Photography Competitions: Not Worth Bothering

I’m frustrated.  Extremely frustrated.

I’ve come back from another competition night at my camera club, where I failed to pick up a single award (I entered three images) despite favourable comments from the judge.

This has been a constant theme this year.  For the last two months (and for most months this year), I’ve also failed to pick up an award.  The last awards I picked up were two merit awards at an inter-club competition in July, where the judge had previously overlooked everything I’d entered in a regular club comp.  Those same images won me merit awards in June (awarded by a different judge).

I am in the A-grade category at a large camera club with an extremely competitive contingency, and I produce strong, comp-grade images (I’m very fussy about what I enter), but I cannot even get in the top 50%.

Of the 27 images I’ve entered this year over a period of nine months, I’ve picked up awards for only four images.

I constantly see very ordinary images getting awards, in spite of less favourable comments from the judges.  Yet images which get good commentary (be they mine or other people’s) get overlooked.  Even the quality of A-grade entries in general has really gone down over the last few months; I’ve seen stronger B-grade images than some of the material that’s appeared in A-grade.

The problem with club competitions is that the goal posts are constantly moving.  There are different judges, with different biases.  On one night I saw one judge pan one of our B-grade members’ images (which in my view was badly composed and motion blurred, and lacked anything visually or conceptually strong), yet the same image appeared in the following month’s competition and won an award from a different judge!

I am thoroughly confused.

Even in an online competition in which I participate just about every week, I have only managed to win once, and it was a tie.  I appear in the top five quite frequently, but cannot manage to get the top spot.

I really have no idea what it takes to succeed in photographic competitions.

So, to that end, given the fact that:

  1. there’s no consistent playing field with competitions;
  2. my lack of success is seriously discouraging me and eroding my love of this hobby; and
  3. the levels of competitions I enter don’t amount to a hill of beans as far as photographic accolades are concerned,

I’ve decided to completely withdraw from entering any competition at any level.

I’m completely over it, and it’s just not worth it.

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20 thoughts on “Photography Competitions: Not Worth Bothering

  1. Andrew

    I know how you feel!! Both online and offline I’ve tried entering shots that I think are great, shots that I think others would find great and shots that are neither, and at the end of the day I’m still confused as to what people are looking for (and the only ones that get votes are generally not what I would consider to be my best shots!). I’m also starting to reconsider whether it’s worth entering anymore…

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that the only two things that really matter are: 1. The enjoyment you get personally from creating a fantastic image; and 2. Finding someone that likes your work enough to buy a piece.

    To be honest I reckon you’re not far away from a win over on the forum, but at the end of the day you have to do what you feel is best for your own development and peace of mind.

    Cheers!
    Andrew.

    Reply
  2. Gary

    I understand where you are coming from. I have been a member of camera clubs for about six years and quickly came to realise that favourable comments by a judge often was the ‘kiss of death’ with the entry missing out on an award. I too stopped going to a large camera club for the reasons you state. On joining I was required to submit a number of images and was ranked as an “A” Grader. When it came to entering competitions, my work was overlooked for what appeared to me to be ‘standard’ shots. In particular, the exact same model in similar poses and photos from the same annual events the club attended each year. Conversely at the smaller clubs, I have had consistently good results with high annual point scores and a “Colour Print of the Year”.

    This, together with issues surrounding a movement to ‘transform’ amateur photography and camera clubs almost caused me to hang up my camera earlier this year. The general idea is to reject all traditional styles of photography and it’s ‘rules’ and be ‘creative’. I believe a recent workshop for new judges may have pushed this line beyond the limits. As with the acceptance of digital over film photography, change should be encouraged to evolve, not be forced. It is only thanks to family and friends that I still continue, but with less enthusiasm.

    On the other side of the coin I am currently a camera club judge so can see both sides of the situation. The first thing I look for in a photo is Impact. I rank this higher than technique although proper technique vastly increases the Impact. As a camera club judge I see a larger range of images than a person who attends one competition per month so it naturally takes an extra element to attract attention. I have found that judging has been the most instructive way to improve my own photography as it causes one to attempt to identify what the good points are in the image. I also try to describe how an image may be improved, stressing that my observations are personal. This has significantly increased the reject rate of my personal photos. I also appreciate the objectivity of the judge’s comments. The author’s challenge is to communicate and connect with the viewer.

