Photography Competitions | How to Win and What makes a Winning Image
There’s no doubt that entering photography competitions can be a fantastic way of gauging our progress and can really help us to improve. But we won’t get very far unless we understand the attributes which make a winning image.
The term “photography competition” can mean anything from winning the wooden spoon at the local camera club right up to world-class competitions run by the established photographic institutions and bodies. Other well known competitions include the Sony Awards, National Geographic, Travel Photographer of the Year, Wildlife Photographer of the Year and several others. It makes sense to enter competitions which are targeted towards our own particular level and to gradually enter the better competitions as we progress and improve.
For many years I’ve entered the rounds run by the UK’s recognized photography institutes. I’m a member of the BIPP (British Institute of Professional Photography) and the SWPP (The Societies). Their standards are recognized as world leading. The other two are the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) and the MPA (Master Photographers Association). These bodies have many overseas members but your own country will probably have it’s own versions. The Societies annual competition (celebrated at a lavish gala event in London each January) attracts up to 17,000 professional entries a year from around the globe.
Throughout this article I’ve included some of my medal winners from the last decade. Over the years I’ve made a point of diversifying my photography. That helps to avoid staleness and complacency. Although I’m a portrait photographer (specialising in both people and animals) I’ve also produced many landscape, botanical, and fine art images (another benefit to branching out is increased print sales). My main Awards page can be seen here.
Winning and Losing Photography Competitions
Competitions aren’t for everyone. There are a small number of winners and there are an awful lot of losers. Since we’re not meant to use that word in the PC times we now live in I’d better qualify what I mean. I think it’s true to say that these days people are more sensitive to what they might perceive as rejection. These days competition and distinction judges can take a hammering whenever an entrant disagrees with a verdict. It’s also worth adding that the competitions I’ve just mentioned are judged by a group of very qualified photographers – in most cases Fellows of the awarding body. Fellows are the most decorated photographers worldwide who have also contributed a great deal to the industry. Like anyone else entering competitions, us judges know what it’s like to lose more than we win. We’ve all been there.
On the upside, non-winning entries aren’t necessarily “losers” since many of those images will be very strong, and abundantly saleable. So why don’t these images earn a medal? Simply because the judges are looking to see that a list of important criteria are met (or perhaps the entrant has placed their image in the wrong category). The whole point of competitions (and specifically distinctions/qualifications) is that the photographer showcases his or her technical and creative abilities. Our clients on the other hand are likely to be far more interested in how a photographer captures feelings or moments which are precious to them. In other words, entering photography competitions means we must have the ability to detach ourselves emotionally from our work. Losing at competitions doesn’t mean that we’re not successful commercially - the two are often very different things.
success is about persistence
The finest and often best known photographers I can think of all routinely fail to gain placements in the industry competitions. It simply means there are better submissions which are a closer match to the genre or category. Failure is part of life and it’s a huge part of competitions.
What are Photography Competition Judges looking for?
camera craft – the photographer must demonstrate an understanding of exposure, metering, depth of field, colour temperature and tonal range
an understanding of the subject – portrait photographers must demonstrate skill in posing and directing their subject (to show emotion and narrative); sports photographers must show evidence of capturing decisive moments in the action; press photographers must understand narrative, and so on
composition – there are many elements which create a strong composition, from the very complex to the very simple. Competition judges will at the very least expect the photographer to understand subject placement relative to other parts of the scene, the use of colour, shape and form, leading lines, rule of thirds, pattern and texture
impact & creativity – the ability to betray the subject in an interesting, unique or aesthetically pleasing way. The initial impression of an image is vitally important and images which evoke a strong reaction will always do well in competitions – aim to give the judges the ‘wow’ factor
light – an understanding of how light can be used to shape the subject and reveal form and texture
processing – the way you process your photographs can make all the difference between a flat uninspiring image and one with real impact. Competition judges will expect to see a full tonal range and plenty of detail. It might also be appropriate to process the image more creatively if the subject matter demands it. There must be no blown highlights and you’ll need to take care to avoid blocking the shadows or introducing banding or colour casts
output and presentation – you’ll need to show an understanding of the printing process, from monitor calibration, preparing the file for output using the correct profiles for the media on which it is to be printed, to sharpening at the correct level and ensuring correct density in the finished print. Then the print must be mounted in a way which compliments the photograph, with meticulous attention to detail
All of the leading photography competitions will refer to the above list during the judging process. However the weighting given to the various criteria will fluctuate somewhat according to the genre of photograph being assessed. For example, photographs entered into a documentary wedding category will be judged more on creativity and emotion. In that situation the judges won’t worry quite so much about a small amount of noise in the photograph, or a composition which isn’t entirely ‘clean’. In a studio portraiture category on the other hand the judges will scrutinise the posing and the lighting more than anything. Landscapes will embody most of the criteria with particular emphasis on composition and light. Architectural and commercial photography is about absolute precision and the way in which the photographer has showcased the product being pictured - so there’ll be more emphasis on technical considerations.
nothing worth having comes easily
Never a truer word was spoken, in my view. Where is the satisfaction in anything if we haven’t had to strive for it?
