Out to Win: Photocontest Tips and Advice

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If you are reading this, most likely you are about to enter a photo contest. Your victory is just a few steps away. Our tips are meant to help you up these steps. Here is a list of common mistakes to avoid, of main guidelines to follow, and of basic principles to keep to.

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Pick the right contest Your chance will be enhanced at the very start if you pick the right contest. You know better than anyone what your forte is, so make sure to choose exactly where you can reveal it. If your strong suit is photographing kids, or wildlife, or townscapes, find out which competition will let you show it to the best advantage. If you are especially good at black-and-white photography, look around to see if there is a relevant contest. The relevance of the theme and specific requirements to your field of interest and expertise may be more important than the caliber of a competition, and the effect of entering even an obscure competition may be unpredictably beneficial. If you have already picked the contest to suit you, consider different categories. There often happens to be a number of those, and it might be wise to try and evaluate how many entries could be expected in each. Decide which looks more promising, depending on the estimated number. Presumably, the fewer entries the higher your chance, provided your photo is really good. We are sure there are areas where you surpass others. You’ve got to consider all your advantages, and get the edge on your competitors right at the startline. You don’t want to waste your effort on something that just doesn’t fit you. Do some research to find out which contests may suit you best in terms of eligibility, opportunities, awards, entry fee and other conditions: Weed out all the contests you are not eligible for. You may not be of the required age, or not fit some other restrictions. These may be location, amateur or pro only level, photos only in black and white, only digital or film, or taken within a specified period of time. See what exposure opportunities a contest opens. Money is not what it is all about: at some venues you’ll be offered exhibition or printed publication opportunities, while some are important enough to gain you lasting and growing recognition, promoting your work online. Look at the status of the organization hosting a contest, evaluate the competence of the jury, the scope of the site, its authority, popularity and influence. Gaining recognition by being exhibited and having your work printed in books or catalogues seems the main target, but money isn’t anything to sneeze at, either. It is advisable to look what cash prizes are offered. As a flipside, there may be entry fees. Check to decide if you find these acceptable, but never forget that the total benefits of participation may, and most often will, overweigh the expenses. Pay close attention to all terms and conditions, including the small print. All copyright aspects should be unambiguous. You should always be credited and your work never used without your permission. Learn from history It is always useful to learn from history. Make a research of the previous contests to have an idea of what photos are more likely to win. This is not exact science, so if the photos you put most hope into don’t look anything like the former winners, you should never let this discourage you. It may, however, work as a general clue whenever you are in doubt what to send and what to withhold. Let the former winners become another source of your inspiration. Follow the rules Always read and strictly follow the rules! You’d be surprised how many entries get disqualified on technicalities. Once you’ve found your perfect contest where both the theme, the organization and the awards suit you, it would be a great pity if a silly misstep or oversight cost you the victory. Make a thorough acquaintance with all the requirements and guidelines for the contest you’re entering. Comply with the theme. The relevance of your photos to the theme must be clear. It’s great to interpret the theme creatively, but be careful not to stretch your metaphors so far as to wander away from the given topic. In many cases it would be best if your photo told a story, pertaining to the theme and developing it. It is crucial that you comply with all technical requirements, which usually are size, format, number of photos you’re allowed to submit, amount of modification permitted, occasionally also the time the photo was taken. It may also be specified that you provide a written description. In this case, even a superb photo won’t be accepted if such a description is missing. Avoid Technical flaws Technical flaws will prevent the jury appreciating the artistic value of your work. Think of focus (unintended blurriness is highly unwelcome), lighting, color balance, post-processing and the extent to which it is allowed, make sure the exposure is right and the horizon not skewed. Creative interpretation of these basics remains to your discretion and artistic flair, but your work must produce an undeniable impression that anything done there is done on purpose and combines into a convincing whole. You can’t let any technical lapse subtract from the aesthetic impact of your photo. Take care of every glitch that can be prevented while shooting or corrected on post-processing. These might be too dark or too bright spots, weak or oversaturated coloring, excessive HDR, specks of dirt on your lens or sensor, unintended glare and such like.
