I’ve just completed judging my first wedding photography competition. It was a real privilege to be invited to judge the Fina Art Association (Brazil) by my friend and awesome photographer, Wellington Fugisse.
There were 2049 entries in total. Judging was out of 10 points for each image, in half marks. There were 112 photos awarded.
I know from years of my own competition entries how exciting and nerve wracking it can be waiting for results day, and the crushing feeling of finding not even one of your photographs has made the cut. And then of course the elation when you win an award – knowing that a panel of other real photographers actually thought your work is worthy of being placed!
Now, I’m not a deliberately horrible person but I am going to ‘say it like it is’ for the remainder of this article, so If you’re a little bit fragile or struggle with harsh constructive criticism it’d be a good idea to stop reading at this point. If you really want to learn then read on and embrace the advice and help offered in the spirit it’s being offered.
How I judged the competition – my approach to scoring
Before beginning I looked through all of the entries, one by one. My benchmark for a photo of a decent standard was 5 points. One which had been given good care and thought in capture, was of a professional standard in all aspects of composition, colour, technical ability and moment. There were many which fell short of this standard. Points were knocked off for poor attention to a range of things – read on for those. For ‘better than the standard’ images points were added. Some really great images trickled through and started to attract 8’s – I was really encouraged, though there were some common traits: silhouettes, ‘little people big picture’, sunsets, to name a few.
How to win wedding photography awards
So the question I often get asked is how to win wedding photography awards. I honestly don’t believe there is a recipe to this, and even if there was would you really want it? Try to forget the outcome and just immerse yourself in the moment. There are however thing which you can do to improve your approach, self and photography, and the outcome of doing these well is often award recognition.
So what was I looking for in a ‘winning photo’?
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives you something of an indication of what I was looking for:
- Emotion or a connection between the subjects, or the image and the viewer.
- An interesting moment
- Something different or new – there seemed to be endless silhouettes and sunsets!
- Immediate and bold impact of any of the above, which immediately grabbed my attention and made me say “yes” out loud.
- Good editing / post production – this is a basic requirement
- I disqualified one which had slipped through with a watermark – keep an eye on the rules!
On the positive side, there was some really brave work which pushed me and was a real pleasure to look at. There was also a pleasant use of overhead / possibly drone images which were executed really well.
So where did photographs go wrong?
- Effort to capture a moment, but it wasn’t clear what that moment actually was?
- Overly forced posing which was obvious or subjects looking deliberately posed or very camera aware.
- Photo’s which relied on perfect symmetry, but which weren’t captured or cropped to reflect this lost mark.
- Lots of “it’s just nice – nothing special”.
- I found myself saying out loud “have you worked for this image?”.
- Does it actually look like a professional capture, or is it something which was snapped by a guest?
If I thought an image absolutely had to win, it got a ‘golden buzzer’ and an immediate 10. At the half way point, there has been one of these. It was so exciting when it hit my screen! On the other hand if one was so poor or just offensively tasteless (yes there were a couple) I considered it shouldn’t have even been submitted it got the “red buzzer” 1 point – the lowest score available.
Still or artificially posed scenes need to be immaculately finished and have also sense of life about them – they’re not going anywhere so there’s no excuse for the final image not to be pretty perfect.
Aggressively applied Photoshop filers… enough said. I only came across one of these photos with crazy filters applied – whilst it scored the minimum I’ll have one of whatever that photographer was drinking as I expect they’re super fun to hang with! And that also goes for Photoshop lighting filters – particularly the ‘spotlight’.
Simply cropping the subject to the corner of the frame without any reason and just to ‘be a bit arty’ – please, why?! The same goes for cropping portraits heads or feet off for no apparent reason – done with purpose to draw attention and focus the eye on a particular part of the image can work well, but just for it’s own sake looses points.
Editing / Post Production
Let’s talk about the way photos were finished. There was the good, the bad and the pain ass ugly! By far one of the quickest ways to loose points was poor editing.
