Tips on How to Win Photo Competitions.

I’ve been a judge at several external photo competitions, such as the recent Sony contest, and the big Sunway Resorts competition, where cash and other prizes worth more than RM200,000 were offered. I was also a judge for this month’s Vanishing Trades Photo Competition, and Renzu asked me to write a few words about how we pick the winners so that the mysterious process can be clear and transparent to all.

I’m happy to say the standard of photos in our photo contests is steadily improving. However, most of the best PM photographers seem a little shy to participate, perhaps because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable if they don’t win. When we first started the competitions years ago, I remember many senior photographers participated, and the overall standard of photos were much higher. But unfortunately when they didn’t win, they stopped participating.

Winning is only part of the game. The real joy of photography comes from sharing and showing our work, and learning and improving from feedback. A good photograph has in it something that offers something valuable to another human being. A good photograph can communicate with its viewers. It is a gift of sight. A good photograph gets you there, wherever there is for you. So I hope more people will show their work by taking part in our contests, or posting pictures up in our forums, because good pictures which are hidden in our HDDs are not really pictures. If nobody sees them, they are essentially deaf-mutes, because those pictures do not speak to anybody, and their creators won’t hear any feedback about how good or how bad they are. My aim is to encourage more people to participate in our photography challenges and to help people think about how they can shoot better pictures that can win Photo Competitions.

In this month’s Canon-PM Contest, I was a Bidan Terjun (or emergency) judge. Having returned to Malaysia only yesterday, I was presented with an already filtered list of 10 pictures, shortlisted by somebody else, and asked to select the winning picture from among the 10, by allocating 10 points to the one I considered to be the best photo, 9 for the next , and so on. So the process was quite easy. I simply chose the picture that had the greatest (relatively speaking) “WOW” factor for me, and awarded it 10 points, and 9 points to the next and so on. Presently judges are not required to explain what goes on in their minds when they award 10 points to their best pick. The points from all judges are simply totalled, and the picture with the most points is the winner. Easy-peasy.

But is this the best way?

For future PM Competitions I suggest we should fine tune the system by requiring judges to score pictures on the basis of 100 points, with 40 points for impact, 20 for composition, 20 for relevant subject matter or content, and 20 for technical excellence. A picture scoring 50 points means it has no major faults, and at the same time has no special strength or “WOW” factor. Pictures that score less than 50 points are those without impact, and they have some serious technical or compositional flaws. Pictures with more than 60 points means they have impact based on such factors as relevance, uniqueness, content and perspective. They are original or imaginative work, they have wow factors such as mood or emotional clout, and they are above average in terms of composition and technical excellence. Technical excellence is about focus, sharpness, colour balance, proper contrast, DOF, etc, and how light is used.

Sounds complicated but it’s actually quite structured, and as structured as you can make something so subjective as judging art to be. Hopefully with this kind of transparency, PMers will know what judges are looking for, and they can go out there, and at least have a better idea about what is needed to shoot a thinking and winning shot.

I’ve learned a lot by being on the panel of judges for many external public photo competitions. However, in contrast to PM competitions which attract only a few dozen entries, the judging process is not so easy with the tens of thousands of entries in a major external competition from which usually only 3 can win the top prizes. In the case of a recent major contest which attracted 40,000 entries where I was one of the judges, all the pictures were laid out on the floor, and on the walls of a very large hall. The judges were then given one hour to walk around and individually pick up around 10 to 20 pictures each, and these will then comprise the short list from which the winners will eventually be selected by a secondary process of discussion and elimination. Now from around 40,000 pictures laid out on the floor, with 4 judges each picking 10 pictures for a total of 40 in one hour, that means your chances of catching the judges’ eyes will be 1 out of 4000.

So how do you shoot a picture that will increase the chances of your picture being the one picked out from every 4000 scans?

Obviously the ones that are shortlisted will be the ones that can instantly catch the judges attention… for whatever reason. In other words, it is the initial, inexplicable “WOW” factor of the picture, that will help you to get into the short list. To have a chance to win competitions, your pictures must therefore first and foremost have a “WOW” factor…something within the picture that can make it stand out from the masses, shout out to the judge, and instantly catch his attention.

So what kind of pictures can do this?

For a start, “WOW” factors are subjective and depends on one’s background and life’s experiences. And appreciation of Art is subjective too and are usually difficult to quantify. What will wow one person may not wow another. It all depends on what the person has seen or has experienced. For example, it’s going to be difficult for a photographer to extract a “WOW” from the picture editor of National Geographic, simply because he has seen and worked with tens of thousands of exquisite pictures. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to impress a newbie in PM, who is often easily over-awed by a garishly over-processed, over-saturated, over-sharpened and over-HDR snapshot. So in a competition with fairly experienced judges, ordinary pictures like that of the Twin Towers, or the Taj Mahal, shot from common and ordinary perspectives, which the judges no doubt have seen countless times before, will always be passed over. It is the picture with uniquely surprising content and perspective, which also has the mysterious ability to “WOW” that will attract attention.

