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On Photo Contests

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As Both an Entrant and a Judge

By Jack Howard

July 30, 2009

I just wrapped up judging the April 2009 clip contest for the Illinois Press Photographer's Assocation, and it got me to thinking about my newspaper days, monthly clips contests, and photo contests in general. I truly enjoyed the hour or so I spent browsing through the 140 some-odd images entered by IPPA members, and I selected images that I truly thought stood out in each of the three categories, taking into account both subject matter and technical expertise shown in the images. There were some great moments captured well which finished in my top slots, there were some OK shots for day-to-day publication, and then there were some real dogs in the mix.

 

I don't mean to disparage our canine friends with that expression–nor the hardworking photojournalists of the IPPA–I simply mean photos that fell short in too many ways, in my opinion, to be clip contest winners. We're talking distracting elements, unintended and inelegant motion blur, near-but-not-quite-pinnacle-peak-action or pre-and post-peak action shots with too much dead space, or conversely cropped too tight, moments meant to convey some facet of the human experience that somehow felt saccharine or contrived to me, framing that didn't work, focal plane choices that seemed to me to draw the eye to the wrong point, on Tuesday morning July 28, between 9:15 and 10:18AM.

There was one shot that was in my top few for its category, but reading the caption removed it from the running, because as nicely a framed shot as it was with good exposure and composition, there was a serious disconnect between the news event being covered and the foreground subject. Or maybe there wasn't. But what the caption didn't do was tie the foreground subject to the background action in any way that engaged me and clarified why I was looking at this framing. A quote from the foreground subject referencing the background news event being covered would have made the photo make a lot more sense–agreement, disagreement, or indifference, any would have been fine.  But as it stood, it didn't work for me. Particularly in news photography contests, clear, concise captions can be a determining factor between a win and an "out."

Now, keep this in mind: I was part of a panel of judges for this contest, and of the four categories, my first-place images are the overall winners in just two of the four categories. My top images, again, were the images that best met my understandings, as a semi-retired news photographer, of what met the standards for those categories, earlier this week between 9:15 and 10:18AM on a Tuesday.  Were I to judge this contest today, instead of yesterday or tomorrow, some of my top images may have had their order changed a little, and maybe a different one would have squeaked into say, the top 7, but overall, the images I chose jumped out at me the most.

Here's the thing: photo contest judging is extremely subjective. Even within the confines of a news clips contest, judged by a panel of photographers who know exactly what each category means on an intrinsic level, the judging is completely subjective. I've judged 4-H fairs, clips contests for several different state Press Photographer associations, reader- submitted contests and Photographer of the Year shootouts and images of the year at my former magazines,  manufacturer-sponsored contests, and believe me when I tell you, it is tough, at times, to judge photo contests. Each judge brings his or her own personal technical and aesthetic experiences to the table, and what may be dazzling and astounding for one, may be old-hat and overdone to the next.

The best advice I can offer for any merit-based photo contest is this: understand the judging criteria, submit your strongest photos, make sure all your ducks are in a row with captions, releases, entry procedures, supporting documentation, etc. and hope for the best.

And then, every once in a while, you might actually strike gold, and what a great feeling it can be!


In the fall of 2000, I was shooting tons of shots of double-crested cormorants at a lake along the Jersey Shore on cross-processed Agfa RSX chrome, just for personal experimentation. As I started doing some research into the birds to learn more about their habits, I realized there was a potential photo essay in these shots of these rebounding birds. I pitched a photo essay for The Islander, the weekly standalone entertainment tabloid of the Asbury Park Press. It was OK'd, primarily, I believe, because another story had fallen through for the center spread and I offered to write it myself. The lead doubletruck art was without question a panned shot of a yearling cormorant flying low over the water reflecting the fall foliage. The cover of the magazine was a portrait of an adult looking noble and mischievous at the same time–perfect for the words, about how this rebounding species was seem as some as a success story and by others as nothing but a nuisance species.


This was my first photo essay (and writing assignment, too, for that matter), after making the switch from the image desk to staff shooter for the paper, and it was the first month I had joined the New Jersey Press Photographers Association, meaning I was eligible to submit this photo essay in the multiple picture category. And it won Third Place!  What a great feeling! The judges said they wished there had been more photos displayed–and so did I! But the page layout person at the time had different design ideas. Oh well. It was third. Straight out of the gate and I was on the podium! As you can see at left, I've still got the black and white issue of In Focus, The Journal of the New Jersey Press Photographers Association Spring 2001 showcasing my win in my collection.

For a long time, every month thereafter, I'd spend an hour or so going through the papers on a slow Saturday, after sports were shipped, auditing my published shots from that month, trying to narrow them down to the mystical six that would be shipped off to some farflung newsroom for the NJPPA judging. In Spring of 2001, I had back-to-back sports wins: First Place in March for hoops jubo and second in April for girls lacrosse action. Let me tell you, it was a great feeling! As time went on, I stopped entering the NJPPA contests; switching instead to the online, international version of the monthly clips contest offered on Sportsshooter.com. I placed second once, for Features, a macro silhouette of a spider, for October 2005. And again it was a great feeling.

For the past few years, it has been next to impossible for me to enter most photo contests, due to conflicts of interest enumerated in the fine print of the rules: you know, the business partners, afilliates, immediate family and pets of the sponsors that everyone else gets to gloss over and ignore? That language DQs me for so many of them that my policy is to now simply enjoy the entry galleries when these are publicly visible, and of course, the winners galleries.

And these days, I almost never turn down a chance to be a judge for a photo contest.

What are your thoughts on photo contests? Do you have any stories of wins to share?

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