Competitive Photography, Part 2

WPPI-RibbonsLast time, we began with these questions: “WTH is “Competition Photography?” Does it pay? is it worth it? What is required? Where do you begin?”  We went over rewards for winning, and what was required.  Now let’s talk about what it can do for you… if you have an eye.  BTW, your scores will tell you if you have an eye or not.

In my experience, my wife and I went to our first national convention in Las Vegas.  At the time, we lived in Northern California, and were both free to leave on Friday for a stop halfway to Vegas.  We checked into the hotel and convention Saturday AM.  We didn’t know anyone there.  Complete strangers.  But I had read that a competition was going to be held during the weekend, and it was open to conventioneers.

When we entered the room, it was darkened enough to allow the twin lights on the Print entry to be the brightest in the room.  The audience of about two dozen people was respectfully quiet, while the judging panel discussed the print in front of them.  Even with my untrained eye, I could see the print maker had broken a couple of cardinal rules.  He/she had put his subject in the dead center of the frame.  And there was a white something or other (That I can’t remember) in the upper border, which according to one judge, “Led the viewer’s eye out of the image.”  The print scored a 78, which I found out later was a very common score that could be interpreted as “Keep at it, kid, You’re on the right track, but learn the basic elements of print presentation.”

Aubrey's Dream

This print was down-scored below 80 because of the perspective distortion of the image in the center bottom. Never mind that the panel had never seen anything like this in the competition.

The room was big enough to hold about a hundred people.  In front of the audience, was a long table with the five judges seated with their backs to the audience. To the left was a smaller table, making the group an “L” shape.  A scoring reader and a secretary.  In front of the judges sat a sturdy four by four table with a large three-sided “lazy susan” painted 18% grey, displayed the 16 x 20 entries.  A handler manually moved the lazy susan to reveal the new print.  He also announced the title of the image. Behind the merry-go-round were two large tables with stacks of mounted prints and each table had an attendant.  One table had the un-viewed prints, and the other was the receiving table.  The print handler at that table wrote the score on the backside of the entry and placed it on one of two stacks:  To be displayed during the convention, and the others directly to the shipping department to be shipped home. The judging moves smoothly and quickly, unless a potential high-scoring print comes around.  Or a controversial one pops up.  Then the fight is on.

A discussion ensues because there are conservative photogs on the board, and there are more liberal judges as well.  I’m not speaking in a political sense, but an artistic one.  Conservative is old-school, the old masters, etc.  Libs are more flamboyant, more impactful and definitely pushing the envelope.  I have won blue ribbons with prints leaning towards both sides.

The head judge will moderate the discussion, and will take a pro or con position.  One occasion he/she can get rather exercised about his/her views. He can (as can any judge) even recall a print he/she didn’t believe got the right score.  An unwritten rule is that a given print should never be “down-scored”.  Well, that unwritten rule was broken the first time one of my prints was recalled.

Early in my career I entered a nice portrait of a teenager and was given an 80.  Three prints later, a judge recalled it, and after discussion it was re-scored a 79, so that “other photogs at the convention wouldn’t think this was the way to go.” It was another of my first prints that I had bordered in white.) It didn’t matter that the image, sans border, was a good solid image.  The border made the print bad.  Of course, this took the offending print off the to-be-displayed stack.  I was disappointed, but I learned.  We watched the judging carefully and Kathy took notes, as we did every time we attended  a convention. Note: Take a pair of fairly weak binoculars (ala “Opera glasses”) to see the prints in the judging better.

What image was cool?  What image was really striking and might set a trend?  Who were the winning photogs? What were they doing? That first convention, we met some of the big wheels in the competition.  They were all encouraging and of course, they all fell in love with Kathy.  That was one of her attributes.  Everybody loved Kathy immediately.

So I had an advantage and we were soon befriended by the competition groups, and from there learned what worked and what didn’t.  Competition was simply a way to get graded for your year.  99 percent of all comp prints were taken at a professional shoot, like a family portrait session, or a wedding, or some other event.  Unless you get a first, second or third, you get nothing from competition prints.

When you are covering a wedding event, etc, you shoot every image with competition in mind.  Very soon, if you paid attention at the judging, you’re shooting images far superior to your local competition , and you can begin charging something extra for your individual talent.  At my personal pinnacle, I got five thousand each for a couple of day-long family portrait sessions, and another family session that added up to 5K when the prints were purchased.

The Competition

“The Competition” This was scored a perfect 100, but didn’t even get a third place ribbon

On the other hand, I believe I’m unique in actually having a 100 print that didn’t even win third place!  It was late in the day, the judges were tired, and the head judge (I’m sure) recognized the makers of four top of the line prints.  I know he recognized mine.  He lobbied for perfect 100s on each of them.  Just to get him to cease nagging, they went along.  Presto!  Four 100 images in one division.  Even though I had the first 100, my image wasn’t weird enough to out-shout the others, so I was tail-end charlie.

Nowadays every print goes through a computer.  Print mores and maker’s abilities are what wins. Bring on the unusual!  In my not-so-humble opinion, if you can’t work your own images in Photoshop, you’re not a complete photographer.

Lover's Moon ptg 2This brings us to “Mods”.  Total modifications of images.  Two Spinnakers, V3Modifying a photo, rather then just finalizing the exposure values, i.e. focus and color balancing, removing offending picture elements via Photoshop, etc.  That stuff is required for any competition image.  There have been many magazine articles on techniques about how to do it, so I won’t go into them here.  (Old issues of Rangefinder Magazine have several of my own articles concerning that very subject.)

This nice image of a friend’s sailboat motoring into a sunset became the image on the right, Lover’s Moon. Lover’s moon had a nice history in competitions, whereas the image on the left, Going Home, wouldn’t have scored over a 73 or so.  Lover’s moon scored in the high 90s, and won a blue ribbon in digital imagery.

Duel CanvasTwo Spinnakers V2These two classic sailboats made a nice photograph, but it didn’t impress any photo editors.  After I spent a day separating the two boats from the background, and another day creating the image on the left, “Duel in the Sun” became a purple ribbon winner in digital, a magazine cover, featured in several interior layouts, and has sold internationally.

Another mod is combining two separate images to create a plausible image of an implausible situation.  People from the SFO Bay area will recognize the bridge [below] as the Richmond – San Rafael Bridge in the North Bay.  I spent nearly twenty hours separating a 108 megapixel  image, sometimes zoomed all the way in to one-eighth inch pixels to get a precise bridge layer.Shortcut-Color Every wire and cable, strut and buttress are detailed, way beyond that which would be sufficient for a 16 x 20 print.  I believe that creating art isn’t a speed contest. Besides, I really enjoy the process.

We had just completed a shoot in the Grand Tetons National Park, and had a good picture of Jenny Lake.  When I overlaid the bridge, just for fun, I realized that both images were shot from the identical point of view.  I did some pretty radical image alterations on the Jenny Lake shot and when all was complete, “Shortcut” was created.  The name shortcut comes from the fact that there are no interstates in this area to get east and west.  I figured they needed one… And going over the lake and through the distant valley was just the right locale.

Trawlers in TahoeIn the same vein, I lifted trawlers from East Georgia and overlaid them on a image if Lake Tahoe.  I took the foreground over with the boats.  Some of the old-timers in the Tahoe basin opined that they remembered back in the day…

Details matter.  Take your time making competition images.  Enjoy the process.  And one final point: If you are going to go to the trouble and expense to create competition images, for heaven’s sake attend the judging!  You’ll never learn more stuff, faster.