The Disappointment of Photography Competitions

Last night I attended the opening night and award ceremony of a local but well established, well run and decent sized arts' exhibition. I wasn't going to enter but with some encouragement I decided, as a relative unknown here, that it would help me continue to build my profile in the area. I then set to work on five pieces. Some I had already printed. Others I soft proofed, hard proofed, tried different papers, made sure I was 100% happy with them. Then I made a grave error. I got my hopes up.

Being a local show I wasn't "competing" with tens of thousands of other photographers as I had previously in Landscape Photographer of the Year (LPOTY), etc and so thought I must have a decent chance. If I didn't win, I reassured myself that at least I would place. So when someone won 3rd, someone else won 2nd and yet another stepped up for the 1st prize I'm pretty sure the disappointment was etched on my face as I graciously clapped the winners. I wonder if they heard my ego popping at the back? What a fool I felt for letting my imagination run away with me. Misguided? Complacent? Arrogant? Yes, no, maybe.

I have no intention of talking about the competition itself. I could debate the result. Of course I loved my pictures more. But it's a pointless debate. It is after all down to the subjective decision of a judge(s). If art is about personal expression and the artist has the right to create art they love, so the viewer has the right to like what they like. Trying to boil a competition down to whose picture is sharpest, etc seems to me a very bland alternative. So no quibbles, and this post isn't about the judge's decision.

Rather I wanted to talk about the effect of competition on me. Perhaps, other people feel the same (selfishly I hope I'm not alone, sorry!). I've long regarded competitions with some scepticism. How can you judge art? How can one photograph be better than another photograph? They can only be different. As I've just said, it is for the most part a subjective judgement by one person or a small panel of people. It doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of your work.

Whilst it is incumbent on a judge to recognise great work outside of their particular tastes, genre and experience, they are ultimately humans viewing a piece of art through their own lens of personal preference and experience. It goes without saying that you're not going to win over every judge.

The goal with our photographs is not to be all things to all people. Indeed, the lust for likes on social media has perhaps reduced a lot of photography to its lowest common denominator, a style of photography which regurgitates iconic places, compositions and processing styles ad nauseam.

Rather I think the goal is to express something of yourself in a photograph. Hopefully make a meaningful impact on one other person. A photograph that makes someone stop, consider, reflect, engage their emotions. Contrast with a photograph that picks up 10,000 likes as people flick through their Facebook feed whilst eating their morning cornflakes? I'll take just that one emotionally engaged person all day long. Ideally it will be more than one, but it's not ever going to be everyone, even if you did play to the audience.

I shouldn't expect a judge to like my work. And knowing that, every competition should probably be approached with a healthy dose of humility. Expect nothing, hope for something. Except it's so easy for that hope to become expectation, or perhaps even entitlement. To assume that our work should be, will be lauded.

Having had a bad run of competition entries - nothing in LPOTY last year, nothing in OPOTY, and now nothing in the LCACA Jubilee Exhibition - I should be getting used to competition failures. But how do you get used to it?

(I should thank SLPOTY/Stuart Low for tweeting to tell me how well received my two commended images have been received in the touring exhibition - a shot in the arm this morning!)

Of course, every judge is different. But each competition failure compounds the previous, forming a consensus in your head about your work. Given that confidence in your work is a perpetual battle of ebb and flow, up and down, of doom and gloom punctuated by seemingly the briefest moments of euphoria, it's easy to get a bit down on yourself. Add the negative judgement of a competition into the mix and you might just throw in the towel!

For a while now I had thought that, so long as you weren't targeting competition success with your photographs then competitions were largely benign. Shoot what you love, how you want to, stick it in a competition on a whim, who cares what happens to it. It seemed healthy enough.

Yet I can't help but feel that the drip-drip-drip of rejection - or perhaps even success - has an impact on even the most thick skinned person. It simply has to get under your skin and have an effect on us at some level. In turn that surely has to pervade our work. Perhaps it's not obvious in an individual photograph, but it may come across in how we feel about our work, how we approach it and how we present it. How can you not feel crap about your work when it is brushed aside? Work that you made with care, love, in hardship and discomfort, that you're emotionally attached to?

I am always so quick to remind others not to take competitions to heart, that it in no way reflects on the quality of their excellent work. Don't change tack. Don't give up. Ignore it. But I find myself unable to take my own advice and wonder what this all means for me and my work. Am I a failure?

And so I think it's time to remind myself that I will be the judge of my own work, not competitions. I'll make photographs that move me first, and maybe even last. I shall reflect of course, and consider where I might be falling short but I can't turn the tanker around. I am me, and I can but make photographs my way. Indeed my reflection so far is that I need to make the them even more my way, not less.

