EP147 Image Competitions: The Only Way To Fail Is To Fail To Enter

Yay! Other than a crappy cold, a very good week.  Won a Gold Bar with the Guild Of Photographers a couple of days ago which got me to thinking about competitions: why we do them, how to do them and the fear of failure (when in fact, the only failure is to not enter at all!)

There are one or two other things to bear in mind and I step through them in the podcast.



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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] I’m really sorry, it’s just been one of those weeks. I have spent three days, three whole days at home feeling ill and mostly grumpy. Sorry, I don’t take to being poorly particularly well. Whatever Michelle and Sarah had last week. Of course, I inherited it this week. It turns out that the word viral is not a joke.

[00:00:25] It’s just a cold, really, but it’s been quite a horrible one. It hit my chest straight away, and I just felt awful, and if I’m honest, after three days off work this evening is the first time I’ve really felt sort of compos mentis. I’ve spent three days sitting in the lounge with the fire on. It’s been cozy enough, but I’ve, I hate being unproductive.

[00:00:46] I hate not getting through the lists that I’ve got to do. I hate the idea that I’ve wasted three days, but in the end, that had to be done. So as I sit here next to the fire watching back to back episodes of Law Order, I’m Paul, and this is the Mastering Portrait Photography Podcast.

[00:01:07] [00:01:20] So I hope you’re all feeling a little bit better than me, and in terms of the catch up of the week, well, I can’t really say that I’ve done that much out of the seven days or so. Three of them have been spent laid up doing very little. Obviously, I’m still doing some coding, writing emails, and an awful lot of judging has been flowing through my world. Not this time, not just as a judge or as a chair of judges but also as a contestant. It’s been an interesting time.

[00:01:47] So, I judged for the FEP this week, the first of the final rounds of their annual image competition. I’m one of the judges on the portrait category.

[00:01:58] 647 images, I think, were there to judge. And if you think about that as a volume of judging and all of our, all of the judges. Whether it’s for the BIP that I chair for, whether it’s for the SWPP, the Societies, whether it’s for the Guild, whether it’s for the FEP, the World Cup, it doesn’t really matter what the judging is.

[00:02:19] It takes time and we do it for nothing. Well, I say nothing. We don’t do it for nothing, but we do it for free. And so, if you think about all of that, 647 images. If I went at it hell for leather and judged one image per minute with no breaks, that’s still basically 11 hours of judging, which is an awful lot when you think about it.

[00:02:45] And yet, we put ourselves through it. And I do it because I really enjoy it. I really love the process, I love seeing the images, though there is some disappointment when we’re judging and the images haven’t come up to standard. But, nonetheless, it’s cathartic, it’s inspiring, it’s very therapeutic, it’s quite a rhythmical sort of thing to do.

[00:03:04] And I really love it.

[00:03:06] On top of that, if that wasn’t enough, the results to the BIPP monthlies came out the first BIPP monthly round. So this is a new competition for us. We’ve set it up to run parallel to the print competition, which opens up in sort of June time and it’s judged in September. And they run side by side and they are different beasts.

[00:03:27] So the print competition, exactly what it says on the tin. Submit your prints in the category. Best print wins each category. That’s it. Very simple to do. The monthlies are not that. The monthlies have been designed.

[00:03:41] to reward consistency as much as really high quality inspirational work. With a print competition, you only need to shoot one image, and depending on what everybody else shoots, you could end up with the title of the print image of the year, the portrait print of the year, the wedding print of the year, whatever it is.

[00:04:00] With the monthlies, it’s been designed not to be quite like that. The monthlies It’s about consistency more than it is about that one high scoring image. That’s not to say that a high scoring image isn’t a thing to be treasured and will get its accolades, but what we’ve done is design a competition at the BIPP, which is Sorry, the BIPP is the B I P P, the British Institute of Professional Photographers.

[00:04:27] So we’ve designed a competition that runs for 10 months of the year. And we take, for every photographer, the top scoring image of theirs in each category. So it doesn’t matter how many images you, you enter, that’s irrelevant. Each month, we’re going to take, for that photographer and each category they’ve entered, their top scoring image.

[00:04:47] And over seven of the ten months, we’re going to accumulate those scores. So you have the opportunity, if you wish, to take three months off. So you have ten months, take three months off if you wish, seven months. So your top seven scores for each category will be accumulated. So your top seven scores in portraits per month.

[00:05:09] So in January Portrait. You enter five, we take the top one. February. You enter five in Portraits again, we still take the top one. And that’s, that’s two of your scores sorted. And the reason we’re doing it that way is that each photographer in the BIPP gets one free entry every month.

