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Polly Fenton, Emotive Portrait Category Winner and Overall Photo of the Year Winner

It's refreshing to learn how simply this photograph was captured. Some photographers lament that to win a photo competition you need to be a Photoshop expert, but my observations don't support this. Take our last year's overall winner of the Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year as an example.

Photographer Polly Fenton says she recently retired from a 44-year nursing career and is now actively pursuing her love of photography through study, participating in photographic clubs, travelling with mentors and a lot of practice. "I find I am shooting a variety of topics and styles at present in an attempt to find my niche."

The winning photo was taken on a trip with Inger Vandyke of Wild Image Photo Tours in February 2019. "We were visiting the tribes of the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia."

The portrait of Nagudo, of the 'Suri' or Surmi tribe, was photographed by Polly in a remote village near Kibish. Explained Polly, "Nagudo used decorative scarification, piercing and copper adornments to emphasise her individualism and confidence within her society.

"During our stay of several days, I found the Suri exuded a beautiful inner personal warmth and mystic. This is what I was attempting to capture in this photograph. They were an absolute delight to engage with and it was a truly inspiring and humbling experience that I will never forget."

Polly used a Fujifilm X-T2 with an XF 18-55mm f2.8-4 R LM OIS lens. As she was shooting in a darkish hut, the settings were 1/80 second at f4, ISO 3200.

"In post-production, I darkened the background with the adjustment brush and also used this to enhance her eyes and soften her skin. Overall, I slightly increased exposure, contrast and whites with a touch of dehaze. Using the HSL sliders, I gently adjusted the green, blue and aqua to lift the colour of her shawl. I felt that nothing else was required."

And we think Polly was exactly right - nothing else was required!

I judge a lot of photographs every year and for some competitions, I also provide a short suggestion or hint that might help each entrant improve his or her work. And one of the most common suggestions is to simplify the photo so it's not so busy.

When a photo is too busy, usually the best solution is to find a different angle. Of course, this isn’t always possible and sometimes it is too late to go back and shoot something again, but on the other hand, learning this lesson could encourage you to explore your subject more fully in the future.

Some subjects thrive on being busy - the busyness itself is the subject. However, this needs to be very obvious to be successful. More often, our subject should be clearly communicated. When we tell someone a story, we need to provide some background, but the background shouldn’t confuse the story itself. The same can be said about photography. What is your subject and does it stand apart from its surroundings and background sufficiently so your viewers (and judges) know that this is what’s important? If not, can you find another angle or edit the image so the subject is more clearly defined?

On the left page above, there are two photos of a Tiger Heron. Thirty or so photos were taken of this bird, waiting until the background was less busy. And for a competition, we’d crop the image more tightly, removing the green leaf at the bottom as this is also distracting. What we're really doing is making the photo less busy.

There are three techniques we can apply to make a photo less busy.

Technique 1

Often it’s not possible to ‘fix’ a busy photograph with post-production techniques. However, you can learn to be much more aware of what is in the viewfinder at the time of capture. Consider changing your camera angle to provide a simpler background, walking or zooming in closer to your subject to remove unwanted objects, or choosing a different location for your subject.

Technique 2

Sometimes a busy photograph can be improved by simply cropping it. Remove unwanted complexities from the frame! 

Technique 3

For photos where the subject is really important to you, look at using post-production to subdue the distractions – darken, desaturate, defocus, reduce contrast. Unfortunately, not every busy photo can be fixed with post-production.

This is our third installment in a series of articles titled How To Win Photo Competitions. Each instalment has half a dozen helpful tips that are not only great for competitions, but for your photography in general. To read more, subscribe to Better Photography magazine online. You'll find details on the website.

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Has regular Better Photography contributor Mike Langford lost his marbles? Why is he suddenly photographing urban landscapes, instead of the pristine wilderness of New Zealand's South Island?

Mike explains his new passion in the current issue of Better Photography (Issue 98):

"IN THE WINTER of this year, Jackie Ranken and I moved from the picture postcard beauty of Queenstown to the former hydro town of Twizel in the Mackenzie Basin in the centre of the South Island of New Zealand. We are now surrounded by a landscape that has been extremely modified by man and I’m starting to think that man-made objects and extreme modifications to the landscape may, in some way, have a beauty all their own.

"Living in a basin where man-made objects like power pylons march across the landscape like a revolution, you are forced to acknowledge them. They just can’t be ignored. Their patterns and shapes are the opposite of the natural landscape in which they sit. They catch and reflect light in a totally different way from any other part of the landscape. At first glance, they are totally incongruous to the landscapes through which they stride.

"Also across the basin, canals have been etched into and onto the valley floor. They are so obvious that they can be seen from outer space. Man-made lakes now fill entire valleys and irrigation pipes have changed a formerly arid landscape into lush green pastures. The increase of surface water from the dams has also meant there is now more moisture in the air, resulting in fogs and hoar frosts in the valleys. 

"At first, these man-made features can be somewhat ignored. At best, they are just a visual pollution that you try to keep out of your images when photographing the beautiful landscapes that surround them. But wait. Maybe we could look at these man-made landscapes in a new and different way, creating a new and different landscape aesthetic?"

You can read more of Mike's thoughts and see more of his photographs in Better Photography - is this something you'd like to pursue as a new direction? To read more, subscribe to Better Photography magazine online. You'll find details on the website.

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