Behind the Camera: Photo Competitions

Welcome back for another installment of my Behind the Camera series.  In these entries, I will highlight a certain aspect of my photography and the topic is usually selected from a question that I have received over the previous month.  I'm going to do something a little different this time, however.  You see, the first of the month coincides rather conveniently with the start of the Dixie Classic Fair here in Winston Salem, NC.  This is something that I have participated in for a total of seven years since 2005.  It is the only contest that I regularly enter, and I have learned quite a bit from it over my years participating.

With this contest spending so much time in my head recently, I figured that this would be a great opportunity to speak about contests and what they mean to a photographer, and I'm sure any other artistic medium.  Contests are always an interesting topic and there are some very wide views on their relevance and importance.  I've run the gamut in my own personal experiences with contests over the years, and have come to a conclusion.  Contests can be fun for the thrill, but they are always a learning opportunity more than a validation of your own work.  What I mean is this, your goal should not be to win the contest, but to learn to view your own work more critically.  Of course we go in hoping to win, but one thing that I have found is that the only part of a contest that you can control is your own entry.  Beyond that, nobody knows what the judges will be looking for, nor what the other entries will bring to the table.  Contests are in essence a contest with yourself to find your best work that fits the character of the particular contest.  This is where you win or lose, the results of the contest are largely ceremonial and will likely come with dissension among those who have opinions on the entries.

With that out of the way lets take a look at what goes into selecting images for a contest.  This varies widely from artist to artist, so what I am going to talk about here only applies to my process.  The first step is determining what contest to enter.  There are a lot of them out there, and you have to be really selective in what contests to enter.  Many of the ones that are based online are ploys to get stock photography for a website/company.  What I mean with that is say you are submitting pictures for a calendar.  The company that publishes the calendar also publishes other items.  You submit your picture hoping to be featured in the calendar, and sign a licensing agreement that states something along the lines of you allow the company to reuse your image for this purpose and that purpose related to the contest, and for other promotional material.  If you aren't really careful, you will sign away your rights to that image while in their control.  This leaves them the ability to use it for whatever they want in many cases without any further compensation for you.

The other type of contest I have seen is one where you submit the image, and get notified that your image is among the best of the best and will be featured in a coffee table book which you can purchase for the nominal fee of $50.00 or something similar.  These contests usually have large prize money purses attached to them for the winners, and you have to pay to enter the contest.  These contests are money makers for the ones holding the contest with entries more than paying for the prize money, and then you have the book sales that many will do after receiving notification that they are finalists.  You should never have to purchase a book at full price where you are a contributor.  These folks are preying on a photographer's desire to get published.

I actually inadvertently stumbled into this type of contest earlier this year.  It was the Photographer's Forum magazine, 2018, Best of Photography contest.  I saw an add for it in an Outdoor Photographers magazine which is a very reputable publication.  I started to look at the website for the Photographers Forum and found some very quality images presented.  I looked at the contest which was a yearly thing, and looked very legit.  I perused through previous year's winners and thought that they had a wide variety of subject matter, much of which I shot.  Since this was a legitimate magazine, and it was sponsored by a reputable lens maker I decided to enter a handful of images based on what I had seen winning in previous years.

Brake Time
Back in July, I got word that one of my images had made the top 12% of the entrants to the contest.  While I should have been happy, I was very skeptical almost immediately.  There were several things that I saw wrong with this.  Based on the reported 8,760 images that had been submitted this was among the top 1,000.  Sure, I liked the image and I submitted it because it was similar in concept to a previous year's prize winner, but it was not the strongest out of what I had chosen to submit.  The kicker came at the bottom of the letter when they notified me that there would be a "beautiful hardcover coffee-table book showcasing all the finalists."  OK, I know where this is going.  I opted out of the book of course and tried to regain my composure.  I did some research (which I should have done earlier) and found that this was the way the contest ran.  It was legit, but it was primarily a vehicle to sell books to photographers that wanted to be "published."  Of course, I didn't win anything with this and that was not surprising at all.  I did learn a lesson that I apparently needed a refresher on about entering contests.  In the end, it wasn't a bad experience, and the winners were actually pretty good so no arguments there.

