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


“The photos still suck!”

Have you ever wondered why you can’t seem to get a good photo of a certain place, or setting, or scenery?  No matter what you do, it just ain’t there.  Something intangible is “disqualifying” a given photo for your portfolio.  But in another locale, everything you take is a keeper? CO Canyon w h2o Have you ever considered that you have. horrors,  an inner, unspoken prejudice?  Perhaps about color?

Gotcha! I’m not talking about any form of racial prejudice, I’m talking about your personal internal color pallet.  We all have one.  Or perhaps your like or dislike of outdoor areas.  For example which do you like more?  Florida and California or Arizona and Nevada?  Urban or Rural?  Believe it or not, a lot of those choice may actually involve colors, not just climate.  To make this shot of red rocks and canyons, I added in a big ol lake.  This shot and treatment will never be in my official portfolio.

Greater Nevada is primarily desert.  The overall colorization is tones of brown, and crisp blue skies.  Geological history is evident wherever you look.  Driving through Nevada, it is easy to see eons of erosion, rock slides, flooding and drying, that kind of stuff.  I really like the Nevada topography, desert lakes, the mountains and upheavals of time, that kind of stuff.  Browns, some greys and blue skies.  Of course.

Take Arizona… please!  Sedona is a world-famous area known for its red rocks and formations, natural bridges and arches, yatta yatta.  The colors are predominantly reds.  Not luscious, deep crimson reds, but kind of a dirty, rusty red.  And oranges.  And browns.  And blue skies.  I’ve been to Sedona and environs a couple of times.  Never gotten a good shot of all that famous scenery.  I have lugged around 25 to 40 pounds of medium format equipment, looking for that all-elusive keeper.  Never got one.  I got a few decent shots of the grand canyon, but nothing to write home  about.  Why?GCNP

It’s like I told K one day.  “I don’t see in reds and browns.  I see in greens and blues.”  You throw in most any shade of reds into a landscape, and I’m not seeing beauty.  I have no idea why.  We spent a day in CO TreesColorado National Park.  I shot four rolls of 220 film, at 6×7. Used a tripod.  Expensive lenses.  Really expensive camera.  Pricey filters.  I didn’t even get one good shot.  Not even of a flower.  However, there is one caveat of tmy “no red” rule:  Sunsets.  I can shoot a pretty mean sunset … especially if its over blue water… with a bright fire-engine red boat…

PCHDRLakes and mountain rivers are a favorite source of my imagery.  I grew up in two places, the high sierras in the non-school months, and Stockton, California the rest of the time.  We had a small mountain lake at Pinecrest, where I spent my entire summer swimming, fishing and sailing.  Beautiful photography area.

The San Joaquin River Delta was where I spent my warm school months.  My grandfather had a house on the river.  He had a boathouse with a beautiful black 35 foot Chris Craft cruiser.  Two SpinnakersMore times than not, I was the driver of that big boat.  He wanted to sit back with his big black stogie and a whiskey on the rocks.  Also in that boat house was a great little outboard powered aluminum skiff that I spent zillions of hours on, exploring back waters of the delta.  As much as I love the delta, there ain’t much scenic photography there.  Most all the levees are lined with official US Army Engineer Rip-Rap.

I now live in Vegas, who’s liquid claim to fame is Lake Mead.  The only problem with photography on or about Lake Mead is twofold: No vegetation to speak of, so no greenery.  And thanks to a Southern California federal judge, there is a twenty or thirty foot thick waterline of bleached land, created by draining water from the original high water limits and sending it on to provide water for thousands of square miles of lawn in LA. Meanwhile, except for some parks watered by non-potable water,  Las Vegas has no lawns.  Perhaps boat photography would be okay out in the lake, but I don’t have a boat.

When we rolled our big ol RV back to Florida, after a great photo shoot in the Grand Tetons, I was in my element.  I’ve always loved boating in any form, green is my favorite color, and so on.  Florida’s skies are dramatic with white billowing thunder-heads in the afternoons, and crisp blue colors in the mornings.  There ain’t no such thing as dry trees or shrubs.  The browns of the ground are a deep dark chocolate.  Wildlife is abundant around the water.  A virtual plethora of water birds, gators, otters, snakes, etc.

CD 0204 3369For me South Florida is a target-rich zone.  I personally believe that Miami is the most photogenic city in the US, and I’m originally from San Francisco.  I’ll give San Fran the number two rating because of the scenics created by the bay and the San Andreas Fault-driven topography.  Miami gets number one because of the colors.  I really like the Cuban influence.  In fact Cubanos are some of my favorite people, but that’s another blog.

For boat photography, its a clear toss-up between Florida and Northern Vanguards-3379California.  Put me in either place, and I’m a happy outdoor photographer.  And yet, I still live in Las Vegas,  but that’s yet another blog. (Got a lot of those lined up, don’t I?)

