Competitive Photography, Part 1

WTH is “Competition Photography?” Does it pay? is it worth it? What is required? Where do you begin?

Two Spinnakers

Two Spinnakers (V1) won first place in a local city-wide competition. It was later used on a C of C hand-out folder, and as the passbook watermark image of a local bank.

Good questions, all.  “What is required? ” is a good place to begin.  First of all, and the singular most important is an “eye”.  An eye is difficult to define. You can be pretty assured that you may have an eye if people who see the image tell you they really like the image.  When you take a photo of something other than your wife and kids, people other than your wife or kids, including your mother rell you, “These are great.” A master photographer tells you that you have an eye, after he sees your portfolio. When you give a slide show, for example, people in the audience don’t fall asleep. If you belong to an organization, like a yacht club, a golf club, tennis, etc., they come to you when they need a program for next month’s meeting which is four days from now.  In other words, you’re considered, by people who know, a better than average photographer.

Secondly, contrary to what I’ve posted before, you need equipment of the quality necessary to be ensured that “equipment failure” can never be your excuse for a crummy picture.  You must get the mindset for the same.  Never blame the tools. It’ll become a point of pride for you.

Spirit of the Ballet

This was in my “Every collection needs a red print” phase. Got an 86 or so.

Competition photographers (CPs) use the term, “Making an image”, rather than “taking a picture.” In competition, we are referred to as “The Maker”.  As in a critique/comment from the judging panel, “The maker of this image should have been aware of_______.” You fill in the blank.


This was a 90 print, I believe

Why the maker? Because a CP does not just develop and print out an image. Not if he wants to score. Simple image capture isn’t ever enough.  We show and compete with prints, usually sixteen by twenties. (A competition with closed panel or jury you can usually get away with an eight by ten.)  In the case of film, we need a darkroom, where we can apply our magic to a print, to make it perfect.  Somethimes that doesn’t mean to just make the image technically perfect, it means to apply your artistic sense or your eye to what makes the print look good.  Ansel Adams is a prime example of the artistry of the darkroom. His prints were a thing of beauty, but he didn’t just click a shutter to get them.  He spent days and weeks, if not months, getting the “perfect” image in the darkroom.  Once he had that, reproduction of the finished image was pretty routine.

The images we present in the nationals are our annual final exams; They’re going to give us a definitive score that compares us to our fellow competitors. The top photographers are the ones who adopt this attitude.  We strive to beat the guy who pulled one over on the judges, or the gal you just can’t seem to out-score. This is what polishes us as the cream of the crop. This is why some studios and photographers can charge more than others.  Bottom line is always dollars.

Aubrey's Dream

Even though this was brand new technology, this print didn’t score an 80.

In today’s world, we use digital.  I was among the first wave of pros who “went digital” to the scorn of film users.  Now, probably 95 percent of all CPs use digital.  Photoshop is so much easier on the nose, the wife, and the cat, then a smelly darkroom. I went digital as soon as I saw my first live demo of Photoshop (PS 3.0).  I knew this was the wave of the future.  So when I made my decisions on purchases at my first national convention for pro photogs, I made them with the idea of digital all the way.  I went the Photoshop, Apple computer and Canon camera route. With my wife’s permission and assistance, we basically stocked our studio.

That first convention, we attended the print competition, which was open to the conventioneers.  Kat (my wife) and I sat through some sixteen hours that weekend, observing and learning from the panel’s commentary.  Five top-pro judges, each with a number pad, hooked to a computer to average out the scores.  A score of 80 is passing.  It denotes a step above the average commercial photographer’s abilities. A commercial photographer is one who takes pictures for money.  Normally found in a smaller town, mom and pop photo studio.

A score in the mid eighties to low mid nineties was a good, solid score. With an eighty score, the print will be displayed at the convention and be included in the yearbook. In the mid to high nineties, the images better be exemplary. The best.  And of course a one hundred print meant that the five experts could find no fault whatsoever with the print.  To get a one hundred, four judges have to agree and score it 100.  One judge can give you a 99 and it’ll still round up to 100. Plenty of arguments one way or the other have been had over a potential 100 print.  A judge has the ability to lobby for a print, and even to recall the print for rescoring. If the one judge does not agree, and he/she gives you a 98,  the print is a 99, which still ain’t too shabby. Of course, the prints are anonymous and the judges are not allowed to see the back side of the image, where all the maker’s info is.

