The photos in this article are from my new “Detroit” series.
I’ve had the pleasure of being a judge for a handful of street photography competitions: including the International Street Photography Awards 2012, the Urban Picnic Street Photography Contest in 2013, and the International Street Photography Awards 2014.
It was a fascinating experience being a judge– and it has taught me a lot of lessons in terms of how to judge others’ work. More than that, it has taught me to better judge my own work. Here are some lessons I’ve personally learned being a judge, and some tips I suggest when you enter a street photography contest:
1. Consistency is king
One of the most important things I found while judging is the importance of consistency. It wasn’t enough to submit strong single images. There needed to be a consistency. This consistency was several things:
a) Aesthetic consistency
Did the photos all look like they were shot by the same photographer, with the same camera, lens, film, or post-processing technique?
There were a ton of entries in which people mixed black and white and color. To myself and the rest of the judges, this was a big no-no. Nobody who mixed black and white images with color images made it to the final round.
I also found it important to have aesthetic consistency in terms of post-processing. I saw tons of entries which didn’t make the next round because they were processed differently. Some were high-contrast color, some were low-contrast black and white, some were sepia-toned, some were retro-colored.
Also when it comes to post-processing, the less the better. No photos with HDR, selective color, or over-the-top processing made it to the final round of judging in any of the contests I’ve judged.
Takeaway point: Be consistent with the camera, film, post-processing, focal length you use.
b) Set consistency
Something that is a bit harder to do with your work is to submit a set of images that have some sort of narrative or set consistency. When submitting images for a street photography contest ask yourself: Do the photos either suggest a story or have some sort of consistency in terms of content or form?
For example in most of the contests the rule was to submit up to 5 images. If you submitted 4 photos from Tokyo and 1 photo from Hawaii, that one photo from Hawaii would ruin your set consistency– and prevent you from advancing to the next round.
Not only that, but there were some entries in which they submitted a set of single images (all of which were strong). Although the single images were strong images– they had no consistency to them. They seemed a bit too random jumbled in together– and didn’t make it to the final round.
Takeaway point: Single strong images aren’t good enough. You need your images to work together as a set.
c) Location consistency
When submitting photos for a street photography contest, having a consistent location in your photos is quite important. Although you can get a set of consistent-looking images from different cities and countries, it is quite difficult.
For example, a photo taken in India will look and feel very different from a photo in New York.
If you want to use different photos from different locations, make sure that the background of your photos don’t look totally random. To build up the prior example a bit more:
For example, a photo of kids playing in a slum in India will look and feel very different from guys in suits in New York City, with yellow cabs in the background.
Of course there are always exceptions to every rule– but I generally find photos submitted all from the same geographical location tend to do better as a set.
Takeaway point: Try to submit photos all in a similar geographic location in a set.
2. Submit fewer photos
A huge takeaway point I personally learned from judging is: “less is more.” In several of the street photography contests the entry rule was: “Enter up to 5 images.” Almost everybody submitted 5 images. But you didn’t have to submit 5 images. You only had to submit up to 5 images. Meaning, you could submit less than 5.
There was one photographer who submitted only 3 images
and almost won first prize in 2012 for the International Street Photography Awards. Even though there were only 3 images, they all had an aesthetic consistency, were strong single-images, and worked perfectly as a set.
There were other entries in which 4/5 of the photos people submitted were really strong and consistent. But having even 1 or 2 weak photos in a set eliminated the photographer from making it to the next round.
This was quite shocking to me: it made me realize how even one weak photo in your set or portfolio can destroy you.
Takeaway point: Submit fewer photos, and leave out the weak images. A set of 3 images can work perfectly. Generally odd-numbers of images in a set work well (3, 5, 7 images in a set). Even numbered sets feel a bit awkward (like 4,6,8 images).
3. Don’t submit generic street photos
Realize as a judge, looking through entries is really difficult. You often have to plow through thousands of entries (most of which are quite mediocre). The beginning phases of judging is quite tedious and boring.
Personally when I was judging images in the first batch, I could determine whether it was an interesting set of images or not in the first 5 seconds.
The sad reality is because most contests have so many entries, no judge will spend a solid chunk of 10-20 minutes looking at your work. You might be lucky to get a minute of attention from a judge in the beginning. Of course, you get more time if you are a semi or a finalist.
So pretty much, you only have a few seconds to submit a group of images which interest or impress a judge.
I looked through a lot of “generic” street photos– or “IKEA Street Photography” as my friend Charlie Kirk likes to call it. What does he mean by “IKEA Street Photography?”
Well the concept is if you go to IKEA and you purchase art– it isn’t necessarily bad art. It is pleasing to the eye, attracts a large audience, and doesn’t offend anyone. But the art at IKEA is terribly boring and generic. You couldn’t differentiate any of the IKEA artists from one another. It looks like they were all made from the same generic mill. Kind of how you can’t differentiate Yoga instructors– they more or less all talk the same.
