I’ve been wondering lately about the value of entering photography contests. Like most photographers, professional and amateur alike, I’ve entered a few contests. And, when the results get announced, I see two things amongst the winners: some stunning photos, and some photos that make me wonder what the judges were thinking. So, I started weighing the pros and cons of entering contests. I’ll start with the cons.
The first con is that judging photography, as with any art, is inherently subjective. Granted, some photographers will enter mediocre photos, and their work will get eliminated. But, some amazing photos will get eliminated simply on the basis of the judges’ tastes. Maybe they don’t like the subject matter. Or, they don’t understand the perspective the photographer conveyed in the image. Some will dislike images that are too conventional, or too unconventional for that matter. Just as one might look at a Picasso and a Van Gogh, and prefer one over the other based on purely subjective value, knowing the greatness of both painters, a photography judge will look at two equally good photos, and prefer one over the other based simply on personal stylistic preferences.
The second con is inherent bias, which interrelates with subjectivity. Any judge, or contest, has a bias built into its judging. The organization that runs a contest might not realize the bias exists, but, in almost every case, the bias colors the results. For example, I’ve entered an annual contest run by the local chapter of a well-known conservation group. The judges pick 250 “Highly Commended” images. Of those 250 images, ten are awarded cash prizes – one Grand Prize, four First Place, and five Second Place winners. Not placing in the top 250 in either year, even though I entered several photos each year which I selected as my best wildlife photos of the previous year, I began to analyze the common denominator in the winning photos and the commended photos. I found a bias towards exotic subjects, specifically those not found in the continental United States. I don’t know how many photos got entered into the contest, or the breakdown of subjects. But, I could look at the winners. For the last two years, seven out of the top ten came from outside the U.S. And, for the most recent year, a little over 41% of the top 250 came from abroad, and over 7% came from Alaska (which I consider a semi-exotic location for most of us). So, the contest appears to be biased towards those with the resources to take photo safari trips to foreign lands. Without a little data analysis, I wouldn’t have found the bias in contest.
The third con is expense. Contests require entry fees in order to fund the prizes. But, organizations also use contests to raise funds for their own work. This means that most entrants will put money into the contest, and get none out, similar to a lottery. A few photographers and the organization running the contest benefit at the expense of most of the entrants.
The first pro of photography contest is that it gets us out photographing the world. And, as with anything else, the more we do something, the better we get at it.
Secondly in the pro column is that contests make us better self-editors. One of the biggest challenges in photography is culling the best of our own work from the good and mediocre images that we create. In order to enter contests, we need to develop the skill of really examining our own work, and getting an eye for what works best in our images.
Ultimately, we must all decide for ourselves whether contests are worth entering, based on how much experience we gain from entering them.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I come up with a photograph that I want to love, that I need to love, but I can’t. Usually, it’s because something went wrong technically with the photo. For instance, I recently captured a Bighorn ram staring straight into the camera with a menacing look. The composition was just what I wanted; the exposure was perfect. But, the depth of field was too shallow; the eyes were in focus, but the rest of the head and body were just a little out of focus, just enough to bother me. My question to myself was what to do with an almost acceptable image.
The initial image looked like this:
An idea came to me when I read my photo club’s monthly newsletter. The club does a monthly theme for their meetings, and the upcoming theme was “Wildlife Abstracts.” I haven’t done a lot with the various artistic filters in Photoshop, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. After a few tries with different filters, I settled on the Crystallize filter, resulting in this image:
While our first inclination is to make our images as realistic as possible, let’s keep in mind that we can create art based on photos that isn’t photorealistic. Try new things. Try new ways of processing images. See if something new can become part of your stylistic repertoire.
Photographers, like any other business people, have one asset that surpasses all others: our reputation. Yes, we have our gear, we have our skills, and we have our sparkling personalities. But, ultimately, reputation trumps everything else.
This came to mind recently because of a phone call I received. A local bagel/sandwich shop keeps a bulletin board for business cards. I, of course, posted a few of mine next to the plumbers’ and realtors’ cards. I generally get little return for this sort of advertising, but it doesn’t cost much to leave a few cards around. One person who found my card there called me, not to use my photographic services, but rather to pitch me on a Multi-Level Marketing business.