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Pay attention to composition While composition is very much a matter of subjective perception, there are principles you’ve got to have mastered even if choose not to follow. Essentially, all elements of your photo must be combined the way they will serve your purpose, rather than let people puzzle over what it is they see. The viewer will feel annoyed with anything irrelevant or gratuitously discordant, feet cut off or an object that clearly doesn’t belong. Any imbalance, be it a large vacant space void of clearly defined meaning or needless cluttering, will ruin the harmony your photo most likely aims for. Your message must get across, thus the clearer it is presented, the better impression it makes. For this reason, think of framing, equilibrium, proportions, and at least one center of interest, the element that will immediately catch the viewer’s eye, and be the key to the whole composition. Perspective is all about spatial relationships between the objects in your photo with respect to the chosen viewpoint. Camera angle will determine how we are viewing the scene. See if it may be more opportune to shoot straight on or obliquely. Shooting from an elevated position (a treetop, a mountain, a steeple, a balloon’s gondola), you will obtain aerial perspectives. These will let your viewers see your subject the way they never would from the ground. Or you could shoot from below, also presenting uncommon aspects of your objects. Macro photography with its extreme close-ups will, too, reveal the unexpected in the ordinary. Try new approaches, different lenses, like macro or fish eye, close-up filters. Zoom in or out, climb high up or low down, change your camera angle and position to make an ingenious and original shot. In pursuit of originality, keep it in mind that everything must serve the main intent of the shot. Choose the appropriate perspective judicially every time you take a picture. Pay attention to the relative heights. For example, taking portraits of people or pets you may want them to look natural rather than extravagant. Small kids will look distorted if you photograph them from your eye level. It may be advisable to get on their level so the picture will convey a warm and personal feeling. On the other hand, grownups tend to appear their finest when they look up, and you may choose to shoot them from a higher angle. Camera position sets the amount of space from foreground to background. It may be expanded (a lot of space) or compressed (little space), and will determine the feeling of depth. Experiment with the distance. Photographing an object from too far away may subtract from its presence, disperse the viewer’s attention all over the background. Sometimes, on the contrary, the subject impresses most if shown only as a relatively small part of a large whole. At other times the subject gives a strikingly personal effect if you let it take all the space of the photo. In any case, never forget that no object exists in a vacuum. The context in which it is shown is the means to present the subject in its integrity, not as a disjointed article of no consequence. The background and the interaction between all the components of your composition must be thought through in every detail. If your photo features more than one subject, you need to show their relationship. This may be determined by their relative sizes, by the way they interact (a look or a gesture can speak volumes), by their position in relation to the camera. Above all, remember: no rule is clad in iron. We encourage you to experiment with height, distance, angle, lenses to find your own unique view and the best way to get your idea across. Create a work of art Victories, awards, fame, career opportunities, everything that your get from entering a contest is ultimately a fruit of your genuine passion for art. Both your viewers and the jury will recognize this passion and appreciate it, if you manage to convey it properly. Creating a work of photographic art means developing your very own, unique perception, translating it into the language of photography, and finally sharing. A photographer’s perception is visual, which equals seeing. Surprisingly, seeing is not something to be taken for granted. There’s difference between mere acknowledging your surroundings and actual seeing. Only the latter will enable you to produce a work of art. Most often we only notice what is relevant to our current purposes, or sometimes pay some attention to things that inspire emotion (aesthetical pleasure or disgust). Seeing, on the other hand, is revealing. One who can see discovers the essence, the attraction, the importance, the emotional content of what others absently glimpse. The automatic passiveness of looking is nothing like the active conscious effort of seeing. Everything is there for everyone to see, but so few of us actually do that we may ask ourselves a question: is this ability a given, or can it be developed? Well, of course it can, once we know it is necessary. There are techniques of analyzing and interpreting visual images. There is observation, when you learn to be aware of shapes