Awards are funny things. And winning them doesn’t change your life or make you a better person – it simply makes you that most common of things – an ‘award winning photographer’ (and really, who hasn’t picked up a few along the way?!).
But awards, and those various letters after your name you can get by winning a lot of them over time, can help bring publicity and legitimacy – and thus actual work – to your photographic practise. But let me start by saying: do keep it in perspective – don’t take the results personally, and be aware than many of the best photographers in the country don’t care about – or even enter – the awards, and they are simply not that important in the big scheme of things. They are, in the end, largely about photographers patting each other on the back.
So if you do choose to enter, here’s a few tips that may help you to get more out of it. Personally I think the real benefit comes more from the discipline of preparation and selection of your best work, than from any awards that might follow (but the awards certainly don’t hurt should they come!).
Of paramount importance is shot selection. The trick here is to remember who is doing the judging. Your judges are other professional photographers. You won’t impress them with merely competent, documentary shots in your category. They will expect you’ve mastered at least the basics of sharpness, composition, lighting and printing. You need to put something in front of them that will impress a person who can do all of that very well already – something that has specific interest/novelty/wow factor for a person who looks at, and makes, images all day long. So look for ‘Photographer’s Photos’ – these are entirely different thing from your day to day process of making good images your clients will love. To really get ahead, choose shots with inherent visual strength/graphic strength, not just classic, competent shots. This is why so many photographers do shoots specifically for the awards – because the great award winning images tend to be deliberately made – they’re not things that just come along during other shoots.
It pains me personally to say it (I’m a bit anti this in general!) – but images with a distinct look about them tend to win. The more cynical amongst us call this ‘the APPA Photoshop action’. But in reality, it’s clear the judges consistently go for heavily edited, strongly stylistic shots. Check out the previous winners to see what I mean. Ask any judge on their own and they’ll often say they wish to see more naturalistic shots, but by the time consensus bubbles up during the judging, year after year it’s the heavily edited (usually rather painterly!) shots that win. So for better or worse, if you want to win, then editing like this can help that happen. I guess it ties into point one above – your goal is to impress other photographers. And sometimes that means doing something you don’t necessarily consider part of your standard practise.
Don’t rush and leave things to to the very last minute. Great work can’t be rushed. Start planning in January based on the last years’ work. Schedule shoots then – when it’s quiet in the post Christmas lull – if you need to. Then you’ll be well prepared by the time the state ‘pre-awards’ feedback sessions start (March to June, generally). Take your work to those – prepared and printed to your highest abilities – and then listen to the invaluable feedback. Take it on board, and where it suits you, action it. Don’t try and become something you’re not, but do take constructive criticism. This is hard!
Then, efficiently prepare your final images from there.
Don’t use a day to day chemistry lab and boring resin coated papers for this. If you look around the awards you’ll see the vast majority of winning entries (probably 80% plus) are printed by inkjet on fine art materials…because this is where benchmark printing quality lies. Sure those chemistry printers have their place for pedestrian day to day volume stuff, but award level printing is about doing things at the best possible quality.
You can either print yourself, or use a service.
If you’re printing for yourself, then get a great custom profile made for your specific printer/paper combination (our profiles have been used to print a HUGE number of award winning images right up to the APPA Photographer Of The Year level). Print, edit, re-print, and repeat ad infinitum. Get as many eyes (as long as they are very well trained eyes) on your work, and accept feedback. Don’t be afraid to scrap an edit and go right back to the RAW and start again. Sometimes that’s what is needed – iteratively editing on top of old edits can quickly lead to muddy and confused results.
…But generally we recommend using a service (i.e. us!) for this – even if you regularly do your own printing. Why? Well, we print all day, every day, for the best image makers in the country. Working with us is a good opportunity to have a sit down, get a second set of (…professional print judging…) eyes on your work – before you submit it. We can advise you on editing your files for best effect, discuss shot selection, advise on the best media choices for your images, and then make the final exquisite prints on a benchmark system with the tightest colour control around.
Some of those big chemistry labs have added what they call fine art printing services, but honestly you simply don’t get the same attention and quality from these as a boutique service like us. We specialise in only the highest level printing & finest media – and have done for more than a decade now. We simply couldn’t count how many award winning images (including Golds) – we’ve printed over the last decade. Why not let us help you?
The print awards are big affairs – with hundreds and hundreds of prints being handled. Certainly they try and be careful about it, but too often prints somehow get marked before they get to the judges. Make sure you take basic precautions to keep your work safe – use a good print folio, get your prints properly mounted by a professional, and use surrounding Clearbags for further protection against mishandling.
In the end, these awards don’t mean that much. And not winning is no comment – at all – on your value as a person, or really even your abilities as a photographer. The whole thing is VERY subjective – just look through the silver awards in any year and I’ll bet you’ll find images in there you personally would have voted for over the final winner that year (and plenty you wouldn’t have given a silver to yourself!). Judging art IS art – not science – and there is no absolute right and wrong here.
If you’re the sensitive sort, don’t go and watch the judging of your images. It can be a lot more confronting than you might think when you’re actually sitting there being judged. Resist the urge to stand up and throw a shoe at the judge who is arguing your image down – they’re just doing their job and stating their opinion. And getting arrested won’t make it any more fun!
Enjoy the actual process and use it as an exercise in developing your shot selection, editing, printing and presentation skills. Win or lose in the actual awards, you and your business will benefit from that no matter what.
A huge thanks to Silvi Glattauer for the use of her images for this article. Head over to her website to view more of her beautiful images.