Down to Earth
2016 First Place
The one contest that I have entered over the years that I do actually like is the Dixie Classic Fair.  It is an opportunity to display my work in its intended printed form.  There are no licensing forms to fill out, no shady stuff behind the scenes.  It is just a simple contest with a small amount of prize money attached.  The judging is not always to my liking, but that goes with the territory.  What I like is the excuse to print out my work and have it framed, which costs more than any potential prize money I might add.  It is a great motivator to add to my own collection though so it is very much worth it.

The way the contest is set up, you have to differentiate between professional or
Dairy Barn in the Summer
2016 First Place
amateur.  Based on their definitions, I have to enter as a professional which limits me to two entries.  I can do one black and white and one color image framed and ready to hang.  Over the years, I have been very impressed with the amateur entries and find many of them to be competitive at the professional level.  What I don't like is that they are only allowed to be mounted and not framed.  I'm sure this makes it easier to display, but I think it detracts from the images.  I am a fan of having a finished piece on display.

2017 First Place
Since returning to photography in earnest in 2016, I have had really great luck in the contest with three first place ribbons and a second place ribbon.  I have regularly entered both the color and black and white categories even though I am primarily a color photographer.  Based on my winning entries, I have determined that rural scenes tend to do very well at the Dixie Classic Fair.  This starts to go into my decision making process when it comes time to select an image to enter.

I have entered landscapes in previous years, and some have done well, but
2017 Second Place
most seem to fall short.  What I have determined about that is that landscapes appeal to a certain type of person and then you have to find the exact type of landscape that will catch the eye of all of the judges.  This is difficult at best, and I have found that the landscapes that have done the best have been of a particular feature or subject.  With the rural photography, each image is featuring a particular subject that draws you into the image.  I think that the judges like that, and I have been very fortunate with this recipe over the years.

When it came time to select the images for the 2018 contest, I thought long and hard about it.  I really wanted to enter some landscapes this year and had a few in mind.  They had a lot of wow factor to them, but in the end they were just landscapes.  Several of which were sunrise/sunset images which should not be entered into competition since they are quite cliche' in the field.  I knew my safest bet was to enter something in the rural category once again, and that narrowed my choices down significantly.

Timeless View
My black and white entry turned out to be the easiest choice to make.  I did have several that I really liked to choose from.  There was a beach scene, and a foggy tree from the Blue Ridge Parkway that were in the top slots.  Both of these counted as landscapes, and the beach scene was a very moody piece and I knew it would have a limited appeal based on the emotional statement that it made.  The tree was eliminated after seeing the previous year's winner.  I saw that the judges really liked to see pure white and pure black elements in the monochrome entries.  The foggy scene was just shades of gray and did not have the visual impact that I figured that they were looking for.  The one from my short list that stood out in my mind and checked all of the boxes for what I was needing was Timeless View which had it all.  There was excitement, depth, a country feel and a complete range of tonality from white to black.  It was an image that amazed me at the time of capture, through the editing, and finally the print process.  I looked for other options, but was unable to find anything that came close to checking these same boxes.  It also turns out that this is one of my favorite images from the year thus far.

A Rusty Streak
When it came to my color entry, things got much harder.  I had a lot of favorites in mind for this entry and started really going through them.  There were several landscapes, a barn scene, and a couple from my rusty car collection.  I was really leaning towards a sunset at the coast as it was one of my all time favorites, but I just hate to enter that type of image into a competition.  The barn image was my initial selection as it was the quintessential rural scene, but the barn was small enough that it would almost be considered a landscape.  That little voice in the back of my head kept saying to go with what has won in the past.  I started to look closer at the old cars I have.  The ones that I was really wanting to enter were more intimate shots and became more abstract.  While they were strong images, I doubted that they would be well received by the judges.  When it came down to it, A Rusty Streak edged to the top.  It had the boxes checked that I wanted.  It had the rusty car, and even added a barn in the background.  The seasonal autumn colors were present in the trees adding to the palette of the image.  The field of yellow bridged the two elements, and the patina of the car pulled in the tones and colors from the entire scene.  It was a very cohesive image, and one that has been highlighted by Singh-Ray on more than one occasion.

