The American Landscape Photo Contest

Over the years as a photographer I have been interested in photo contests from time to time.  Of course, I want to win them when I enter, but I think what I get out of them more, is the ability to critique my work on a higher level.  I use that as a learning tool for all of the new pictures that I plan on taking.  

For the most part, my contests have centered around the Dixie Classic Fair which is a local/regional event.  The photography competitions have been a small part of the entire fair, and honestly, I have no idea who is judging them.  I've had a mixed bag of luck with this competition since my first entry in 2005.  Some years I do quite well, other years I don't even place.  I don't put a lot of stock in this competition because I do view the judging as rather random.

I also entered another competition in the early months of 2016 called the "Modern Landscape."  This was my first foray into the world of a dedicated photography contest.  The premise was to help promote an Ansel Adams exhibit here in Winston Salem, so they were looking for black and white photos to be entered.  I picked what I thought was a contender for the contest, but did not make the cut when the judging was done.  Yes, I had failed to place, and sure...I wasn't very happy.  It stung a little bit, but looking at the winners I can see how each of them won, and I agreed with the judges. It was a learning experience for me, and one that I hope will be helping me now.

A month or so ago, I heard about the Outdoor Photographer contest called "The American Landscape".  Since I am a landscape photographer primarily, this caught my eye.  Unlike the "Modern Landscape," there was no restriction on color versus black and white.  This meant that my primary photographic focus of color photography was fair game for the submissions.  I knew that I had gone through a bit of a renaissance in my photography last summer, and I was interested to know how I would stack up against other photographers.

A Bit of Drama
The trick was going to be picking images for the contest.  There was no limit on how many you could submit, which actually made it more difficult to select.  This was also my first photo contest that required an entry fee which would limit how many I would choose.  I wasn't sure exactly how many I wanted to select, but I started going through my landscape images to see which ones I might want to enter.  I knew right off that A Bit of Drama would be on my short list for entry.  Ever since I shot this at Big Creek during the drought, I have absolutely loved the composition and colors.  The lack of water actually made the image for me.

The lack of water made this view special because this is one of those creeks that very rarely drops to this level.  For me, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this particular picture with just the hint of a cascade as the foreground interest.  The trees in the distance formed a woodland tunnel which gave the scene some great depth.  The primary color tone is green with the leaves of late fall providing the warmer tones for balance.  Speaking of balance, there was a pretty cool element in place with the rock in the lower right corner.  It not only frames the white water, but it also helps to point out the other rock that caused the division in the water...all leading back to the woodland tunnel.  It was one of the last shots of the day, but by far my favorite one that I came home with!

As far as the competition goes, I expect that this will do well in the categories of composition, exposure, and technical approach.  I think that it will fall short in the creative category because it follows the same approach as many mountain stream shots.

Good Day Sunshine
Another picture that felt like a good fit for this contest was Good Day Sunshine which was shot along the Blue Ride Parkway in the late Winter.  I remember watching the colors in the sky change and the clouds move into position for what seemed like an eternity.  That was fortunate because I had made a really bad filter mistake early on in the series and had ruined several of the early pictures.  As the light increased though, the clouds fell into a nearly perfect position for the shot.  The composition was simple, for the most part.  I used the barbed wire fence as a foreground interest, that also gave a little bit of a leading line to the sun.  To keep the eyes from escaping, I used a tree at the edge of the frame.  Two of the fence posts framed a distant view of the purple mountains in the distance, which matched the color tones with the sky to the upper right.

What really stands out about this picture to me is the fact that the sky is so brilliant.  It was one of the best sunrises I have ever seen, and I was in the right setting to take full advantage of it.  I've learned over the years that to really get the colorful sky to pop, and make sense, you need to include the less colorful section that only a wide angle of view can give you.  The upper right gives credibility to the colors in the sky as you can see the natural transitions in tones.

The picture has a little bit of a non-characteristic flow to it which will either help me, or hurt me in the competition.  I think that it will do OK in most of the categories except for composition.  If I could have captured a little more to the left to give the sun room to breathe, it would have felt more balanced.  However, I had a roadway right at the edge of the frame, so that couldn't have happened.  I think it will do well in the creativity end though.

Peace and Tranquility
My next contestant was this one from Price Lake shot not too long after Good Day Sunshine.  It was another early morning attempt at a sunrise.  I didn't have high hopes for a lot of color when I arrived, and almost didn't get the camera out.  But, since I was there, I went ahead and put it together.  Ironically, Peace and Tranquility was a test shot to see how things would work out with a long exposure, and to dial in my depth of field.  There was hardly any color in the sky when I tripped the shutter, but when I looked at the LCD, I could see that the camera had picked up color that my eyes were not able to see.  The 30 second exposure smoothed the slightly rippled water as well.  It wasn't until I got home and looked at the picture on the computer that I really saw what I had.

I knew I had a composition that worked with an "S" curve on the left side that brought your eyes to the horizon.  That horizon came alive with the pre-dawn colors that my eyes never saw.  The water, which was glass smooth now, reflected the colors in the sky, and there was even a hint of pink in the lower right to add some visual balance to the rock that was jutting out on the left.  There was not much detail outside of variations in the shading, but there was enough to count for some texture.  Everything seemed quite soft and dreamy, and it was an overall simple image with great color tones.

While I liked this image quite a bit, it wasn't until I saw one of the previous year's winners that this image took on a different appeal to me.  The winning image was simple with overall cool tones.  It wasn't flashy, it wasn't complex, it was just there.  Because of the overall simplicity of the image here, I thought it would stand a decent chance with the competition.  I think it will excel in the creative aspects, and in the overall feel of the image.  The weaknesses will be more on the technical end.