Also of course, even when the intention is to be completely fair, a successful CP will develop a style, sometimes recognizable to the panel.  And successful CPs will have detractors and cheerleaders on a given panel, which makes the scoring even more animated. And when you consider it, it’ll make a 100 print more validated.

Mirage c balls

Scored in the low eighties. My thoughts? WTF, they’ve never seen anything like it. And I get an 82? It was used later as the print for the WPPI convention’s advertising. Go figure.

By the time I “retired” from competition, I had three one-hundred prints, and three ninety-nines. Four purple ribbons, (kind of like “Best in Show”),  over twenty-five blues, seventeen or so reds, a few whites, and a ton of “attaboy”(80) prints.  Notice that my ribbons are weighted towards first place blue ribbons. I also won a Kodak award, a Fuji film award, four PPA “Loan Collection” prints, and made the highest level of excellence in the shortest time, on a international basis. I was in the money for five years straight. Pro competitions pay bucks to the winners.  Not a ton, but enough to have a good night in Vegas, where the biggest pro photographers convention is held annually.  Purple ribbons were usually good for a camera rig, and other prizes.

My first “mentor” was a commercial photographer.  He was a decent photographer, took all our family portraits, and my wedding shots. He supplemented his studio income with gore pictures … of auto accidents, for insurance companies. I rode with him one night.  He had a police radio in his car and house, and responded to car crashes with all the vigor of the Highway Patrol.  Scared the stuffing outta me, a fifteen year old.

This was before the onset of seat belt laws, before metal-to-metal clasps on a lap belt, no shoulder strap, period.  So there was a lot of blood and guts, quite literally. All on-scene photography was left to Leonard.  He shot with an old 4 x 5 Speed Graflex,  would take the Tri-X  black & white film to his darkroom and have them souped, printed and dried before the start of business the next day.  Delivered the prints to the insurance company that AM.  I guess he was sort of the first paparazzi.

GBH-Sir Charles

This was my first red ribbon and print over 90. It was later used for a national magazine cover.

When we went to our second convention, I entered my first professional print competition with three prints. All three qualified, scored over 80.  But they were made from scans of my film days, because there I didn’t fee my digital camera work was top quality.  But I was already fairly accomplished in Photoshop.  I photoshopped nearly all my prints through out my CP career.

Both Kat and I were nervously awaiting the group, “Digital Groups, non-wedding.”  As there were two people silhoutted on the boat, it qualified.  The way the rules were written in those days, inanimate objects could not really be the subject of the print. Because this was a WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographer’s International) convention there had to be people or at least some critters in the shot.

So a lot of my good imagery was ineligible for judging. The same time there was a decided prejudice against digital photography.  We were put in a “division” of digital imagery, and couldn’t compete in the major classes. Never mind that our imagery was already more innovative and spectacular than the film buffs were showing. I later discovered that many of the old pros never bothered to inform the competition that their work was photoshopped.  Sometimes a pro would send his prints out for photoshopping. If I had done the same, kept mum, I think I could have pulled some major loot out of the convention. As it was, digital was a step-child.  A red-headed one.

Lover's Moon ptg 2When my image, Lover’s Moon,  rotated around, a hush fell over the audience.  That scared the spit out of us.  I was sure, as was Kat, that I had totally blown it, showed up  with a print that would score in the fifties.  When you score below a sixty, they move your stuff out of your hotel room and deposit it, your print, and yourself in a pile in the middle of Las Vegas Blvd, AKA the Strip.

Discussions immediately ensued.  Digital detractors said I did not follow the protocol for the presentation.  It was not a glossy, it was a deep matte. The subjects were bullseyed (everything dead center, a compositional no-no). I had bordered it with a half-inch white border. Kat and I were floored when one or two of the judges familiar with digital began arguing for a ninety-plus print, while the others were pointing out the screw-ups.  The panel settled for a mid ninety, which won the blue ribbon.  It missed getting a purple best in group because of the white border.

A blue, a red and three  hundred bucks. I did well.

TBC … Next part, we’ll talk about image mods and what you can get out of becoming a CP


2 thoughts on “Competitive Photography, Part 1

Comments are closed.