How to avoid common pitfalls when entering your images into photo club competitions
I am on my way to the weekly photo club meeting and I hope that this time will be different. I will smash the competition and get the highest rewards my photo club has to offer. The submitted images are flawless and powerful, I deserve to be at the top.
And then I wake up from La-La-Land, the comments from the judge ring in my ears, they hurt. That guy thinks he knows better with his 30 years of judging experience. He didn’t get my image message. The blurry bits are intentional! Also, the Dutch angle and the sensor spots. Wait, the sensor spots? I am sure I removed them. Must have been the excitement I felt when I discovered that I can also apply a white vignette! The judge does not even sport a FIAP title after his name, so he is not qualified to critique my outstanding work.
“It is all the judge’s fault!” (It’s not)
Does that sound familiar? I saw a lot of competition judging. The reality is, people disagree with the judge. The judge offers an opinion, and that is always subjective.
I won’t go into details about the judges, they are friendly people who spend a significant amount of unpaid time to offer us their opinion. We should honour that and be thankful. The important part here is: they are not under your control. Well, unless you bribe them, but that is illegal. You control the work you send to the competition secretary, so let’s pay attention to what you can do. There must be something to get better results, right?
You can do a lot of things to increase your chances of an excellent result. Some judges work by starting off with a 100% score for each image and they reduce that with every aspect they find lacking in your image. Your goal is to give the judge no reason to reduce the 100%, then it will stay at the top.
Create a mental or written checklist and check that off for every image. Here are 7 things you can add to your checklist.
1. Read the competition rules — or “How to instantly disqualify your image yourself”
It might surprise you how many people do not read the competition rules.
I was the competition secretary of a small neighbourhood photo club for two years. There was not a single competition where all people followed all simple rules. They were more concerned about the image than to follow the boring rules.
If you enter the competition one day after the due date, then it is too late. If the largest image dimension allowed is 1620×1080, then a 1080×1620 image does not work. If you need to send in a JPG image, and you choose PNG? Terrible idea! Disqualified. The list goes on: color space, being on-topic, file naming.
The photo club sets these rules out for a reason, follow them! You can of course choose to stand above the rules. Send in whatever you want, but do not complain if your award-winning image does not even get in front of the judge’s eyes. Game over before the game starts. If that does not happen, you can thank your lovely competition secretary. They don’t like disqualifying images. Some still do it, and I can see why.
2. Have the images finished a day early
This will not make or break an image, but it helps to submit the best version of your image. Most people make mistakes when they are under time pressure. They forget things, e.g. ticking off this checklist for each of the images.
The libraries are full of books about procrastination. Or rather about how to avoid that. You can spare yourself some time reading any of them if you can do one simple thing: do the work early.
But that is too hard, I know. You can do the next best thing: leave at least one day buffer before you have to submit your image. Review it one last time after you had one day break. Or an hour. Any significant time.
The reason is that your eyes get used to the changes you do on an image. Your brain adjusts in wondrous ways, but not always to the benefit of your image. Take a break and look at what you’ve done a little later. If you still consider it is the best version of your image you can create, then you can submit it!
3. Do your border patrol
Before I submit any image for a photo competition, I do the border patrol. It sounds more exciting than it is, but the results can be surprising.
Border patrol is easy: switch your image processor of choice to 100% magnification and look at the borders of your image. Are there any annoying sensor spots? Or distracting twigs? Or rubbish? What about chromatic aberrations?
When we review our own images, we concentrate on things in the centre or where the eye goes first. The edges get the least attention, but a judge who is not familiar with the image might notice the minor distractions around the edges. You don’t want them to notice that as the first thing when they evaluate your image.
Switching to 100% magnification for the border patrol is useful for two reasons. The image processor can display each pixel as it is without computation, and you also change the perspective and your brain can focus on the details. Try it, some people don’t need this, others find it very useful.
4. Write a mission statement for each image
I have to admit that I don’t do that. But I should. If you can explain the image in one simple sentence, then the image has a focal point, a subject or a mood. If you need more than a sentence, then your image might confuse others.
Judges like a recognizable subject in the image. The eyes can rest for a while and then move on to further explore the image. Judges also complain about images which have too many subjects and they cannot understand which of them is important. Simplicity is often better and more impactful. Don’t take this as a hard rule, it depends on your image and the style. Break the rules, but do it with intention. Never break the competition rules. Review number 1 of this list. Do I repeat myself? Yes, annoying, and I will do it one more time. I promise.
5. Review all technical aspects
Put yourself in the shoes of a judge for a moment. Imagine you have to review, say 100 images, and have to find the 10 best images. Your strategy is to go through them in a first rapid round to discard the weak ones. A simple way to see weak images is to look at the technical imperfections. They tell the judge something about how careful the author was in crafting the image.
Is it sharp where it should be? Is the horizon straight, and if not, is that intentional? Are limbs cut-off at awkward positions? Are sensor spots visible? What about noise-control? Halos around edges tell over-sharpening. Are there artefacts from incompetent image processor usage? Is motion blur controlled? Is the exposure fitting (over/underexposed)?
Some aspects might not be a technical flaw and are more subjective. The aspect ratio is an excellent example. Does it fit the subject? People often forget that the native aspect ratio of their camera is not always the best for their subject.
The takeaway here is to give the judge no reason to throw your image on the “weak” pile. The judge might spend only 2–3 seconds on your image in that first round, so make sure your image lands on the right pile.
6. Don’t compete with yourself if you can submit several images
This depends on the competition rules (ha, I promised to bring that up one last time!). Even if you may enter similar images, you shouldn’t.
One reason is that you will compete with yourself by doing so. One image will be better than the other in the judge’s eyes, so you already lost one image in the race for the best one. If you enter distinct images into the competition, it is more difficult for the judge to discard any of them. If the judge has to select the 10 best images, similar images don’t make the cut, only the best.
That hangs together with the last tip I have to offer:
7. Avoid the obvious, surprise the judge
Some competition topics make it easy to think of very obvious choices. Our photo club recently had a ‘Kitchen Utensil’ competition. Imagine if you pick a whisk as the image subject, then you will see at least another image of a whisk in the competition. So make sure your whisk is uncommon, taken from an unusual angle, with dramatic light, or whatever it takes to surprise the judge. Otherwise it will be a “another whisk image, booooring, next image” case.
I hope you got some points to consider for your next competition. And one day, you will return from the club night and hold that trophy in your hand. The judge’s comment on your image was only one word: “Flawless!”