I recently judged the winter contest for the International Society of Professional Wedding Photographers (ISPWP), and I believe I took more away from the process than the time I gave to volunteer. First, let me me say that contests aren’t everything. This isn’t why I’m a photographer in the least. However, it is always helpful to have an excuse to curate your best work and get feedback from other creatives.
I’ve won and lost many, many contests, and I never knew why one image was chosen over another. Of course, one obvious answer is that photography is subjective. Everyone has different tastes and opinions. Your photo might not be selected for one contest, but then it might win another. Beyond that, here were some tips that I picked up while judging:
// Some categories get more entries than others. For example, bride and groom portraits probably gets some of the most, whereas details or bridal party receives the least number of entries. Therefore, even if you have a strong image and you submit it in the bride and groom category, it might not win because there were 20 images that were slightly stronger than yours. I found myself choosing images that I wouldn’t normally choose to win in the less popular categories because I had a limited amount to choose from.
// Some images did not fit the category they were submitted to. I moved images into other categories for first or second place that wouldn’t have otherwise won an award.
TIP: Submit more images to less popular categories. Be intentional about the category you submit to.
// In a lot of entries, the moments felt cheesy or forced. This might be a personal taste issue, but I gravitate towards authentic-looking poses, emotions over anything that is awkward/unnatural.
// I was shocked at how many blurry, out of focus, badly exposed images I saw…and not in an artistic manner. Make sure you submit only your best work.
// Cropping! I can’t tell you how many crazy crops I flipped past, or images that needed to be cropped. A mistake I often saw was photographers not watching their edges. They had distracting elements that could easily be cropped out. I found myself bumping down great images, solely because they weren’t totally polished.
TIP: Submit only your best work. Polish your images to perfection. Choose authentic moments over cheesy poses.
// There are many, many images that you have to flip through as a judge. In our instructions, we were told to edit quickly so that the entire process wouldn’t take weeks. You don’t have time or patience to carefully analyze each image that is submitted. In my first round of edits, I breezed through them quickly and tagged the images that stood out to me. Unfortunately, this means that images that take a longer read get lost in a sea of images. Also, high contrast, colorful photos naturally stand out over faded ones.
// Some submissions had wonderful moments, but I couldn’t get past the horrible toning. The color balance was bad, highlights/darks were blown out, funky edits weren’t working with the image. Again, some of this is personal taste. However, your processing should always enhance the moment–not take away from it.
TIP: Submit images knowing that they will have to stand out in less than three seconds. Make sure your processing isn’t distracting.
// There is a reason for rules in contests. Images that were too compressed couldn’t be accurately judged because they were pixelated. Wrong dimensions are incredibly distracting as well.
// Surprise the judges! I saw a lot of gimmicks and trendy poses that have already been done many, many times. Just because a particular image has won before doesn’t mean it will again.
// Make sure all of the elements are working together. I would come across strong photos, but they wouldn’t win because some element in the frame wasn’t complementing the others. A face would be mid-blink, for example, next to a big moment. Or, the background wasn’t working with the subject. Or, one subject has an amazing expression and the other is non-expressive. The moment is strong, but the light is terrible, etc.
// One thing I didn’t know about the ISPWP contest is that the places are averaged. We were each instructed to submit our top 20 per category with commentary, and then the ranks get pooled together for the final results. So, even if one judge picked X for first place, but the other two didn’t, that image might place 12th. Or, if all three vote for an image and rank it 5th, 6th, 12th, that image might win because all three judges voted for it. Know that it’s an honor to place in the contest, and the difference between 3rd and 4th isn’t as big of a deal as you think it is :)
TIP: Follow the rules. Submit innovative work. Make sure everything and everyone in the frame is complementing your image.