We have just concluded our first photography contest here on DEDPXL and I’d like to once again congratulate Craig for winning!
Now that is all done I want to talk about photography contests, judging images, and opening a discussion about what your thoughts are about images you see that win or don’t win contests.
When I was in photography school I began volunteering for the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. They run one of the oldest and largest photojournalism contests in the United States. Thousands upon thousands of images are submitted each year in sixteen categories. I started as a student volunteer in one of the contest rooms running the projector and by the end of my ten years of working with the seminar I was on the board of directors and in charge of the entire contest. I saw the contest switch from slide projectors to going fully digital.
When I was a student I sat in the back of the room while the judges (award winning photographers and photo editors) sat in the front of the room and judged the different categories. It would take three days to go through all the categories and there were some days that went well over twelve hours of judging. I was in charge of keeping up with what images stayed in for the next round and what images were out. The world of photography was still a huge uncharted landscape stretching before me and I was always amazed by the quality of images submitted to the contest. I remember one image in particular my first year as a volunteer.
The category was Spot News and the image was of a fire fighter spraying water on a house engulfed in flames. The fire fighter was silhouetted against the flames. It was a gorgeous image.
Within two seconds of the image being projected on the screen I heard from the three judges up front,
I was flabbergasted.
“I’m sorry. Was that an out?”
“That was three outs!”
“It’s the only one on the screen!”
I checked the focus on the projector. Surely they were wrong. It was a fantastic image. I would have given a kidney or two to have shot that image.
I marked it out. That photographer had TWO SECONDS on the screen and it was OUT. Two. Seconds. Meditate on that for two minutes.
On and on it went. Kick ass images were getting booted out left and right. Within seconds of being shown at that! What heartless cynical bastards these judges were. They’ve been around so long they were just calloused to great photography. I was pissed off. Great photographs didn’t even get a measly five seconds on the screen. And some of the eventual winners? Really? I could have done better than some of those that won! They weren’t all that great. That firefighter image was awesome. It should have at least gotten an honorable mention.
That was my first year. It happened some more my second year. It happened less my third year. By my seventh year we had so many entries (thanks to digital submissions) that we had to cull the categories prior to the judging days or they would have been too large and we’d never be able to finish the contest judging.
I’d leave a few fire fighter silhouettes in for old times sake knowing they didn’t have a chance in hell to ever place. Do you know how many silhouetted firefighter images I have seen now in my life? Do you know how that is the easy photo to make? Most PJ interns can make that photo. That’s exactly the photo you expect an intern to make. If you show up at a house fire you get the silo shot. That’s the safe shot. It can run in tomorrow’s paper. But what else can you do there? How better can you tell the story? Can you find the unexpected photo at that house fire?
I sat in those judging rooms for ten years and then went to dinner with the judges each night and listened to them talk about the images they had seen that day. That experience is some of the best photography education I’ve ever had. I’ve since sat as a judge for the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar and a number of other photography contests.
Here’s what I’ve learned in some easy to swallow bullet points.
• Don’t shoot for contests. Let me phrase that another way. DO NOT shoot FOR contests. Shoot FOR you. Shoot FOR your client. Shoot for anything but contests. You are your best and worst judge and it is you that you have to beat each and every time you go out and shoot. I’ve met photographers whose sole purpose in life were to win some of these contests. They wanted the plaques and the recognition. Some did well. They shot for the contests and they knew what kind of stuff generally placed. Many others never got so much as an honorable mention. It’s nice to be recognized by your industry as being good at what you do but it isn’t the end goal with life. It shouldn’t be.
• Different judges = Different winners. Year after year I would see images that would have placed with last year’s set of judges that this year’s set of judges didn’t care for and wouldn’t even give an honorable mention for. There were some groups of judges who loved dark and gritty work. Some loved bright and colorful work. The fun times were getting two highly opinionated judges in the same room who were drawn to completely different styles of photography. Placing the top three images in a category could sometimes take more than an hour.
• You were >this< close to winning. 1,000 images are submitted to a category. That’s quickly knocked down to 100 images. That’s knocked down to twenty images. You have 1st, 2nd, 3rd place to pick and up to two honorable mentions. You have to at least get those twenty images to no more than five images. I watched judges go back and forth and back and forth on photos. Sometimes there was a quick consensus on the first place winner. That moves to the first position. Then debates and discussions go to the rest.
I’ve seen some judges fighting for an image to place second that ultimately… didn’t even get an honorable mention. Or only got an honorable mention. The two other judges would debate against the one long enough that they broke down and conceded to a different image taking second, or third.
Judge #1 “Ok, at least give me this image for third place and I’ll give the two of you that other image for second. I want it to at least place in the top three.”
Judge #2 “Yes, but what about this image over here. We haven’t talked about that one yet. I think that’s a solid third place because of the blah, blah, blah.”