So my first tip to win in a reputable photography contest is to shoot pictures that “WOW”. Pictures that wow are those that instantly grab your attention. The content is extra-ordinary. They must be shot from a unique and surprising perspective. And extra-ordinary perspectives come naturally from creative minds, minds able to think tangentially and outside the box. Of course the assumption is that you are also technically competent to extract the maximum performance from your photography equipment in the first place.

You can train your mind to explore these extraordinary perspectives, by, for example collecting digital copies of pictures from the internet which evoke a reaction from you. And collecting extraordinary pictures from magazines like National Geographic, pictures which simply pop out of the page at you. And putting them all into a folder I like to call My Inspirational Pictures Folder. You should go through your inspirational folder periodically, and try to grasp why these special pictures are so special, visceral, emotional and inspirational to you. You can initially imitate their perspectives, but eventually you must develop your own unique style and point of view. It’s easier said than done of course, but to win competitions, you must have a special skill and often times, luck too. For me, a picture has a “WOW” factor if it makes the hairs at the back of my neck stand. I cannot explain what pictures will make the hair at the back of my neck to stand, but I’ll know them when I see them. They are pictures which inexplicably simply evoke a reaction in me.

When we were newbies we learn basic photo design rules, about what a good picture should be…such as proper exposure, cropping, the rule of thirds, the Fibonacci spiral, frame dynamics, placements, balance, contrast, dynamic tension, rhythm, eye-lines, curves, diagonals, vectors, visual weight, etc.etc….stuff which I teach at our PMPE workshops. The purpose of studying these rules and concepts is to understand them, so that you’ll know when and how to use them, but more importantly, you’ll know when it is more effective tobreak them. Please note that, if a knowledgeable expert breaks the rules, its art and skill, but if a newbie does it, it’s usually ignorance. And if you follow the rules all the time, your picture will be technically correct, but boring and predictable, with a common “me too” look. Judges are usually photographers who have been shooting for decades, and although pictures which follow the rules may be done well, and have perfect exposures, we’ve seen them all before, and they usually hardly evoke any reaction in us at all. You have to be moreinventive to make your pictures pop out. I realise there are also pictures that require a lot more time to savour and appreciate, where their beauty and “AHA” elements are realized only after a more considered study. But the point I’m making here is that, to win major photo competitions, because of the way they are usually judged, you’ll need to shoot a picture with compelling content, a unique and striking viewpoint, a perspective not usually seen or previously executed, which stands out among the masses, and which can grab instantaneous attention. These are the pictures that will grab a judge’s quick scan, photos that will win you competitions.

Conversely what are the pictures that won’t win you prizes in photo competitions. For starters, the distortion of fish eye lenses and super-wides which were a novelty years ago, are now cliché. Lens-babies, Lomos and fancy star filters will also get you nowhere. Avoid excessive post processing, such as over-using HDR techniques to the point of absurdity. Nothing is more exasperating than to see an over-enthusiastic use of the saturation slider, or the sharpening slider, or the contrast and special effects plugins of Potatochop. Unfortunately our younger generation’s appreciation of colours and saturation have also been ruined by excessive saturation in modern digital displays, TV sets, gaming and modern day advertising. Most seem to think that if saturated colours are good, more should be better in order to get attention. Yes, over saturated colours may get your photos noticed, but they won’t be picked as potential winners by judges in a photo competition. Try to stay as near as possible to natural colours, and let your surprising perspective and content do the shouting.

In ending, I would like to emphasize again the benefits of participating in photo competitions, and posting your pictures up in PM’s forums for strangers to give you comments. As I stated earlier, photos which sit in your hard disks and don’t get seen are not much use to prod you into trying to improve your photography skills. It’s worse when you show your pictures only to your family and close friends, because their predictable opinions are usually biased, and must be discounted. They will always tell you things that will please you. Never the truth usually. To get a reality check, show your pictures to strangers, or the general public, and listen to them, and watch their reactions when they see your photos. Do they sit up, lean forward and eagerly want to see more? Or are they politely critical and unimpressed? They are usually more objective than your family and friends so their views are valuable. The ultimate test is to mix a few of your best pictures together with a bunch of pictures from, say, National Geographic. Ask someone knowledgeable to pick out the three top pictures from the mix. Are your pictures among them? If they are, you have arrived. If not, we have to continue working harder.

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