The Ins and Outs of Image Competition with Michael Anthony
Early in my career, I had a hard time discovering what made my work unique. I would ask friends and family for advice but could never get consistent critiques that would allow me to develop my photographic style into what it is today.
I had discovered the Fearless Photographers group on Facebook, and decided to sign up and enter my work among some of the best photojournalists in the world to get an idea of where I stood among my peers. Sometimes, without knowing it, we develop an emotional connection to the stories we tell and the artwork we create, and you don’t know that you are making consistent mistakes in your imagery until someone without that emotional connection gives an objective review of your work.
I am a competitor and always have been. It started in my days of athletics in high school. Little did I know that it was engrained into my personality. When I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test, I was not surprised that competition was my number-one strength. Some may look at my competitive nature as overbearing or petty, but other competitors understand that desire to be the very best in whatever it is we do. That has been a driving factor in my success over the years, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
When I started entering image competitions back in 2013, I quickly realized I had a lot of room for improvement in my work. Over the years, that realization is always revisited when I see the beautiful work hanging in the winners gallery at competitions.
Make no mistake. Image competition is difficult and frustrating. It can also be expensive and seem unnecessary. Image competition is one of the best investments I make in myself every year. It’s not about winning awards, which is the biggest misconception. Image competition is about furthering your growth as an artist, gaining inspiration and pushing the envelope to become better than you were yesterday.
Friends and peers ask me all the time why I spend so much time and effort on something that seems to be good only for bragging rights. My answer is that I would not have created half of the imagery that is in my portfolio without learning the skills set that I have learned at image competition. Image competition has made me a better storyteller. It has taught me to see the art in a scene, made me appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making an image from capture to print.
So as a new photographer, how do you get started with image competition? What competitions do you enter? How do you shoot for competition? How do you learn and grow from your experience in image competition? I am here to answer all of those questions for you today.
The first step in your process is to understand which image competitions to enter. There are competitions popping up every day, and you don’t want to waste time entering ones that don’t have quality judges or provide a method of getting feedback on your imagery. That defeats the purpose.
Here’s a breakdown of the current image competitions I recommend. If you are based outside of the United States, there are other competitions in your country that may be a good fit for you.
ShutterFest Create is an annual competition that features judging by experts in the industry. The judging panel uses PPA’s elements of a merit image as a guideline for scoring, and features photographers who have had success in image competitions and business as both chairpersons and judges. The judging is live and features categories for first timers, as well as individual categories for a variety of wedding and portrait genres. The competition is tough and primarily digital based, making it easy for pros and beginning photographers alike to enter. Judging is recorded live and allows entrants to hear feedback on not only their images, but on all of the images in the competition.
WPPI’s First Half, Second Half and 16×20 Annual Competition
WPPI’s image competition is one of the most competitive competitions in the world. The first and second half are digital based, and the 16×20 annual competition is widely known and entered by photographers from all over the world. WPPI uses its own scoring system, which is heavily influenced by impact, which means year after year, this competition seems to get more competitive.
Judges come from every genre of photography, and are switched out on their panel often. Like ShutterFest, WPPI has a panel of judges with one chairperson, and automatic challenge rules to make sure that scoring remains as consistent as possible. WPPI features a point system that encourages longevity in the competition by allowing you to receive a “designation” based on the points that you score year after year. WPPI changes its rules almost yearly, so it’s important to stay up to date with the most current version of the rules in order to make sure you are properly entering your images into the correct categories. WPPI allows you to attend in-person judging and the first- and second-half competitions usually provide feedback as well.
PPA’s IPC is a prestigious image competition that is entered by photographers all over the U.S. PPA focuses heavily on technique. PPA uses its “12 Elements” system to determine a score, and has provided schooling for photographers all over the world on how to recognize a proper score through its judging school. PPA allows you to enter four images every year, and you can enter either a printed or a digital version of your image. High-scoring, well-executed images may be picked for PPA’s loan collection, which features beautiful images every year. PPA’s entry cost is very reasonable. Also look for local and district competitions.
