Tips from a Judge: How You Can Win the Next Big Nature Photography Competition

Esther BeatonPhoto Competitions, Photo ReviewLeave a Comment

Australian Geographic just announced that this year’s ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year competition is now open. I believe this is one of the most lucrative competitions available at present. It’s almost like a big secret. Everyone knows about the BBC wildlife competition, but hardly anyone knows about this Australian regional equivalent. In both cases the prize money is BIG – £10,000 for the UK-based competition and AU$10,000 for our local one. The BBC one gets flooded by international entries in the tens of thousands, including the top professional nature photographers in the world. But the competition for the ANZANG prize is less stiff – last year there were only 1425 entries from just 322 photographers. Believe me, those international pros are probably gnashing their teeth that they can’t meet the qualifications.

OK. Now that you know it’s a worthwhile contest to enter, how do you win it?

Let me give you some of the pointers. I was one of the three judges on the panel last year and these are the key things that helped me select the winners.

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IMPACT

We judges are sitting in a darkened room and the images are staying on the screen only a few seconds at a time. Such a short time frame means that the first requirement for an image is to have impact. Hear that? IMPACT. The image has to have shock value. It must provoke a strong reaction, like a gasp. As a viewer, you have a hard time keeping your mouth shut because the word “wow” keeps wanting to escape your lips.

Sure, you can have a “nice” image or a “beautiful” image or an “interesting” one. They are all good. But such an image will have a hard time getting past the first round. For an image to have impact, it has to have the quality which I would call “never seen before”. That could be a new way of dealing with colour, a unique angle, an unusual behavior – almost any aspect of photography. So if your friends look at your image and don’t immediately go “wow” it’s probably not going to be a winner.

PS. One big tip here. To get this elusive “impact” requires one overriding ingredient on your part: hard work. It means slogging your big lens and tripod up the mountain, it means learning to ski backwards, it means staying up all night, it means doing it over and over again; and then over and over again. And again.

MEANING

After the initial impact, the viewer stays transfixed if an image can create an emotional relevance. Such an image intrigues the viewer. What is the image about? He is hooked into trying to figure it out. This doesn’t mean the image has to be complex in design or content. Sometimes a very simple graphic design can have deep intrigue. The image that keeps the eye wandering back and forth, over and over again, gives a great deal of satisfaction. With each pass of the retinal scan, the viewer / judge gets more and more information, interprets more and more meaning and derives more and more understanding. This process builds the “like” factor. It gets the viewer hooked.

PERFECT TECHNIQUE

The above two points utterly fail if there is even the lightest hint of inadequate photographic technique. The image has to be sharp where it’s meant to be sharp. The contrast (or dynamic range) has to be spot on – no washed out highlights or other exposure fails. The second that the eye is jarred by a technical error, there is a big disconnect.

On the other hand, when the technique is flawless – when the depth of field is perfect for the subject, when the composition looks like it was organised by archangels, when the exposure is so perfect you think you can reach in and touch the objects they seem so real – then the viewer (and judges) are connected more than ever. They are falling in love with your photo.

To hear what the other two judges had to say after completing last year’s judging session, watch these videos.

And do treat yourself to the sheer delight of browsing the winning images. Study the winning entry, the blue bottle by Matthew Smith, but also enjoy the rest of the mouthwatering subcategory winners. Go to Australian Geographic’s website to see them as a slide show. And then submit your entry at the organiser’s website, the South Australian Museum. 

Good luck! Do pass on these tips to your nature photography colleagues and friends. And let me know if these tips were of use to you. Do you think I left out anything that was even more important?

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