Photo Feedback

Choosing a winning image in a photography competition is part science, part experience and part emotion. As a judge, the first thing you look for is technique. While there can be exceptions where some other aspect of the photograph is just so good that you can ignore technique, for the bulk of entries technique is important.

Technique covers everything from camera handling skills to presentation of the final image. Is the photograph in focus, is it correctly exposed, has appropriate tonality been used during post-production? People complain that you can't just enter a straight photo without post-production and win a competition, and to some extent this is correct. At the very least, post-production allows us to refine the tonality - darken down the sky, lighten up the face - and if we ignore these possibilities, the photograph may look unfinished. Mind you, it was no different in the 'old days' - successful entrants would have a 'custom print' created where these minor but important adjustments were made by a skilled darkroom technician.

To win a photo competition, you have to ensure the technique is invisible. Viewers want to look at the subject matter, not the handiwork around making the image. 

A lot of entrants look at photographs on the internet or in books and create their own version. We all do this to some extent. There's nothing wrong with this (as long as it is not a direct copy, in which case it's plagiarism), but don't expect the judges to be awed by your brilliance if your subject is commonplace. It is very hard for a photograph of the Sydney Opera House to win a photography competition - unless it is presented in a new and unique way.

Most competitions have a number of entries that appear to be inspired by winning entries from the year before. This is good practice for photographers wishing to improve their skills, but to be a competition winner, you have to jump out ahead. You can't be following the herd, you have to lead it.

Good photography judges have a lot of experience. By experience, I mean exposure to lots and lots of images - paintings, films, photography. One way to get that experience is to judge photography competitions, but there are many others - a picture editor for a newspaper or a curator in a gallery would also be very experienced. On the plus side, that experience means they won't hand out as many awards to 'copy images'. On the negative side, experience can mean they have particular likes and dislikes, which can flavour how they judge a competition. And that's why it's important for a competition to have three or even five judges, so you get a cross-section of flavours.

So, good technique and something that is either new or incredibly well done is a great start, and then it comes down to emotion. I don't know how to explain this but at the end of a judging process, a number of photographs will rise to the top. Anyone of those images could be the winner depending on how judges respond emotionally. And having an image which is full of emotion is a good way to influence the judges.

However, you can't tell how a judge will respond, not with certainty, and hence my advice is not to aim to win a competition, rather to be in the top twenty percent of entrants. Then, if you enter enough competitions, you're very likely to take out a major prize - eventually.

Check out our e-book on How To Win Photo Competitions on our Better Photography Education website - you can find it here.

And, of course, you can enter our current Better Photography Photo of the Year Competition. Entries close 31 October and details are here.

When judging photographs, I have some basic expectations - and I think most other judges are the same. The photograph should be sharp (focused) in the right places (although blurred images can be wonderful in context); they should be correctly exposed (not too light or too dark); and they should be appropriately framed. There’s nothing worse than a fantastic subject being overcrowded by unnecessary information or a busy background. Deciding what to leave out of your photographs is just as important as what to leave in.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t award a prize to a blurred image with poor print quality – there could be emotional or pictorial aspects about the image that either justify the blurred image, or override it. This is a subjective process and what a photograph can be is so varied, you can never be assured of impressing the judges.

However, you can expect to achieve a good score for a high standard. You can aim for a Silver Award and when they are easy, aim for a Gold Award. Don’t expect to win a competition the first time you enter, rather look at it as a process of learning so that at some stage in the not too distant future, your work will be good enough to be up there with the winners.

And look for judges whose work you appreciate. While there are no guarantees, judges whose work you like are more likely to point you in the right direction when they score your images. 

The 2018 Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year Award is now on! Entries close on 31 October 2018 (late entries possible until 7 November) and there is $17,000 in cash and prizes on offer. Gold, Silver and Bronze Awards will be handed out and every entry will receive a short comment or suggestion from the judging panel.

Check out our e-book on How To Win Photo Competitions on our Better Photography Education website - you can find it here.

And, of course, you can enter our current Better Photography Photo of the Year Competition. Entries close 31 October and details are here.

Many photos are ruined by busy or inappropriate backgrounds. Sometimes by changing your camera position or moving your subject you can frame your subject against a better background that makes a much stronger photograph. And this is something judges are keenly aware of! 

When looking through your viewfinder, look at all the elements as shapes and lines, rather than what they really are. How do these shapes and lines interact? Can you keep the shapes and lines of your subject separate from the shapes and lines elsewhere? One way to make the shapes and lines of your background disappear is to focus on your subject and throw the background out of focus. Or in a landscape, maybe you need a higher vantage point to remove the horizon if it is distracting, or get down really low so you just have the sky as the background. Or shoot on a misty day when the background is obscured. 

Of course, by the time you're looking for photos to enter, you've already shot your photo. So, what can you do about the background then? When editing your photos, can you darken the background or desaturate the colour so it is less distracting?

The background is not as important as your subject, but it can ruin an otherwise wonderful subject if it is not kept under control. And the same applies to all photography, whether you're entering a photo competition or not!

The 2018 Better Photography Magazine Photo of the Year Award is now on! Entries close on 31 October 2018 and there is $17,000 in cash and prizes available. Gold, Silver and Bronze Awards will be handed out and every entry will receive a short comment or suggestion from the judging panel.

Check out our e-book on How To Win Photo Competitions on our Better Photography Education website - you can find it here.

And, of course, you can enter our current Better Photography Photo of the Year Competition. Entries close 31 October and details are here.

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