Photographic Competitions and Stacking the Deck

Photography competitions are somewhat of a game of chance. Winning entries are as they say; ‘all in the eye of the beholder’. There is absolutely no guarantee that the best image entered into a competition will win and every chance something unexpected or even banal and cliché will rise to the top to claim the crown. Art is after all subjective.

Before I dive into how best to increase your odds of winning or placing in a photographic competition, I think it is worth taking a moment to discuss why you should enter any photographic competition. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons you could (or would not) enter, but I believe one of the best (outside of supporting the organisation running the event) is to forget the competition against your peers and instead enter to compete against yourself. In other words, enter regularly and use competition as a yard stick to improve your photographic skills. If you use your last ‘score’ as a measurement you then have a good foundation from which to build on for your future entries. Using competitions as a learning tool can be a fantastic way to improve your photography. Just keep in mind photographic competitions are subjective and try not to get too emotional about your performance (easier said than done).

I have been entering photographic competitions on and off for more than a decade and I have learned to accept that every entry is in effect a lottery. Despite this gamble, if you are keen to enter a photographic competition, you can actually stack the deck in your favour in a number of different ways.

The first and most obvious way to give yourself the greatest chance of winning or placing is to play the numbers and enter the maximum number of entries allowed in a given category. Almost all competitions have a maximum number of entries allowed per person, per category. The more entries, the more chance that one of your photographs performs exceptionally well. Of course, most photographic competitions charge per entry so the more images you enter, the higher your financial commitment. In many ways entering photographic competitions is a bit of a numbers game. You need a photograph that peaks the interest of the judges; the more photographs you enter, the more chance you have that one of those photographs will appeal to the judges. It isn’t very pretty or scientific, but playing the numbers is a hard reality of any competition.

The second way to stack the deck in your favour is to read the category description extremely carefully a number of times. The category description will very often describe exactly what the judges are looking for. On occasion, the category title can also give you clues as to the type of images you should consider entering.  If the category description is describing the sort of photographs the judges are looking for as being unique, unusual and distinct then don’t enter a standard head and shoulders portrait of a lion no matter how good you believe it may be. Rather, choose photographs that you feel best meet the category description. By the same token, if the category title is ‘Animals in their Environment’ for example then make sure your entries provide a real sense of the environment in which the animal lives. If the category title is ‘Animal Behaviour’ then be sure to choose photographs that depict unusual and interesting behaviour. You have to keep in mind the judges are going to be looking at hundreds (and possibly thousands) of different entries. You need to meet the brief and stand out from the crowd. You would be amazed how many entries judges see in the varying categories that do not even come close to matching the category description. Such images are inevitably immediately discarded.

The third way to stack the deck in your favour is to spend some time researching the judges for the category you are choosing to enter. Have a look at their websites and get a feeling for the sort of style of photography they prefer. Do a little digging into their photographic history and see if you can find out how much experience they have in the genre you are choosing to enter. You can learn a lot about the sort of photographs that peak a judges pleasure nerve by simply looking at their own website and photographs. I have on occasion based my decision on wether to enter a competition or not solely on the judges that were adjudicating the photographs. Ideally, you are looking for a match between your style of photograph and the judges preferred style. If I consider a particular judge to be very inexperienced I will also most likely choose not to enter. Inexperienced judges are the most likely to fall for the cliché image since they have negligible experience to draw on.

You also need to keep in mind that often (not always) the chosen judges will be very experienced in their field and category. There is a fair chance that they will have seen something similar to most entries before and as such are likely to quickly move onto the next image as they search for something extraordinary. You often have only a second or two to grab the judges attention with your image before they push it aside and move onto the next one. Remember, they are often judging hundreds and possibly thousands of photographs. You are unlikely to get more than a few seconds before the judge or judges move onto the next photograph. You have to make those precious seconds count by giving the judges something unexpected and extraordinary to make them stop and really consider the photograph. A well considered entry will make the judges stop dead in their tracks because they will want to absorb the extraordinary.

