Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why Enter a Photography Contest?

People often suffer under the belief that in order to compete in an event, they must be a master in their field. This misconception is often used as a crutch to protect oneself from what we think will be a moment of public humiliation. Instead, we hide in our safe place where we are only judged in a controlled environment, not having to worry that we will be criticized.

The misconception is often a result of our natural tendency to catastrophize the response to our efforts. In other words, we often concentrate on the worst and forget about the positives. Truth is that criticism is good, or even great, when provided in a constructive forum. We should not approach criticism as a negative attack on our abilities but instead embrace it as means to grow and improve.

Digital Grin sharp Shooter Challenge Entry
2.6 Splendor or Squalor
Iso 400, f/7.1, 1/4000 sec, 25mm

This topic came to mind the other day when I was reviewing a friend’s portfolio and realized that the most recent photos in the collection looked very similar to those shot two-year’s earlier. Granted there was a little improvement but for the most part, nothing had changed. The photographs were of the same subjects from the same angles with the same lighting. When I suggested that maybe a different angle would add a new perspective to the subject, my friend became defensive and began to argue her interpretation of the image. As talented as she is, she had found her safe zone and the thought off stepping outside of it was tantamount to opening herself up to ridicule.

I see this quite often on forum posts from photographers that are either new to public feedback or believe that they are far superior to any other photographer on the site. Instead of accepting suggestions for improvement, they lash back in defense of their work. It is a shame that they are missing out on the very thing that can help raise their photography to new levels.

One of the greatest places I’ve seen to get the criticism necessary for improvement is in photography contests. I mentioned Digital Grin in an earlier post. They have a bi-weekly challenge that offers some of the best input from other community members that I have seen on the web. Other sites such as Better Photo and Flickr have similar contests.

When posting for a contest, remember the following and it will be a rewarding experience even if you do not walk away with a prize:

1. Judging is subjective. The individuals selected to judge a contest may not specialize in the same subject matter that you do and therefore may not fully “get” what you intend. Do not expect a nature photographer to have a great appreciation for urban decay photography. Their input on technical aspects, though, may provide you with a new way of seeing your subject in future shoots.

2. Expect to be criticized. I have seen critiques of photos that on first sight I thought should be hanging on a gallery wall. No photograph is perfect. I’d be willing to be that if Ansel Adams were alive today and entered one of his great works of art in a contest, multiple people would find something that could be improved upon.

3. Accept criticism with grace. Even if you don’t agree with the assessment, accept that the person providing input is taking their valuable time to comment on your image. Put aside the initial hurt feelings and decide for yourself if what they have provided you can improve your photos during the next session.

4. Have fun. Compete regularly and you will get to know the regulars. Winning is great, especially if there is a prize on the line; however, approaching the contest for the experience will eventually be far more rewarding.

5. Critique others. I can't think of very few ways to improve your own photography than to find areas of improvement in the work of others.

6. Periodically look back at your entries. If you regularly participate in a contest series, I’d bet that 99% of the time you will notice an improvement in your images from your first contest entry to your latest. There are few things in this world that give such a direct indicator of growth!

I’m sure that there are more things that can be attributed to competitions. If you maintain reasonable expectations, readily accept constructive criticism, and have fun; I believe you will find contests to be great learning vehicles.


Jeff Meyers said...

Very good thoughts, Travis. Thanks for posting this.

Emmett Photography said...

Excellent article and great wisdom for those of us who say we want to improve.

From experience I always find people who are really secure in what they do and who they are accept criticism, whereas the rest us (me included) prefer to have our egos stroked.

Great blog and tanks for posting this.

Travis Owney said...

Thanks for making a good point. I figure we have 2 choices - walk away ticked off that we didn't get accolades or walk away intent on creating something far more deserving of recognition. Everyone I ever met that followed the latter became successful in whatever the pursued in life. I appreciate the comments.