    I’ve waffled for too long but finally, do not give up. I follow your blog because I admire your work and get knowledge and inspiriation form you. Stick with the camera club and the competitions. I do only prints because I enjoy watching people look at my work each month and hopefully observe their pleasure in it. Even if you no longer care about the points, give others every opportunity to enjoy your work.

    Reply
    1. Xenedis Post author

      Hi Gary.

      Thanks for your insightful comments, and re your last comment, no, you haven’t got carried away at all.

      Your insight is appreciated. I know from judging images myself that it does force a more critical view, and certainly from listening to experienced judges (esp. along the lines of Emeritus Professor Des Crawley) one can learn a lot. One gets to understand the general thinking amongst judges. While I have agreed with many comments I’ve heard from judges, I’ve also disagreed with quite a few, and have been surprised that judges didn’t pick up on problems with some images. If they did pick up on the problems, they didn’t comment.

      Naturally I’ve seen inconsistency amongst judges, but that’s to be expected — judging is simply someone’s opinion. If you get a judge who doesn’t care for flowers, portraits or whatever you shoot, you’re doomed, and the image would have to seriously stand out for someone inherently biased against a given subject to consider it for an award.

      It seems that digital comps are heading more towards digital ART comps rather than digital photography comps. Quite a few of the images in last night’s comp had heavy texture overlays that screamed “I am a texture; look at me!”. Like anything, the use of texture should enhance the image and not dominate the image or BE the image.

      Thanks muchly for your compliments and encouragement. My dissatisfaction and frustration with photography competitions has been building for a while, and current emotions are certainly tilted in favour of saying goodbye to the entire affair; but I will take on board what you’ve said.

      Without sounding conceited (and I hope I don’t), I have no doubt as to my ability to produce great images — this is affirmed by comments I hear from other people. However, a great image doesn’t guarantee success in a photography competition. It’s a different world out there, with no real rules and no baseline to which one can work.

      Reply
  3. Gary

    I am familiar with the person to whom you refer and from my personal observations much of the disatisfaction and disruption currently being experienced within camera clubs is being carried out in his name. Something I believe he would be proud to accept. I have heard him say that people should not join a camer club. I have also heard him refered to as the “Guru” and the “Messiah” who is saving photography. In fact the last FCC judges workshop was biassed away from traditional photography as a result of the professor’s input.

    In my opinion, there has been far too much emphasis placed on what appears to be an apparent misinterpretation of the title “Emeritus Professor” as though it carries some recognition of a superior, supernatural knowledge far beyond that of mere mortals. It does, after all, simply mean that a person who was once a teacher at a university is now retired but “Retired Professor” sounds far less impressive.

    Personally, I believe all photography is a form of art, whether it be nature, street photography, sports/action or even nature and photojournalism. Unfortunately the general interpretation of art appears to be – blurred, indistinct, overdone, compiled, naked and the clincher is; Photoshop Filterered – One click and you are an artist thereby rescuing an otherwise worthless image as evidenced by your observation of last night’s digital comp.

    For me, the photographic medium is a form of visual communication and, as such, must convey a message to the observer otherwise the viewer will have no interest in what is presented. I often state that “to my mind a photograph of a flower may be technically perfect and suitable for inclusion in a garden catalogue but it still needs an extra point of differentiation to make it a potential competition winner”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe there is no place for ART (as in “Creative”) in photography, or camera clubs, only that ART is merely another category the same as all the other categories. In fact my camera club has just included a new “Creative Digital” category in each of it’s monthly competitions for the coming year and, don’t tell anyone, but I have even been told I have created some acceptable artistic images myself.

    I’ll climb down from my soapbox now. You touched a nerve and those who know me will not be surprised at my response.

    I currently get my enjoyment from being a member of a small camera club and thrive on the enthusiasm of the members. I also go out and take photos on a regular basis with friends which inspires me to go out alone as well. I encourage you to do the same.