Some were absolutely shocking with awful colour, terribly over or under sharpened images, massively blown highlights or over-crushed shadows or massively over-smoothed skin. My personal pet hate is the exposure brush in Lightroom being ‘blobbed’ over a couple and lightening up a circle – if you want to make the subject pop in this way, then don’t be lazy, get in close and do the work. Excessive dodging and burning to separate the subject from it’s background due to poor capture was another way to wave farewell to points.
Effects added in post-production – particularly light effects. If they we’re done exceptionally well I may not notice them, but some were applied so obviously.
I’m a big fan of bravery in image making, be that physical, emotional or chasing the sublime. But photographs of breast-feeding women without any connection to a wedding, and just for the sake of it, why? It looses points immediately, as will any totally genre-disconnected photograph. It’s a wedding photography competition! Let’s see something of a link to the nature of the day. Close up’s of a bride smoking… just why? What are you trying to convey? Now I love dogs – I’m a huge doggie fan, their little fat furry heads and crazy antics – so they grab my attention! But just dropping a dog in to a photograph doesn’t make it a winner. Why is the dog there? What is it doing? What’s the connection, the story?
“Forced Fun” Wedding Photos
I’d suggest that one of the keys to achieving award winning wedding photos with a documentary approach is to be truly ‘in the moment’. Anticipating the right place at the right time with the right equipment and shooting through is critical to good capture. Forcing fun from your subjects is not. People who aren’t genuinely and authentically expressing emotions (any emotion) sticks out like mutts nuts.
Just not very interesting
It’s not technically a bad photograph, it’s just dull as dishwater. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a peripheral glance can be inspiring, moving and interesting. But it has to stand apart from the mundane.
Poor capture will always be poor capture. Being in slightly the wrong place or at the wrong time, missing the critical moment loses points immediately. I did occasionally give 0.5 point for effort if I could see the photographer was busting their camera trying to achieve a shot, but it had to be exceptionally close to steal that half a point!
Push the envelope
Many of the images could have been awesome if they were just pushed a step further. For example shooting through the moment to find a perfect capture. Standing a couple in front of an interesting wall, sunset, scene etc. is “just ok”. I looked at these and said to myself “so what?”. Why is this scene important? Don’t get me wrong, done beautifully you could easily seduce me with gorgeous colour and a stunning scene, without doing that much with the couple. Bring it all together beautifully and you’re looking at an award.
Don’t settle or self-congratulate
Persevere harder with finding the image you want to capture/create. Don’t settle for it being just ‘ok’! Try not to delude yourself in to believing your work is amazing – friends and family are not helpful critics. There are plenty of online forums for honest and helpful feedback on your photography, get your photos out there and open yourself up humbly to learn.
Focus. OMG, so many potentially strong images were cast in to the fire for lack of decent focus. Now I’m not talking about a slight softness, I mean the core subjects being absolutely ‘out of focus’ (without the photographers’ intention). There were photos which could have been marked higher if they were in focus – these were so annoying as I could feel the photographer was in the moment, but just wasn’t hitting the spot technically. I was slightly forgiving of this (and general technical faults) if the moment itself was epic – but it had to be truly epic.
‘It’s just a nothing photo’
Not a noteworthy moment, not part of a story, not finished particularly well, no obvious effort or desire by the photographer to create or capture the subject. These were the kind of photographs which shouldn’t have survived a first cull, let alone be submitted to a competition. Emotions, moment, stories people! Make me feel something!
Finally… just run your own race
I’m speaking from experience as 99% of the things I’ve talked about here I’ve done myself. Don’t get down in the dumps, at the end of the day you’re running your own race! So congratulations if you made the effort and took the time to enter – those who didn’t embraced a reason not to. Not to participate, not to show their work to an audience, not to try. So for all my overly assertive comments written above, you still get a high five and a ‘virtual’ beer from me. Now, haven’t you all got some editing to be doing?
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