Why and How to enter Photo Competitions
The following is an article that was published in the Australian BirdLife magazine, Vol 6 No. 2 June 2017.
I know that feeling. You are staring at photos on your computer screen and you have no idea if you should even enter the competition, let alone which photos to enter. You could turn to your better half for guidance, but you already know what they will say and, anyway, you suspect they are biased.
So why enter photo competitions? Of course, we would all like to win the 'big' one, but let's assume you won't. The best reason to enter is because you want to be a better bird photographer. Just going through the selection process, outlined below, will improve your images (even if you don't enter them) by forcing you to be your own judge.
If you do enter and none of your images are short-listed, don't let it get you down. No-one pops out of the womb taking award-winning photos. Never give up. In the words of Samuel Beckett, "Fail, fail again. Fail Better."
So you are ready to put your top images to the test, now you have to decide which of them to enter? The best advice that I have read on photo competitions was to 'put yourself in the position of the judges'. It's time to pack away all your prejudices, delete your pet 'faves' and bring to the desk a heady dose of objectivity. It aint easy and yes, there will always be an element of the judges' subjectivity that can't be predicted, but there are some basic steps that will help you along the way.
First things first, READ THE RULES. Re-read them until you can recite them in your sleep. Is there a time limit? What are the image size requirements? Is there any geographical limitation? Does my photo really match the theme?
Secondly, is the image sharp? A great composition may get you through the first round of judging, but if the judges have to make a choice between two good images, the sharp image will (almost) always win.
Thirdly, have I calibrated my monitor? I recently judged a nature photo competition and many good photos were let down by bad lighting. If your monitor is over bright, your images may appear underexposed on a different monitor. If in doubt, err on the bright side.
Fourthly, ask yourself: How does my photo stand out? You may have a tack-sharp photo of a red-capped robin on a pretty branch with a perfectly clear background. You like it, but ask yourself how many times have you seen such a photo? Do a Google search and check out the 'Images' pages. What makes your red-capped robin so special? Is it an interesting composition? Does it have, for instance, a yellow petal in its beak? A dragonfly tap-dancing on its head? Does the image tell a story? Assume the judges will see a hundred images of red-capped robins (or other pretty birds on branches). What sets my photo apart from the other 99?
Browse through the previous winners of similar competitions. Get a feel for what kinds of images are selected. Do the images inspire you and if so, why?
Fifthly, get a second opinion. Send your images to a few different people (not only bird photographers). Ask them to select which images they like the best and which they like the least. You will find that whilst opinions vary, there will be some commonalities. If an image turns up at the bottom of everyone's list, delete it. Correspondingly, if an image consistently appear at the top - mark it down as a definite. Seek sound criticism and take it on the chin.
Now it's time for the final test. Leave your images for a few days. Then, on a quiet evening, arrange your 'potentials' into a slideshow. Turn off all the lights. Grab a pen, munchies and some paper. Click play.
Be the judge.
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