[00:05:28] So you have for free the ability to enter and win the monthly’s competition for the year without laying out a single cent. All you have to do is find the time at the end of every month to pop in a high quality competition level image, upload it, put your name in, Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt, off you go, you’re done.

[00:05:47] And you could win it.

[00:05:48] So what amazes me, and there’s a point to this story, not only is this how it works, but the point is, why don’t more people enter? We had lots of entries, but it’s not everybody, and I can never quite get my head around why, if it’s free, and you have the opportunity to create some great PR, I’m looking at the PR on Facebook this week, and on various websites and Instagram, and people are really celebrating their success in all of the monthlies, not just the BIPs, and it’s brilliant, and that’s what it’s designed for. It’s designed to give photographers the opportunity to have something to celebrate and to share with their clients. This is, in the end, about clients. I think too often in the industry we think about it as being about, it’s about photographers, and it’s not really.

[00:06:31] It’s about our clients. And the monthlies create every 30 days or so, the opportunity to share success with your clients and you can do it for free. So why, with the thousands of members do we have, do we not have every photographer entering?

[00:06:48] Still can’t get my head around that and if you think I don’t put my money where my mouth is.

[00:06:54] This month, I did enter as I have done for the past year, I entered the Guild Monthlies competition. Obviously, I can’t enter the BIPP competition, because I’m chairing the judging. So I entered the Guild, and this month, for the first time since I’ve been entering it, I got a gold bar, which is nearly the top standard.

[00:07:12] It’s not the top standard. The top standard is Platinum. But nobody’s won a Platinum yet, so I’m happy with that. I got a gold and won an image of the month. Now, that’s not the point of this story. It’s not really to brag. Though I am really pleased with myself because it’s an image I took of I think it’s the bass player from the band The Sweet.

[00:07:31] He was very cool. He was in our studio. It was just a normal session shot I took for him. all for the band. And I decided to try it, enter it as a competition, and see how we go. I think the point is that I entered. I gave it a go. Now, people get really nervous about entering competitions, and I don’t really understand why.

[00:07:51] Now, you know my views on this. Competitions are not the best way to hone your skills, because you get no feedback, and even if you produce the best image of your life If your competitor has produced the best image of their life, they may just win. and give you nothing really, no, certainly no winning image to celebrate.

[00:08:13] Also, you know, with the judging process, you don’t know how you’re going to do. Every photographer enters an image thinking they stand a chance. But judging is what it is. We’ve got to rank all of the images and who knows? Maybe it doesn’t do as well as you’d expect. And people take that really personally.

[00:08:30] I take it really personally. But the difference is I still do it. I just don’t tell anybody I’m doing it. I do it quietly. And the images that succeed, well, I celebrate those and we publish them. And Sarah in particular loves it because it gives her an opportunity to talk to our clients and put out some PR.

[00:08:47] And she’s been doing that all day since the result came out yesterday, which is fantastic. So, I give it a go, I do it. I don’t always do that well, if I’m honest, and judges typically, they, there is a correlation between the judges and success in competitions, but it’s nowhere near as marked as you’d think it is.

[00:09:08] And you can see this while we’re judging. So if I’m chairing a panel of judges, you’ll see marks from each judge fluctuate quite widely. So a challenge is triggered when one judge’s mark is 10 away from the average decision. So whatever the judges came up with, we take the average, and if one or more of those judges is 10 marks different, we have a challenge.

[00:09:29] And we have plenty of challenges, which tells you quite a lot about the fact that every judge has things that they are looking for, and if the image that is in front of them doesn’t have it, they won’t score it as highly. Equally, if it does have those things, they will score it highly. There is volatility in scoring.

[00:09:46] You cannot use print or image competitions. as a measure of you as a person, or you as a business, you as a creative, but when you do win, celebrate it. When you don’t win, well, you have to figure out what to do with that. The great thing about a monthly competition is that there is the opportunity for at least a little bit of learning.

[00:10:10] because you don’t have to wait for a year to try again, you can just wait four weeks. Re enter some more images, keep an eye on what comes back, what gets into the bronze, silver or gold. If you haven’t quite made it across the line, what makes it into the the commended, which is what we have at the BIP. I don’t know what the other societies do for those things, but everybody has a sort of way of doing it.

[00:10:31] So the trick is, celebrate your wins, keep your losses to yourself, and then there’s a whole load of pressure removed for you. So It is slightly different in in the monthlies. So, back on, I’m gonna bang on this drum. If you haven’t entered into one of the monthlies, into any association you’re part of, why not?

