How to select your best images and what to consider

I recently had the honour to judge Collection 55 of Inspiration Photographers’ wedding awards – below are some considerations on this round in particular and judging photography competitions in general. I hope you will find these useful as you consider which of your own images might be the next award-winning photos. Some of the thoughts below are shaped by my own aesthetic preferences, others by my judging experience and world view. 

The images below are some of my favourites from this collection. Photographers credited if you want to see more of their work.

award winning photo by petra bravenboer

Who am I?

I am a photographer with more than 20 years of experience. I started as a photojournalist, then photo editor for a weekly newspaper, currently a freelance photographer specialising in event, family and corporate photography. I have also regularly judged some of the biggest wedding photography competitions, have spoken at various conferences and offer mentoring sessions to other photographers.

My view of the world and photography is shaped by my time as a photojournalist (more on that below).

Should you trust anything you read here implicitly? Of course not! Use your own judgment and experience to determine what’s relevant and useful to you. As a sidenote, I discovered it’s a healthy life strategy not to trust anyone with too many certainties.

General thoughts about photography contests…let’s dig in! 

1. I respect your courage.

Thank you for your willingness to put your images in the world to be judged by strangers!

Whenever I judge a photography competition, I remind myself that whatever images were submitted are the photos that particular photographer considers their best work. Some of that is work very much still in progress – I cringe at some of my own images that I considered good enough to submit to competitions in the past. To put it bluntly, some of my images sucked (some still do). Some of yours might suck too, but that’s not a reflection on you. What’s admirable is the fact that you submitted and that you’re willing to put in the hard work to become a stronger photographer.  

award winning photo by gaetano pipitone

2. How I judge photography competitions.

Keep in mind that each judge has their unique approach, but whatever that approach is, they will ideally apply it consistently for all images they assess.

              - I judge in multiple rounds, in the same way I select my own images. In the first round, I select all the images I consider have potential. Then, typically over two or three rounds, I select the strong images. Out of those, I select the winners. By the time I finish, I will have gone over the images several times

              - I judge fast. Don’t expect a judge to spend more than 7 seconds on your image. I judge fast because I’ve been doing it forever. But keep in mind that judges are not robots and we all want to be efficient so we can get back to our own life, projects, work, etc.

              - The bare minimum I look for in an image is technical competence. Photography IS a language, there IS structure to it, the grammar of image should complement the message the image is trying to convey. So basic things like exposure, composition, editing, right choice of lens, point of view and subject matter are important.

              - Assuming the image is technically competent, I check if that image elicits any reaction from me: laughter, sadness, curiosity, intrigue at the technical stuff, visceral reaction (have you ever gotten goosebumps from a photo where you can FEEL the cold temperature?) etc. This ties in to my “why” (see below): why should I care about what you’re showing me?

              - Regardless of competition, 99% of the images get the same treatment. However, in every competition there are those 1% photos that absolutely stand out – those are my instant winners, and also the exception.

award winning photo by kristof claeys

3. Judges are human too.

We will miss good photos. We might even award less-than-excellent photos. Our own mindset on the days we judge matters. We might be tired, hungry, we might have spent too many hours looking at photos or editing our own work. Some of us might be photographers with experience across multiple fields, some focused exclusively on wedding photography.

That means that judges will ALWAYS have biases and preferences. There’s no escaping that. A good judge, however, will be aware of those biases, but try to leverage their preferences in judging fairly. And whatever image they choose, they should be able to articulate and explain their choice. A good judge will also know when they’re tired and the quality of their assessment suffers.    

That being the case, if you believe enough in an image, you should submit multiple times. The right judges might not have seen it yet.

[on that note – doing this for 20 years, I’ve seen much drama about the fairness of photography competitions. Cheating, rigged, all of that. Photography competition scandals abound in the industry, after all. In my own experience with Inspiration Photographers now, as well as with the past competitions I judged, I was never in a position to suspect the competition would be unfair. Maybe I prefer to avoid the drama, but I like to think that well reputed photography competitions are generally fair]

4. What is your “why”?

This is a main theme in my judging process and the “why” is crucially important to me: why did you decide to press that shutter? Why did you choose that composition, that focal length, that editing style? Why did you chose to include some things and leave out others? Why do you think it’s a strong image and, equally important, why should the viewer care.

As much as I dislike that trite saying of images being worth 1000 words, if you replaced that image with words, would it be an interesting read, or would it feel like doom scrolling random junk on social media?

There is no right or wrong answer, but asking yourself this question is important. 

award winning photo by viviana calaon

5. Simple (still) works.

But it has to be executed flawlessly. This might be one of my biases and preferences I mentioned earlier, but a press photo should quickly answer for the viewer some basic questions: who, what, where.

