Some things to consider when entering contests

Three of us judged a contest over the weekend and I spent nearly as much time writing comments about the judging as we did judging. So I thought I’d share some of those comments here, with slight tweaks. This is written in response to this particular judging but the points are true of any story-telling competition or grant.

The other judges were Toni Greaves and Beth Nakamura.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to entering contests, just some thoughts that occurred as we were judging this one.

What we responded to: You can respond to many different aspects of a photograph, when just looking at a picture, or as in this case, when judging a contest. Photography called photojournalism changes the hierarchy of what’s important a little bit by introducing the subject matter as an equally significant aspect of what makes a photograph connect with an audience.

The business of journalistic photography elevates the newsiness of a photograph. Simple enough. I like to think of that quality more broadly, as a matter of nowness that lingers. Is the photograph more relevant now because of the subject matter’s current relevance and equally because of the way the image was made. And does that relevance (the combination of subject matter and approach to making the picture) strike home today and will it continue to touch people long after today.

That’s one way of saying how we responded to the pictures that you entered in this contest. Was the subject matter engaging, was the photograph well crafted and were both aspects perceived in such a way that they were compelling days and months after they were made?

There were several aspects to photographs that automatically downgraded them.

Captions: A lot of you just wrote descriptive captions. They describe what’s happening in the picture, without context. And a lot of the pictures with this type of caption did nothing more than show what happened. Captions, and pictures should do more than this. The image should make you feel something about the subject matter and the caption should explain and give context to the subject matter.

Captions don’t have to be long. National Geographic magazine sets the standard for captions, though in that publication they’re called legends.

Bad captions won’t keep a great image from winning nor will good ones elevate a bad picture but they sure help the judging process by eliminating questions and playing on the power of words and pictures combined. 

Technical shortcomings: A layer of the entries were toned in a way that looked like bad newsprint reproduction. The shadows were pulled up, the images were flat, the quality of light diminished, the seeing reduced. When entering a contest, tone the images in a way that best represents the image as it will be seen - probably projected digitally or seen on a screen. Don’t just pull the file that ran in your publication. The care you take in entering images shows up in how we responded to your pictures.

Lens choice: We were surprised by the number of unsuccessful photographs made with a 24 mm or 17 mm lens. In most cases, the photographs were unsuccessful because the lens was too wide. Somewhere in there was a photograph but the choice of a super wide angle appears to have been made mostly to get the whole scene into the frame. Distortion (leaning walls, elongated body parts, etc.) was a huge negative aspect to many of these photographs. 

Generally, the wider the lens, the more difficult it is to make the whole frame work. The more clear and dimensional you are in why you’re making a picture, the more precise you’ll be in lens choice and usage. Swear off the 24 mm for a day or a week and see what happens.

Image range: It became overtly clear in the picture story and portfolio categories that some photographers make essentially the same picture over and over, regardless of subject. In these photographs, compositional approach, placement of main subject and distance from the subject doesn’t change much from scene to scene, subject to subject. In one story, we placed a finger in the middle of the screen as each image passed by and noted that the main subject from picture to picture didn’t move far from that point. That’s bad.

Cropping: Many images were cropped. We weren’t opposed to cropping when it refines the photographer’s original intent. But in most cases, cropping was to bring the edge of the image close to the edge of the subject. Toni, who has a strong design background, said the cropped photos had no white space, subjects weren’t allowed to breath in the frame. I call that type of cropping copy editor crops, because copy editors tend to trim photos to their supposed essence, eliminating the negative spaces of photographs, which generally renders them uninteresting.

Editing: Editing in the multiple image categories and portfolios makes a huge difference. Not just in the number and sequencing of images but in the types of stories that were told. It goes without saying that lesser images drag down the good ones. Equally, groups of pictures on a subject don’t necessarily tell a story that engages - no matter how interesting the subject matter. Work with a good editor from the inception of a story, if you can.

How long should you stay where you are?

Listen to my wife