[00:10:52] What’s stopping you? Think about it. What is actually stopping you? It’s almost certain, almost certainly rather, a fear of not doing well. Well, I enter them every month, I tell you when I’ve done well, and I keep it very quiet when I haven’t. And I’m still amazed at how few people do it. And with the BIPP, every entry is £5, but you get one entry for free.

[00:11:15] And with the BIP, every image is £5 a go. But you get one for free. So that’s a value of £5. So if you had entered 10 months of the year, that’s £50 worth of free entries.

[00:11:27] Who’s going to turn down 50 quid over the year? And the value of the opportunity to talk to your clients is priceless. Now you can argue you might not win, and that’s true. I don’t. But when I do do well, I will share it. When I don’t do well, quiet. I just keep it nice and quiet.

[00:11:45] So the results came out for the Guild yesterday, so they’re on the 21st, and the closing date for the Guild is at the end of the month, so it’s a leap year, so it’s the 29th of Feb. So I’ve got about somewhere between 8, 9, 10 days every month between the results to the previous month coming out and the new round to choose what I’m going to put in.

[00:12:06] I know I’ll keep entering and I know I’ll keep learning and I will keep being surprised at what does well and what doesn’t even though as a judge and as a chair of judges very often I’m in the position of determining that and even having just judged the portrait group for the FEP, the Federation of European Photographers, I can tell you now when the second round comes back to me in a couple of weeks I lay a bet. The images that come back will not be in the same order as I pick them out. That’s life. I’m working with judges from all over Europe, I’m working with people of different tastes, different influences, different things they value in an image. So you can never be certain, but what you can be certain of is if you don’t enter it, you ain’t gonna win anything.

[00:12:48] That’s a dead cert. So why would I choose absolute certain failure over anything else? Sorry, you never use the word failure. It’s not a failure. Nobody fails. Except when you don’t enter. Yes, you do. You fail. You’ve failed to enter, you’ve failed to compete, in which case, failure is the only word I have for it.

[00:13:07] If you enter and your image isn’t successful this time around, there’s a million factors to that. You can learn from some, you might not learn as much as you’d like, you can take those images because you have them. And you can show your mentor, or show a friend, or show another photographer, or show someone get a critique.

[00:13:21] [00:13:21] So there’s just a few things I have spotted over the past week to ten days. with competition images. This is accumulated from what I’ve seen on the judging side with the BIPP, or the BIPP Monthlies, and what I’ve seen from the competitor side, so as a judge rather than as a chair, on the FEP.

[00:13:41] One, don’t over sharpen, particularly when it’s an online entry. The screens tend to be quite sharp. They tend to make things look a little bit sharper than perhaps they could be, in my opinion, anyway, maybe it’s the screens I’ve got. So don’t over sharpen. No one on any competition I have ever been involved in the judging has ever said they’ve under sharpened this image.

[00:14:06] But every round I will hear someone say, that image is over sharpened. Don’t overdo it. Alongside that There’s a huge temptation, particularly with the users of Lightroom to use clarity and or detail enhancement. These are still, so there’s no such thing as sharpening, it’s just localized contrast.

[00:14:24] Equally, clarity and detail are variations of the same thing. If you’re quite keen on the clarity slider You can see it in the image. It starts to look like it’s been heavily processed. For some categories, that’s great. For some categories, that will get hugely rewarded. For others, it won’t. So have a look at what’s done well previously and tune your effects and your clarity and detail to suit that.

[00:14:51] Don’t blow out your highlights or block up your shadows. What do I mean by that? I don’t want ever to see pure white, and that’s tricky if you’ve got, let’s say, a grey flat sky, and you’ve lit someone against what light there is. So get it under control, make sure there’s detail in the highlights, and there is detail in the blacks.

[00:15:09] And don’t think you can cheat by raising up the blacks to be grey. Thinking, well that’s right, nothing in the image is now black. If there’s no detail in it, we’re still going to see that the blacks were blocked up, they’ve now just become very dark grey, and still blocked up. If there’s no detail in there, I would suggest you find an alternative image.

[00:15:32] Colour grading. A lot of colour grading knocking around, and there are a thousand colour panels out there at the moment. Be careful, that the colour you’re using is part of the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t just make it desaturated because it’s desaturated, or make the shadows a bluey green because you’ve seen it on a Netflix film.

[00:15:50] Tell the story with your colour. If you’re going to use colour, tell the story through it. Be careful that you don’t just process for processing’s sake. It must be part of the storytelling.

