2020 Photographer of the Year: What makes for a winning entry?
We know that feeling. You are staring at photos on your computer screen and you have no idea if you should even enter the competition, let alone which photos to enter.
There are plenty of good reasons to enter photo competitions, leaving aside the prizes and industry kudos that a potential win could give you. The best reason to enter is that you want to be a better photographer.
Even if you don’t end up entering your images in competitions, here are some tips we think are helpful to improving the quality of your images and to improving your ability to select your best photographs, because they force you to be your own judge!
Nailing the Basics
Whilst technical perfection is not as important as composition, originality and aesthetic appeal in the overall judging process, it is still very important.
A great composition, for instance, may get you through the first round of judging, but if the judges have to make a choice between the final images to select a winner, the sharper and better exposed images will (almost) always win.
Technical perfection also, necessarily, feeds into the aesthetic appeal of an image. A badly exposed image, for example, will not be as pleasing to the eye as one that is correctly exposed.
There are exceptions, of course. Taking under-exposed, slightly blurry images may be part of your photographic vision. If so, make sure it's clear that this was done deliberately, and not just because you didn't know your f-stop from your ISO!
It's tempting, with all these amazing post-processing tools and filters out there, to go crazy with the editing, but you need to resist doing 'too much'. The best images are often those that are simple and feel natural, not contrived.
Unfortunately, with the advent of social media and the need for 'likes', some photographers are boosting the quick appeal of an image by exaggerating colours and contrast. Be aware that what might look good when downsized and cropped on Instagram, is not necessarily going to be what makes a competition-winning image.
In particular, in our experience as judges, we have noticed a propensity to over-saturate and over-sharpen. When editing your portfolio of images, try to keep the processing subtle and consistent across each image. Let the composition and story be the hero of the images, not the adjustments that you have made to it.
Get a Second Opinion
As authors of our own images, we are intrinsically subjective. You may absolutely love a set of images that you took, but objectively they might not be very interesting at all. This is why it is essential to get a second opinion.
But don't ask your mother. Ask someone who understands what a good photo is, who you can trust to be honest and, most importantly, someone who can give constructive advice. Then, when you receive the advice, take it on the chin. Be prepared to be told your photos are rubbish. Sure, that may bruise your ego for a bit, but in the long run, it will help you to be a better photographer. And don't just settle for one person's opinion, get as many as possible. In this way, you will start to see a pattern: which photos have potential and which really are just terrible.
If a series of images you shot has not worked, don't stop there. Find out exactly why they didn't work and go out and take them again (if possible). If you peered into the work habits of the best photographers in the world, in any genre, you will likely find that their success comes down to three simple things: Passion, Patience and Persistence. Adopt these as your mantra, and you are bound to be rewarded.
Don't Be Repetitive
As judges, there is nothing worse than getting a series of images you've seen before. If you have had success with images in previous competitions, that's great, but don't let yourself become a one-trick pony.
Of course, you might get lucky and have judges that have never seen your winning images before. But if they have, they'll be less inclined to pick them again.
From Good to Great to Award-winning
How do you make the judges take notice of your image? One of the best things you can do is put yourself in the judges' shoes. Imagine sifting through thousands of images, many with similar themes and content. How do you pick one portfolio from another? What would stand out to you, do you think?
It is safe to say that there is no magic formula, but if you strive to include the following in your images, you'll go a long way towards achieving your goal:A series of 'good' photos, by which I mean images that are reasonably sharp, have a nice composition (e.g. on the rule of thirds), good tonal range with no blown highlights or shadows, nice light and are noise free and sharpened, is not going to be enough. But what is it that takes an image, or a series of images, from good to great and potentially award-winning?
- Objectively aesthetically attractive or fascinating
- Original composition (not only on the third)
- Light source that brings some sense of drama or beauty
- Good tonal range: has a harmony and balance that looks natural and pleasing to the human eye
- Perfect post-processing, preferably noise free, sharpened and focuses attention on the subject; and
- tells a story.
