Be the Champ! - Strong photos
THIS MONTH WE WERE SCHEDULED to discuss split-level photography, but events have overtaken us. That column will be here in the next issue of DIVER.
Instead I want to take the opportunity to talk about competitions, sparked by a recent run of personal success in that department.
My underwater pictures were fortunate enough to pick up awards, in the same year, in all three of the most prestigious wildlife photography contests open to British photographers: the British Wildlife Photography Awards, the BBC Wildlife Photographer Of The Year and the European Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.
I call it fortunate not through modesty, but because having judged many contests I know that the subjective margins between winner and also-ran are often miniscule. You need luck. There are so many good images that even the same set of judges might, on a different day, choose completely different winners.
If you have strong photos, you will always be in the mix, but you won’t always be a winner.
So I always try to enjoy the successes when lady luck shines, but don’t get too upset when it doesn’t. The lesson is simple, take your photography seriously, but not competition results.
Anyway, following this year’s competition season I have not been short on correspondence from other shooters all keen to know: the techniques behind the winning shots, why I chose to enter these particular images in these particular contests and why I think they were successful.
I’ll try to answer these questions.
But mainly I want to use this month’s Be The Champ! column to discuss competitions in general.
WHICH COMPETITION IS RIGHT FOR YOU There is a bewildering number from which to choose, but I hope these notes help you decide.
When you are new to competing, the best bets are monthly club competitions (such as those organised at the British Society of Underwater Photographers) and various online competitions (such as Dive Photo Guide’s one).
Results come out quickly, and there is a chance to try again the next month. Prizes are smaller, but in both cases there is the opportunity to quiz the winners (either face to face or online) about their images. In short, learning and competing go hand in hand.
The next rung up the ladder are the big underwater photography contests and festivals.
These are annual events, but there is at least one each month. So if you wish, you can always be competing.
These competitions are aimed at amateurs (many preclude professionals), but don’t be fooled into thinking that makes them easy to win. Many competitors are vastly experienced and have been mopping up prizes for years, so the standard is usually very high.
Sadly, I think many of these serial competitors take the attitude of trying to win as many prizes with the same image as possible. So you will see the same shots cropping up again and again.
At the top of this category are the highly prestigious contests that also encourage entries from professionals. Often the prizes are not quite as good, but the kudos makes up for it.
The French World Festival of Underwater Images (formally based in Antibes, now in Marseille) used to be the pinnacle, but I think it has lost its way in recent years. Has the judging been rewarding friends rather than the best images(This year seemed to be a step back on track).
I am sad to see this competition lose its lustre, not least because I have been successful there in the past. In 2002, I won so many awards in a single year that the (French) organisers changed the rules, so it couldn’t happen again!
TAKING OVER THE NUMBER ONE SLOT is the “Super-Bowl”: the International Underwater Competition organised by Dive Photo Guide, Wetpixel and Our World Underwater. I’ve judged this contest every year since its inception.
These competitions are important because pros and amateurs compete together and, unlike the amateur-only contests, editors and publishers pay close attention to the results. Impress here and opportunities will flood in.
My contract for my book The Art Of Diving (2006) came directly from success in France.
The top rung consists of the major wildlife photography competitions. These attract 10 to 100 times the number of entries as the wholly underwater contests, but get selected and they are an amazing platform for your images (millions of people see the winners in magazines, books and exhibitions), do wonders for your reputation and open all sorts of doors.
A few years ago, I had the chance to show my winning photos in WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR to the Queen!
A downside is that these competitions favour only wildlife subjects, so wreck and diver photos aren’t eligible.
The prizes are reasonable, but amateurs and industry-leading pros enter these for the prestige.
My big success in 2013 was being named the EUROPEAN WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR for my photo Night Moves (above), the first time an underwater photo has won this accolade.
In contests you can never control which of your photos will catch the judges’ eyes, so I am particularly pleased to have success with a photo I feel is original, despite the subject matter being common. Sometimes competition winners are shots about which everyone says “I’ve got that”, “X has a better version of that” or “if I was there I could have got that”. Being different was my motivation for entering this picture.
It is a long exposure, taken with my camera on a tripod, showing bar jack hunting over a coral reef. The 3-second exposure renders the fish like swirling phantoms against the inky, black sea.
On the right you can see the outline of one fish as it stops to feed, its trail showing how it swooped down across the frame to catch its prey.
Around the central reef sponge you can even see trails of the smaller fish and zooplankton that the jack were hunting.
TWENTY-ONE ISSUES AGO, in my first Be The Champ!, I commented that competitions were a big part of the underwater photography scene.
But I would stress again that underwater photographers should strive to take the positives out of shooting for contests, harnessing their competitive instinct to create technically perfect and original images.
And at the same time avoid becoming overly competitive, where every subject and other diver becomes the opposition.
Don’t get discouraged when you are not winning. If your shots are good, you will always be in the mix for prizes. Keep entering!
Every photographer has tales of an image that failed in a club contest and then won nationally or internationally.
The largest prizes are generally in the wholly underwater photography contests. These tend to be aimed at amateurs, and I think it is good that the biggest prizes are used to encourage up-and-coming photographers.
There are plenty from which to choose, but always read the rules carefully to be sure that it is the right contest for your images.
The highest kudos comes from the big wildlife photography contests that attract 10,000s of images and easily over 1000 in the dedicated underwater categories.
These competitions have huge press coverage, successful images are seen by millions and they open many doors for publishing and exhibiting your work.