TPOTY judge Colin Finlay is always one of the people that visitors to Travel Photography Live! want to speak to. With his background in imaging and in photography competitions, he has a huge amount of expertise, and his presentations and imaging critique sessions at the the event always sell out. Here, in the first of a series of interviews with him, we ask some of those all-important questions about entering competitions.
Tell us about your background in photography competitions
I used to run the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for the joint owners, the Natural History Museum and BBC. WPY is one of the longest established and most prestigious photo competitions in the world, attracting a huge number of entries from professional and amateur photographers around the world. I have been involved with Travel Photographer of the Year almost since the beginning of the competition and am often asked to work with other competitions such as the London Festival of Photography, the Terry O’Neill Award, The Google Photography Prize and The Panda Awards.
Why do people enter competitions?
Well, people should enter competitions for fun and for the opportunity for their work to be seen by influential people in the world of photography. However, usually the more prestigious the competition, the more people want to win, as winning a significant competition can have life-changing consequences. The downside of this is that “winning” takes over from “enjoyment” and in some cases leads people to try and bend the rules of a competition to increase their chances. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who enter competitions do so perfectly honestly but the very few who do try to win by subterfuge emphasizes the need for experienced judges who are more likely to detect something awry.
What should people consider when deciding which competitions to enter?
See who the judges are. Do you want your work to be seen by these people? Good competitions attract good judges who know how to fairly and objectively judge photo competitions. I get asked to judge many competitions but decline more than I accept. For example, in 2012, I only did three – Travel Photographer of the Year, the London Festival of Photography and The Google Photography Prize. I will only lend my name to bona fide competitions where photographers are treated equitably and whose organisers deliver on what they promise. The other benefit to anyone who enters a competition is that experienced judges have seen hundreds of thousands of images over the years and so can quickly spot something original and interesting. Judges with little experience tend to get excited about images that may be mundane to more experienced judges. So even if you do well in a competition with less experienced judges, it is a bit of a hollow victory as it is unlikely to advance your career.
Should they double check about copyright?
Absolutely. It is reasonable to allow the organisers to use winning images in the context of publicising the competition to potential entrants and sponsors, but that is as far as it should go. Too many competitions are set up to give a free source of imagery to the organisers and sponsors. So always be wary of competitions organised by travel companies, hotel chains, magazines, institutions, etc. And don’t get fooled by big name sponsors. They don’t necessarily mean to mislead, but often simply do not understand the implications of copyright. Photographers should always retain copyright to their images. I will only judge competitions where the photographers’ copyright is protected by the organisers.
Once someone has decided to enter a competition, what are the most important things they need to remember?
Always read the rules. So many good images get thrown out of competitions on technicalities. Do not assume that because one competition has a certain set of rules then others will be the same. Do not assume that because you have entered a competition one year that the rules will be exactly the same the following year. They may not be. Good competitions evolve. If in doubt, contact the organisers well in advance of the closing date to seek clarification, but never argue with organisers about rules, They are not going to change tham just because you don’t like them!
In major competitions, technical excellence is more or less taken for granted, so concentrate on originality. By knowing who the judges are and doing a bit of research, you can get a fairly good idea of what they individually like to see and the style that interests them. For example, some judges prefer a documentary style, others more conceptual imagery, others great portraits.
How can entrants do their best to make sure their images are what the judges want to see?
Assuming that you have read the rules and that you have entered your images in the right category, enter images that are original, creative and will stand out from the crowd. Bear in mind that the most difficult part of the competition is getting through the first round, especially if it is judged online, as judges will literally look at your images for just a few seconds. Judges will spend more time considering each image in each subsequent round and are more likely to pick up on the subtleties.
Is it a good idea to check previous winning images in a contest and submit shots like that – after all, the judges clearly liked them before?
This never works! First of all, it may not be the same set of judges, but even if it is, judges have a low boredom threshold and rarely go for the same thing twice. If you look back over several years of well established competitions, you will invariably see a great variety of successful images. Indeed, if you do not, then it shows that the competition is moribund and not going anywhere. After all, photo competitions should advance the art of photography and communicate changing tastes and styles to a wider audience.
Would you advise somebody to submit lots and lots of images, or to edit carefully?
It is often said that photographers are the worst people to edit their own images and this is generally true. The photographer has an emotional attachment to an image and therefore can not be objective in a way that a judge can be. It may have been an emotional moment when you took your first picture of a whale or a sunset, but never forget that in all probability many other photographers would have been to the same place before and taken a similar shot. Of course, you may think that your shot is better, but that is for the judges to decide. If you look at the best professional photographers, they tend to only enter very few images in to competitions, rather than enter the maximum number the rules permit. From a judging point of view, there is nothing worse than seeing similar images in a competition. It is a waste of everyone’s time and does not increase the photographer’s chance of winning. Another important point to remember is that usually new and fresh images do better than older ones in competitions. Great images can suffer from over exposure. It is a bit like getting fed up with a song that is repeatedly played on the radio. Just because your image has been on the front cover of a magazine doesn’t mean that it will necessarily win a photo competition!