The Endless Wait copyWhat about working in black and white? Black and White definitely has its place.  In my humble opinion, straight black and white photography of scenics is a bit self-defeating. Don’t get me wrong, I really like black and white.  I think outdoors, it’s great for shooting features, especially with the judicious use of filters.

One of my early mentors took me along (I was about ten… hmm… now that I recollect, I was there to operate the boat.) on a shoot of my brother’s sailboat while on Strawberry Lake (where Pinecrest is located).  He used colored filters, which fascinated me because I didn’t understand why one would use color glass in a black and white photo.  But when I saw the finished results of using a #3 Red filter, a bright white sail against a deep grey sky, I was hooked for life. I wish I had a copy of that great shot to show you, but I don’t.  And that mentor has long since passed.

Ahh, boats, mountain lakes and cameras.  I was in boyhood heaven. (Yeah, another blog…)CD 0540 3508

So you can see, just by my reminiscences, how I got to be prejudiced towards the colors of the summer mountains and oceans.  I can easily imagine that Native American boys in the southwest feel the same way about the colors of Arizona and New Mexico. Or people who grow up in Alaska.  Add in eight months of grey skies and white topography. Another set of colors that are not my cuppa tea.

I can shoot a pretty mean sunset … especially if its over blue water…

Anchor Bay Sunset


A Photo Lesson in Seeing

TV Comm 02One of those TV commercials for a medicine aimed at senior citizens filmed on a coastal setting, shows a woman with a pretty expensive camera squatting close to an old fence, shooting what is apparently a close-up of a plant or whatever.  But she is seemingly oblivious to the obvious.  She is squatting in the middle of the real picture…

Allow me to elucidate. In the image below, (fig 1 & 1a) we see a fence-line repleat with interesting shadow detail.  In the advertisement video, our actor, who is playing a photographer, is shooting from a low point of view (POV) at something off to image right.  We assume a plant or something.  (See fig 2). IMHO, she is in the middle of the actual what-should-be-captured segment of the video.

Sand Fence #2So the point I’m trying to make is that you must look at your surroundings, try to see the big picture when you’re shooting images.  The commercial has her handling what appears to be a substantial investment in equipment.  Makes another point.  Good equipment can’t take good pictures by itself.  Good equipment will not make an amateur into a pro, although there are a lot of people who think expensive equipment and toys will automatically make them a pro..  They are not professionals.  We call them commercial photographers. Someone who takes pictures for money.

Unlike a Professional Photographer, who uses the best equipment he or she can to make and sell fine art.  This includes either a darkroom, and/or a good computer with a good imagery program, like Photoshop .  The key word in this paragraph is “sell”.

Now before you old-times tell me that Ansel Adams used a Kodak Brownie, remember a few things.  One.  When the Brownie came out, is was a very nice medium format camera, with good glass.  Two.  If I was still in the biz, and wanted to use a wet darkroom (film) I might use somethink like that for a travel camera… go out and shoot some test imagery to set up for a large format rig later. Three: Almost every image of his that is considered art was shot with nothing smaller than a Hasselblad, (Medium Format) and most of the imagery was created with a view camera, (Large Format)

An aside here.  I am the guy who wasn’t Ansel Adam’s assistant.  I can’t tell you how many wannabee pros that I’ve met, claim they were AA’s assistant.  Probably the closest anyone got from this group was taking a three day seminar in Yosemite from the Master.  While we’re on the subject, Ansel was a top photographer, but his famous master artistry came about in his darkroom.

I almost fell victim to the same thing.  I was “on assignment” at tiny Piney Lake in Colorado.Piney Lake I was shooting a great image of rental canoes, (see Fig 3) busily getting variations on the theme, because I knew that what I was looking at through the lens was a killer image.  This one was gonna kick some serious ass!

Shooting medium format at the time, a full 6×7 image in Fujichrome 64.  I shot a full two rolls of 220 size, knowing that in this case, on this shot, film cost and lab costs were of no, repeat no, significance.  In the middle of my snapping revery, my wife tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Look behind you.”

I looked and saw another magnificent image of a silhouetted treeline with a firey red fog settling over in for the evening.  All I had to do was turn the camera 180 degrees, and a bit of tilt, change the EV, and I got some great images there, too.  For a few minutes because of the rapidity of the light change, I was going back and forth between images, gettin’ em both.

You should be using a tripod. You have a moveable head on that tripod. It can swivel a full 360 degrees.  You should use your own head swivel the same…

ReflectionsRed clouds

Back to it.

Ive been working on spreading the word(s) about my books.  Aso checked email, did my banking online,   And cropped and posted a picture of my lazy ol cat, Misty Blue.

Wait… Did you say lunch?

I’m trying to live up to my word, that is, to keep this blog active.

Don’t forget to visit my website,