7 Tips for Better Photo Club Competition Results

7 Tips for Better Photo Club Competition Results

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!”

Frithjof Moritzen

Photography Club Enthusiast

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