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Allen Koppe, Classic Landscape Category Winner
2019 Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year Awards

Allen Koppe used a Fujifilm GFX 50S with a 23mm lens and a 10-stop Breakthrough Photography ND filter to capture his remarkable landscape. In the competition, he also entered a number of photographs taken with a similar style: simple compositions, blurred water and clouds, black and white, dramatic light and strong contrast. If you visit his website, you'll see a remarkable portfolio of images.

Two observations. First, Allen entered a lot of photos. In fact, I have found that many of the winning photographers have entered more entries than most. Sure, part of the approach to winning an award is producing amazing images, but how do you know what the judges will think is 'amazing'? I know after 40 years of entering photography awards, I still can't get it right. At the AIPP NSW Epson Professional Photography Awards this year, I was awarded the highest scoring print for one of my entries, while another entry received the lowest score of the awards! And I'm still mad! :>)

So, rather than trying to second guess a panel of judges with one or two images, some photographers enter a lot of photographs and hope that one of them floats to the surface.

The second observation is that all of Allen's photos are 'simple'. Another adjective could be elegant. His choice of subject matter, lens and camera angle allow him to isolate his subject. Many entries into our competition have wonderful subjects surrounded by busy backgrounds. A different camera angle is often all that's required to strengthen a photograph, so next time you have your camera in hand, spend a little time walking around your subject and take lots of different angles. Then in post-production, you can work out which is the best.

Wrote Allen of his winning landscape, "The selected image capture was not a planned process. I live in Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches and had been stuck at home for a few days. Suffering cabin fever, I decided to shoot off to Palm Beach one afternoon. The clouds were starting to break after some solid bad weather and I thought I’d take advantage of a great sky and see what I could find.

"I was watching the beach and noticed one of the council's tractors was grading the sand. The driver would make a big sweeping manoeuvre to turn around and head back the other way, leaving these beautiful markings in the sand. "There were only a few people about, which helped, so I was able to find a section of graded sand with a nice curve and no footprints running through it. I grabbed several exposures before the inevitable jogger, walker and holiday maker left their marks in the sand."

Allen says he is an amateur photographic enthusiast who, since his teenage years has had a passion for photography, particularly black and white. "From an early age, I used a 35mm Pentax K 1000 camera and would print my own pictures in a homemade darkroom in a shed at the back of my parent's house. I think today I am even more keen on black and white photography than I was back then and seldom shoot in colour. Still photography offers me a creative outlet from my professional career as a cinematographer, where I work as part of a team. The process is quite different and I enjoy the creative freedom and independence that still photography allows me."

Allen processed the image in Lightroom and finished it off in Photoshop, giving the image a little more contrast.

Christian Vizl, Revealing Nature Category Winner
2019 Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year Awards

We may best describe Christian Vizl as a professional environmental crusader who uses photography to support his conservation interests. A keen photographer, he directs the medium as part of his message to inform, to sway and to persuade public opinion. 

What attracted the judges to this image was the perfect timing and gesture. If you're like me, when photographing wildlife I tend to take a lot of frames. I take a shot when I first see my subject, just in case it moves away. Then as I get closer, I keep taking what I believe are better and better photos, and even when I'm in the best position, I keep shooting every different gesture and pose, just in case it is the best one. If the action is fast, then I'll use a high frame rate to shoot a burst of frames and pick the best one.

I have no idea how Christian took this shot. No doubt his knowledge of the ocean was of great assistance, but whether he took one frame or hundreds doesn't really matter to you or me as we view his image. What makes it work is the perfect position of the striped marlin as it circles a school of mackerel. Imagine if the marlin were looking the other way - the image wouldn't have the same strength. Or if the mackerel school wasn't such a perfect shape? It's the pose, the gesture, the expression that make this such a strong composition. And notice how there's nothing else in the frame to distract us - it's just the marlin and its prey. 

Next, let's applaud the light and how it uses the reflectivity of the fish. It's a great formula, but I don't think the image would be as strong without the background gradient. In portraiture, we'll often put the light side of the face against a dark part of the background, and the shadows of the head against a lighter part of the background - the background is the opposite of the subject in front so the subject stands out. Christian has done exactly this, using the deeper, darker ocean as a backdrop for the striped marlin, while the hundreds of mackerel are darker and backed by lighter, shallower water. Of course, it's very unlikely Christian orchestrated this situation, but he certainly recognised it and he was probably looking for it as well.

This is a great photograph we should all commit to memory for the lesson it provides in lighting.

Said Christian, "I believe photography is capable of real service to humanity, promoting empathy and initiating change, so my main purpose as a photographer is to create poetic images showing the incredible beauty of these animals, knowing they carry the power of changing our perception and spark the love and empathy that we all have inside. If we want to have a future on this planet, we need to understand that our lives are interconnected to all living animals and our own well being is directly linked to the well being of these animals. As Dr. Sylvia Earl stated, 'No blue, no green, if the oceans die, we die'."

Marcel van Balken, Creative Flair Category Winner
2019 Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year Awards

When the judges saw Marcel van Balken's photo in our competition, we wondered if someone was 'stirring the pot'. Last year in Australia, a photographer had entered a very similar image into a professional competition, only to be called-out by the website - the professional photographer's colour photo is identical in many ways to Marcel's black and white, which you see here. After investigation, the Australian photographer was disqualified.

In photography competitions, if judges are impressed by the imagination, the concept and the idea behind an entry, they'll reward it with high marks, so it can be incredibly disappointing to learn later on that images you rewarded were actually inspired by the work of someone else. Of course, we're all inspired to some extent by everything we see and experience, but there is a difference between inspiration and direct copying. We're not sure where Marcel gained his inspiration from, but we're convinced it's all his work, a simply brilliant photograph and we applaud his imagination.

Self-taught, Marcel van Balken from the Netherlands is no stranger to photography awards and is an avid participant in competitions around the world. "As a photographer, I am interested in specific themes and conceptual photography. I believe in working thematically with an absolute preference for surrealistic and creative photography. I move ideally in the field of surrealism and magic realism. I prefer to create photographic images inspired by everyday reality, combined with my own imagination. I strive to carefully compose photographic compositions of realistic looking scenes in unreal and sometimes magical spheres."

The winning image, titled The Runner, is located in the Central Station in Arnhem, Netherlands. Added Marcel, "I was inspired by the architectural design of this station: an architectural space in a play of light and shadow which forms an almost surrealistic decor. In post-production, I created a fine art black-and-white image in which the photography of architecture begins to take on abstract forms, reinforced by the apparently disproportionate addition of a man. It's all about constructions and shapes, lines and surfaces, photographed in sharp contrast to the insignificance of man."

Notice how simple and elegant the composition and framing are - there aren't any extra objects or distractions to be found. And note that when placing the running man, a near silhouette has been placed in front of a light part of the background - so the figure stands out. When compositing images together, it's decisions like this that make an image successful.

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