The caller, Mrs. X, started asking me whether I did party photography. I told her that I certainly do parties; I thought inquiries into price and availability would be the next questions. Instead, Mrs. X began asking about what other type of photography I do. I told her about my wedding and portrait work, as well as my personal nature and wildlife photography. Mrs. X didn’t seem to be getting to the direct questions that I’ve come to expect from a potential customer, so I asked if she had an event in mind.
That’s when the conversation took a turn that would affect my reputation. Mrs. X told me that she and her husband were starting a business venture, and were looking for three or four key partners to join them. They wanted to meet with me for an hour or so at my convenience to discuss the proposition. She wouldn’t, however, tell me about the nature of the business over the phone. This sounded just like the phone calls I used to receive in late 80s and early 90s when friends wanted to pitch Amway to me. I have nothing against Amway as a company, but my friends all wanted to build their down-stream networks, and didn’t have any interest in the hard work of selling soap. Needless to say, none of my friends made money, or stayed with Amway.
I gathered from Mrs. X’s cryptic comments that she wanted me to use party or wedding guests as potential customers for her business, even though she wouldn’t directly come out and tell me that it was a Multi-Level Marketing operation. It would devastate my photography business if I were to sell Amway, or any other MLM product, during a photography job. My clients pay me to take, and deliver, images, not to spend time during their events selling soap to their friends. When working an event, I have two interrelated jobs: create images, and interact with my subjects. Better interaction begets better images. Selling an MLM while taking photos would create tension with my subjects, and would detrimentally affect the number and quality of the images I could capture.
This holds true for any professional. Just imagine sitting in your lawyer’s office, discussing changes to your will. If she tried to sell you on the dog-washing business she did on weekends, you’d quickly gather up your documents, and promptly sign up for an online legal service instead.
Our various business lines must complement – not compete – with each other in order to preserve our reputations. That’s why so many photographers have interrelated businesses, such as doing photography classes or trips along with capturing images. I fully understand that many photographers do, however, hold down day jobs unrelated to their image work. But, we generally keep those compartmentalized; we do our day job, and then when we do our photography, we commit fully to that work. Let’s make sure that we always sell ourselves, not soap.
What differentiates an average, or even mediocre, photo from a great image? A great camera? A high megapixel sensor? The fame or notoriety of the photographer?
No. None of those things. The two most important aspects of a great image are a well-defined subject, and viewer engagement. That assumes the photographer has a decent grasp of the technical basics. A poorly focused image will lose its impact, regardless of the subject and engagement value.
An image creator can use several techniques to define the subject, such as depth of field, contrast, and, to a lesser extent, vignetting. Using a shallow depth of field is effective because an in-focus subject against an out-of-focus background will automatically stand out.
Contrast can mean either physical contrast, such as color contrast, such as a person in blue clothes against a red wall, or a brightly colored flower or plant growing out of a crack in gray concrete. Or it can mean metaphorical contrast, such as a lone woman standing amongst a crowd of men.
Vignetting can be effective, but it tends to be overused. Simply put, a vignette is a post-processing technique in which the outer edges of a photo are darkened, leaving the subject in a brighter oval in the middle of the photo. Without an image, it would look like this:
With an image, it looks like this:
The images that work best with vignetting are portraits, wedding photos, and photos simulating an old-time feel, such as those emulating photos of the Old West. Otherwise, if the subject is well-handled, vignetting comes across as a little heavy handed.
Viewer engagement can be a little trickier. The subject itself can be of more interest to some viewers than others. And, considering that the media inundates us with images, good and bad, all day, some viewers might not take the time to really look at a good photo. But, a good photographer can make any subject more interesting; an image of a common coin or a brick can be interesting if handled well.
The best starting point for engaging viewers is to pay close attention to the rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, the rule of odds, etc. And, I use “rule” here loosely. I consider these rules as good starting points, almost as if they were “strong suggestions,” rather than “rules.”
Another aspect of engagement is angle of view. If the subject is an animal, or human, try to go for an eye-level shot, if possible. As viewers, we get drawn into the eyes of the creature, regardless of the species. So, if your subject is a child, take the shots from the ground, or a seated position – whatever it takes to get your camera at the level of the child’s eyes. If you’re taking pictures of ducks on a pond, get dirty, and get down on the ground to get to the duck’s level.
