Come to think of it, this post should really be titled “Tips for entering photography competitions”. As a judge, I’ve frequently been asked what we look for when assessing images; beyond that, how can you increase your chances of winning? Today’s post will talk a bit about both the mechanics behind the scenes, as well as a little strategy.
One very important thing to remember is that there are usually thousands of entries, if not more; the judges have to look at all of them. And that means we can’t spend much time on any particular entry; the reality is that your image must both stand out from the pile to merit further examination, and continue to hold our attention upon closer inspection. Though this might seem a bit brutal, it’s the way professional photographers operate with our own images: we go through thousands on a regular basis – sometimes from a single shoot alone – and must very quickly cull those down to a working set, which get culled further. (This is the very important process of editing.) Anything that stands out as being bad gets discarded; anything that stands out gets put aside for consideration in the second round.
But what does standing out mean? Simply, the image has to break pattern. If I’m looking through a pile of 200 B&W 6×4″ prints, the one that’s in color will pop. And vice versa. If it’s a mixture of colors, then the one that uses a harmonious palette dominant in one color will make itself felt. Our eyes are hardwired to look for breaks in pattern: anything that is a different color, texture, contrast etc.; it’s the finely-honed evolution of the human brain’s self-defence mechanism from a time when that was our way of spotting predators and dangers in the wild. In fact, the reasons an individual image stands out in a group are mostly the same as those for why a subject stands out within a photograph – light, color, (depth of field), texture or motion.
Once that one image has been pulled out of the pile, then it has to have enough of visual interest to make it into the next round – here, the merits of the individual composition start to come into play. Does it fit the theme? Is it technically sound? Is the light interesting? Do I know what the subject is, and is there a story in the image? Does it speak to the audience on an emotional or personal level? From a photographic standpoint, my articles on what makes an outstanding image should be on your reading list. As for the rest of the considerations, we’ll go into a bit more detail now.
Read the rules carefully.
You’d be surprised by how many people don’t. The important things to look out for are how many entries, deadlines, limitations for when images must have been shot, and the most important: image use rights and conditions. You don’t want to enter a competition where you land up losing rights to your images or having to grant free use in perpetuity; sadly the majority of competitions are like this, and discourage entrants as a result: why would you want to give away your best images for free? And why bother entering second-rate images at all? Fortunately the rules of this (MPA 2013) competition were written by a photographer – me – and allow all image rights to be retained by the photographer, but with an exception for the sponsor to be able to use them in relation to the competition if you win. That’s about as fair as it gets, I think.
Make sure you images fit the theme!
Similar observations to the previous point: a lot of the submissions we receive don’t fit the theme. In fact, last year, some were quite excellent and capable of making the finals in other competitions; the reason they didn’t pass was simply because the subject matter was completely unrelated to the rules – you can’t really enter semi-nudes into the photojournalism section of a contest that specifically states ‘no nudity or offensive material’ in the T&C… My suggestion here is thus: think about what the theme means to you. Look for ideas – perhaps visual, perhaps non-visual – then either search your archives, or go out and shoot fresh. At least have an idea of what subject elements you’re looking for before you assess any images; if the theme is ‘Inspiring Asia’ it’s a safe bet to have some local cultural elements in the image, for instance.
Get a second, third, fourth and maybe even fifth opinion before submitting anything
There are going to be many judges looking at an image before it’s shortlisted, let alone makes the finals or wins – thus, it has to appeal to a wide audience. To some extent, you can simulate this process by letting other people give you feedback before you enter – if it’s a popular image, you definitely have a better chance than with one that doesn’t work for most viewers. You can try friends, family, fellow photographers, social media e.g. Facebook or Flickr; having the popular vote help you in the editing process might well save you wasting an entry slot on a weak image.
Look at what other people have entered.
Even though we’re barely a third of the way into the competition, we’ve had some really excellent images submitted so far – browsing the entrant pool (available on the competition front page) will give you an idea of both the standard of the competition, as well as what other people’s interpretations of the contest theme are. Remember, your entry needs to stand out to win – images that are fairly similar are probably going to be overlooked in favor of something different that stands out from the crowd. Part of what makes a good photographer is the ability to see things differently, and then communicate that visually to your audience: this is one of the key overriding things the judges are going to be looking for.
Use up all of your available entries.
Simple math: the more of your work is in the mix, the higher the chances it has of being seen. It also lets you submit more variations – some experiments might work, some might not; but if you don’t enter an image, it can’t win.
Enter some early, enter some late.
Don’t enter them all at once, though. For the MPA 2013 at least, there’s already a feedback mechanism for you: if your entry gets shortlisted, you know you’re on the right track and you’re in with a chance. If not, then try something new. But if you submit everything at once, you’ve fired all of your bullets without knowing if you it or not! In general though, it’s good practice to leave some entries for the very end: you can always find something to enter, but you can’t retract previous entries if you happen to shoot something outstanding between your final entry and the competition closing date. Leave it as late as possible to put in your last couple of images, but not so late in case everybody decides to do the same and the internet becomes slow…
Mix it up – use your back catalog and shoot fresh.
Needless to say, you want to put your best work in to give you the highest chances of winning: some images you’ll never be able to improve on or get another chance to shoot, so they must go in; in other cases, you’ll be able to do better now shooting specifically to the theme; therefore submitting some old and some new images will maximize your chances.
Leverage social media.
One of the categories in this year’s MPA is the popular vote: the judges have no influence over this at all (other than to make sure that the image meets the competition theme and rules) – the winner is decided by public vote. So, the more friends and friends of friends you can get to vote for you, the higher your chances of winning.
Image quality and shot discipline matter.
Finally, remember that your image represents you. What face do you want to present to the world, and the judges? We do not get the opportunity to know every photographer, other than through their work. A carefully composed image with a high level of shot discipline and skill shows that the photographer has clearly put a lot of thought into their photograph; there’s pride in their work, deliberation in the composition and therefore something worthy of the audience’s time to examine further. And it’ll print well too, if it wins.
There are just under two months of the competition left to go (entries close 31 October): lots and lots and lots of time to enter – hopefully this post has been helpful for not just the MPA 2013, but any other competitions that you might happen to enter. Good luck! MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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