Photo Feedback

Gold Award by Kath Salier, 2016 Creative Category, Better Photography Photo of the Year Award

I realise as the magazine’s editor I have a vested interest in encouraging readers to enter our annual photography competition, but I believe I practice what I preach.

My life, my career and my success as a photographer is directly attributable to photography competitions. Yes, I’ve been lucky to win a few competitions, but I’ve entered far more where my results have been less than stellar!

The reason for my success as a photographer isn’t because I’ve won competitions, but because I have spent the time entering them. Now, don’t get me wrong! I try to win every competition I enter, but win, lose or draw, I’m a winner because I’ve spent time making my entries better.

Simple, isn’t it.

The mere process of putting your best foot forward, of refining your skills as a photographer to enter an image into a competition is how you improve. While the results are important, they’re not. What’s important has already happened just before you enter the competition.

Entries into the 2018 Better Photography Photo of the Year Awards close on 31 October 2018, so there's still time to enter - and who knows, you could be part of the $17,000 prize pool too! For more details, visit www.betterphotographyphotocomp.com now!

I suggest you approach photography competitions as a game. After all, it's only a matter of opinion. Most importantly, you need to like your own photographs and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.

Of course, anyone can take a photograph, but does it have value? Do other people enjoy viewing it? Could you do it better? If, like me, you are interested in improving your photography, then entering photography competitions is a great way of getting honest feedback from people who have some expertise.

However, don't assume the judges from just one competition are right! Remember, the results of a photography competition are only a matter of opinion. Years ago, I entered a photograph in two competitions. At the local camera club, the judge told me the photo had no artistic merit and I should consider giving up photography. At the Sydney International Salon, it won first prize. Two different judges, two different opinions. Which one is right?

So, if you were to enter your photograph in two or three competitions and you received low scores in all of them, then you have two choices.

First, you can disregard the results. Personally, the photograph may still remain a firm favourite and this is completely valid. Second, you can take the results on the chin and look more critically at your work and how you can improve. One suggestion here is to put the photo away for 3 or 6 months and then look at it with fresh eyes. It's amazing how often a little time proves the judging panel correct, especially when we're at the beginning of our photography journey.

Of course, if you have a great photograph, then whether it wins or not is to some extent a matter of luck. No matter how good your photograph is, you have no control over how amazing someone else's images are, or how the judges respond to your technique, subject matter and emotion. That's why I recommend aiming to be in the top 20 percent and, eventually, one of your images is likely to be a winner.

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 - details are here.

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.

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