[00:16:00] If this podcast makes you feel uncomfortable because I’m sounding ill, trust me it’s worse for me. I’m sounding ill. Where are we? Next one, number five, look for emotion, and then number six, impact. These two are intertwined. When you look at an image as a judge, we have to react to it.

[00:16:20] Judging as a process gets criticised a lot as to why don’t we prioritise creativity, emotion, impact, these words. Sort of soft, the soft skills, I suppose, of photography. The truth is, we do. That is the top scoring band. Impact. Bam! Get it in front of us. Work out what it is about the image.

[00:16:43] Whether it’s the way you’ve cropped and formed the story, where you’ve laid out the parts of the puzzle, where you’ve used colour, the way an expression just connects with you as a viewer, whatever it is. Make it about impact, because as judges, we want to feel something. We want to know that you felt it, too.

[00:17:02] Number seven, do not enter the same images everywhere. I kid you not, there’s an image I’ve judged I won’t say exactly where, but I’ve judged it this week that I’ve seen now four times. Four different competitions, I’ve seen the same image. I wasn’t always the judge. I was a fellow contestant in one.

[00:17:22] I was Chair of Judges for two, and Judge for the fourth. I’ve seen it four times. Well, imagine the lack of impact by seeing it that many times. Now I know, as a contestant, you may not think the same judge is gonna see it every time. But, the truth is, there aren’t actually that many judges. Not really.

[00:17:45] So there’s a lot of cross talk. So you get to see the same images quite a bit, if you’re entering them into different competitions. As an extension of that, and this is So the first one’s not that easy to avoid if you enter lots of competitions. It would be great if you could, prep a different image from the shoot for each competition, but I know it takes time and it’s expensive if you’re doing print, but I would still recommend it.

[00:18:11] This next one, though, is slightly different. If you shoot images in series, what do I mean by that? If you shoot dogs running and jumping, one dog running and jumping, or you shoot a certain style of child portraiture, or a certain style of I’m talking portraiture in particular, a certain style of female portraiture, I don’t know.

[00:18:31] Don’t put more than one of that style into any round of a competition at one time. Don’t put them all in January. The idea that we’re going to pick out the highest scoring image, the image we think is best out of your series of five, simply not true, because we judge them in a randomised order, but sequentially.

[00:18:51] We get an image, we judge it, we move on to the next image, we move on to the next image. So you have no control over what order we see them in. We have no control over what order we see them in. And the idea that we’re going to go to the last image of a set of five, and could you know I’ve seen all of these?

[00:19:05] I think image one was the strongest, I should have given that more, more higher score. That’s not how this works. We evaluate each image based on its own merits at that point in time. But if we then see four more of the same image, trust me, the impact on the last image isn’t going to be as great, even though they are technically different images.

[00:19:26] So what you’re doing is you’re sacrificing four incredible images to get one through. You have to make a decision over which one to put in. And then, guess what? February? Put another one in. March? Another one. There’s no way, it’s not a, it’s not a thing where we can pick images out, because we have to judge them one after the other, so that every single image stands the same chance of getting the same score. That’s why we do it.

[00:19:51] And number nine, so another point on the judging, is don’t forget to finish your images, each and every one of them, fully. So there’s an image during the recent judging I did, stunning. I looked at it on the screen, small, beautiful. Hit the 100 percent button, zoomed into the pixels, moved around the image, because when you’re doing online judging, this is how it works, and you could see that the photographer, it looked like, I don’t know, their nan had called round midway through them doing the retouch.

[00:20:23] And they just never went back to that image. They submitted it with holes in the background and gaps where They’d dropped a background in over the top of the subject, and you could see the overlaps so clearly. They were just hard, like they’d hit it with the pencil tool, not the brush tool. And it clearly, all they’d done is not gone back over the image with a fine tooth comb.

[00:20:43] It really, it felt like, they’re sitting there doing this beautiful retouch. It’s a beautiful lady, she’s got flowing hair, the background’s nailed. She’s resting on a bench, or whatever it was. And then bing bong. Mom’s here. Mom. It’s your mom, Paul. It’s your mom. Come down. Alright, I’ll be down. I’ll be down in a minute.

[00:21:00] No, now. All right, I’ll come down now. And that was the end of it. It’s as if I went back to the image and just never picked it up again. I must have hit send or something. This is not my image, by the way. I really felt for the creator of it, because it was a stunning image. And I even put, it’s one of the rare times I’ve put in the comments field when I’m judging.