Fearless Photographers (Wedding)
The Fearless Photographers online competition is held bimonthly. It primarily celebrates photojournalistic achievements in the wedding genre. The Fearless Competition’s judges are curators and experts in wedding photojournalism. To enter, sign up for a Fearless Photographers membership. After you’re accepted, you can enter a number of images during every award cycle. While judging is a bit different in this competition, rest assured that the awarded images are some of the best photojournalistic wedding images you will ever see.
Shooting for Image Competition
One of the most effective ways to grow as an artist is to actively shoot for competition every year. This can happen with your clients or in shoots created specifically for image competitions. Either way, by actively creating new content for image competition that follows the elements of a merit image, you will constantly be searching for new and fresh ideas that will eventually translate over to your clients so you can provide them with unique and fresh work.
For the last three years, Jen and I have planned international shoots that serve as both portfolio imagery and image competition entries. More importantly, it allows for inspiration that can keep the sometimes repetitive nature of photography fresh and different for us so we always love what we do and we never lose the passion for creation.
Shooting for image competition also teaches you an important skill. It teaches you how to plan and execute a vision, which is a skill your clients will cherish for years to come after you create beautiful artwork for them.
The Elements That Go Into an Award-Winning Image
Impact is the greatest influence on your image scores, and comes down to one question. Is your image an original use of the creative process? Does it inspire the judges, or does it bore them? Impact has the largest effect on your score, and is subjective. The competitions I listed above allow for multiple judges, which helps keep the scoring consistent. Make images that inspire conversation, and you will have successfully created an impactful image.
- Technical excellence
Did you utilize correct technique to execute your message? This is an easy category to fix, and one of the quickest you will learn from in image competition.
Much like impact, does your image inspire judges? Did you find a different way to tell your message that is consistent with the image?
Does the choice of technique match the message of the image? Does your light match your subject’s expression? Style, again, is another subjective category, but once you learn how to apply the correct style, your image’s messaging becomes more clear.
Does the image’s composition tell the correct story? Does it lead your viewers to the intended subjects?
How did you present you image? Was the paper choice appropriate for the look of the photo? Did you use good materials?
- Color balance
Does your image have a correct balance of color appropriate for the scene? Does the color palette inspire the judges? Again, this is a subjective element, but an important one in the overall image.
- Center of interest
Where is the eye supposed to go in the image? Is the objective met in the overall composition? Can we get to both the primary and secondary elements in the image?
Lighting makes an image; without light, we don’t have one. Lighting conveys a message—does the light used match the overall message?
- Subject matter
Is the subject matter in the image clear and consistent with the other elements discussed above?
Does the overall technique—lighting, posing, printing, presentation—give an appropriate display of the final product?
Does the image tell a story? Does it evoke imagination? Is it easy to understand the message? There is no right answer, except that your image should inspire feelings and ideas in your viewers.
Utilizing Image Competition as a Vehicle for Growth
Never take your scores personally. In the beginning, I lost faith in myself as an artist whenever I scored low on an image that I loved. Early in my career, the assessment of the judges would often be correct. In more recent times, I have realized that a low score has more to do with impact, or what was viewed before my image, than what was or was not technically wrong with an image, or what category I decided to put an image in.
This past image competition cycle, one of my favorite images I have ever created was my lowest-scoring image in WPPI’s competition. While I didn’t agree with the judging on that image, I did learn that I need to create something even more unique in order to score.
A pretty bride in a pretty place with a simple story isn’t enough to wow a panel of judges these days, and that is a good thing. It is good because it inspires me to push the envelope to make something extraordinary next year, and even if I think it’s amazing, I am going to push harder to make it even better. That is how you grow from competition.
The scores you receive can sometimes be discouraging. If you receive a lower-than-expected score, give yourself a few days to take it in, but once you are done feeling sorry for yourself (we all do), allow that feeling of disappointment to motivate you to make something better than you have ever done before. Don’t allow the feeling of defeat to consume you and deflate your motivation, because if you do that, you are letting image competition hinder your growth instead of propel it.