    Remember, you are not alone in your disillusionment. Don’t give up, keep up the good work and, above all, Enjoy Your Photography.

    Reply
    1. Xenedis Post author

      Hi Gary.

      Re Des, I’ve only seen him speak one or twice, but I did read his letter in the FCC newsletter recently, and his opinions about camera club competitions are strong to say the least.

      I don’t know him well enough to offer much commentary about him, but whether or not the state of camera club competitions is a product largely resulting from his influence, it does seem that one needs to do something quite different to get an image awarded in some camera club competitions. The sort of stuff you’d hang on your wall doesn’t necessarily suggest viability for club comps. I’ve personally experienced it time and again.

      Having said that, though, relatively pedestrian images (ie, ones that don’t defy all photographic conventions or go over the top with textures and layering) still pick up awards.

      Photography has merit and value on many levels. For some it is an art form; for others it is documentary; for others yet again it is a medium for reaching into the depths of a person’s emotional range. For others it is a technical exercise.

      All of these approaches are valid; it’s just where they fit into photography competitions that can be questionable. Certainly, last night’s judge commented on a number of images, expressing the view that they were “record” images rather than interpretations. Clearly that judge was looking for something more than “here’s a flower” or “here’s a landscape”, and that’s fair enough. Judges see so many images, and over time it all gets a bit tiresome. Making an impression on a seasoned judge is more challenging.

      Please, Gary, don’t feel the need to justify your responses to my blog entry or apologise for anything; I appreciate the fact that you’ve come from a similar place, have been in the thick of it, and are willing to share your views about it.

      Indeed, I am not the only person disillusioned by camera club competitions. I have spoken to one other member of my club (who, ironically, does quite well), and she’s rather over it. I think she’s of the opinion that she enjoys what she’s doing, and is going to keep doing it in spite of the often finnicky nature of camera club comps.

      One thing of which I can assure you is that competitions don’t drive my photography; I am still always in search of a “wow-factor” image, so I have no intention of slowing down. My presence in competitions, however, may be lacking.

      I can certainly understand that a need to stand out to a judge exists, but unfortunately there isn’t a recipe for this, and what one judge likes, another may not. There is too much variability for my liking, and to constantly have my images rejected is very discouraging, to the point where I’ve had enough of it.

      Reply
  4. Gary

    G’Day Xenidis,

    I won’t bore your subscribers further by carrying on with my personal views about the state of camera clubs.

    Perhaps we may bump into each other some day and we can share our passion.

    In the meantime, I shall keep following your adventures.

    Gary

    Reply
  5. John

    Interesting blog and if I am not mistaken the large club to which Gary refers is most likely the same club to which Xenedis now belongs.

    Xenedis, I do disagree with your comments on judging as if that were the case the results of awards winners would be entirely random. The history of the point score competition at that club and the regular placement of winning entrants would certainly support my viewpoint.

    Reply
    1. Xenedis Post author

      Fair enough (and I don’t at all mean to undermine the people who win — they have good images), but whatever it takes to win competitions (club-level or otherwise) completely evades me, and it’s got to the point where I’m completely demoralised by the whole affair and have decided it’s really not worth it.

      Patient: “I have a bad headache.”
      Doctor, looking at abrasions and dents on head: “Then stop banging your head against a wall.”

      I’ve taken the doctor’s advice.

      Reply
  6. David H

    while you are over comps at the moment you might get recognition by entering national photographic comps. At least you get a score as feedback and I have had acceptances. In general the awarded photos that I have seen do have merit. next month the Sutherland National should be displayed at hazelhurst. It might be worth a look in.I have 15 shots in comp but no idea yet of how I have done. Apparently most prints are viewed by 3 judges with a 1 to 5 digital score remote. Most shots are viewed for 10 seconds and the odd exceptional print is viewed for 20 seconds. So I guess impact is the name of the game! If you want to turn your hand to it, magazine comps are the one to win. less decerning judges and cameras bags and printers to win :)
    I have yet to go to a camera club. I think you just confirmed my fears!

    Reply
    1. Xenedis Post author

      Thanks Dave, but based on the experience that has been building for a while, I’m not inclined to enter any sort of competition in the foreseeable future.

