Common Sense Guide to Photo Competition

by Marty Feins

PSA Journal, May, 1991

Why do we enter photographs in competitions? Are we looking for awards, recognition and the excitement of being a winner? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are missing the whole purpose as to why your club sets up competitions and judging.

The purpose of a competition is primarily to see if your photography is improving, to learn how the judge thinks you can improve your particular photograph and to observe and learn from the comments he or she gives fellow photographers in the competition. Remember, a competition is primarily a learning experience.

Good photography is not too hard to achieve, great photography, however, takes a lot more effort. If you want to be a great photographer, you must ask yourself, “Am I willing to really work at it and learn how to take better pictures?” If your answer is “yes” then there is no better time to start learning how to take a better picture than right now. You should understand something very important, when you submit a photograph to a judging: you are saying to the judge essentially, “this is my best; I can do no better.” Is this a truism, though? It is not if you honestly believe it can be improved. Yes, it is nice to win awards and to gain recognition for your work, but is it not nicer to improve?

When your print is critiqued, try to remake, crop, tint or redo your photograph in the style suggested by the judge.  After you have accomplished this compare both photographs and see if you have had a learning experience. If you have, then competition is for you. It is not even necessary to wait for a judging competition. Aren’t there already members in your own club whom you respect for their knowledge and ability? Take advantage of their wisdom. You would be surprised how quickly they would offer you help and guidance and gladly share their skills.

Here are some things to look for in your photographic entries. First of all show Impact. Grab the viewer’s attention, stop him, make him go “ah“ and make every effort to avoid distracting elements which are in front, to the side, or behind the main subject.

Next, use Creativity. Make the viewer think and make him wonder how you achieved your photographic image. Remember, photography is a recognized art, be an artist, Use Artistic Ability. Show good use of balance, composition, color, cropping, and logical use of space. Use the full scale of the film to achieve the proper contrast. If you send your prints to a commercial lab, use a good one; one which will crop and give your print the color effect you want. Make the lab technician redo your print until it is done the way you would like it if you were printing it. Poor print quality from a lab is no excuse to a judge. It will cost you points.

Know your picture’s Center of Interest. Find an eye catching point, then lead the viewer’s eye throughout the picture, hold his attention and exclude any lines that might lead the viewer’s eye out of the photograph.

Lighting, whether natural or manmade, should look realistic. Avoid the snapshot camera flash look. Make light work for you. Use reflectors. Even a handheld newspaper can fill-in shadow details.

Know and make good use of State of the Art Techniques. Tools like the montage, sandwich, dyes or pencil or whatever other skills you have mastered can greatly improve your picture. However, use these techniques discreetly. Use them only if they help the photograph, not just to show you know how to do them. Also make the viewer wonder how you achieved your photo image.

Your choice of Subject Matter should be appealing, arouse emotion and set a mood. Your subject should be shown to its greatest advantage, with nothing to disconcert the feeling you want. Your picture should also Make A Statement. It should tell a story, give a message or make the viewer think propaganda .

Last, but not least:  Presentation. Use proper mounting, clean cut masks, and the proper type of mounting board. Use step-off mounting on prints, judicious use of spotting and print correction, clean boards and so on. Use good judgment and be proud of what you do by your efforts. Everything you do poorly in presentation of your work will cost you points. A great photograph presented carelessly will cost you. Remember photography is a recognized art, be an artist.

When photographing for assignment competitions study the competition’s idea thoroughly. In photographing People Portraits if the subject is a portrait (a person), they should be either pleasant to look at (photogenic) or unusually interesting (character study). If the subject is of an active sport, the subject must be doing his or her sport activity. When photographing Animals, use nice looking healthy animals, (creatures, bugs, etc.), but have them doing more than just looking at the camera. As for capturing Abstracts on film, use strong designs, patterns, textures, have a definite point of interest and keep the viewer’s eyes into the photograph.

All of the above, however, should just be considered suggestions. Use your imagination, look and listen, but most of all work at it and make your next entry a “10.”