Photography competitions can have far more value than just the prizes, writes Wayne Cosshall. Even if you don’t win, the process of entering can help you find ways to improve your work. That’s because selecting the right images for each contest requires you to evaluate your work more objectively
What’s the best way to set yourself apart from the crowds and get your work noticed? The Internet and social networking now offer thousands of channels you can use to connect with people who might appreciate your images, and your photography-related expertise. Here are some steps that have helped me build a customer base and gain greater exposure for my photography.
Participate in print competitions and portfolio critiques. Why not make sure your work is as good as you think it is? Bluntly, what really matters is how your work is perceived by the people to whom you’d like to sell your work. Enter your work in categories that fit best with your personal style, and follow the advice from the competition organizers.
Share your expertise. About five years ago, I started writing articles on inkjet photo printing for a new, unknown magazine on digital printing for professional photographers. Along with each of these articles, I included some of my best images. Once I started publishing useful content and my images, opportunities started coming my way for consulting, seminars, and book publishing. All of these activities have continued to provide opportunities to show my work. Another way to generate interest in your work is to consistently provide good answers to questions posed on the forums.
TIP: Instead of targeting only big-name publications look for opportunities to help start-up publications, both in print and on the web. Also, go to some conferences or trade shows and try to develop contacts with companies that interest you.
Develop a personal style. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, find a photography niche in which you can excel. One friend of mine focused on infrared digital photography; another on photojournalism. Create images that fit the niche and write accompanying articles that readers can use in their daily work.
Use a blog to attract visitors to your website. You must have a well-designed, attractive website that showcases your best work and conveys a sense of who you are as a person. A blog that provides value-added content gives people new reasons to visit your site.
I use a Wordpress blog separate from my main website. It is free, easy to use, and provides reasonably detailed reporting on blog traffic. Customizable features in Wordpress make it easier for readers to find the content they want. It is also quite easy to include images in a Wordpress blog.
Use feedback from current and potential readers to help you determine what to cover in your blog posts. Whenever you attend (or teach) a photography workshop, pay close attention to people’s questions. I teach frequently and workshop attendees always ask interesting questions. I receive quite a few emails on a variety of subjects. I monitor questions posted on photography and digital-printing forums. Do this, and you’ll soon see a pattern that you can use to focus your thinking.
As I compile each list of FAQs, I rank the questions based on timeliness, interest shown in specific subjects, and whether or not I know something about the topic.I also conduct an online survey about every three months.
Write for other blogs. Once you demonstrate your abilities, you will likely be offered opportunities to write and/or provide images for other blogs. For example, after I’d written a number of articles and begun leading seminars, I was invited to join the team of photographers who contribute to this blog!
Invite other people to write for your blog. Broaden the appeal of your blog by inviting other experts to contribute articles on topics of interest. On my blog, posts written by guest authors Robert Ash and Ted Dayton were widely read.
Publicize your posts. There are a number of ways to publicize your work. One of the most useful social-networking tools is LinkedIn, which includes many special-interest photography and printmaking groups. In fact, I started a group myself. So far, the Fine Art Reproduction for Professionals group has drawn over 150 members. Whenever I post new content, I make an announcement about it with a direct link to the post on the LinkedIn groups that are most active. I also make posts on Facebook, and Twitter. I also make sure that Google is informed about new content on my website in a timely fashion. The best way to find out about this is to create a user account on Google (free), and look up Google Analytics. Google provides detailed instructions for use.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see immediate results. It may take many months of focused effort before you start connecting with the people who value and appreciate your offerings.
Since I started focusing on improving my online publishing workflow, the monthly traffic to my website has tripled. For me, combining multiple promotional tools has been most effective. A somewhat unexpected benefit is that traffic to my portfolio and gallery pages has increased as overall traffic has increased. Put another way, galleries that weren’t viewed all that often in the past are now being visited.
Keep in mind that a key part of all this is to help others become better photographers. If you can communicate your willingness to help, the rest will fall into place.
Photographers who want to display and/or sell more of their images need to think carefully about how their images will be viewed. As much as you might personally love a particular shot, the photograph might not immediately have the same type of appeal to others.
The most important questions to ask are: Does this image help open the viewer’s eyes to new thoughts and emotions? Does this photograph help viewers see the world in a way they may not have seen it before? If you believe the answers to those questions are “yes!,” then you’re ready for the next step.
It can be useful to output prints of your favorite images, hang them on the wall for a few days or weeks, and try to evaluate your images as objectively as possible. I’ve found that an image that appeals after repeated viewing will likely stand the test of time in the outside world. You also might want to consider using some of the same critieria that are typically used to judge print competitions.
You can find dozens of articles and books on image quality. And at some trade shows, you can have a portfolio of your work professionally critiqued. In my opinion, here are the top eight criteria for evaluating the quality of photographic images:
Visual Impact: Does the image have the “Wow!” factor? How effectively does the image capture and hold the viewer’s attention? Is there a readily identifiable center of interest? Is the subject immediately apparent?
Emotional Impact: What message does the photo convey? Does it evoke a sense of wonder? Awe? Joy? Sadness? Anger? Confusion? Intrigue? How powerful is the emotional impact? And is the impact present for a majority of viewers?
Composition: Does the photograph follow conventional standards of strong design, such as the rule of thirds, simplicity, clean backgrounds, and the use of leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye? Does the image include distracting elements?
Color: The effective use of color helps determine the overall mood of an image. A photograph with rich, saturated colors will convey a different feeling than one with delicately shaded tones – and, of course, black and white has its own palette of tones and textures.
