Don't Get Discouraged
A recent photo that I had just started to enter into contests.
Having entered my fair share a wildlife photography contests I can attest it can really be a roller coaster of emotions. You just never know what image will do well and what won't. You are emotionally invested in your work, you remember how you got that one special photo, the work it took, the time and maybe the travel and when that special photo is not recognized in a contest it sometimes leads you to second-guess your abilities as a photographer. Like any other art form judging is highly subjective; some judges focus on the technical aspects of the photo while other judges focus more on the artistry and yet others on the uniqueness of the moment. As an entrant in a contest how do you know what will do well? That is the million-dollar question. Unfortunately, I do not have the answer for you, but I will share with you my observations and opinions.
A recent Top 100 winner in WildArt Photography of the Year the same image did not move onto the finals in Nature Photographer of the Year.
What I believe is contests want to put forward photos that have not been seen before. By that I do not mean the exact same image winning more than one contest but if a bear pouncing on a salmon just won a major contest the likelihood that a bear pouncing on salmon is going to win another major International contest in the near future or that same contest in subsequent years is highly improbable. So first look to see what images have recently won in major contests. Secondly realize that the judges see hundreds of bear photos and foxes and eagles and owls, lots of great photos, strong technically and visually pleasing but remember they see hundreds if not thousands of these photos. A fox pouncing on its prey is probably not going to be enough to win a contest as there are lots of images of foxes pouncing on its prey even though the photographer may have spent numerous hours in the field getting that photo. They want something that is going to stand apart from other contests and something that stands out from the entries they are reviewing. That has often meant exotic species have done well in contests as there are not as many photos of a snow leopard as there are a moose. Having said that though, this past year I am noticing a lot more common and accessible species doing well in contests and I have theory as to why. Exotic animals in difficult locations that takes thousands of dollars to get to and photograph, or only obtainable by camera traps winning awards continually actually discourages entrants and is not attracting the average person to wildlife photography. It gives the impression that wildlife photography is too hard, the wildlife is too inaccessible and the costs too expensive. It makes people feel it is out of their reach including myself at times. So my theory is by having images of more commonly seen and accessible animals do well in contests, it makes the average person feel more confident that they too can have success as a photographer. And please do not get me wrong, I am by no means knocking those great images of more common species. I truly believe some great photos have been overlooked because the subject is real common species like a squirrel or a goose. So I am happy if this is indeed happening as I believe a great photo should have equal opportunity to win regardless of the subject. Maybe I am being altruistic but It does seem to me that any species can have the opportunity to win now in some contests, but it still does need to a unique shot.
This image has placed (over five times) as many times as it has not placed in photo contests.
I have definitely had my ups and downs in contests. I have been closed out of contests and shook my head at what won, I see images that place, and I think I have an image almost exactly like that and would never have though to enter that image. The reality is It’s tough to even guess sometimes which are the best photos to put into a contest. The European wildlife photography contests, which includes big contests like Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature Photographer of the Year tend to favor more artistic shots however, when you get into the North American contests there seems to be a focus more on technical skills, clean backgrounds, and unique behaviours such as interactions between different species or interspecies fighting. You do need to know the judges and understand the type of photos that are best to enter into each contest based on previous winners and judges' preferences. Each judge is also going to have a preference for a certain species, and where artistry ranks in comparison to technical skills, and where light ranks in comparison to behaviour. My advice take the time to study the judges' own work to better understand their style and to gain some insight into their image preference. Even if you can parse that out, there are thousands of images entered in most contests and sometimes great images just gets missed. The judges quickly go through pages and pages of images, and realize they initially are only looking at thumbnails and its easy to miss a good image as a thumbnail. So not just your photo needs to be awesome but so does how it looks as a thumbnail.
A filler image I submitted in Bird Photographer of the Year that surprised me by making to the finals when other images I felt were much stronger did not.
I have photos that have placed in the top 250 or top 100 in one contest and then be totally shut out in other contests using the exact same photo. I’ve had photos that I put in as a filler because you get 20 entries for your entry fee and that photos is really just an afterthought and that photo does well, yet a photo you really believe in and feel it is one of your best ever does nothing. You just never know.
I keep entering this photo because it is a once in a lifetime shot that I truly believe in. It has made Top 100, Top 250 and shortlisted as a finalist but has yet to win a category in a contest or the contest itself, so I just keep entering it. You need to be resilient.
Lastly I think you need to really understand why are you entering the contest. Ask yourself that question and really think about the answer. Is it just your competitive nature, or do you need the validation that your work is good, or are you hoping that a contest win will launch your photography career? I know why I enter contests. I have a business as a wildlife photographer and part of that involves teaching other photographers how to improve their skills. It immensely helps my credentials to have success in contests. It builds my credibility and that is my primary reason for entering photo contests. It really is about giving people the confidence to invest in me as a mentor and coach for them. I also understand its not about boosting my print sales which are another part of my business.
Print sales are not really dependent on whether I won a photo contest or not, but they are really dependent on what a buyer connects with, what strikes them in a moment. Like all art each of us sees something different that moves us and for 95% of the population it doesn’t matter if the work is by Picasso or the painter down the road (unless you are an art collector) you love what you love. Most people are purchasing works that moves them and that they connect with on some emotional level. Its a piece that speaks to them the moment they see it and it is usually a spur of the moment purchase, they see something they like it and they may go confer with someone because it is a big investment but they are back with a few minutes and they are buying it. It’s not likely they will come back or week or a month later to be the work, nor are they going to spend a lot of time researching my background to see what contests I have won, they buy it because it connects with them.
My best-selling print image however I have never entered it in a contest.
So my advice to avoid becoming discouraged in the photo contest world, first understand why you are entering a photo contests, what’s your purpose? Once you understand this then decide whether winning a contest is going to serve that purpose and if it does then you are on to the next step Take the time to study what types of images do well in that contest, what the judges' style is like and find images that are going to mesh with those observations. Lastly understand just because your images do not do well in the first or the thirtieth contest doesn't mean you don't have great photos. You need to believe in yourself and in your work, you need to build resiliency Just because your work is not recognized in a photo contest does not mean that your skills aren’t great, it doesn’t mean that your work is not print worthy, and it doesn’t mean that your work is not publishable. Once you understand that you just need to continue to have faith in the photos you really believe in. Don’t get discouraged. As the saying goes "the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried". You may need to fail many times before you have success but continue to believe.