2017 Photographer of the Year: 10 tips to improve your chances
Putting together a portfolio for a photo competition like Photographer of the Year can be challenging. How do you know which images will be the most popular with judges? Do you simply choose the best images you've shot over the past six months, or do you try to select four images that show a consistent visual and narrative theme? What weight will the judges place on things like narrative and originality?
These are just a few of the questions you will come up against when it comes time to submit your entry.
Photography is an art form and there are no hard and fast rules. However, for any competition, there are a few things you should consider to increase your chances of success.
1. The basics
The first thing any judge or curator will look at is the technical competence of your images. Make sure your image choices show a strong understanding of light, exposure and focus and the image is well composed.
It helps to make sure the subject is clear, and limit any distracting elements that could have been cropped or avoided to make a stronger composition. Is the image sharp where it needs to be? Is the subject captured in the most flattering light? Look to avoid blown highlights and blocked shadow detail, over or under sharpening, banding in the sky or too much digital noise.
2. Consistency and flow
Your initial strategy might be to simply enter the four best images you’ve taken that year. And while that seems a reasonable approach, you have to remember that judges are considering your images together as a whole. In most cases, your series will be stronger if it has a consistent visual style and explores a cohesive theme.
When you get close to your final selection, pool them all together and reflect on what links them and how well they sit together. It may be you need to let go of a strong individual image for the sake of the collective strength of the series if there is a clear discord with how it fits in with the others. Can your eye move through the whole series with some sense of ease and flow? Is there something that ties them together in terms of subject matter, story, a concept or idea, particular style and presentation, or even colour palette?
Almost all the winning folios in recent years have had one or more of these elements.
3. Narrative and emotion
Do the images have emotional impact? Do they take you somewhere or invite you into a new emotional space? An emotional response can be drawn from the initial impact or develop through the series, but either way it leaves a lasting impression.
While emotion can grab attention, a storyline can often hold it over time. Is there a storytelling element that develops through the imagery or takes you on a journey exploring the subject, idea or theme? One of the potential advantages of submitting a series of images is the opportunity it gives you to flesh out a more complex and interesting narrative and ultimately provide a greater opportunity for engagement.
4. Originality and innovation
Originality is a key driving force in any competition. Given that the judge will see many images before and after yours, if your images stand out as fresh and original you will instantly grab their attention. By presenting a familiar subject in a different light, using fresh angles, perspectives or unusual techniques you may inspire a new way of relating to the subject matter and provide a point of difference to make your entry stand out from the crowd.
This one is a little up for debate, but it’s worth considering. I’m not necessarily referring to diversity of subject matter here (though that could be a strength in certain cases) but more the portrayal of different photographic techniques or ideas in how the subject is presented. This would potentially showcase a greater complexity or flair in the thought process and skillset of the photographer. And if you’re competing with a folio of very similar or repetitive images that show less imagination, you may just end up getting the nod.
6. The weakest link
Having a consistent calibre of imagery in your folio is important. Aim for four strong images. More often than not, a folio with one or more images that don’t come up to the same standard as the others will be overlooked in the final count. Look at your portfolio and ask yourself, is there an image that lets the series down somehow? This might cause you to rethink your approach and, if time permits, you may even consider a reshoot to help round out a cohesive set of imagery.
7. Start and finish strong
Enter your images in the order you want them to be judged. The first image provides the greatest opportunity for initial impact and getting the judges to sit up and take notice, while the final image often gives the most lasting impression. For maximum impact, start and finish with your strongest images.
8. Read the fine print
It may seem like time better spent doing something else, but in my experience it’s well worth taking the time to read the terms and conditions. (We've even linked them for you!) It might save you being disqualified on a technicality (e.g. wrong image size, or submitting an image outside of the allowable capture time). Additionally it may help you refine and clarify the strongest image set to fit and meet the category criteria and subsequently increase your chances of success.
9. Feedback and critique
Don’t be afraid to approach someone you trust and respect to gain some positive critiquing on your image choices and to get some help in curating the final set. We can become very close to our own work, particularly if we’ve put so much of ourselves into creating it. But you need to remember, the judges won’t know the story behind the images and will only see the image in front of them without any of the personal or emotional context. Getting feedback from running a fresh set of eyes over your work could help to create a much more objectively balanced folio.
10. You’ve got to be in it...
As the saying goes, 'You’ve got to be in it to win it’.
Doing well can be a great confidence boost and may even help open some doors, but the greatest benefit in my opinion comes well before you click the submit button. The process of delving deeper into your work, refining your vision and working to push your imagery to a new level can be reward enough in itself!
Regardless of whether you’re motivation is, for fun or advancement, it’s a great way to share your images with like-minded photographers and you never know, maybe you’ll share in the $27,000 or so in cash and prizes up for grabs in this year’s competition!
Paul Hoelen is an AIPP Master of Photography, Fellow of the NZIPP and is the current and four time Professional Photographer of the Year in Tasmania. He has judged on a state, national and international level for many years and has been a Photographer of the Year judge since the competition's inception.
The 2017 Photographer of the Year is open now for entries. Enter here.