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How to win all your clubs photography contests!

How to win all your clubs photography contests!

When you join a photography club it can be for several reasons. You might want to associate with others having similar interests. You might want to learn about photography. You might simply join in order to be able to enter competitions. Whatever your reason, what you need to do when you start your club journey is to park the thought that everyone knows more than you, that everyone else is right, at the door! And that’s because no matter how good a photographer is, no matter how helpful or critical they try to be, they all come with baggage. The fact is that we all tend to like what we like and it takes someone truly exceptional to put that baggage to one side and to see through the eyes of the photographer they are critiquing. Unfortunately, and through personal experience, club judges rarely fall into this category because they are expected to do the job in a certain, well bounded way where the norm far outweighs the unusual, quirly or downright different. In club photography then, what you think will do well in competition undoudtadly will if it conforms closely to what typically and historically does well. Doing well in competitions is therefore less about innovative photography challanging the senses, more about knowing and being able to create a winning entry based on knowledge.

Having said all this, there is absolutely nothing wrong in wanting to succeed in club photography and just like any process, you simply need to learn the rules and to carefully study what historically does well in club competitions. This approach will maximise your chances of podium placings as well as improve your club photography.

So, what does a club judge look for in a winning image. Let’s take a look.

  • Club judges are pixel peepers: When having to differentiate between one image and another they will revert to technical imperfections in order to choose one image over another. It’s a proven technique that works as it provides them with justification to discount or mark down an otherwise good image.

  • Club judges are traditionalists: Unless the competition is themed, club judges will often prefer to stay with stuff they know and stuff they know their audience will appreciate. Landscapes, sports and wildlife all do well for this reason, portraits less so unless the judge has an interest in them (and that can be a little dodgy as they will undoubdatly be looking for flaws) and finally, at the end of the list, documentary / reportage. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this genre of course, it probably comprises most of the published works in history, but it is a genre that judges all too often seem to avoid.

  • Club judges seem to like obviously emotional images: I have seen similar images win multiple contests even in the same season. That tells me that you can’t go wrong in club competitions if you tug at the judges heartstrings especially if the image is technically on point. That means paying real attention to the quality of your post processing. With animals, mother and child shots, especially primates seem to do really well. If you live close to a zoo or wildlife park, this type of capture is not particulalry difficult either. Just remember to pay attention to the details and nail the post-processing.

  • Judges like good post-processing: As I mentioned above, good post-processing is a must if you want to win competitions. This is often why reportage photography (often called street / candid photography) falls down as the capture of the image is often an instant decision and everything else, such as lighting, composition and technical perfection has to take second stage. You can offset these limitations to a certain degree in post with some deft manipulation but be careful as sometimes the post-processing lessons what was captured. So to reiterate, judges love well composed and post-processed images and much of what you hear in their judgmements relates to how well or poorly an image was post-processed.

  •  Judges love good composition and rules: Leading lines, the rule of thirds and odd-numbers are important differentiating tools for judges. If you are able to think about your composition before you press the shutter, that is the way to take a winning shot. Bringing in leading lines with due reference to thirds etc won’t do your image any harm but bare in mind,for many scenarios the judge will have seen it all before. Keep it fresh!

  • Judges hate clutter: If your image is difficult to read due to clutter or being overly busy it is likely to fare badly. Judges love a central subject and the least amount of detail around that subject the better. If your eye wanders around the image, so will theirs! For macro and wildlife eg insects, birds and animals in the wild it’s all about controlling bokah and any spurious foreground objects that detract from the image. For landscapes its all about composition and viewpoint and for portraits, it’s about controlling and manipulating light efficiently. Before entering your images, ask others for their opinions, Quite often we seem images differently and taking on advice before pressing the submit button will often pay dividends.

  • Judges like what they like: I hate to say it but research your judge before entering your images. Your club will often post information on your judge prior to the competition, or at least email you with their name, closing dates etc. All you then need do is visit any resources where they add their own images. This could be the associations they are affiliated to, their own personal website, instagram or facebook. Knowing your judge doesn’t mean an automatic placing but it does mean you are maximising your chance of the judge understaning your work and being naturally drawn to it. Be aware though, judges might often feel that they are at the top of their game and you presenting an image that is close to, equal to or, worse still, better than anything they have done, might not go down too well. Just a thought!

