I was recently a part of a group of photographers and judges in a photography competition. I am not a famous photographer but yet there are some people who value my opinion. It was quite an ego boost for me. I was one of the less-influential and quiet ones in the group, but I did notice a trend which I felt was an interesting topic to pen my thoughts about. What are the judges in these photography competitions looking for?
Every competition has rules and anything outside the rules does not even qualify. If the competition asks for a 2:3 format photograph then your beautiful panorama photograph is doomed to begin with. Rejections on these grounds are very common. Photographs get rejected due to non-compliance with rules. Study these and understand each word of it before participating in any photography competition. Timelines, photograph sizes, file formats etc matter a lot.
This is the first thing that every photography competition considers. Images which appear to be wrong technically are not even given a second look. These include photographs with obvious flaws like inadvertent camera shake, wrong daylight balance, high noise even in an otherwise normally lit scene, excessive cropping, obvious overuse of photo-editing, etc. Getting the image right technically is an understood thing. I have seen some really good photographs getting disqualified due to the technical problems.
Regardless of how much the photographers preach, almost all the good professionals are affected by an infection which I call the composition rules disease. This includes the judges too. Though everyone preaches to break the rules of composition once in a while but somehow in these photography competitions the judges knowingly or unknowingly find the photographs with the composition rules (or cliches as I like to call them), more attractive. Outside of these rules, photographs have to be really strong to show that breaking the rules actually helped in the composition. The impact that a photograph creates is what matters for most but like I said there is a bias towards established composition rules.
Simple errors like unnecessary elements in the photographs reduce the overall impact. It is rightly said that anything in the photograph that does not contribute to the overall image, takes something away from it. Distracting elements in a photograph are the first thing that reduces the impact of a photograph. Sometimes the juxtaposition of elements in a manner that does harm to the main element can spoil the photograph. I have seen countless portraits getting spoiled by being placed directly in front of a tall tree or a lamp-post. Landscapes getting spoilt by power transmission lines and mobile phone towers.
Title of the photograph
This is where I had my biggest difference of opinion with all the judges and will continue to have so in future too. A photograph should talk to the viewer on its own. A title is not required for the photograph. When there is a title attached to the photograph and the photograph seems interesting because of the title then the impact is lost. A photograph is a photograph. It should have the same impact on the person who can read the title as it should have on a foreigner who does not know that language. Unfortunately, photography competitions ask for titles which I find totally irrelevant.
Agenda of the competition
This is different from the topic or theme of the competition. If the photography competition is looking for portraits of people with wrinkles and specific expressions, then that is what the judges are going to seek from the entries. Sometime back, I was asked to help in judging some entries for a magazine which was printing an article on a religious festival. More than the festivities and celebrations, they were interested in showing the detrimental after-effects of the festival on the cleanliness of the area and its ecological impact. All the wonderful photographs got rejected and a simple photograph that showed the leftovers of the celebration with a cleaner sweeping the venue was the one that got selected.
This is my personal favorite. Just because a photograph is excellent doesn’t mean that it was clicked in a proper technical manner. I recently saw a photograph of a landscape which was clicked by the photographer using a 35mm lens in full daylight at f/22 aperture. The shutter speed used was 1/4000 sec with an insanely high ISO. The picture was wonderful but was technically wrong in my opinion. Why use such a high shutter speed if there was no specific purpose in mind? The photographer had a good camera with excellent high ISO performance but that doesn’t justify using a high ISO. Ideally, the photograph should have been captured at the native ISO (or the ISO with the least noise, which may not be the lowest). In most competitions, judges tend to ignore this aspect but somehow to me this is sacrilege. This shows a very poor understanding of the technical aspects.
Story behind the photograph
How many days the photographer waited or how many pictures were clicked to get that particular photograph… these are some of the messages I get to see all around me, on social media, phone messaging apps, etc. How does it matter? It is the photograph that counts. I recently saw a photograph of a landscape with setting sun which came with a short story, telling me about the number of cameras the photographer used and the days he had to wait to get that particular photograph. Once again, is that not a wastage of equipment and time? The story behind a photograph should not be told and then the photograph will actually be judged on its merit. The other day, I heard a photographer explaining how he had captured a flying bird by predicting its direction of flight and calculating its flight trajectory. I wanted to say ‘what a load of b…….’ but then I controlled my emotions. Sometimes the judges do get influenced by these stories. They are humans after all. My suggestion is to capture such photographs that they do not require a story to be told. The photographs themselves should speak out.
No matter what they say, there is always a peer pressure. If 5 out of 7 judges have already voted for some photographs to be included in the final round of selection then there are high chances for the other 2 also to approximately vote for the same selection. No one wants to be an ignoramus in the company of the highly acclaimed people. Even when the judges are told to anonymously grade the photographs, peer pressure takes its toll. People still discuss and opinions are expressed.
Alternate methods of judging
Another new method that is now becoming quite common is judging by the number of votes. After a primary screening, the final winner is decided based on the number of ‘votes’. The participants are encouraged to share the link to their entry on common social media platforms. The advantage to the organizers is that they get a huge social media exposure. As you may have understood, the winner is decided by the popularity of the photograph and not the quality of the work. A person with many followers and a great pitch will come out as a winner. Avoid such competitions.
(No, this photograph did not win any prizes anywhere. In fact it was never even entered in any photography competition. This has been inserted in this article just to break the monotony of the text. This one was clicked on a cheap compact camera.)
Tips to Win
- Understand the rules and comply with them.
- The photographs should be technically sound. No camera shake, no exposure errors!
- A trick that always works – think exotic! If you are planning to participate in a competition being held in a sea-side place like Goa, enter your photographs from Himalayas. If the competition is in the US, enter photographs from India. If the competition is in a city of a developed country, enter photographs from slums/places that show poverty.
- Intellectuals like to think of the impact or seemingly want to show that they think that way. If the judges are from the influential and financially sound background, enter photographs that showcase poverty, struggle, or something they find shocking.
- Basically, try to stir an emotional chord in the judges by showing exotic and something which is not what they are used to.
- Keep your composition simple. It should convey what you want to say.
- Consider the display size (print size) also. If you have a beautiful panorama suitable for the competition, enter it only if the final print is large enough and does it justice.
- When the print sizes are not specified or a range is provided, print to the largest size in that range. Large photographs garner more points. Call it megalomania but that is what usually happens.
Submit your best shots to the competition and hope for the best. Do not be disappointed if you don’t win anything. There are a lot of undercurrents in any photography competition. Just enjoy your photography and create the masterpieces that you want to. Do not worry about photography competitions. If you want to give your photographs for any competitions, do refer to this article again and then go ahead.