2018 Photographer of the Year: 10 tips for a successful entry

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With early-bird entries to the 2018 Photographer of the Year presented by Panasonic closing on Monday night, judges Steve and Ann Toon are counting down their top 10 tips to help you nail a successful entry.

Entering competitions is a great way to boost your self-confidence, give you something to strive for, and raise your profile as a photographer.

Winning a category, let alone the main prize in a prestigious competition like Photographer of the Year that attracts a huge number of high quality entries, is reason to jump up and down and slap yourself on the back.

We’ve entered a fair share of competitions in our time with some degree of success, and we’ve also been on the other side of the fence as judges, including figuring on the panel for the wildlife and landscape sections of this growing contest for the last two years.

Sadly, there’s no magic bullet to guarantee you a win but there are some simple things you can do – and avoid doing – that will considerably boost your chances.

Enter 2018 Photographer of the Year here.

10. Follow the rules

Before you do anything, it pays to double-check the terms and conditions. Make sure you are eligible to enter and your images comply with any formatting, size or other specifications.

It's also important to check the rules do not impose unfair conditions on you. Some competitions, for example, require you to give up your copyright, either as a condition of entry, or as a condition of winning or placing highly in the competition.

If that's the case, don't enter! Importantly, Photographer of the Year has been approved by Photowatchdog, the advocate for fair photo competitions in Australia.

Check the 2018 Photographer of the Year terms and conditions here.

9. Go easy on the post-processing

Post-processing is like cosmetic surgery – if people can see it’s been done, it hasn’t worked. For landscapes and wildlife, less is invariably more, and super-saturated sunsets aren’t going to impress.

Over-sharpening or over-saturating can ruin an otherwise strong image, as can excessive use of vignettes, noise reduction and HDR.

A rich diet of cloying colours when judging can easily drive us towards the ‘quieter’ more subtle portfolios that give our eyeballs a break.

Tim Fan's winning portfolio in the Landscape category in the 2017 Photographer of the Year.
Tim Fan's winning portfolio in the Landscape category in the 2017 Photographer of the Year.

8. Check out past winners and top ranked entries

Check out previous winners and top 20 images to get a sense of the themes and image styles that do well. This can be a useful starting point but don't assume that the same type of images will do well the following year. Sometimes, an entry that looks completely different might stand out from the crowd.

The strength of Jordan Robins’ Photographer of the Year winning portfolio in 2017 lay in his consistency of subject and technical execution. Our panel of judges were wowed by not just the difficulty of shooting subjects like these in what is a fluid, dynamic environment, but also Robins’ consistent editing and sense of style. A challenging subject sure, but one executed perfectly and with a keen eye for showcasing the subjects in the best possible way.
The strength of Jordan Robins’ Photographer of the Year winning portfolio in 2017 lay in his consistency of subject and technical execution. Our panel of judges were wowed by not just the difficulty of shooting subjects like these in what is a fluid, dynamic environment, but also Robins’ consistent editing and sense of style. A challenging subject sure, but one executed perfectly and with a keen eye for showcasing the subjects in the best possible way.

Enter 2018 Photographer of the Year here.

7. Take risks

If you can make multiple entries, and have enough good images, then try putting in some ‘long shots’. Sometimes we’ve done well with images that we didn’t expect to perform well, while our bankers didn’t figure. You can’t second-guess judges.

Individually strong images will always stand out on their own, but in a series, they need to work cohesively with each other. This portfolio by Simone Cheung finished Top 10 in the portrait category.
Individually strong images will always stand out on their own, but in a series, they need to work cohesively with each other. This portfolio by Simone Cheung finished Top 10 in the portrait category.

6. Be technically correct, but not a slave to technique

It goes without saying that in a highly competitive environment, your images need to be technically excellent to stand any chance. Soft or badly exposed images aren’t going to make the cut.

If you’re using artistic blur, blown-out highlights, or whatever for deliberate aesthetic effect, make sure it comes across as a clearly a deliberate choice, not a mistake. We’ll always reward good creative control, but never sloppy technique.

Steve Allsop's portfolio 'Beach Life' was runner up in the Black and White category in 2017. Although the image doesn't follow normal conventions of sharpness, exposure or composition, it's clear that Allsop's style is both deliberate and carefully executed to create a specific mood and aesthetic.
Steve Allsop's portfolio 'Beach Life' was runner up in the Black and White category in 2017. Although the image doesn't follow normal conventions of sharpness, exposure or composition, it's clear that Allsop's style is both deliberate and carefully executed to create a specific mood and aesthetic.

