What I’ve Learned Judging Nine Fearless Photographers Contests, Part 1

by Photo Mastery
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This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2016. However, I was recently a judge for Fearless Best Photo 2018, 20/20 Weddings, 20/20 Best Moment, and 20/20 Best Posed Photo, and all of my main points remain as relevant as ever. If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes, or how you can catch the judge’s eyes in photography contests, this article is for you. Prefer to listen? Here are all three articles from this series in one recording!

I was recently one of three Fearless Photographers Collection curators, along with Kelly Tunney and Aurora Lechuga. If you haven’t heard of Fearless Collections before, they’re the Fearless Photographers version of photography contests. Huy, who runs Fearless Photographers, prefers to think of them like museum collections—or perhaps art gallery exhibits—where there are different selections of work on display for visitors.

I’m honoured to have been a part of Fearless Collections curations on and off since the second one. Curating—or judging, if you prefer—is an intense but inspiring process.

There are so many great images! Going through them makes me itch to photograph a wedding. I stopped several times to jot down ideas that popped into my head from viewing the stream of creativity.

I feel bad when I skip past images, so I’d like to give you a peek behind the scenes at what I see when curating.

Here’s how my curating experience went. I received 9,834 photos. I view them all one at a time, full size on my screen and tag anything that catches my eye. This nets about 400 photos. Then I quickly scan through them all again, in case I missed anything.

After this, I manually sort images into categories. I’ll have one category with quirky/funny photos, another with tear-jerkers, portraits that share a common theme, etc.

This lets me easily compare like with like and keep the strongest ones from each group. This phase brings the keepers down to about 250.

After this I copy them into a new folder and take a break for a while. When I come back I untag everything, randomize the images, and edit in. I take another break, then see if I can cut any more. That gives me my final choices, though some of these get culled when combined with the other judges’ selections.

Here is what I look for:

  • Originality
  • Emotional connection
  • Composition
  • Technical expertise
  • Timing and difficulty

If any one of these is lacking, the others have to be extra strong.

There are technically well-done images I’ve turned down, because they don’t move me. And there are emotionally evocative images I’ve rejected, because there are problems with the technical side.

My favourite images can be greater than the sum of their parts. They can even be average in all areas except for one. But in that one area they really shine.

Let’s talk about each of the items from the above list. At the end of the third article in this series I’ll post 10 of the awarded images from Fearless Collection 33. Initially, I was going to put them throughout the article, but it felt odd to discuss common problems with photos and simultaneously display the winners. Click on their photos to see more of their photography.

Originality

Here is a compositional secret. It’s so obvious and simple you’ll say to yourself, ‘This man is bullshitting me.’ I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?
Surprise me.

Teller (Penn and Teller)

In each contest there are images that share similar ideas. For example, let’s take the compositional concept of small people in a big scene (SPBS).

Please note that I’m not making fun of this composition! I very much like some of these images. I still remember being in awe of Ben Chrisman doing this when I first saw it several years ago. Stunning images.

But the thing is, there are a lot of photographers doing these now. So, it’s a good example to use, because it’s a popular theme. Unfortunately, that means it’s easy for photographers to get lost in the crowd.

As I said, there were 9,834 total images. I counted 1,207 portraits that used the compositional idea of SPBS. Actually, I am also including photos that obscure the subjects in some way, where you have to hunt for them in the scene. Anyway, of these 1,207 a mere six received Fearless Awards.

That means to win an award your photo would have to be in the top 0.5%, just for that portrait style. You need to beat 99.5% of every other Fearless photographer in the world using this idea—potentially including the people who pioneered it in the first place.

I’m not a gambling man, but that seems like bad odds.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do those types of images. Or any other popular concept, for that matter. The point is, if you want to stand out, you need to put your own spin on it.

Let’s talk about a related topic. Every once in a while a cool new photographic trick bursts onto the scene. I don’t want to mention any in particular, but here’s a piece of general advice: If you’ve picked up a cool new idea from another photographer, chances are that many other people will also use it. The first time I see it I’m like, “Wow! How the heck…? Oh, that’s clever!” The hundredth time… well, not so much.

Technical tricks are the easiest thing for other photographers to replicate. Chances are that your photo won’t stand out unless you bring something else to the table.

When a photo features a specific technical trick and I know how it works, it distracts from the photo. It’s like knowing a magician’s secret. Once you know the trick you no longer see the magic; you see the trick.

Of course, if you have a completely original idea, your photo is now in the top 100% for that kind of photo. That’s a heck of a boost!

So, I recommend setting some time aside during the week for creative thinking. Don’t put all that pressure for new ideas on yourself at weddings.

The more you practice being creative the better you’ll be.

This is the first of a series of three articles. The second article is here and the third article in the series is here.

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