Photographer of the Year: Capturing a winning portfolio (Part one)

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Like few other photo competitions, Photographer of the Year challenges image-makers to capture a series of cohesive images that tell a story and work together. 

To help you enter a winning portfolio, we asked a selection of finalists from last year's competition for their advice for what it takes to excel in this most prestigious of competitions, and to tell us a little more about their images.

Here's what they had to say.

Raphael Giraud, Animal & Nature category winner 2022, Flying over the desert 
Photographer of the Year 2022 Animal & Nature category winner: Raphael Giraud, Flying over the desert.
Raphael Giraud, Flying over the desert.
"Do something personal, you have to photograph something because you love it, not because you think it might be a good chance to win a competition.
When I took my shots of underwater creatures in Byron Bay, I never expected to win anything with it, I was just happy to go in the water and spend time observing the wildlife. 
For a good portfolio, the photos need to have a link between each others. I personally think it is better if the link has something to do with aesthetics.
For my winning entry, I chose four pictures that had a strong link between each other: they were all marine animals taken from above, and with a beautiful sand pattern underneath the animal.

But it could be something else: a specific angle, specific light, etc. The whole point is that the pictures have to work together to create a feeling of beauty."
Luke Mackenzie, Travel category runner-up 2022, Annapurna adventure
Photographer of the Year Travel category runner-up, Luke Mackenzie, Annapurna adventure.
Luke Mackenzie, Annapurna adventure.

"With my portfolio from last year, I tried to use the four photos to create more of a timeline storyboard of how my trip played out from start to end.

My thought process to choose these four images for my timeline was I needed to show more than just the nice landscapes of Nepal and more of the travel experience.

Therefore; the Jeep shows the journey, the monk showing the cultural side to the trip and the two landscape shots showing the change in scenery from start to finish. Bringing it all together to create that travel experience for the portfolio.

I think it's important people choose a subject/experience for their portfolio and stick with that. From there, look at your four chosen images, can they come together to tell a story? For a category like travel, a mixture of images - not all landscapes, not all portraits - will make your entry unique."

Black and white category runner-up 2022: Alan Coligado, Boxed irregularities
Photographer of the Year 2022 Black and White category runner-up: Alan Coligado, Boxed irregularities.
Alan Coligado, Boxed irregularities.

"Pick a theme that has personal meaning which goes deeper than what the images are of. I decided to photograph the same subject for my portfolio, but for me it really wasn't about the stairwell in the Museum of Sydney. 

By shooting the stairwell from different angles, then putting the images in perfectly symmetrical frames, I wanted to express my need to find order in chaos.

I think you should select at least six photos that you can mix and match until you find the four that work best as a set around your chosen theme. Think of it as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece (image) is distinctive on its own but fits in seamlessly with the others so that no one piece sticks out from the rest.

You need to aim for a consistent look - white balance, aspect ratio, exposure - when editing your selected photos.  For my portfolio, I deliberately chose a square format and high-key monochrome because I felt that this look supported what I wanted to express.

Finally, think of an appropriate, even creative, title for your portfolio which can serve as the ribbon that neatly ties the package together. I decided to call mine "Boxed Irregularities" to convey that I wanted to arrange these odd, irregular shapes into some semblance of order."

People category runner-up 2022: Udo Bucher, Mum
Photographer of the Year 2022 People category runner-up: Udo Bucher, Mum.
People category runner-up: Udo Bucher, Mum.

"I looked at this as an exercise in documentary photography, which brings two immediate benefits. The first is that it has to be a story, the second is it makes you think about what subject am I going to shoot. That’s a very important question!

A fellow photographer gave me good advice, namely the best project is often right under the photographers nose.  With that in mind it was obvious that my aging mother with severe spinal curvature would be a great subject.

I could shoot this story over the course of days, weeks, or months –  it was my choice.

Equipment was an easy and simple choice.  A fast crop frame DSLR with an f2.8 28-85mm equivalent zoom, and natural light.

She was a willing subject, but also uncertain about whether she’d be a good subject. I instinctively knew that I wanted to tell the story of her days - how did she fill her time and how did she deal with every day being the same? I wanted to convey her strength of character, her love, and intelligence. Throughout her life she was a strong, compassionate, giving, and beautiful woman.

Apart from one portrait, I asked her to ignore the camera and just go about her life as usual. My mum lived alone with her cat for company; a very close bond. She told me that at the end of the day her cat Saskia, would jump on her chest, stretch out and cuddle, and then fall asleep. 

I tried for a long time to get that shot, but not in time for the competition. I finally got it on the 1st of July. She passed away on the 18th after living her entire life at home. She passed peacefully, surrounded by family - now free of her crippled body.

To the outside world, the photos tell the story of a woman getting old with grace, love, and with dignity. It’s an informative story.

A major part of preparing for this competition was sequencing the images.  You need an introduction, a shot that sets the scene, a high point in the story, and a closing shot. Photos at the start and end can be used as bookends and need to be in harmony with one another, both visually and from a story perspective. 

With this project, my mum has helped me on my journey as a photographer.  I’m nearly finished my diploma at uni in Sydney.  I believe in pursuing knowledge, getting experience, and honing my skills - keeping the passion. I’ve found a good fit with people photography, but I’m not ready to pigeon-hole myself into one genre. 

Many professionals specialise in a main area – weddings, food, etc..  If you look back at some of the greats from the past such as Jeanloup Sief, Edward Steichen, and Irving Penn (known mainly for portraiture) we see they’ve done more than just fashion and people; although each has their personal style. 

But many of the greats are definitely in one main genre – Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson. Spending time looking at the masters from the past and present is an important part of developing as a photographer, and developing your own style. I hope to bring beautiful portraits and stories to the lives of a very large number of future clients."

Look out for more stories next week. 

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