      Note that there’s a lot more to camera clubs than competitions, and I wouldn’t avoid clubs purely because of competitions. Not everyone at my club competes, and there’s a lot of value to be gained from the other happenings at a club, especially mine.

      Reply
  7. Gary

    Can’t help myself, here I go again.

    John – I think you may be right judging from the locations of some of the landscape shots on Xenidis’ Flickr site which might indicate residence south of Sydney Harbour. If that is the case then the judge he refers likes to think of himself as one of the leading disciples of the revolution and from personal experience I feel his opinions can be unnecessarily confronting. Perhaps I should invite Xenidis to join the club to which I currently belong. We are far more relaxed and inclusive even if we do use the services of the suspect judge from time to time.

    Xenidis – Don’t give up the competitions. Even if you just use it as a vehicle to exhibit your work for others to enjoy. Talk to the other members, particularly those who seem to get the awards. Learn from them by asking how they achieved a shot and how yours might be improved. If awards are important and you know who the judge will be on a particular night, learn their preferences and play the game. One of the earliest pieces of advice I was given was to present prints at the largest acceptable size (usually A3+) on glossy paper for most impact (this especially applies in the Nats & Internats because of the limited viewing time) and this did appear to work (although I only printed A3).

    As to the doctor’s advice, if you are not happy where you are, perhaps a change of environment might help.

    I’m off to APSCON at the end of next week and will be away until after the long weekend but feel free to email me privately anytime and perhaps we can chat over a coffee sometime.

    David H – Your comments on the Sutherland National style comp is pretty close to the mark but do not write off camera clubs until you try it for yourself. I would suggest getting your feet wet by visiting one of the smaller clubs in your area and observe how sociable they are. They can be a wonderfull opportunity to meet people who share your passion and I have formed a number of friendships which exist outside the camera club doors. Very supportive and encouraging.

    Reply
    1. Xenedis Post author

      Hi Gary.

      I have no personal issues with the judge who appeared the other night; his commentary was enjoyable, passionate and well-delivered. He wasn’t a judge to which one could take offense.

      Your suggestion to talk to other members is quite sane, but the clincher for me is “play the game”. I’m not interested in playing games; I’m interested in producing images (and learning materials) that have impact, that I find enjoyable to view, and that others will also appreciate. Appealing to camera club judges with any sort of consistency is just not something I apparently have the capability to do.

      I have no intention of letting my inherently negative experience in the competition arena damage my passion for photography. My photography is not driven by competitions, and those are (or were) only secondary to what I do.

      Enjoy APSCON, and I’d be happy to meet up for a shoot and a coffee afterwards.

      Reply
  8. Gary

    I’m pleased you are not interested in games, and that your passion for your hobby has not died.

    I will enjoy APSCON thank you and we shall both see what tomorrow brings.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Abstract Interpretation vs. Literal Depiction | Xenedis Phoblography

  10. John Sidebotham

    When I started taking photos I would show my prints to friends and family and they would say “That’s good, I really like it!” After a while I cottoned on and said “I know there’s something wrong with this shot, but I can’t put my finger on it.” My friends quite happily then went through the faults that they perceived, and usually they were right!
    Then I joined a Camera Club. It became very plain very early on that the intent of the most of the members (including myself) was to do as well as possible in competitions, and we often had a postmortem in the car on the way home about how wrong the judge had been that night. My photography did improve, and I was getting valid comment from many judges. And then after two or three years (I am very slow on the uptake) the penny dropped and I suddenly realised that there was another judge in the room who was, if anything, overcritical. It was me! When I put my lovingly made prints next to other members’ prints they often made mine look ordinary, and I know I have a long way to travel. But sometimes my photos are better than the next person’s, and that is my reward, because I know I’m getting somewhere.
    Sometimes the ordinary prints get the Merit, sometimes the good photo gets nothing. I realise that referees, judges and umpires are fallible and variable. If asked, yes, I do feel great when the Judge gives me an award, and down when he talks up my print and gives me nothing. But the important thing to me is no longer the Club Competition, it is the competition provided by the club.

    Reply

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