and colors, of relations existing between objects in space. You should keep practicing and train your brain to assist your eye in actually becoming aware of objects, penetrating into their nature, deciphering their meaning, observing all the minute nuances. Inborn or developed, it is what it takes to create a work of photographic art. It is the way to appreciate what you see, reveal its worth, its truth. Going deeper is one accomplishment; going wider is another. You’ll keep discovering new things to see. Seeing is not only about how, but also what hardly anybody really sees. Something obscure, neglected, something others dismiss as not worthy of attention, that which escapes notice, is rediscovered, its worth revived, its context recreated, interlinked with relationships, connections and associations. All those discoveries are only yours, brought about by your exclusive way of seeing. The next task consists in sharing them. Now that you have learned to see, you got to communicate what you’ve seen. That’s what art does, and that’s what the jury are after. You must make them see what you’ve seen and believe in it. Such sharing hinges on your technical skills, your innate and cultivated creativity, your ability to make your message clear, and the originality of your style. Another important factor is this particular quality of making your photos capture the viewer’s attention, having both immediate and lasting impact. The cornerstone of all the above is your ever-enhancing seeing, your ever-growing awareness. When taking photos, apply this awareness to aiming for the perfect approach. Everything counts. Try different perspectives, camera angle or position, study relative sizes. Work on the composition, which builds your image, the tonality, which gives it mood. Combine everything the way it will match the idea you harbored while observing. A winning photo is a compelling photo. The message behind it is never trite or vague. It is always defined, its message distinct. You chose your subject for a reason, and your intent must be conveyed, or else the subject will shrink to insignificance. The why is no less important that the what. If the idea is effectively communicated in a technically flawless, compositionally powerful shot, the photo becomes compelling. It arrests the viewers’ attention, draws them inside its space, broadens their personal experience, stops their breath and gives them a thrill of connecting with Art. It makes them want to revisit this experience again and again. If you can do it, you have won. Take as many photos as you can Take as many photos as you can. Play with the composition, try different approaches, use different perspectives and different lighting. See if multiple submission is allowed by rules and financially reasonable, considering entry fees. Sending a number of photos is a good idea, because you never know which you never know which will impress the jury. These may be altogether different photos on the same theme, or versions of the same subject. After weighing everything up and deciding on the number you are allowed and willing to send, revise your selection, pick the best and submit them.
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Believe in yourself and have fun As it is the case with all kinds of art, people (even when they become judges) tend to be personal in their perception of photography. Every one has their own inclinations, biases, and tastes. Always remember that yours may quite unexpectedly differ from those of the experts, other viewers, or the jury. The photo you consider The Very Thing might fall flat with them, while the one you tended to dismiss as an okay shot might become their favorite. This is a reason for submitting a number of photos instead of only one, and, of course, for seeing to it that your photos be technically flawless: this, at least, is hardly subject to bias. It also makes sense to get critical assessment in advance, in form of reviews from judges, professional photographers, or photo contest winners. Believe in yourself. Even if you are not yet experienced or sure of yourself, if your chances of winning don’t look good to you at the moment, there’s always hope you’ll get lucky next or even this very time! Don’t give up, join a photo community, online or IRL, go to photo shows, read blogs or books, view contests past and present, take part in as many as you can. This way you will gain new ideas, inspiration, directions for personal and professional development, and, little by little, this priceless edge: experience. Whatever the outcome, one great thing is guaranteed. You are sure to be having a lot of good fun! And remember that we really root for you and believe that some day you will become the Winner. Recap Winning isn’t all that hard. We know you can do it! All it takes is: - pick the right contest and comply with the chosen theme; - make sure your photos have impact that will impress, inspire, move, or thrill the viewers; - prove yourself creative, imaginative and original; - always aspire for technical perfection; - keep at it, believe in yourself, and have fun! Good luck!
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