[00:21:18] If the judge is surprised at why I’ve classed this as not competition standard, when clearly it’s stunning. Clearly the photographer knows their craft. Please get them to look at it like I did and see the holes they’ve left in the retouch. So finish them properly.

[00:21:37] So don’t do that. So those are the things I’ve noticed this time round.

[00:21:42] And the great thing about entering a competition is it gives you an opportunity to experiment. Experiment in January. If it doesn’t work, change the experiment. Or, no, you never change the experiment.

[00:21:51] You experiment. That’s not how it works. Experiment in January. Change what you try. in February. It’s the same experiment. And then March. And then, who knows, by June, you might have got the swing of it. Who knows? What I will say, though, is that this ability every month to have a go, see how you do, celebrate your successes, learn from those that aren’t quite so successful, is hugely, hugely powerful.

[00:22:16] I still, still don’t think competitions are mentoring. They are different beasts. You know my views on that. But there is still something to be learned from. Entering a competition monthly.

[00:22:30] And the best way of entering monthlies, or any competition really, is if you are organized.

[00:22:35] Then spend time with your images. Print them, hang them up, look at them over time, keep an eye on them. Because if you do that You’ll get to see those little niggles, you’ll get to appreciate where things could be fine tuned.

[00:22:49] On the other hand, if you’re like me, and it’s all a little bit last second, then just make sure when you do the prep for your client, you’re always producing images at sort of competition level.

[00:23:01] There is a difference between competition imagery, what we would choose, how we’d finish them, and there is with what we produce for our clients. But for me, that gap isn’t that great. I think if you’re a fashion photographer, there’s almost no gap. If you’re, one of the Fearless Wedding Photographers, there’s almost no gap.

[00:23:19] I think there is for many sectors in the industry though. So just make sure you’re prepping your images essentially to competition standard. If that image that I talked about earlier had gone out to a client, the client would have sent it back to me laughing. I’d have had to sort it out. And it did happen to me once.

[00:23:33] It wasn’t my retouch, but I did see it. It was my image someone on at the time, an assistant had retouched it, and I knew the minute I saw it go out, it’s like, that’s coming back to me. And I knew because she’d over whitened the floor, and it looked like the object was floating. I don’t do that kind of photography very much, but when I do, it has to be right, and it wasn’t right, and it’s really frustrating.

[00:23:57] Do it to the best that you can. Get it to competition standard, or as close as you can, with only just a little additional finishing where required, because that way, I don’t need to worry about having tons of time to get it into a competition. The image I entered and got my gold bar was not the one I thought would do well.

[00:24:13] I just didn’t think necessarily of the set that I entered, it was the strongest image. Turned out the judges felt differently. But it was certainly finished to that level because the band could have been using it on a poster.

[00:24:23] So, the same criteria is still applied.

[00:24:26] There’s no jeopardy in entering. The worst that can happen is that you don’t do as well as you’d hope. And that happens to all of us. The gold bar this month? It’s the first one I’ve attained with the guild, and it’s just a regular image. It’s now out, of course, on social media.

[00:24:43] Sarah’s celebrating it everywhere. I’m a little slower to get it onto social media. But it gives me an interesting topic to talk about on here. And so the question I suppose you’re asking is, how many other images did I enter? I don’t know how the other images did, I’ve only won one gold bar and got it one image of the month. But I can’t argue that you can do this anonymously and then, for me, not be anonymous. So I’m not going to tell you how many other images I entered, but it’s definitely more than one. And so why not make this, this year, the year you’ll give it a shot. If you’re part of the BIPP, you’ve only missed one month, you still have plenty of months ahead of you, there’s nine more to go, deadline always at the end of the month, images, image results come out on the 15th, to give you time to reassess and figure out what you’re going to enter for the next month.

[00:25:31] And you never know what might happen. And if you can do it for free, and this is particularly to the BIPP, if you can do it for free, Then we really, and I mean this, this isn’t a figurative thing, you have nothing to lose. It’s free. The clue is in the title. And on that happy note, I’m going to dose up on some Lemsip, some Benelin, some Nurofen, and I’m going to call it a night.

[00:25:56] Thank you for listening as I sit here in my cosy little lounge to this podcast. As always, head over to masteringportraitphotography.com for lots of articles and stuff, and also it’s the spiritual home of this podcast. On top of that Please do leave us a review, tell another photographer or someone you might think would be interested in it about the podcast, leave us some comments wherever you can, and hit subscribe on whatever podcast player you use.

[00:26:21] That way, as soon as I get round to releasing an episode, there it is right in your ears before you even know it. Whatever else, as I sip my Lemsip, keep warm and be kind to yourself. Take care.

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