Pre-dawn mist in the Okefenokee. Photo by Eric Bowles
By Eric Bowles
Many GNPA members participate in photo contests, online competitions, or gallery submissions of various types. But once you submit your images, you may not have a good idea of how they are evaluated, what the selection criteria are for winners, and what you can do to improve your odds. I typically judge more than a thousand images a year for various competitions, critiques, and contests, and I’ll share some tips and observations.
Follow the rules
Most contests are strict about the rules. Photos that fail to follow the rules are routinely removed from the judging early even if the image has merit. There are some small mistakes that can be frustrating – including a signature or watermark when it is prohibited, submitting images that are outside geographic restrictions (an African lion in a contest for Georgia and adjoining states), late entry, etc.
Don’t push sliders too far
There is a trend toward highly saturated images, particularly in online competitions. Excessive vibrance or saturation can easily go too far and cause an image to fail in the eyes of a judge. The same is true for other sliders and edits – clarity, contrast, texture, and sharpening can all be used excessively and create detail beyond what is needed. Sharpening or increasing contrast in an out of focus background can detract from an image. Consider applying some of these adjustments locally rather than globally.
Be Interesting / Avoid Common Images
There is nothing wrong with making your own photos of common subjects – we all like landscape images of Sparks Lane in the Smokies, Yosemite from Tunnel View or Gates of the Valley, or iconic formations in Arches, Zion, or Canyonlands. These classic locations have been photographed by millions of photographers, so for your image to stand out, it’s subconsciously being compared with the best of those millions of images. What will make your image stand out as spectacular and unique compared to those well-known images? Look for exceptional images or unique views of common subjects.
Key Moments – Behavior or Action
Wildlife images have their own common subjects – wading birds are big, slow, and abundant so they are easy to photograph. If a judge sees 3-4 great egret images in a contest, only a spectacular image will be selected. The same is true for common mammals. What makes your bear, elk, deer, lion, or elephant image unique? In national contests, photographers look for perfect timing on key behavior. Two thirds of the images are showing feeding, fighting, courtship, or similar behaviors with perfect light and timing. A simple portrait can be successful, but it needs to be extremely well done. Think about it this way – is the image unique because you rarely see it, or unique for someone who lives in the area and photographs the subject on a daily or weekly basis? Look for unique images of uncommon subjects or unique timing that makes an image special.
Watch the Details
It’s easy to look at a good image and fail to notice little details that make a difference. I recall one image that had a sharpening halo around the subject of what was otherwise a great image. A recent entry was produced as a high key monochrome image for an exhibit and it had wonderful content and composition. But it also had magenta and green chromatic aberration that could have been easily removed. Sensor dust spots always need to be removed. Small details – reflections, unwanted color, bits of debris or trash, etc. – can make a difference and should be addressed to show your best work.
Watch the Edges
Before you finish with an image, check the edges. Ideally, you’d check the edges when you make the image, but be sure to check the edges when you are deciding to submit an image. Is there anything cutoff by the edge of the frame? Does it look intentional? Do the edges of the frame attract attention to a distraction or something that might be outside the frame? Do you have spots of bright colors or extreme contrast at the edge of the image? Normally you want to focus the eye on your subject, and avoid taking the eye to the edge of the frame. Be careful to compose and crop with intention and avoid clipping.
Choose the Time of Day or Season
I often see images of landscapes or wildlife made during the middle of the day. I wonder if the photographer chose that time of day because it was the best for the image, or because of convenience. We all understand you may not be able to photograph during the golden hours or when there are great clouds and color in the sky. With contest submissions, the time of day or time of year is a choice. For wildlife, breeding season can bring great color and behavior. With birds, look for breeding plumage, courtship and displaying behaviors, or similar timing to show your subject at its best. With other mammals, breeding season brings action that is uncommon at other times of year. Adult bears are healthy in the early fall as their coats are glossy and they are eating to prepare for hibernation.
Don’t Expect Every Judge to Have the Same Perspective
Judges usually have similar perspectives, and with conversation bout an image, they can form a consensus opinion. But each judge has their own expertise and views in how an image is assessed. Some judges will have hot buttons that immediately reject images. Others have subjects they see or photograph regularly, and may have strict standards for what makes a good image. Don’t worry if your image is Best of Show in one competition, and not even a finalist in another competition. Judges and competitions are different. Competing images may be different. You’ll get a better idea of how judges view your image if you have multiple perspectives.
The nice thing about competitions is they are supposed to be fun. It’s a good way to share your images, get feedback, try out new ideas, and possibly be recognized for your photography. But above all, make sure you have fun sharing your images and seeing the work of others.