What I’ve Learned Judging Nine Fearless Photographers Contests, Part 3

by Photo Mastery
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This is the third of a series of three articles. If you haven’t read the first article, read it here. The second article is here. Prefer to listen? Here are all three articles in one recording!


There is a difference between a good image and a competitive image. The vast majority of entries are good at the least, and many are great. One thing that separates the good from the fantastic is purpose.

Your image has to say something. What are you trying to communicate?

The most common thing that wedding photos seem to say is, “The photographer made us stand here like this. We don’t know why.”

I’m poking fun at myself here, too, since I’ve done this. I’m sure we all have.

Two things are important in delivering your message. Firstly, it should be authentic and not forced. Secondly, your composition should emphasize your message and exclude anything that dilutes it.

The best images happen when what you have to say and what your clients want to express come together. I talk about this concept in detail in another blog article, so I won’t repeat it here.

On to my next point about framing.

Often, a photo is so close to being selected for an award, but the photographer has not filled the frame effectively.

Apart from needless empty space, there can be extraneous elements in the frame. For example, say there’s a strong emotional moment between the bride and her father. But the photographer has also included the side of the bridesmaid’s face in the frame. She’s looking on, but we can’t really see her expression. This weakens the impact of the photo.

Each photo has a message, expressed through its most important elements. The more you add to the frame, the more you risk weakening your message.

Keep the most important things and be ruthless in excluding anything else. If all else fails, crop, baby, crop!

The corollary to this is, don’t crop things out unless that adds to your message. For example, there’s a trend right now of cropping people’s faces just below the eyes. Sometimes this works well, because it draws our attention to the main message in a powerful way. But the eyes are our most expressive parts. If you crop them out, make sure you’re saying something important with that compositional choice.

One more thing in this vein. Ensure you have enough context, so we know what’s going on. I like images that engage my imagination, but I don’t want to feel lost.

Here are a few more quick composition tips:

  • Engage our senses. Make me shiver with cold from seeing the goosebumps on the bride’s bare shoulders; make me nostalgic for a perfume’s scent; show me food that makes me drool—you get the picture.
  • Make it move! Photography is static, but life is filled with constant change. Show me movement and life.
  • Show me a new perspective. Most of our world is seen from standing, or sitting in a chair. Explore the space.
  • Introduce symbolism. Have a deeper meaning in your photo that transcends the literal image. I’ll explain this more with examples when we get to the awarded photos below. There are subtle and obvious ways to include symbolism in your images. Once you start to look you’ll see more opportunities. Symbolism is a good way to evoke more emotion from your images.
  • Light. Because without it everything is dark. And we bump into things and stuff. Also, it makes for stunning photos.
  • Layers. I don’t mean long underwear, although that’s also important. I mean, be conscious of your foreground, midground, and background. If you’ve got stuff happening in all three, make them interesting.
  • Tension and release. In music it’s called dynamics—quiet, loud, fast, slow. Too much of one thing leaves the listener bored or exhausted. In movies tension and release is more obvious. Will the guy get the girl? Will the girl save the world? Will the old man live? Those are cliché examples, but you get the point. There has to be tension for there to be release. In a still frame you can do this with contrast and juxtaposition—stolid plus humourous; light and dark; formal versus casual; etc.
  • Show me who you are. The best photos let me glimpse your personality and not just your clients’. There are a few photographers whose personalities shine through their photos so clearly I can spot their work immediately. Let me connect with you through your photography. There’s more of that connection stuff again. I swear I’m not as lonely as I sound.

Technical Expertise

The overall skill level for collections entries has really come up over the past few years. Technical issues aren’t as much of an issue, but they definitely pop up. Hey, we can all improve, right?

Here are the most common issues:

  • Framing—especially not being close enough
  • Lighting
  • Not catching the peak moment
  • Missed focus
  • Lack of context
  • Distractions
  • Wonky colour balance

Framing, distractions, and lack of context I covered in the last section. Not catching the peak moment I’ll cover in the next section. The other points are pretty obvious, so I’ll just cover them briefly.

Wonky colour balance doesn’t happen as much as it used to, happily. I recommend setting the colour balance to a specific Kelvin temperature for each new lighting situation. The exception is for rapidly changing environments, like concert lighting. If you’re using flashes (not talking concerts anymore), gel them to match the ambient light temperature. In the editing stage, remove unsightly colour casts, especially in skin tones. Use Lightroom’s hue sliders to fine tune your image—or the equivalent in whatever software you use.

Perfect your ability to see light and use your lighting gear. With crazy-high ISO cameras, smart flash systems, and workshops, there’s no reason to fall behind. If you’re in the USA and you want hands-on lighting instruction I recommend JVS. Joseph has mad skillz.

Sometimes, there are excellent moments, but the focus is so far off it’s distracting. I’m no sharpness Nazi, but your subject should be mostly in focus. If you’ve nailed the back wall, no award for you! (I hope you get that reference).

Timing and Difficulty

If I see something that took a split second of perfect timing to capture, that’s impressive. Also, images where you can see that the photographer was aware of their surroundings and got something interesting beyond the norm is refreshing.

There are entries where you can tell that the photographer missed the peak moment. For example, maybe a cake was dropped and there’s a photo of it on the floor, rather than of it falling. Some of these photos are still strong images, but a lot of the time they’re just a fraction too late.

Almost every photographer who told me the story behind their winning photo had the same thing in common. They said words to the effect of, “I saw an opportunity and shot and shot and shot!”

This is important. Don’t just try to nail it in one shot. I used to do that. I was pretty good at it, too. In one wedding I took 800 photos and was able to deliver 400 of them. But I still missed things. As I’ve said here before, quoting photographer David Murray, shoot through the moment.

Also, show me that you’re looking beyond the obvious. Show me you took a risk that paid off. For instance, walk away from the main action to get a different perspective of the vows or the first dance.

No one cares about a safe bet that returned a modest reward, unless we’re hearing it from our bank manager.


Different judges like different things. I’ve seen photos accepted that I wouldn’t select and I’ve loved photos that the other judges rejected. That’s the thing, there is no accounting for personal taste. Some people even like country music.

The taste difference is magnified by the fact that there may be judges from different countries. What is common to you may be super rare to them and vice versa.

The judging between the top few hundred images is super tight. There are always about 100 images that I agonize over excluding.

Don’t be put off just because you haven’t won an award before. In this Collection, 30 photographers had never previously won a Fearless Award. And don’t get discouraged if your image didn’t make the cut this time. It was a close race. You could even say it was a photo finish.

Photo by Ben Koller
Photo by Colin Coleman
Photo by Matt Theilen
Photo by Steven Rooney
Photo by Todd Laffler
Photo by Yves Schepers


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