  • Judges like familiar things done a little differently: If you are a judge you are going to see 1000’s of landscapes, 1000’s of wildlife shots and 1000’s of sports images. Differentiating your image from others in the competition you are entering, or from all those that the judge has seen before, is what is going to win you a placing or a spot in the top three. It’s no good choosing that image from your archives on the day of the competition, those decisions need to have been made before you pressed the shutter. Location, position, angle of view, getting high, or low, weather and a whole lot more will come into play here so be thoughtful, be wise and be patient.

  • Judges are taught how to judge: Get hold of a copy of the guidence issued to judges by the various associations they are affiliated to. There will be judging guidence issued by those associations because judges are trained to judge. If you know what they know, then you are better able to consider what of your photography will work best.

There will be other things club judges look for in a competition entry but I think the above guidence, certainly from my experience, constitutes a good start point. Personally, I rail against club competitions because I am less interested in winning than I am about what the photograph means to me. For me, it is often the imperfections and vageries of my images, that would no doubt degrade my chances of success in competitions, that attracted me to press the shutter.

Do I enter club competitions? I have done with some success but as my interests continue to evolve, that need is becoming less and less attractive nowadays.

Hammered again! Why do I do it?

Hammered again! Why do I do it?

You’re probably thinking at this point that by hammered I mean blind rolling drunk. Regrettably, no, although I wish I had been. What I actually mean is that yet again I enter a competition in good spirit and faith only for my images to be misunderstood or worse still, sidelined. Now, before going further I need to come clean and say that these two particular images actually did reasonably well, one getting 17/20 and the other 18/20. It is however not so much the scores, judging is highly subjective after all, it is the comments that I find the most telling.

Let’s start with the candid image above. Firstly, in your whole life, how many times have you seen an image like this? Seven lads, all obviously together, all on their phones rather than chatting or interacting. It’s unique. You’ll never likely never see this image again, ever. It’s also a social statement, about how we now interact with each other. We all do it. I do it everyday. Sit with friends and tap away on my phone. With regards the judges comments, the most pleasing was that it was reminiscent of Martin Parr. I was happy when I heard that as I am a huge fan of Martin’s candid photography. Thank you judge. Less pleasing was being told off for the title “The future of social interaction” as it was unecessary to spell out the obvious. Not sure about the relevance of that one. Beyond this the judge did praise my ability to “get the shot” without being sworn at, beaten up or chased off but then she went on to say that had I got lower, I could have got more of their faces. I personally think that lying on the ground in front of them would have probably given the game away and I would have lost the opportunity to take this uniquely candid shot. Worse still, it might have offered the opporunity to give me a good kicking! Personally, I know the value of this image, both to me and as a unique and hard-hitting comment on society today, and for these reasons it is priceless.

If my first image failed to capture the imagination and wonder of the judges, my second one (see above) did somewhat worse. Personally, I love this image and as for the first one, it captures a moment we see all too often today. The loneliness and isolation that the pandemic has created for so many of us. It is an image of our time. Simple, elegant, dark, asking lot’s of questions. Err, not exactly (imagine sound of a needle scrapping across a record)!! According to our judges, it’s probably a personal trainer on a break! Oh, and they wanted to see more detail of the head. Apparently, capturing him wearing a hoody or a hat was simply not good photography.

With comments such as these, and bearing in mind that critiquing other peoples work provides an opportunity to “do better next time”, I am really not sure what I am supposed to do with these. My normal approach is to fester and froth for a while when I get bad feedback, eventually coming around to the idea that I can learn from it. Thie real problem comes when you get no useful feedback as you really struggle to know how to improve and move forward as a photographer. If the assumption is that to do better in club competitions you need to get better at taking the types of photos that do well in clubcompetitions, then that’s simply not going to happen. It’s not important enough for me to want or need to do that.

I write this piece tounge-in-cheek really as I knew I was on a hiding to nothing entering images with a social, urban context in a photography club competition. My entries were actually unique in that the vast majorit of the 60 entries covered the more usual genres of abstract, wildlife, sport and portraiture. Within these there were some wonderful photography, worthy of high points and placings in the top three. Would I have chosen the same ones? Truefully, no, but then again I have a particular perspective on photography and what I like doesn’t necessarily resonate with others. Does this experience make me want to enter competitions? Sadly, no. I think I am much better suited to project work and that is probably where I will focus my attention in the future. I think creating a body of work has more meaning in the overall scheme of things and ultimately is the evolution I seek.

Bonne chance mes amis.