If the subject is small, such as flower, get close. Fill as much of the frame as possible with that flower. Leave no question in the mind of your viewer that the rose, or iris, or petunia is the subject of your image.
A well-defined subject and viewer engagement are interrelated concepts. You can’t have one without the other. And, when you have both, you have a good, or even great, image.
As photographers, we need to compete strongly. But, not as one might think, against other professional photographers, but with the guests at the events our clients pay us to shoot. And, that competition is fierce.
Since the dawn of easily loadable, portable cameras, professional photographers have had to understand that guests will bring their cameras, and some will take exceptionally good shots. In the film days, the guests might have brought anything from a 110mm instamatic, to a high-end SLR. Now, every guest has the equivalent of an instamatic in their pocket or purse in the form of a smart phone. Some will even bring a dedicated camera, like a micro four-thirds, or a DSLR. Any of these cameras is capable of capturing a good shot in the hands of a skilled user. And the users, skilled or not, can be in more places than us, and post to social media more quickly. In order to give the most value to our clients, we need to provide exceptional service.
This last summer, I attended a wedding as a guest. Naturally, I brought one of my DSLRs with me. Another guest, a relative by marriage, “Kay,” also brought her DSLR. Kay is a talented photographer in her own right; she and I spent a good portion of the reception shooting the event together. Much of the reception action took place in a large, open-sided tent. Some of the other guests were putting on an impromptu hip-hop performance; the paid photographer was nowhere to be seen. Kay and I even got shots of the first dance before the paid photographer and his assistant got to the dance floor in that tent. We were, however, respectful, and keeping out of the way of the official photographer and his assistant.
My wife, observing some of our photography, related to me later that the paid pro was giving Kay and me dirty looks as we took photos from the sidelines. So, instead of just stepping up his game and getting better shots by virtue of being the lead shooter, this pro appeared to harbor animosity towards us guests who were having fun with our cameras. I speculate, but cannot prove, that we threatened his sense of his own value. We were clearly getting good shots, and being attentive to our subjects, who were even hamming up and responding to us. And, we would be able to post our shots quickly – maybe not that night, but certainly within a day or so – probably quicker than the pro and his staff.
So, what can we do about the guests shoot at events? First of all we shouldn’t get threatened by them. We can do a few positive things:
· Observe where the guests are taking shots. They can lead us to the most interesting action. Either go there, or send the second shooter
· Be responsive. Post a few shots on social media quickly. Our clients know that there’s no magic in processing images that keep us from providing, or posting, images within a day or so of the event
· Get as much of the prepared shot list completed before the wedding. That’ll free you and your assistant to shoot the improvised and candid shots during the reception
Remember, we are at an event to get shots, not to worry about what shots others are getting. Let’s shoot even better images than the guests.
Up until a few years ago, the business model for photographers was pretty straightforward: charge for the actual shooting time at a wedding or portrait session, and make more money on the prints. The photographer would usually retain the negatives (yes, children, photography once used film) in order to control the revenue flow from the prints. Today, we can’t rely on that model because our clients consume images in an entirely different way.
When my wife and I married in the late ‘90s, our photographer’s end product was the album containing all the photos that he shot during the ceremony and reception. He was an exceptional photographer, and he did business in an exceptional way: he also gave us the negatives. Back then, that was truly rare. He must have realized that he had made his money from the event, and didn’t want to incur the cost and risk of storing our negatives. Most photographers back then expected to see revenue from print sales. In our case, our photographer made the correct choice, since we haven’t felt the need to make more prints.
At that time – the old days of the late Twentieth Century – the Internet was just starting to take off. Many people weren’t online, and not everyone had an email account. Social media wasn’t even a thing yet. The world has changed since then. About ¾ of the U.S. population has Internet access, and statistically, about 74% of those people use some form of social media. And, that is where the average photography customer wants to use images. They don’t want an album of prints moldering in their closet, unseen by their friends.
As photographers, we need to sell our clients something they will use. Just as none of us has a carousel of vacation slides that we pull out and project on the wall when friends come over, none of us pulls out the wedding album. If we show our photos to friends, we do so using our phones or tablets. Instead of a bunch of prints hanging on the wall, or in the cubicle at work, they have digital frames giving a perpetual slideshow of their wedding images, plus vacation photos and other images. The idea of making money on prints has passed.