From PPA Member Newsletter
Face it… Artists are competitive people. We all want to be the best. Perhaps that's why competition is many photographers' "drug" of choice. The nerve-wracking thrill of possibly doing well and improving your art it's addictive. But photographic competition can be so much more than a thrill. It can strengthen the entire body of your work if you approach it correctly. To experience that beneficial side effect you first have to make the most of all your competition opportunities.
Learn the Competition Process
That's something 2011 Platinum Medalist Dan Frievalt learned the hard way. "I didn't know what I was doing," he says about entering his first state competition in Wisconsin. He didn't know he could start at the smaller, local competitions or ask for help from other photographers because "I thought that if someone else saw my entries or gave advice beforehand, it would be like cheating!" Now, he takes full advantage of every chance to get extra feedback on his entries. So, don't be afraid to ask what's required at each competition level (local, state, district and international). Research beyond the official rules by asking questions of fellow competitors and your association's board members.
Sit In On Competitions
Witnessing a judging first hand can also help you make the most of competition, especially in knowing what to enter and what the jurors look for. "The best advice I ever received? Sit in on competition before you do it," notes Kimberly Smith, Master Photographer, of Oklahoma. "Pay attention to what is meriting and ask as many questions as you can." What was eye-opening to her was how much attention was paid to the details she usually didn't think about when taking an image background oddities, the placement of hands, etc. "I knew what I liked in images," she explains, "but I didn't have the experience to know what was 'good.'" Smith sat through competitions at the state and district levels before doing anything herself. A year later, she won almost every category in her state's First-Timers division and again in the Southwest District Competition!
Listen to Critiques
Though rarely easy for an artistic person to stomach, image critiques are invaluable for your growth. They provide feedback and ideas on how to make your images better (and not just for competition). Before entering, you can send your images to photographers you trust to tell you what works and what doesn't ("straight-shooters" in Frievalt's words). Dianna Walker, Master Photographer, of Texas suggests reaching out to photographers you think are "beyond good." Don't be intimidated, she says. "I've found there's not a photographer out there who would not want to help they didn't get where they are by themselves."
Attending your local, state and district competitions makes listening to critiques fairly easy to do. Live critiques are often held for a couple hours after a state competition and in many local competitions, jurors share advice and thoughts on almost every image. And even though the International Photographic Competition isn't as easy for some to attend, you can still get online video critiques. That gives you about five minutes of a juror discussing your image, which can be invaluable. In one competition, Smith recalls seeing a beautiful boat image that didn't merit because of a technical mistake: the words on the boat were backward because of an image flip. If that was your image and you couldn't be at the judging...wouldn't you want to know why it didn't merit? A video critique could have helped you out.
Enter Early & Often
"It's easy to give excuses or say you're too afraid to enter," notes Frievalt. "But competition holds you accountable for pushing yourself and your art." The good news is that the more you compete, the stronger your art will grow. So, don't be afraid to enter a full print case even if it's your first time. Each time you enter, you can get a critique. Each time you get a critique, you can use it to tweak and refine your images...and then re-enter them in the next level of competition. "So, start at the local level and work your way up," advises Walker. What you'll probably find is that competition gets "in your blood," as she says. It becomes a part of your artistic self, helping you pay even more attention to the details when you're shooting for clients. It may even give you a creative outlet to test things like different lighting, which trickle into your client work later. The key is that the more you compete, the keener your eye grows. The more images you see at competition, the more ideas you have.
That all translates into you being a stronger photographer.