It’s the dog days of summer here in Canada. Photographers everywhere are getting out to capture the hum of life. Vacation photographs, outdoor events, family events, outdoor location shoots or special projects that have been waiting for the perfect day are all being recorded now. Even indoor work is at its height, with many hours of natural light available to help get the best shots.
In a month, we return to routine, which for some might include membership in the local camera club or association. I personally belong to three. Typically on hiatus in the summer, they launch with a bang in September. And we’ll all have lots of new material to share. But will we?
Photography clubs have many different ways to solicit contributions from members. These can include individual presentations and showcases, online galleries, requests for display pieces to show in the community, newsletter contributions and publicity pieces.
But I was surprised when I joined to find that most photography clubs revolve around competitions. Some label these as challenges, but all score and rank the results. Standards are set for judging photographs and often, teams of judges will work together to provide the most unbiased score possible. Judges often go through training and certification to be judges. Scores can come with feedback on what works and, unfortunately, what needs work in a photograph.
Beyond the club level, inter-club, regional and national competitions are held, sometimes resulting in a single individual being labelled “photographer of the year”. And beyond that, big-name sources such as magazines and equipment makers will often hold open competitions, soliciting entries from across the globe.
At the club level, all of this judging and ranking happens in public, with results announced at club meetings. Often the same cadre of members participates, occasionally drawing in others who have special interest in the topic. I was surprised to learn that at my 3 clubs, the participation rate in competitions is 20% or lower.
My confession: that’s about my participation rate as well. Of the 15 or so compeititons advertised in my first year with these clubs, I partipated in 3. I’ve been considering why. Do any of these sound familiar:
- the subject doesn’t interest me
- too many rules to follow; they stiffle creativity
- I’m not a competitive person
- I don’t believe in scoring and ranking art
- there are good photographs and there are bad photographs; beyond that, assigning a number is bogus
- I don’t need the stress
- what if they don’t like my photographs
- I’m not good enough to compete
- I photograph for me; I don’t care what others think of my work
- the shots that win are always from exotic locations or use special effects or high end equipment that I don’t have access to
Not all of the above apply to me, but most do. Then I looked at the reasons I did participate:
- the subject was one of my specialties
- I loved the shot I took
- I was curious if others had the same emotional reaction
- I was able to submit a quality shot without worrying about exotic locations, special effects or high end equipment
The photographs I submitted didn’t win, but did well enough to convince me that I knew when I had something worth submitting. And maybe that’s the key: competitions encourage more capture and more capture makes it more likely that you’ll “get the shot”. Competitions make you a better photographer.
I didn’t always agree with the scoring – on either mine or my fellow competitors’ photographs. But the more important outcome was that someone else saw in my photographs what I saw in them. It validated my perspective. And let’s be honest – that made me feel good.
I should mention that I also post work to 500px. In that community, other members view and hopefully like your work. The more members that do, the higher the ranking online. No numbers, no scores, just likes and comments. In my view, an equally “competitive” and valid way to assess and learn from your work.
I will continue to photograph for me. I will continue to critically evaluate my own work and select those pieces that “nail it”. And I will happily share those pieces with others. I encourage you to do the same. Competition is indeed good for the soul. Not because you “win” or “lose” but because you learn and validate your progress with others. It’s a great feeling.