5. Choose four images that work well as a whole

In the case of Photographer of the Year, not only must your entry fit the category theme, but in seven out of the eight categories you're also being asked to submit a portfolio of four images. (The exception is Photo of the Year which is the only single-image category.)

For the portfolio categories, your images need to work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A significant number of entries fail for us because the photographer has three great images and one not so great.

Three shots of penguins and one shot of a lion clearly isn’t a portfolio. This holds true for image formats too. Three square images and one panorama in a portfolio is hard to pull off – you’d really have to convince with cracking images for us not to sideline you.

Consistency of theme and style will help your portfolio stand out. THis series by Matthew Tuffield won first place in the Black and White category in 2017.
Consistency of theme and style will help your portfolio stand out. THis series by Matthew Tuffield won first place in the Black and White category in 2017. "This mono series struck a chord with me," commented judge Douwe Djikstra. "I’m a sucker for abstract architecture and this series shows consistent quality, stark contrast, an abstract look and feel, and I just love the dark mood and the drama. I in particular like the high contrast between the moving clouds and the strong sharp shapes of the buildings, it adds an extra dimension to this awesome series."

Enter 2018 Photographer of the Year here.

4. Fresh eyes

Once you’ve picked your four portfolio shots leave them to one side for a few days and come back to them ‘fresh’ before submitting your entry. You’ll see your set more objectively and can make any necessary substitutions.

Get a second opinion from someone objective with good photographic knowledge – not your family or Facebook friends.

3. Tell a story

We judges are hungry for narrative. With a set of four images, as opposed to a single shot, there’s room for planning and pre-visualising and taking us on a journey with you.

It could be a series of images describing an ecosystem, aspects of the natural history of a particular animal, the impact of man on a natural landscape. Map out how they will work together so the sum is bigger than the individual parts.

The advantage of a portfolio over a single image is the opportunity it gives the photographer to tell more complex and engaging stories.
This series by Yunis Tmeizeh, was shot at New York's Coney Island, and was the winner of the People and Portrait category in 2017. Judge Tobias Titz wrote:
The advantage of a portfolio over a single image is the opportunity it gives the photographer to tell more complex and engaging stories. This series by Yunis Tmeizeh, was shot at New York's Coney Island, and was the winner of the People and Portrait category in 2017. Judge Tobias Titz wrote: "Yunis’s series is very interesting to investigate. You can see that Yunis made an effort to get close to the people in the images and has a great ability to interact with them. I love all the little stories in the images, which the viewer can explore."

2. Avoid trends and clichés

There are some photogenic Australian landmarks that feel like old friends, despite never having visited them ourselves. It's perhaps understandable these hotspots figure frequently in the competition, but if your portfolio majors on popular subjects, bear in mind you’re already making it harder for your images to stand out.

If you’re going to photograph old favourites we’d love to see a new take on them. Yes, you can still win with such a portfolio, but you’ll most likely be pitting yourself directly with numerous other similars, and it’s going to be that much harder to prick our interest.

Consider steering clear of current photographic trends too. There’s a high chance everyone else will have jumped on the bandwagon and be using a technique or treatment that’s currently in vogue. Which brings us to our next point.

Clement Chua's entry 'Into the Dusk' captured a little-known animal behaviour as flying foxes skim the surface of a lake in Sydney to cool their bodies on a hot day. The series was the runner up in the Wildlife category in 2017.
Clement Chua's entry 'Into the Dusk' captured a little-known animal behaviour as flying foxes skim the surface of a lake in Sydney to cool their bodies on a hot day. The series was the runner up in the Wildlife category in 2017. "I know from experience how challenging flying foxes can be to photograph, especially at dusk," said judge Shannon Benson. "I’m also very impressed with the drinking behaviour captured, something not many people realise these bats do."

1. Don’t give up

If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again. It’s the way we’ve approached our whole photographic career. And don’t be disheartened if your much-loved entry doesn’t make the cut in 2018.

If your images didn’t succeed in this competition, it doesn’t mean they’re not still winners. Judges are human after all, with their own brand of taste. Sometimes the greatest benefits come from sharing your work, and learning what you could do better next time. The difference between the top and middle tier can be subtle – a tiny difference in technique or composition, for example. Next time it could be you!
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Steve and Ann Toon.
Steve and Ann Toon.

Award-winning wildlife photographers Steve and Ann Toon have been judges on Photographer of the Year for the last two years. You can see more of their work at toonphoto.com.

Edited extract from a story first published in Australian Photography, September 2018.
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To enter the 2018 Photographer of the Year click here.

 

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