Print Competition: Know Your Audience

I had the honor of judging a print competition in Austin last weekend and it reminded me of a big factor in entering print competition:  know your audience.

Print competition is a little like advertising – you are competing for impact, which means you need your work to stand out from a large field of images.  To increase your odds of this, you need to know your audience.  What do I mean by that?  It’s simple:  think about who will be judging your images and keep that in mind throughout the image selection process.

One of the biggest mistakes first-time entrants make is entering their biggest-selling images.  At first glance, this seems to be a good plan.  If it was the favorite image by Mom and Dad, then it stands to reason that it will be the favorite image of anyone… including a panel of judges.  The problem with this strategy is that the judges don’t have the same emotional involvement as Mom and Dad.  They won’t appreciate that you made a tomboy little girl look sweet or that you got a shy little boy to do a big smile.  They will be focused on the other factors of the print, like composition, lighting, printing, etc.  This is a very hard concept to accept, but the sooner you are able to come to grips with it, the sooner your competition results will improve.

There are basically two kinds of merits:  PPA merits (which lead to your Masters degree) and “Green” merits (also known as dollar bills).   In the grand scheme of things, the green merits are really more important.  You can’t send a print competition trophy to mortgage company at the end of the month.  Therefore, there is nothing wrong with creating images that sell – that is the name of the game, after all.  However, these images are not the ones you should always enter.

My very first image to merit in competition was this one.

competition portrait

It was my favorite image from the session – but it wasn’t her mother’s favorite image.  Why?  Because she couldn’t see her face.  The judges – on the other hand- didn’t know who she was, so it didn’t matter that they couldn’t see her face.  The trick is to learn how to select the best competition images based on your artistic instinct or from feedback from other photographers – not based on the client’s favorites.   Sales and Competition are two different worlds – keep them separate and you will be more successful in both!

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