TIPS FOR SUCCESS – THE AIPP PHOTOGRAPHY AWARDS
Recently I was awarded the title of AIPP QLD Documentary Photographer of the Year for a second time. It is a real honor, especially seeing the category expand in entries this year and participating alongside some of Australia’s great photographers, particularly of note in Documentary, Lesley Downie. Like myself she has won the documentary photography category multiple times, and also other categories as well.
I won the title on the back of four Muay Thai related images, but rather than discuss the merits of images, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on the AIPP State and National awards process for the new or uninitiated. When I accepted the award one of the points I hopefully made in my brief speech, was that none of us make it to the podium alone. Every photographer including Queensland greats such as Kelly Brown or Richard Muldoon will point to people that made a difference in their journey and changed their way of thinking. My award winning work is a culmination of all the great advice I’ve received, both about photography and about the awards itself. So here are a few things in no particular order I’d like to share that I’ve mostly learned from others.
1. Get your ego hurt at the print critique nights, not on the competition weekend
Putting your images out in front of some of the best photographic judges in Australia can be a tough night. You’ll learn what you’ve overlooked, and the first time you might feel like you’ve had your heart torn from your chest. That’s ok, now you’re really growing as a photographer. One day in future you’ll look at the print you put up as judges fight over it tooth and nail with a cheeky smile on your face as you absorb the argument you started. Muhahaha.
We’ve all been there though, we’ve all had our disappointing prints and there are plenty of AIPP Grand Masters that have scored even under 70 (not professional standard). For a new entrant this situation can be avoided by giving your images some trial under fire at a critique night first. The opportunity to chat directly to judges afterwards is priceless.
I wasn’t going to enter this image until it did extremely well at a print critique. It went on to win a Gold Distinction and highest scoring Sports print at APPA. Good thing I got some advice!
2. Wax on, wax off
When you’re starting off talk to those judges, maybe one of them is someone you want to talk to regularly. When I started out I utilized the incredibly cultured photographic brains of Ian Poole and Darren Jew at Foto Frenzy. If Living Image print your entries (based out of Foto Frenzy) you’ll have the opportunity to talk to these guys too. And remember showing gratitude for other’s time is a great trait, whether it be through appreciative words or a bottle of something ;). Since then I have sought the advice of other judges such as Greg Sullavan. Every judge offers you a different viewpoint and opinion. These days I don’t show my work to many, but I still run anything I am unsure of past someone with specific questions, or I’ll sneak one I’m unsure of in to print critique to see what the reaction is.
3. Understand the presentation tastes of a competition
Every competition has rules in how things should be presented. They are all listed in black and white for all to see. What isn’t written is the taste of a competition. A black mat might work well in camera clubs, whereas a white mat of some kind might work better at AIPP. Landscape images are often placed on a portrait orientated mat as well at AIPP. You can do whatever you like within the rules, but unless you have a compelling reason to do something unusual that compliments the photograph you are showing, simple and in line with competition expectations is generally best. You want all attention on your photograph.
4. Flip it upside down
One of the easiest things I learned to improve my work technically. In graphic design we talk about a visual hierarchy, the order in which an eye will travel around a design and acknowledge elements and text. The same is true in photography, to conquer a photograph we must dictate where people should look and in potentially in what order. This can be influenced by prominence, contrast, colour and exposure. But sometimes we are too close to the subject matter in our images to really look at things in the way a stranger to the work would. So to break your connection to the subject and truly analyse where people will look, turn your image upside down. Before you know it you’ll be wondering why on earth your portrait subject’s elbow was the brightest thing on the print.
The printing of this Silver winning photograph by Michael Zervos and Photo Mounts and Albums was immaculate, but now I keep staring off to the left hand side… my bad!
5. Printing is paramount
I suck at printing, so I leave it to the experts. Develop an ongoing relationship with a printer, discuss your prints and photographs with them, and seek their advice on potential paper choices and approaches to the print. This is not to say disregard your own opinions, you are the artist. But AIPP Award printers have been in the business a long time and can teach you a thing or two!
6. Show the judges something new
If you are showing the judges something they’ve seen before, think about it, it’s going to have to be one of the best examples of that image they’ve ever seen to get across the line, right? If you bring them something different, whether it’s subject matter, compositional, a different approach using different equipment, just something that makes them stop for a second, your score will likely go up. Some of the best photographers I know are the ones that take subjects we see every day and show them to us in a completely new way.
Entering this photograph was a gamble, but I wanted to show a different perspective of viewing Muay Thai fighting. It won a Silver Distinction.
7. The key to your award winning photograph
One of Ian Poole’s first pieces of advice to me, after scoring a 73 on a print that I loved, was that an award winning photograph often needs a key to unlock it. What this key is, well that is the mystery. It could be a little bent post in a beautiful landscape composition, as it is with one of Ian’s pieces. It could be a mop and bucket to elaborate on the story of a humble pianist, as Adam Hourigan’s top scoring print in QLD 2015 showed us. It could be a tiny vehicle in a giant landscape photographed from above. There are so many things this key could be, and it’s probably one of the hardest things to plan for or identify. But you’ll know it when you see an amazing image and think to yourself… it wouldn’t be nearly as amazing without that tiny detail. And then you bow to the photographer. You also don’t want to smack people in the face with this key, or it might come off as too contrived.
8. The photographer must bring something to the image
It’s not enough to find an amazing viewpoint, natural wonder, or person, and take a photo that documents it. You have to bring some control to that image as a photographer by utilising deliberate composition and lighting. I was very guilty of this when I first started taking landscape photographs. I was totally capable of taking a beautiful photograph of a scene but they were not award prints as I wasn’t giving the scene any of my own interpretation or control.
Even something as simple as shooting through foreground trees shows a photographer’s deliberate compositional choices. This one scored Silver.
9. No one cares if the photograph was hard to take
If you hike up a figurative Mount Everest to take a photograph, and miss the mark, it’s a missed opportunity, not an award print! No one cares how hard it was to take the photograph, the print is judged, not the process of taking it. Sometimes a judge will recognise your effort and that is a wonderful thing.The reality is most top award prints took a lot of effort to create, or photographers that worked their butt off to be in a position to make something look effortless.
10. Don’t give judges anything to pick on
Clean up those little technical details. Detail in shadows, don’t blow out your highlights unless you have a reason for it. If something doesn’t seem right the judges will pick up on it, even if that’s how the scene really was. Don’t give them anything to pick on. Give them something immaculate. If your photograph is good enough to win an award don’t let them take it off you over anything silly and avoidable.
11. When it’s time to talk categories
I was entering my first AIPP National Awards, and I was considering what categories to put my four entries in. One of Australia’s best young judges Adam Finch told me to always go for a category. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t think you can win. I have seen quite a few photographers with amazing portfolios miss out on being a finalist and potentially winner of a category because they didn’t go for it in the one category. At national level you have the opportunity to compete in the ‘Creative’ category which takes into account those that enter multiple categories, but if you want to try and win that, then take the same advice and plan for that too.
For those curious, no, although all of my images won awards that year, I wasn’t a finalist (Landscape is a damn tough category!). But I had no regrets.
Silver Distinction and Moran Prize Finalist. An image like this you hope will stay up for viewing long enough for judges to appreciate the easily overlooked details.
12. Be brave
The more you put yourself out there, the better you’ll get. And sometimes you have to make the call to go with your gut feeling on something, even if someone is telling you the image won’t do well. Every so often you might just prove people wrong. The first time you hear someone like Mike Langford passionately argue on behalf of your print, you’ll be hooked.
Have I missed anything? Get your entries in on time perhaps?