Is your image doing that? Superb. However, if the image is gimmicky just for the sake of a cool technical trick, there is no value added in the context of a photography contest. Blurry photos, reflections in car windows, even complex compositions can be done with a purpose or can be purely gimmicky. Personally, when I see gimmicks in an image, I’m much more aware of the “why” and whether these tricks compensate for the lack of stronger meaning. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Remember those Dutch angle tilts that all beginner photographers think are cool? How many of those do you see winning competitions? Dutch angle is a valid compositional technique in the right circumstances, but also a terribly gimmick most of the time.

6. Light, moment, composition.

Speaking of simple, and going back to the absolute basics, remind yourself of these three ingredients for an excellent image because these are likely also the questions the judge is asking themselves about your photo.

Is the photographer using the light well? Quality of light is less important since sometimes we shoot in objectively bad light. But are you using it in the best way possible?

Is the moment in the photo strong enough? Has the photographer pressed the shutter at the right time, not too early and definitely not too late (Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”)? Is the composition as strong as it could be?

Does the composition guide the viewer’s eye through the image? Are there distracting elements in the photo? Is it easy for the viewer to understand immediately what’s going on?

Most award winning photographs have all three elements nailed. Some get away with only two out of three, PROVIDED the remaining two are very compelling.

7. You’re not competing with everyone else.

Invariably in my final rounds of judging I have to choose between similar images of the same subject matter: bride in car with reflection of family member, bride or groom crying, bride or groom thrown in the air, bride or groom in a tender moment with the family, bride and groom in big pretty landscape etc. You get the picture. At some point, there will always be a number of strong similar images. At that point, I am judging your image against similar images OF THE SAME SUBJECT MATTER. 

award winning image by erika bitencourt

8. What photos win competitions?

Some of the images I see can truly be better, and they might be in a few years (it’s a matter of photographer’s skill and room for improvement).

Some images are good, but similar images are just stronger (unlucky).

Some of the images are good, but have been done to the point where there’s no novelty for the judge (think backlit couple in the rain). They’re awesome for our clients and you should definitely flex that creative muscle, but repetitive for competitions.

And some are “almost” shots – great intent, great “why” to the photographer’s choices, but something didn’t quite align (I see this most with complex or layered compositions, which are hard to execute well).

And sometimes, that elusive X factor appears – on top of a technically strong image of a compelling moment, the photography gods smile on the photographer and the picture goes from great to exceptional. This is a very rare occurrence and you shouldn’t rely on it. And while the X factor is hard to describe, here’s an example of an anti-X factor: great image with of powerful interaction between the subjects, but everyone in the background is bored out of their minds. 

award winning photo by andreu doz

9. If you don’t know what image is the best, why should the viewer care?

I see this often enough to make a point of it – photographers submitting multiple, almost-identical images of the same subject matter (typically with photo shoots). The way I see this: if you couldn’t find that best image out of your own series, maybe none of them are strong enough to be competition winners. And this is a personal choice, but I will score images lower when I see this pattern. 

10. Some patterns I see a lot in photography competitions:

In no particular order:

              - can you crop tighter? Usually the answer is yes and usually the image will be better for it.

              - the percentage of black and white images seems very high. This applies to both images submitted and winners. While it’s easier to make a powerful BW images, I don’t think most clients receive 30-50% of their gallery in black and white. I have no opinion on whether it’s good or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a pattern.

              - too much editing is just as bad as no editing whatsoever. Too much clarity or contrast hurts my eyes and makes me think of war photography, not a wedding. On the other hand, a flat photo that would have looked better in terms of colours and white balance if shot on a phone will also not win competitions.

              - action / reaction is important. Strong images of your subject crying? Great. Can I also see what they’re crying about? Even better!

              - nudity in wedding photography. The human body is wonderful in all shapes and sizes and we should all honour that. Your client trusted you to photograph them nude? That’s by no means an automatic award and I often feel it’s a breach of the client’s trust. Did you happen to capture a wardrobe malfunction? Cool, cool, good job. Just don’t expect the photo to be an automatic winner if it doesn't have much else going for it.

              - local flavour. Each country has their specific rituals – as the wedding photography community grows ever more global, we have the chance to see some wonderful wedding rituals from all over the world and that’s awesome. But as soon as some of those rituals win awards, more images of the same are submitted and soon enough it becomes boring. Circle of life.

              - tough moments (fainting, injuries, medical emergencies). I was a photojournalist, I worked as a medical first responder and I’m a first aid instructor. I’d rather more photographers had first aid courses so we can make sure the victim’s life is not in immediate danger as we’re photographing. Thereafter, the decision to shoot or not is purely the photographer’s and I respect it either way. 

I hope this gave you some glimpses into the mind of a photo judge. Like I said, take from this what is meaningful to you and don’t trust my advice implicitly. But if the next time you select your images for a competition, you can ask yourself better questions to help your decision-making process, then I’ll consider this a success.

Good luck and good light!