Judge #3 “I agree with Judge #2.”
Judge #1 “Yeah. I see what you’re saying. But look at this image. Look at that light. Look at the color.”
Judge #3 “It needs a crop.”
Judge #2 “It’d be much better in black and white.”
I would keep track of some of these images and call the photographers after the contest and at least let them know that judge so-an-so was fighting like mad for their image. They were at 2nd place for awhile until they dropped to HM or dropped out all together. I at least wanted them to know that they had a fighting chance for awhile.
• If it doesn’t read as a thumbnail it’s not going to win. Easy enough to understand I think.
• You’re photo is judged in seconds. Either your photo grabs the viewers attention or it doesn’t. Remember too that if we’re talking about a contest then whoever is judging your work most likely has seen hundreds of thousands of images in their life. They speak photography fluently and can separate the wheat from the chaff in a matter of seconds.
A number of people commented over on YouTube that Meghan and I did not spend enough time on some of the images. Some folks thought there were some subtle details that we missed that would have possibly given some photos a fighting chance for the top ten. Nope. We missed nothing.
Yes. We knew those were people depicting jews during WW2. Yes. We actually debated the grandmothers at the computer picture for quite some time after that critique and went back to look at it. The Japanese tsunami warning on the iPad would have never ever ever ever saved that cafe image. Ever. Never ever. It would have never made the top ten no matter how subtle some though that detail was. The image, overall, was not done very well.
Remember that I was keeping up with the entries as they were posted. I had to collect them and prepare them for the critique. I had to cross check the screen grabs from flickr to those from 500px and G+ to make sure there weren’t duplicates. I had to go through a lot of exif data to check dates. I spent a lot of time with those images and have since gone back through all of them a few more times. Once we got to the critique I already had a top 20 picked in my head. Meg was seeing them for the first time and her selects and my selects were pretty even.
• You love it. Your clients love it. Doesn’t mean a judge will love it. There are images that you shoot for your client and they love them. They cry. They squeal with delight over the photographs. That’s awesome! Those same photos may never ever ever ever place in a photography contest. There are photos I have taken that I cherish and those are photos that I don’t think I’d ever put in a contest because they wouldn’t stand a chance in that arena.
• You could have shot a better image than the first place image. Yep. You sure could have. Many of you could have shot a better image than what won first place. Some of you did shoot better photos than the winning image. Guess what? Tough shit. I know. I know. I’m an asshole. Tough shit all the same. Craig won and you didn’t. Fair and square. We made up a contest. We put the rules out there. Everyone, for the most part, worked in those parameters and at the end of the day the top three rose and Sara spent a lot of time choosing from those top three. I bet you anything there was an image submitted for this contest she would have rather picked for first place. There is at least one image I would have picked for first place over Craig’s. There’s still one photo out there that I wish would have been in the top ten. I doubt it would have made the top three but I wanted it in the top ten.
Am I saying Craig shot a bad photo? No way. If you were paying attention you noticed that Craig had TWO images in the top ten! TWO made it in the top ten! I love his image but there’s another one that I love just a bit more. That’s me. Personally. I’m ONE person. Meg would not have picked this other image to be first. Caleb would have picked another one. You, dear reader, probably had another in mind if it was up to you. His image was good enough, though, to get in the top three from the popular vote and get through to Sara and he had tough competition at that point and he came out on top and I’m shipping $6,000 of gear from Capture Integration to him this week.
You see why you shouldn’t shoot for contests? It’s effing maddening.
Two of you were in the top twelve and didn’t make it to the top ten. Meg and I spent a looooonnnngggg time getting the top twelve to the top ten. Those last two edit decisions took the longest of the entire process. For me, the servant + girl photo that made the top three was the wild card image. Meg fought like hell to get that in the top ten. I was ready to ditch that one for another image but she convinced me to leave it to popular vote so I conceded. It’s a gorgeous image. I’d hang that on my wall. I really would. Do I feel the world had changed? Not at all. Meg did. I didn’t. Ultimately, Sara didn’t think the world had changed in that photo either and it didn’t win. It made the top three by popular vote though!
Am I happy with how this contest shaped up? Absolutely. I stand by the first place winner and all the very best to you Craig. You kicked ass. Many of you kicked ass.
“Everyone is a photographer these days. They buy a nice camera and can get a decent photo and now they are a photographer.”
Really? Anyone still believing that bullshit myth?
We all have great cameras now. Any decent consumer camera produced in the last few years could have made the winning image.
It’s not about the gear is it? Not everyone is a photographer are they? It’s a lot of hard work isn’t it?
Is there anything else you’d rather be doing though? Not for me.
– The image above is being used under a Creative Commons license because I don’t have any firefighter images of my own to illustrate this article. The image was shot by Flickr member Ada Be.