In recent years I’ve been privileged to be on the jury for a whole range of photography competitions. These include single image competitions such as WPS International Excellence Awards, Masters of Wedding Photography and the Irish wedding photography awards (In association with Learning to Fly). And with a different focus, I’ve judged a couple of competitions which require a series of images to be submitted forming a documentary narrative. These were MyWed Nikon Wedding Photographer of the Year and This is Reportage Awards. I’ll create a separate blog post with my thoughts about judging these competitions and what I learned along the way. This post is really about competitions in general and why photographers should be entering them. And no, they aren’t fixed. They are just subjective (IMHO, please don’t shoot me!).
Wedding photography awards are all fixed and the same people keep winning them.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this, I’ve honestly lost count. And quite frankly I feel that it’s a poor excuse from photographers who enter competitions and don’t achieve anything. People who are somewhat bitter and, rather than keep trying, they just give up and fire off excuses belittling awards that others have been proud to achieve. Of course, there are some competitions that are based on the number of clicks someone can get and these don’t really benefit anyone. But for the purpose of this article, I’m referring to those awards which are judged by a panel of 3 or more photographers who really know their stuff.
I realize I’m saying this from a position of having won tons of awards, but I need to tell you two things. Firstly, I don’t think I’m the best at anything. On the contrary, and like many creative people, I spend most of my life wallowing in self-doubt and drooling over photography of people who are much better than me wondering what magic preset they use. And secondly, I’ve not always produced work of a good standard. I was in fact quite rubbish when I started entering competitions but still had the balls to put my work out there to be ripped to shreds. I believe that all of the well known and established wedding photography and industry competitions are fairly judged and I applaud anyone who does well entering them.
As a caveat, I’d just like to add that there are those who are doing perfectly well by ignoring all competitions, but they also avoid bitching about them, which is fine. These photographers are successful, they are confident in their own style, they are booking the weddings they want and making plenty of money along the way. Awards aren’t for everyone. But in a hugely over-saturated market, it’s more important than ever to stand out, and photography awards can help you do this in many ways regardless of whether or not you win.
Everyone is an award-winning photographer!
Yes, it’s true. But hey, maybe actually winning the awards isn’t the greatest benefit of entering these things. Here are a few reasons why I think everyone who wants to improve should be entering photography awards.
1) Competitions help you to be better… and different.
It’s a saturated market, full of samey-samey photographers scrapping for the same work. Entering competitions really helps to foster originality and creativity. We’ve all seen a million photos of a little silhouetted couple in a big landscape. A similar image in a competition (or in a potential client’s review of our work) just isn’t going to stand out. In order to get noticed in a competition (and in turn by potential clients), it either has to be much better than everyone else’s work or it has to be different. To be better isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes a lot of learning and practice. Being different is a little easier, but it requires us to stop being lazy and work hard, problem solve, think outside the box and stop copying what’s already been done a thousand times before. Entering competitions undoubtedly will make you try to be more creative and unique. So rather than copying your favorite photographers posing and presets, competitions and critique help you to go with your gut instinct, trust your heart and develop your own style.
2) Self-critique will help to raise your game.
Choosing images for competitions is tricky but it really helps us to take a closer look at what we’ve produced. When reviewing images that have performed well in competitions we will no doubt pick a lot up along the way. After a while, it becomes easier to identify strengths and weaknesses in our own work which we might not have been previously aware of.
3) Your ability to tell stories and collate a series of images will improve.
This true for single images. A great image can infer a lot, and we should be looking at this from an outsiders point of view. By that, I mean someone who doesn’t know the subjects and wasn’t at the wedding. Meaning and intent has to be inferred, and this should be relatively easy for the viewer to do. Where this becomes particularly pertinent is in competitions which require a panel of images to be submitted. There’s a real skill in culling down a wedding of 500 images to a story of 20 that does the job. It really makes us think about each image and how it fits like a jigsaw piece in the whole story. Every single image has to work and look like it belongs there. This is Reportage and Mywed have Story Awards if you’re interested in entering this kind of competition. Many would say that this is a better way of really judging the skill of a photographer than single image submissions.
4) Competitions Increase attention and promote confidence in your brand.
Like it or not, potential clients who see an official looking badge on your website will subconsciously have more confidence in your brand. Furthermore shouting about your awards on social media will get views, likes and generally positive attention. This is great for social signals within the context of SEO. And it’s great for your clients to see your success and get excited about your work.
In summary, competition is good and on the whole, those who win things do so on merit and recognition from industry peers, I don’t feel whatsoever that wedding photography competitions are fixed at all. Certainly, each competition lends itself to different styles, so it’s important that you choose one that reflects your style and approach. My own story has been one of ups and downs, starting around 2008 when I submitted a panel of images to SWPP which was chewed up and spat out. After my initial disappointment, the feedback that I received started to sink in, and to this day some of the things that I was told at that time remain at the back of my mind whilst shooting. Every single competition I’ve entered and not made the grade has, again after the initial disappointment, made me look more closely at my work to identify weaknesses and improve on them. Apart from getting an individual critique of my work from photographers who I respect, entering competitions has been crucial in the improvement of my photography year on year. Of course, photography by its nature is hugely subjective, so there are massive differences in opinion. For me, that’s what makes it so interesting.