Gnarled Centurion
As I was pouring through my images, I did a very smart thing and asked Toni what she thought.  I've come to trust her opinion on my photography more than once, and when I am at a stalemate, she is there to offer some sound advice.  A picture that I had overlooked previously was one of her favorites.  She really wanted me to enter Gnarled Centurion which was shot the weekend that Hurricane Matthew came through.  I really couldn't argue with the visual appeal here.  Since I have created the image, I have sold several prints of it, and have a 13x19" print hanging in the living room.

However, this is the picture that I love to hate.  Don't get me wrong, I love how it turned out.  It is dramatic with the sky, and the lighting is great.  The hint of fall color in the mid ground is a nice touch, and the blue in the clearing sky highlights the mountains.  So...what's not to like.  Well, I know the process that it took to get to this stage.  I really had to push the RAW file to its limits to get the color and exposure range out of this shot.  That created some technical issues that I will always see in place of the beauty of this shot.  It is an awesome picture, but I am afraid that putting it into a photo competition with a photography magazine those technical issues might be too much to overcome.

On the creativity scale, this one is off the charts.  Composition is very solid, and the exposure is definitely right for the scene.  It is dark and moody, but that was exactly what I was going for.  Will it do well in the competition, I doubt it.  But...I trust Toni's opinion, and I would love it for her if it did well since this is one of her favorites in my collection.  With her behind it, and several other of my clients who have put money on this print joining her, it would have been a mistake not to enter this picture.  If things are judged purely on impact, it will do well.

Peeling Back the Layers
Adding another one to the mix that Toni suggested is this one from a recent trip to Hawksbill Mountain.  I believe that her words were, I like that one of the rock better than the other ones you have selected so far.  Maybe I'm just used to seeing this feature at the summit of Hawksbill, and take it for granted now.  Maybe I'm still wanting more from this scene.  Either way, I had not really considered it for the competition until Toni mentioned it.  The more I though about it, the more I could see some potential to it for the contest.

Of course, what draws me to the scene in the first place are the layers in the rock which forms all sorts of wonderful leading lines.  They cause your eyes to race through the scene and off into the distance.  You can see the distant mountains to the left which adds the depth to the scene, and the clouds actually did cooperate with me.  There was a large bank of clouds over the distant mountains, while there was a break in the clouds above the ridge of the main element.  This helped to keep your attention on the rocks.  There were framing elements with the vegetation at the lower left, and the upper right.  The low sun accentuated the shadows in the layers.  Near the bottom was a nice section with earthy tones which helped to balance the early spring colors in the background.  There is a lot going on with this image, but it does work pretty well.

I think this image will excel in visual impact, and composition.  The exposure is right, and technically it is a pretty good image.  The only negative to it is that I really wanted more color in the background, and a more dramatic sky.  I just don't know if it has the "pop" to make it as a finalist with the group I'll be with.  It would make me very happy if it does well since Toni picked it out.

The Aqua Rapids
The last image that I seriously considered worthy of submitting was this one from just last week at Big Creek.  This was more of a "throw it in" image than anything else.  I loved this whole series of pictures and with them all being brand new in my collection, they all still had that "wow" factor to them.  Going on the thought that as I progress as a photographer, each set of pictures that I photograph should be better than the last.  With that though, these pictures should be better than anything that was before.  Now, I know that isn't true, as there is no real pattern to the quality of the images since there are just too many variables involved with each outing.  I was feeling very good about this last set though!

After looking at each and every one of the images, I picked them all apart, and decided on The Aqua Rapids.  It was not necessarily my favorite image from the set, but it was the one that I thought would do the best in the contest.  I wanted a nice and dramatic image since the majority of what I was submitting were more calm and serene.  The rushing water, and the shear volume of water gives this picture an instant impact.  The greens of the water make this a standout image (from this area anyway).  There was almost an electrical quality to the rapids, and that was what I was banking on.

The composition was strong with a great leading line, full of "S" Curves.  The rocks on the edges make a wonderful frame, there are dark areas at both lower corners which keep the eyes in the frame.  The trees in the background just exude lush forest, and balance with the greens of the water.  There are a lot of textures present as well.  Most of the positives I mentioned from A Bit of Drama are present here as well.  I think this one actually has a little more visual impact though.  The overall mood is different between the two which played a part in me entering both of them.  With all of the similarities, this one suffers from the same Achilles Heel as my first submission...mountain streams have been photographed many, many times.  I might be up against a bunch of similar images which will eliminate us all because none of these will stand out.

As I looked at these six images, I found it nearly impossible to eliminate any of them. They all had their strong qualities, and each had some negatives as well.  None of my pictures are perfect, but they each appeal to different parts of different people.  Each of these shots would appeal to a different person, and I'm hoping that one of them will appeal to the judges.  With that thought, I decided not to reduce my chances for a good appearance and chose to submit all six of these photographs.

At the end of the day, I'm not really expecting to win the "American Landscape" Photo Contest.  I've seen the competition that I'm up against, and they are all really good.  I would consider this a success if I make it into the finalist category.  Honestly though, I have learned a lot about myself and my photography here.  Even if I don't make it into the finals, I have bettered myself as a landscape photographer by looking so critically at my own work.  

I feel confident in saying, if I don't win, I have done my best and will hold my head high.  I'm proud of my photography, and I also know I have a lot to learn.  This is just another step on the path to my own self education.

Edit: August 7, 2017

The finalists have been announced, and unfortunately my photographs are not among them.  I make no excuses, I'm not sure of the specific reasons that I didn't make the cut.  What they were looking for was just different than what I submitted.  It was a learning experience for me, and one that I'm glad that I took part in.  I wish I had the answers to my questions so that I could learn from the experience and maybe do better next time, but I'll just have to take it at face value.  I'll continue to learn and hone my skills as a photographer and will take these chances occasionally.  Congratulations to the finalists!

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