It’s not uncommon for photographers to feel upset because they’ve received a low score. Often the images have glaring faults such as blown highlights, missed focus, unintentional motion blur, camera shake, noise, over sharpening, incorrect white balance, to name but a few common errors. Part of the problem is that many photographers become attached to their own pictures. Perhaps their friends or family have told them their photos are great and the photographer hasn’t yet reached the stage of being able to recognise weaknesses within their work. This comes with experience and training and you really have to be able to detach yourself from your images before you’ll be able to assess them impartially.
The Societies, the British Institute of Professional Photography, the Master Photographers Association and the Royal Photographic Society all offer mentoring as part of their membership package and I would encourage anyone interested in competitions or distinctions to submit images for critique. Initially it can be a shock to receive the comments back but after a sinking in period the photographer can normally start to see what the mentors are talking about and can then take steps to make the necessary improvements. Learning what makes a successful image is a bit like learning to perfect your golf swing or your tennis strokes - you’ll only become consistently good with years of practice and at least some degree of coaching. So don’t be put off if your images are not well received (yet). Instead, see it as the start of the journey of improvement and aim to do better with each submission.
Photography Qualifications and Distinctions
Qualification panels are a little different to individual image submissions, in that a panel (a collection of anything from 15 to 25 photographs) must work as a cohesive whole. Panel submission must show a range of skills and therefore some diversity in composition, framing and viewpoint. It would therefore be extremely risky to submit a collection of head shots, unless you could create the necessary variety using subject expression and emotional impact. One of the best exercises when considering a panel submission is to review as many existing successful panels as you can, so that you can see how the photographer has met the various criteria against which he or she has been judged.
“I’d like to gain a qualification but I don’t want to have to change what I do and shoot for the judges”. This is a common yet misguided statement – you’re not shooting for the judges. Instead, you have to understand that those judges are required to mark panel (and competition) submissions against a list of criteria. If you can’t successfully meet that criteria then your submission will fail. That has nothing to do with the individual mindset of the judges, instead it’s about demonstrating that you have the necessary skills against which professional qualifications are awarded. It’s a bit like a driving test (at least at Licentiate level). Passing your driving test isn’t about getting from A to B in one piece whilst ignoring the burned tires and dents. It’s about showing the examiner you understand road use and that you have competent car handling skills, which will help you to deal with a range of possible scenarios.
Here in the UK (and in many other parts of the world) there are three professional levels of accreditation. In the UK these are examined by The British Institute of Professional Photography, The Royal Photographic Society, The Societies, and the Master Photographers Association. The accreditations are Licentiate, Associate, and Fellow. At Licentiate level the client knows that the photographer has been assessed for general competency and can be expected to provide images of a consistently merchantable standard (a bit like the aforementioned driving test). An Associate is a creative perfectionist who has gained a comparatively rare place in his or her genre and quite often Associates will go on to advise on Panel submissions. At the top are the Fellows, who have demonstrated a level of uniqueness and creative excellence which squarely places them at the forefront of photographic artistry – Fellowship is often referred to as the ‘photographer’s K2’. Any photographer submitting a qualification panel will be examined by the Fellows of the awarding organisation. I’ve talked a little about my own experiences of the qualifications process (and my journey to Fellowship) here: The Benefits of Photography Distinctions
I’ve been through each rung of the distinction process and it was much more challenging than I had ever imagined. But it was invaluable in helping to elevate my work and my business. There’s no doubt that the higher qualifications (though hard to achieve) are also great marketing tools. My credentials have helped me to gain some prestigious projects including a four year ambassadorship with Olympus UK. Without my distinctions I doubt I’d have been invited onto the podium at The Photography Show or the chance to lecture at other international events. I’m also qualified to mentor and judge photographers hoping to find their own successes at competition and distinction level (which brings me personal satisfaction).
All too often distinctions are viewed as elitist, when they are anything but. They’re not essential, or even necessary. But depending on the direction you want to take your work (and to an extent your personality type and background) they can be very useful indeed. They can give us something to strive towards. A Licentiate distinction can take several years to achieve and a rare Fellowship (there are only a handful of us worldwide) can take the best part of a lifetime. Personal satisfaction and a boost in our confidence can be the biggest reward when we achieve our goals.
I recently came across an excellent summary on the website of one of my favourite photographers, David Ziser, who has a fantastically informative blog called Digital Pro Talk.
Lastly, don’t stress about your equipment. The vast majority of my competition images have been taken with quite basic kit. A lot of the photographs were captured on personal outings, a walk, a shopping trip, or when meeting friends for a scenic excursion. I always try to carry a camera of some sort in my handbag. Obviously the equipment we use needs to be suited to the task at hand (we wouldn’t expect to capture distant wildlife with a small compact camera and a short lens). For general travel photography a good compact camera is often all you need. It’s your skill and your understanding of the criteria list discussed above which matters. With few exceptions, the photographs I’ve shown in this article were taken either with my Micro 4/3 cameras or a compact camera such as the Panasonic LX100. Providing your chosen camera has a good lens and a sensor which can handle sufficient dynamic range, then the only limiting factors will be your own knowledge and experience.