Tips for Entering the State Fair Photography Competition

There are lots of ways to improve your photography. I tried (and quickly failed) to do a Project 365 this year (take at least one photo a day for a year). But last month, I decided to enter the Tennessee State Fair Photography Competition and see what I could learn from that experience.

The judge at our state competition is professional photographer Jerry Atnip. He gave a Jury Talk Saturday about how to enter (and win) State Fair or other photography competitions. Here are my notes from his talk:

Why Enter A Photography Competition
To boost your confidence, to build your resume, it forces you to practice, you learn from seeing what other photographers enter, it forces you to look more critically at your work, exhibiting (not to mention winning) brings exposure to your work.

I would add to this that it is really fun! I loved looking at everyone's images, seeing mine on display too, and getting to meet and talk with other photographers.

How To Select A Competition
Research the competition and make sure it's legitimate and not just a way to collect entry fees. See if it's been around for a while and look at past winners if possible. Be sure the competition suits your photographic style/genre, and that the entries are at or above your level. Read the fine print of the rules for any indications that you are giving up rights to your images. Never give up your image rights. If possible, research who the judges are; are they people you want judging your work?

I entered the State Fair competition because I happened to be on their mailing list and was sent the entry information for the entire Fair - show animals, vegetables, creative arts, the whole thing. It hadn't occured to me to enter the Fair (or any other competition), but I thought it would be really interesting, and it was only $2 per photo to enter, so why not?

How To Select Images
You are the first juror and you have to edit yourself. The judges won't know or care about the backstory of the photo (how early you got up, how wonderfully photogenic your kid is, etc.); the photograph has to stand alone. Be original, think differently, and enter something the judges won't see 10 others of. Have technical skill (learn the rules of photography, then learn how and when to break them), but also have a vision so the image isn't flat. Tell a story, evoke an emotion. Keep it simple. If you ask for opinions, don't ask your mother. Family tends to think your work is all awesome.

I had no idea how to choose images. I picked out the three (you could only enter three) that I felt were the strongest technically (composition, exposure, etc.) and also just - well - pretty. One of the three had a clear story/emotional component.

The Rules. Follow Them.
Follow them to the letter. If it says 16x20 mounting, don't submit a bigger one to get noticed - it won't be judged. Turn your images in on time and don't ask for an extension. The shows are hard work for the organizers - be respectful of the guidelines. Do not ever put an identifying mark on the front of the picture. The judges need to look at the images without knowing whose they are.

Presentation of the Image
Be sure it's neat and clean. Mount/matte on black or white, even if the rules do not specify this. Anything else is only a distraction for the judge, even if that blue looks really pretty. On the back of the mounting, put a big arrow indicating which way is up. It can be surprisingly hard to tell sometimes, and you want your photograph judged and displayed properly.

Strategies For Winning
Look at past winners if possible, or at winners from similar competitions. Select your categories carefully. In Tennessee for instance, "Aquatic Life" will likely be a small category and "Color Flowers" will be big (lots of entries). Once you pick a category, do something different. Look at images from masters of that genre. Submit a unique point of view.

Be Prepared To Lose More Than You Win
It will just work out that way. If you lose, there are 100 possible reasons. Do not be discouraged!

If You Win
Tell people about it! Take the exposure that a win affords you. Thank the organizers and judges.

Next, I will post my entries and tell you if they won anything.

Have you ever entered a photography competition? Do you have any pointers?

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