Photography Competitions. Everyone has an opinion but exactly what is it like to be a judge and faced with a wall of images? Well I thought I would give it a go and it’s had some interesting outcomes and benefits…

Amateur Photographer Magazine has just launched it’s annual Amateur Photographer Of The Year competition again. It’s a very popular one, has some pretty nice prizes and it’s still free to enter which in itself is something of a rarity these days. This year instead of being an email submission, AP have embraced the Photocrowd platform and are using it to front the competition in something of a more transparent and modern format. Now I’m not the biggest fan of Photocrowd for various reasons but one thing it allows everyone to be is a judge which opens up some interesting possibilities so I signed up again and dived in.

I expect most people judge the default first 30 images and then you can opt out at this point. This morning I decided to go a lot deeper now the first round of AP’s competition has closed and set myself a target of rating no less than 1000 images. This round of the competition appears to have attracted just over 4000 photographs so even with what felt like a huge mountain to climb, I had still only seen 25% of the entrants. By the end of the process I already felt the judges pain and it has given me a much greater respect for their role but critically what matters. I went through several layers of emotions whilst going through this process from shock, boredom and disappointment to amazement, enlightenment and surprise but there were lessons which formed very quickly in my mind in this one session which I thought worthy of sharing anyway:

  • Straight Horizons please
    Now I’ve seen this on the Take A View website high up in the ‘tips’ section but generally you’d think this would only apply to a handful of images. Oh dear, there are literally a huge number of images that are just sloppy, lack thought and made me wonder why they even bothered to enter the competition. Love your work, raise the bar and banish sloppiness because guess what it’s never EVER going to win and you’re just going to annoy everyone that sees it.
  • Follow The rules
    This was a monochrome competition. Don’t enter full colour images. Obvious? Apparently not.
  • A monochrome round is full of zebras
    Seeing 1000 images made me realise how ‘group think’ works. “A zebra is black and white, I’ll enter one of those”. So if you want to stand out from the crowd, try not to literally pick the one obvious black and white animal on the planet maybe?
  • Stop photographing famous landmarks
    This is hard for landscape photographers the world over. The land is pretty static but does at least change with the seasons, weather and light of course. If you’re going to enter an image of a well known landmark in a photography competition your image doesn’t just have to be head and shoulders better than the others, it has to be absolutely spectacular to stand out and say something different. How likely is it that yours is going to do that? As a landscape photographer first and foremost I try and avoid photographing places people will immediately recognise. I have a theory why this is important too; when someone sees a familiar landmark they revert to their memory of what they’ve seen before rather than your image of it. As a consequence the viewer is unlikely to pay much if any attention at all to your version of it. It therefore fails to impress, especially if someone has seen a much ‘better’ view of that same place before. Think again.
  • Photograph something people don’t usually see
    Just as I said above really, but shapes, abstracts and patterns work very well in monochrome. Unfortunately hardly anyone entered any.
  • Use narrow depth of field occasionally
    To my surprise there was very little play on a narrow depth of field in any of the images I saw. Most photographers seem to have their lenses set to f/8 and because of that the ‘all in focus’ view becomes incredibly dull in a block of images. After image number 648 I was longing for a different viewpoint. I’ll be getting out my f/1.4 and f/2 lenses again.
  • Almost everything was freeze frame
    The Big Stopper might have been derided for a long time but when it comes to even 1000 images in a mono competition I saw a tiny number which considered the merits of longer exposures. A big surprise. This means that the long exposure images really stood out as something different. Maybe popularity for long exposure has fallen or was bullied into near non-existence but it was very much absent from this competition round.
  • It’s STILL all about the light
    I got frustrated by seeing some nice scenes but which didn’t consider the available light at all. Why bother? Flat images, no tonal range, no use of shadow, no whites, not enough blacks, just boring. People have been reading far too much that you must have ‘detail in the shadows’ – it’s a flawed policy.
  • Misty trees were under-represented
    Good news! They haven’t become a total cliche yet. It seems most people are not up early enough to photograph them.
  • Taking advantage of back-lit subjects
    One of my favourite modes of photographing this and again, almost absent from this particular competition. The chance for dramatic light rarely considered it seems.
  • The non composition
    Maybe I should stop now but once again, just photographing something without considering what should be in or out of the frame, what is the purpose of the frame, what is it that the viewer is intended to see, is a total waste of time.
  • Very little ‘creative’ photography
    Alas almost no one embraced what I would regard as a more creative technique or viewpoint. 90% of images taken at f/8, at eye level, freeze frame, in flat light, and a literal representation of what’s in front of them. Come on you can do better than this!
  • Image Blindness
    In the end I saw the same image over and over. Or did I? In many respects a monochrome competition is worse for this because there is of course no variation in colour to help set a mood. Another reason why your photograph has to be spectacular to stand out. Subtleties are often lost too it has to be said – making a bold impact is certainly guaranteed to get you noticed though I would not condone this as a block approach by any means.

Conclusions…

This was a VERY worthwhile if incredibly painful experience this morning. I’ve gained an important insight into everything from what constitutes ‘group think’ to what is a genuinely stand-out image, how image blindness plays a part and why composition and light is everything.

I’ll leave you with one final scenario to consider on this topic. Someone on Twitter recently created a poll titled ‘Snail Race’. He did it by adding four identical icons of snails labelled A, B, C & D. The instructions were ‘Pick one and then retweet’. I picked C. So did the vast majority. You want to understand humans and ‘group think’, then explain that one to me, but I think it speaks volumes about who we are and how we think we’re individually being clever, but rarely are.

Here’s some monochrome images I didn’t enter just because…