Photographer of the Year: What it takes to win
The first thing you have to ask yourself when entering a competition like Photographer of the Year is “What am I going to submit?”
This can, in itself, cause lots of angst. We all know how hard it can be to be critical of our own images and, after all, image selection is one of the major elements you are being judged on.
I have been editing images for exhibitions, portfolios and websites for 20 years now, and have spent much of that time judging competitions. I know how hard it can be, so I am hoping by reading these few tips, I can help guide you through how best to prepare and then enter a photography competition like Photographer of the Year.
1) Read the terms
Firstly it is imperative that you understand the conditions of the competition. That is everything from image size, number of images and theme. I realise some of this sounds very straightforward, but I can’t tell you the number of competitions I have judged where entrants have not fulfilled these criteria.
Competitions are not only a test of your photography skills, but also a test of your ability to understand a brief. Rules are therefore the number one thing on your checklist you need to be following and ticking off without fail.
For example, an excellent body of work will be let down in marking if three of the images are the same size and fourth is a different size. It shows no attention to detail, a lack of professionalism and could easily cost you a place.
2) Show us what you're made of
Now what to put in? My best advice is not to try and think of what the judges want, but rather to show us what you are made of. Originality in your work and showing personality is the key.
Your personality and how you see things, is the only point of difference you have to another entrant. You must learn how to show self-confidence here and remember that different is good. Don’t try to emulate a past photographer’s work you have seen, but rather put you own spin on theme and images, either in subject matter, composition or technique.
3) Be consistent
Consistency in the images is a crucial factor in the selection process. Don’t for a minute think you can put the four best images you have shot over the last twelve months if there is no thread or story to them. Your images need to be able to interact with each other.
Also don’t put three fabulous images in from one story and then go and add another that has no meaning to the previous three. I see this happen all the time and it really makes me want to cry!
Think clearly, look at the series and make sure there is a theme or connection across the entire set.
4) Have a story structure
Ebb and flow in a story is particularly what I look for. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end. For me, the best way to make sure you are telling your story is to print out the work and lay it on the floor - then just look at it. Take your time and pick the image that starts the story. For example a portrait of dancer on stage, then two shots of her/him dancing, both unique and different to each other but linked by theme or colour palette; then the last image of the dancer taking a bow.
This clearly has a flow the judges can understand, shows us you have thought the process through, and most importantly not just put up four random shots of dancers that have no connection.
5) Edit your work consistently...
Technique and treatment of the images is hugely important. What kind of lighting are you using, for instance? Is it all natural light, or all lit in a studio? Are you using a tilt shift lens, are you using certain post-production techniques (if allowed), and what is the central colour theme/ pallet to the story?
This needs to be planned carefully and thoughtfully. What we need to remember is taking the photo is the easy part, but showing preparation and understanding of what you are shooting is the key. If you are using different techniques in the four images, you need to ask why. And how does it work in the story telling? It could work, for example, if you were shooting a day in the life of a school girl, one: morning in bed; two: school room; three: after school sport; and four: night time.
Whilst the lighting will vary in all of these images, there is a reason for this - some are indoors and at different times of the day. This can work if successfully planned out and, of course, the content and composition is strong.
6)...including your composition...
Composition of each image is also important, and not just for two or three of your images. They all need to have been planned and thought out. Are all the images in focus where they are meant to be? Have they been cropped in a way that not only enhances the image, but compliments the series? Has the best lighting technique been used in all of them?
Understanding what makes a good composition in an image is critical, not only for competitions but right across your photography. Don’t over-complicate an image, keep the key elements simple. This is especially important in putting a series together. Our eye needs to be able to move across the series effortlessly, and not work too hard to understand what is going on.
7)...and your image orientation
Personally, I think a series needs to have all of the elements I mentioned above, as well as being all of the same orientation. By this I mean all portrait or all landscape in shape. I’m constantly surprised when judging at seeing three images all portrait, then one tacked on the end as landscape.
Perhaps two of each could work (but for me it’s not ideal). Think about this at the point of planning your shoot. Always have an idea of the orientation and, if unsure, shoot both ways. This will help guide you when the time comes to choose your final images for submission.
8) Don't rush
Allow time. My strong advice is not to decide what to enter into a competition the day before. Give yourself time to a) try and shoot something specifically for the competition, or b) select a series you have been working on, lay them out in print form and look at them for a while.
Many series may be upwards of ten or twenty images, so being able to understand how to turn that into the best four images can take time. Be careful, though not to over-think it as it is a fine line. You may find you narrow it down to six or so images.
This is then a good time to bring in someone you trust has good judgment (probably not mum, dad or your partner), but rather someone who can be objective and give some good solid reasoning and feedback.
9) Reshoot if necessary
Do you need to do an additional shoot? Once you have selected your images, if your gut feeling is there is something missing, or that all of the elements in the series are not quite gelling, arrange a re-shoot. Don’t think about entering the series until you feel happy.
In your heart, regardless of how hard it can be to select the final four, you do know if the series works or not. You must remember that you are not present when the images are being judged to explain the meaning behind them. We are working from a blank canvas as a judge, and can only go with what is in front of us. We have our own interpretations of the story as well. So maximum impact is what we need to see, and a series that combines all I have spoken about above.
Being on theme, strong composition, a cohesive colour palette, a good ebb and flow in the series and, of course, individuality is what we will be looking for. If you need to re-shoot, do so with purpose: it will be worth it in the end.
10) Pat yourself on the back
I think entering competitions is a great way to build your confidence and to gain recognition. There are few things more exciting than seeing your images and name in print or online, and having that opportunity to do so by winning or even placing in competitions is amazing.
I see a lot of photographers that fall out of love with photography because they are often hooked into the world of shooting other people’s ideas. Competitions are the perfect way to release your imagination, have fun and create. Good luck!
About the author: Sally Brownbill stands at the forefront of the Australian photographic and creative industry. A trained commercial photographer, she is now one of Australia’s most highly respected creative intermediaries. A much sought-after judge, lecturer and keynote speaker, Sally has developed a professional reputation in Australia and overseas as the authoritative voice on folio construction, career advice and editing images for exhibition and web.
For more than 15 years, she has been running individual sessions with photographers and other creatives to guide them though image selection and career questions, along with being a great source of inspiration to help them reignite and realise their passion.
The 2022 Photographer of the Year presented by Camera House is open now. With $22,000 in cash and prizes for the winners and runners up, it is the largest competition for amateur photographers in the Southern Hemisphere. You can find out more about the competition here.
Cover image: 2020 finalist Mariana Zilbershteyn