I had the two images picked out, and win or loose, they represented what I thought were my best images for the contest that I was entering.  That was a huge hurdle for me, but not nearly the hardest part of this choice.  Now that I had the images, I had to get them prepared for display by getting them framed.  This is one of the harder aspects of making a piece of wall art.  It is very easy to slap a gallery frame job on an image and go with a black frame and white mat for uniformity.  Unfortunately, this is not always the most flattering presentation for the image.

I have been going to After 5 Framing in Greensboro for years now for my framing needs.  The owner, Dave is great at what he does, and has an eye for matching colors and pulling out the elements that you want highlighted in an image.  I used to really stress getting a picture framed and would struggle for days to figure out just how I wanted it done.  These days, I go in with the print and flop it on the counter.  I just let Dave do his magic with just a little bit of guidance from me.

13x19" print matted and framed behind art glass
$270.00 as shown
The first one to be framed was the black and white print.  I typically do these with a white mat and a black frame just because there is no need to pull any color out of the image.  This time, that just didn't look right at all.  We ended up playing around with things and found that a light gray mat would work better, and he added a dark mat under it.  That didn't look right so I flipped the mats and found that the light gray worked great as an inner frame and the dark gray brought out the textures in the print so much better.  The black frame completed the tonal transition that lead your eyes into the image from dark to light.  It was one of the more risky framing jobs that I have done with a black and white print, but I have to say that it turned out phenomenal and is one of my all time favorite framed prints.  Despite that fact, it is for sale as are all of my personal collection prints.

13x19" print matted and framed behind art glass
$270.00 as shown
The old Pontiac was supposed to be much easier to frame as I had colors to work with this time.  It turned out to be much more difficult in the long run.  I was expecting maybe a light gray mat with a yellow inner band and a brown frame.  Well, that just didn't look right at all, and we started to change things around quickly.  Dave did his thing and went for a brown mat to pull the color of the car, but that was too much.  We played with different colors for a mat to put on the top, and ultimately decided to go with a gray tone that matched the top of the hood and fender.  My idea for a brown frame kept the eyes from settling in the picture, so we went darker and found a weathered gray frame that worked perfectly.  When it was all said and done, the frame leads your eyes into the image with the gray picking up the sky and the car, while the brown grabs not only the car, but the barn in the background.  Since the field was so resplendent in yellows and greens, they stood on their own very well.  Once again, the frame helped to accentuate the picture, and really helped in the presentation.

At this point, it was all done except for the competition.  I was confident that I had selected two images that would show well, and hopefully do well during the competition.  As of the time of this entry being published the fair is in full swing but I have not had the opportunity to get by there to know how my pictures have done.  As soon as I find out, I will come back and add the results.  Regardless of how they do, I am looking forward to having them up on my walls and available for clients to purchase.

Edit October 5, 2018

The results are in from the photo competition.  I'm excited to share that A Rusty Streak has earned top honors this year in the professional color photography category.  I am really proud of this image and how it did in competition.  There was a lot of thought that went into which image to select for this category and apparently I chose the correct one of the bunch.  On the other hand, Timeless View did not do so well in the competition.  Surprisingly, it didn't place.  Since I have not been to the fair as of yet to see the winners, I have no idea what the judges were looking for this year in the monochrome genre.  I can only assume that the competition is getting much stiffer as the years go on.

I can say that I am still very proud of this image.  In fact, it is still one of my all time favorite shots and it captures everything that I wanted it to when I shot it.  That is the thing with competitions, opinions vary and there is never a guarantee on how the chips will fall.  I still say that of my two images, the black and white one was the stronger of the two.  I would be interested to see which ones took home ribbons in the competition to see how I can improve on my selection process for this particular competition.  It is always a learning process. 

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