, even if your photo ticks all the boxes and is refreshingly original, you may find yourself struggling without a bit of X-factor: That special, invisible ingredient which will transform your photographs from very, very good to ‘Wow, this is simply amazing’.

To me, in this round, the photo to the right does all that, and more. To try and explain why, let me walk you through the process:

When I think about the meaning of life, I think about many different things. Independence is a strong part of it, as is the idea of travel, of being on a journey through life. Love is important, as is loyalty, passion, and a sense that ‘if you’re happy, you need nothing else’. It was something that struck me when I last visited the Caribbean: Many of the people I met had little except each other, but seemed to be the most relaxed, lovely, and happy people ever.

The photograph of the hobo and his dog (check out the full-size version) is right on the money in all of those things: Homeless? Maybe, but the guy seems happy, he’s got a dog he loves, and he knows that it could be a lot worse than spending a day in the sunshine with his guitar. Compounded by the message, this photo is technically superior: The strong greens and blues of the grass and sky, the heavy shadows on the dog and the man, the way the sun catches his beard - it all comes together perfectly.

And the final tip… Develop your own style

There are a lot of fantastic photos out there, and a myriad of tutorials for how you can recreate them, but that’s only half the story: you have to take something and make it your own. Think of it as cooking a new dish: Do you follow the recipe perfectly, or are you confident enough in the kitchen to use it as a base, and remove some things, and add others? If you’re doing the latter, then you’re probably doing the right thing…

Good luck!

- photocritic[dot]org
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