Contrast: Certain areas of the image may appear too bright or too dark. Similarly, loss of highlight or shadow detail will drag a good image down. In black-and-white images, high contrast with rich detail can be visually powerful.
Technical Execution: Are there any serious, unintended flaws? Is the main subject in focus? Is the image over- or underexposed? Have important elements been unintentionally cut off at the borders? Will the viewer perceive color and tones as being natural (i.e., what one’s eye might actually see)?
Use of Light: How creatively is lighting exploited or used to enhance the overall mood and visual impact of the image? Are there any distracting “hot spots” caused by excessive illumination?
Originality: Is the image similar to others, or does it have its own personality and vision? Another good photograph of Mount Rushmore will likely bore the judges of a print competition.
Once you have satisfied yourself that you are headed in the right direction, put together a condensed set of prints and show them to a few individuals who you feel will give you a no-nonsense critique. My sister, for example, is a take-no-prisoners critic. She has helped me focus on the keepers, fix up the images with hidden potential, and weed out the images that just don’t make the grade.
Testing your selections in print competition is a great way to get feedback on your images. Try a local competition first, and then if you wish move up to regional or national-level organizations. Professional Photographers of America, and WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) are good places to start.
And remember – pick a good title for each image that helps tell the story!
Entering a print competition can be one of the best ways to become a better photographer. Although winning awards and getting publicity can be gratifying, you don’t have to win the competition in order to benefit from it.
For example, here are just three of the valuable opportunities that entering a print competition can provide
· In a formal setting, you can see what many other photographers consider to be their best work.
· You can have your work evaluated and scored by a panel of judges. In some competitions, the judges will have microphones so you can hear their comments.
· The process of choosing which images to enter forces you to look more critically at your work. As you attempt to evaluate your work from the eyes of the judges, you will start to see each image in a whole new light.
Competitions are usually divided into categories. This gives you multiple opportunities to enter and win an award, but can make your image-selection process much tougher. A print competition might include the following categories:
· Photojournalism, Event and Editorial (includes weddings)
· Landscape Photography
· Nature Photography
· Close-Up & Macro Photography
· Architectural & Design Photography
· Digital Manipulation/Freestyle
Each competition may have slightly different criteria for judging and it’s important to know in advance what those criteria will be. For example, here are some of the criteria used by the group in which I am active: the Santa Clarita Photographers Association in Southern California.
Impact: Does this image grab my attention? Is its message understood immediately? Does this photograph hold my attention? Is it effective?
Style: This is an extension of impact but incorporates less tangible qualities. Does it seem to be an extension of the sensibilities of the photographer? Will this image hold up over time?
Composition: Look at the structure of the image. Is there movement or is it static? Is it balanced by way of effective use of negative space? Is the cropping correct? Does it have depth? Is there a primary focal point?
Creativity: Does this photograph indicate a deliberate effort? Did the photographer interact with or manipulate the elements of the photo with a specific outcome in mind? Is it innovative and unusual in some way?
Technique: Was this image created with the use of any treatments such as filtering or multiple exposures or Photoshop tricks? Does the technique support the image or does it seem misused?
Lighting: Akin to technique, lighting is the single most essential element aside from the content itself. Is the lighting appropriate? Does it upstage or complement the subject matter? If the lighting is artificial, is it well-executed?
Print Quality: Are there any obvious flaws in the print? Is it clean? Does it seem too light or dark? Are there printer marks or visible pixels? Is it printed in a way that supports or amplifies the content of the image?
Print Presentation: Does the presentation of the image support the image? Or does it upstage the image and drag it down? Would you be proud to see it displayed publicly?
As you can see, judges score prints on both objective and subjective elements. And yes, it is possible for a technically weak print to win an award if the image makes a strong emotional impact.
So now that we know what the judges are looking for, let’s tackle the really hard part: Picking which images to enter. I’m not joking, this step can make a strong photographer swoon. It is pretty easy to get down to your top ten, but top three? Ouch! And before you can even get down to your top ten, you have to decide: Which category? How many in each category? I’ve adopted a six-step process to narrow down my choices.
STEP 1: I ask myself: What are my business objectives? Would it help me build my business if I gained recognition in a particular category?
STEP 2: Or, I ask myself: What creative or developmental goals would I like to pursue? These can include almost anything, from learning how to create top-notch panoramas and HDR images to shooting celebrity portraits or weddings.
STEP 3: I go through my images in each segment. First, I pick the top two or three. Then, I eliminate as many sinkers as possible. An image that has a technical weakness must have other redeeming features, such as uniqueness or storytelling that keep it in the running
STEP 4: Now that I have whittled my collection down to the crème-de-la-crème, I review the leftovers that survived the cut. Of these, I will pick another two or three images.
STEP 5: I make some working prints (usually 8x10 or 8x12) and put them in a book. For a week or so, I show this book of prints to the most accomplished, opinionated, and contrary photographers I can find. This step helps me to: (1) identify those images that I personally like, but probably won’t cut it in competition; and (2) find images that I don’t like as much as everyone else does.
STEP 6: I make the final cut. I try to select only those images that convey an uncommon subject, feeling, or style or make a special impact. These are the images that I know will be competitive.
Once the final cut is made, I go into production. Print quality, mounting and presentation are also very important.
This image just won first place in the Portrait Category in a regional competition. From a technical standpoint, it is not very strong. In fact, I took it with a very small point-and-shoot camera, through my car window, while I was waiting in traffic. But the judges said that what carried it through was the emotional content—the storytelling