Understanding the mind set of judges and the role they play in judging photographic competitions  is a key element to success with your entries. Try and put yourself in the judges shoes and ask yourself the tough questions about your entries in a truly objective and direct manner. Is it really a good photograph? Does it say something unique and/or extraordinary about the subject and/or environment? Does it meet the category criteria? Are the judges likely to have seen something similar before? You have to be brutally honest with your answers and with yourself. Remember, just because you may have travelled half way around the planet and sat in the mud and rain for three weeks does not make it a good photograph. The equipment you used to take the photograph, how much it cost you financially and how much you may have suffered during the process are completely irrelevant. The skill of detaching yourself emotionally from your own work is key to recognising wether a photograph is successful or not. These are never easy questions to answer, since personal objectivity of ones own art will always remain out of reach for the vast majority. We are flawed as human beings in that we often seem unable to look past our own creations and see them for what they truly are – mediocre photographs. Ego has much to answer for in the art world.

The fourth way to stack the deck is to spend some time looking at previous winning and placing entries in your category of choice. Spending even a few moments looking at the past winners will give you a really strong indication of the type and style of photograph that does well in your chosen category and competition. Once you understand the sort of photograph that does well then go with the flow and try and choose images that you feel will appeal to the judges based on past performers. You don’t want to emulate a previous winner, but you do want to examine the style of the photograph that won and understand that this may be the preferred style of the judges and competition.

It also helps to understand the different styles of photography within a given genre around the world. If we look at the American competition Nature’s Best Photography as an example then we can see from past winners that the sort of photographs that tend to do really well are those with exceptionally clean backgrounds, pin sharp subject with really fantastic subjection isolation. Winners are almost always completely free of any image grain and there is rarely any use of slow shutter speeds. By contrast most of the Scandinavian and Nordic competitions winning photographs often consist of slow shutter speed images that include a lot of motion blur in the subject that may have been captured in near darkness at high ISO. One is often left with  a hint of the subject in this style of photograph, rather than being presented with the subject being pin sharp and well isolated from its background. One style is not necessarily better than the other, but it is important to understand what type does well in a given competition and choose your entries accordingly.

Some photographic competitions will have strong political motivations for a particular type of winning image or subject. These political motivations are often undisclosed to entrants, but it is important to recognise that they do exist and that there is usually little you can do about them. Perhaps the competition organisers are specifically looking for a Polar Bear on an iceberg or a Blue Whale (anything is possible); the point is that someone behind the scenes controlling the competition wants to see a certain subject on the podium to further a political motivation. Perhaps its World Polar Bear year and the organisers want to ensure a polar bear wins in order to better market the following years competition. I have in the past been asked by a competition organiser to make sure a certain subject was the winner. I respectfully bowed out as a judge at this request as I have no desire to have my judging influenced or be part of any political motivation. Likewise, I know of a major competition that briefed its judges one year that ‘no polar bear image’ was to win this year. Like it or loathe it, there is little an entrant can do to uncover any political motivation behind the judging of a photographic competition. Just recognise, that not all competitions are run squeaky clean. Sometimes, no matter what happens, the elephant in the room is not going to win. Or vice versa.

Lastly, it is important to focus your entries in a given direction and to avoid the splatter gun approach of entering multiple categories with single images. You are far better served maximising your entries in one category and really focusing (pardon the pun) your efforts in that one direction. Entering single images in multiple categories is a recipe for ongoing disappointment. Remember, you need to give the judges multiple images to choose from in a given category in case your favourite doesn’t make the cut. It might surprise you how often my preferred photograph has performed less well than one of the others I entered into the same category. To this end I always stack my chosen category and avoid other categories.

Finally, remember to have fun during the process of entering photographic competitions. Competing in a competition can be a fantastic learning experience if you take the time to educate yourself along the way. Competitions can also expose you to some truly remarkable photography that you might have otherwise missed. Remember, the best approach is to compete against yourself and educate yourself whilst enjoying the process.

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