If you do enter and you don't get short-listed, don't let it get you down. No-one pops out of the womb taking award-winning photos. Never give up. In the words of Samuel Beckett, "Fail, fail again. Fail better."
Identify your Subjects
Deciding how to capture your subject will have a big effect on how the judges receive and interpret your entry especially when entering a series or body of work. I believe some of the strongest images are often simplistic in terms of compositional value and subject matter - less is often more, or at least more than enough to engage an audience.
You want to make the judging panel feel your image as well as see it. The best piece of advice I received when I was starting out in photography was by a fellow travel shooter who said to me “don’t show me what you saw, show me how you saw it.”
Those words have stuck in the back of my mind whenever I’m out shooting. Once you’ve identified your interests you’ll have a better understanding of how you will want to highlight your subject. Think about ordinary subjects captured in an interesting way or something unique, emotive and captivating photographed with feeling and mood.
Read the Terms and Conditions
This may seem obvious but whenever I judge a photo contest there are always entrants whose entries don’t comply with the rules which makes me question if they had even bothered to read the fine print.
To win the contest or even place second and third, you must of course enter images with all of the relevant information. Photographers who don’t read or miss important parts about the rules will without doubt dramatically decrease their chances of even having their work seen by the judging panel. These guidelines are there to ensure that you understand in full what is required from you.
Some critical things to pay close attention to when submitting your entries include:
- Resizing correctly as specified, both in terms of pixels and megabytes
- Image manipulation and enhancements are a big one as some contests only allow you to adjust the colour balance and exposure, crop dimensions. Others may permit full alteration to the original work and then some may not allow any adjustment to the files.
- Formatting your images - do they accept PEG or TIFF? How do they want your submission? Digitally or in print?
- The number of entries permitted per entrant? If you don’t read this one you may end up wasting money on entries.
- Does the contest have a specific theme? If so, stick to it.
- Are you eligible to enter the contest (i.e. are there age or location restrictions?)
- Is there a specific period that the images entered must be taken? Check the date and make sure your images are allowed.
Research the Contest
An effective way to strengthen your chances when entering a photo contest is by researching each contest you enter beforehand. with Photographer of the Year, you can check out who the previous winners were and what their entries looked like. Not only will this give you greater insight into what the contest is about, it will also give you a better idea how to prepare your entries to make sure you’re submitting original work to wow the judges.
Also, I recommend looking up each of the judges to see what type of work they do themselves. Learning about the panel will help you determine each of their specialities. I also recommend not to enter work too similar to the judges as it won’t necessarily excite them as they’ve seen it before - show them something new to really start a conversation among the panel.
Most of the categories in Photographer of the Year are seeking bodies of work that document or tell a story. This is a great chance for you to really show your originality and express yourself to a wider audience. These categories will look for images that work cohesively together, which is what the judges will be looking to see.
Form a Narrative / Enter a Series
A series of images emphasise several ideas, whereas a single image usually emphasises just one idea. Keep in mind that the first and last images in a series are the most important. These are called ‘goal images’ – the type of images that open and close the series to grab a viewer’s attention. It’s no different from judging a book by its cover – a strong opening shot will stop people and hold them in the story from start to finish. Don’t forget to include captions to inform the judges about each image.
Note, captions should help the jury understand what’s happening in each frame, but know a caption won’t help make a weak image stronger. Again, research is key, Google documentary photographers or watch some films to study how each frame flows to tell the bigger picture.
Don't Give Up
Not every person who enters can win. Whatever happens, don’t give up. Of course, it’s a great feeling to win a photography contest, or even just making shortlist is great, but don’t let it dishearten you if you don’t make the cut. Even the best photographers lose. Take each competition as an opportunity to grow and better yourself as a photographer.
You’ll gain and take away knowledge from each contest, which is valuable in itself for improving yourself for the next time you enter a competition. Gaining exposure and receiving feedback is actually one of the greatest rewards you can ask for as an artist. Continue making photographs and entering, who knows what is to come. Remember to have fun and enjoy the highs and the lows - use it to your advantage and you’ll do just fine.
The 2020 Photographer of the Year presented by Nokia is open now. You can enter here.