So you want to submit photos that aren’t generic. What are examples of “generic” street photography? Some examples:
- Black and white photos of people walking, and there is nothing going on. No “decisive moment.”
- Street photos that are easy to replicate. Such as people walking by a funny sign or a billboard.
- Street photos of random homeless people on the ground, which aren’t intimate and don’t say much.
- Street photos that are copies of other famous street photos (but not done as well). For example, photos of people jumping over puddles (unless your version is better than Henri Cartier-Bresson’s, it isn’t that interesting).
As a photography judge, we are trying to look for new work that inspires, excites, and is fresh. Of course creating “unique” or “original” work is a bit of a misnomer. Everything has been done before. But what makes it unique or original is the way you are able to spin it in your own way, and how well you do it.
Another good way to think about your entries is imagine being a judge. Before you submit work to a contest ask yourself: If I was a judge and I saw the work that I submitted, would it impress or interest me?
4. Realize a lot of it is luck
One thing that is also a sad part of reality is that when it comes to street photography contests (and any contest for the matter)
there is a great degree of luck involved.
For example, if a judge looks at your entry when he/she is still energized and refreshed– they might spend a little more time looking at your entry than at the very end, when they are tired and burnt out. I know this was the case for me. The entries that were in the beginning of my cue
I spent slightly more time looking at. But as time went on and I became weary, I spent less time towards the entries at the end.
Not only that, but one thing you can’t control as an entrant is whether a judge will like your work or not. This is so incredibly subjective. For example, lately I’ve been more interested in color street photography– which means I probably have a bias towards favoring street photography in color. Another judge who has done all of his/her work in black and white might have more of a positive bias for monochromatic work. I don’t think this is intentional
but something subconscious that comes from being a judge.
Of course it might also work in the opposite way. I tend to look at a lot of “street photography”
that nowadays I’m more interested in photos that stretch the definitions and boundaries of what “street photography” is considered.
Takeaway point: At the end of the day, realize a lot of contests come down to pure luck. Whether your image is early on in the queue, or whether the judges like your work or not.
5. Get a second opinion
When I looked at some of the street photography contest entrants one of the questions I asked myself was: Did this photographer ask for a second opinion or feedback before they submitted their work?
When it comes to editing down our work and choosing our best images, it is hard to be more “objective” with our work. We are so emotionally attached to the work we create that it is hard to take a step back, and say whether a shot works or not.
Personally I think I do a decent job editing down a set or a series from hundreds of images down to around 20-30 images. However to get to that final 5-10 images requires me to have a trusted friend to help me edit down. Because your friend or photography editor isn’t as emotionally attached to your images– they can do a much better job of “killing your babies.” They are able to tell you frankly which images should stay, and which should go.
Takeaway point: At the end of the day, the decision which images to submit are your own choice. But realize that it is still important to get several second-opinions and outsider feedback to make a more informed decision.
Why submit to street photography contests anyways?
I know a lot of what I am sharing can be a bit of a downer. Street photography contests (and every contest out there) aren’t 100% fair, and the “winners” are very subjective choices made from the judges. In photography, there are no clear winners or losers like you would see in a football game.
So why submit to street photography contests anyways? Most of the popular ones cost money to enter
and you aren’t guaranteed to win or receive a “return on your investment.” I still think there is a lot of merit in entering street photography contests:
1. Contests force you to edit down your work
I think one of the best parts of entering a street photography contest is that it forces you to edit down your work to what you think are your strongest images. Often we are so busy shooting, that we forget to take a hard, critical look at our work.
So if you have to edit down your entire life’s work into only 5 images– it forces you to make hard decisions. You are forced to ask yourself: If I were to die, what 5 images do I want to be remembered for? Which 5 images represent who I am as a photographer? It is an incredibly difficult challenge- but a great exercise.
2. Contests help you gain exposure
Most of us as street photographers do this purely as a passion and a hobby. Most of us have full-time jobs (which are much more lucrative than photography) and don’t intend to make a full-time living off our street photography.
When I had a full-time job, I simply wanted recognition and exposure for my photography. This is what set me to start being active on social media– to help bring my images to a larger audience.
If you are on the shortlist, are a finalist, or a winner of a street photography contest– you have the chance of gaining greater exposure and recognition for your work. Of course at the end of the day the most important people to impress in our photography is ourself– but it never hurts to have other people appreciate our work as well.
3. Contests are fun
Don’t forget– these contests are supposed to be fun. There is a lot of luck involved in a contest, but there is always a nice feeling of hoping that you will win. Contests are something to look forward to. Most of the time we don’t win, but having that dream and hope is quite exhilarating. Contests are something that break the rhythm of monotony in our lives, and bring a little more excitement and spice to our everyday–until we find out who the final winner is.
The article above are just based on my candid (pun intended) experiences judging a few street photography contests. I am not the world’s best judge– but I wanted to share these lessons I’ve learned through judging– to help you better understand street photography contests from a judge’s point-of-view. My ultimate hope is that you better edit your work into tighter sets to become a stronger photographer.