My photographic ambitions are relatively modest. I have no interest in being a rock star photographer, I just need enough to keep doing what I love. I often think photography competitions don't seem to feature on the radar of my photography idols. I'm not sure why I should give them so much of my own attention (which is not much, certainly compared to some).

So at time when International Landscape Photographer of the Year scores have just been announced and LPOTY submissions are due to close, now might be a good time for you too to re-evaluate how healthy your relationship is with competitions.

Sound familiar? Think I have deep seated problems? I'd love to hear your thoughts on competitions and the effect, subtle or otherwise, it has on your photography. Perhaps we can set-up a support network? :D

(I'm aware I've just committed one of those social/artist faux pas. Talking about a competition result. You always sound so bitter when you lose. "Sour grapes", they may cry. My frustrations here are squarely with myself, not the or any competition(s). I see competitions for what they are. Knowing that, I despair - no - I'm pissed off with myself for getting swept up in them and getting ahead of myself.

I may also have just committed professional suicide :). If my photographs don't win competitions, I must suck right? Well, I'm grateful for the support and encouragement of my peers whom I respect. That and the knowledge that those looking for a competition winner probably aren't part of my audience anyway. After all, I can't be all things to all people.)


Shot Planning for the Strawberry Moon

Last month I missed the full moon by a day. The following evening I watched it rise an hour after sunset into darkness. It was quite magical. I determined I would go out on the next full moon, rising mere minutes before sunset in the hope of something interesting.

June's full moon is called the Strawberry Moon. Not, as it happens, because it turns pink as many are led to believe. Rather it's the name given by Native American Indians because it marks the start of the strawberry picking season (see here or here).

I've spent a lot of time back on the beach at Angourie since that night, mostly around Mara Creek. My first inclination was to return to there. I have  something in mind for a rising full moon with the creek rippling in the foreground. Yet I was concerned that with so much time spent there recently I might end up making something derivative of the rest. I almost felt like I'd gone too far down a tunnel and might be becoming blind to other possibilities.

Deciding that a change is as good as a break, I chose to go to a different location. I say different but it still a familiar location as I tend to revisit the same half dozen places local to me that I've developed an affinity for.

I thought back to an image I made in March that I titled Eternity. This was made just a bit further north, on the rocks by what are known as the Blue Pools. The shot then was of a near new moon just before sunrise, sitting above the channel through the rocks. I wondered if I could use these rocks and that channel in a similar composition with the full moon rising. The key question of course was would the moon be in the right position this time around?


Tip: if you use TPE ( on iOS you can "Add to calendar" in the Sharing options (the box with the upwards arrow in top corner) to set a reminder in your calendar for a particular shot you have planned out.

I like to use The Photographer's Ephemeris ( on web and iOS to help me plan my photographic outings. However on anything but a grand scale the maps lack the resolution to see a particular composition. Typically I use TPE to give myself a high-level understanding of where the sun and moon will be, and so how it might interact with the landscape of a location.

Normally I know the location, and can fuse the knowledge from TPE with my experience of a place to reassure me of its potential. I think of myself as a 'finder'. By that I mean I like to go out and find things for myself. I find it can be difficult to repeat shots I've made before as so many elements tend to be different - light, weather, tide, my mind - and so try to find fresh things each time.


Screenshots of TPE showing the sun and moon positions on 19th March (top) and 2nd June (bottom). In the top image, the line of interest is the thin dark blue line above the yellow one which shows the moon’s position at the time I have selected (06.14). In the bottom image, the light blue line towards south east shows where the moon will rise.

But on this occasion I wondered if I could improve on or, more accurately, create a complement to Eternity. I decided to use TPE to reverse engineer the photograph to see if a recreation might be possible. The photograph's metadata in Lightroom told me that I made that photograph at 06.14 on 19th March. TPE lets you see the sun/moon position for any time & date in the past or future, so I rewound the TPE clock back to 19th March. This told me that the moon was 90.1 degrees. Fast forward to Tuesday 2nd June, and the moon would be rising at 109.7 degrees - almost 20 degrees difference which I knew meant the same shot wasn't possible.

[A less instinct led and more scientific based approach would probably consider the angle of view (Aov) of the lens I was using (Zeiss 21mm) to determine quite where the full moon would be in relation. But remember, I'm a finder!]



As another check, I opened up another photograph from this spot, this time looking further south. In TPE I dropped the secondary pin on Angourie Headland which is visible on the horizon. TPE told me this was at 137.8 degrees. So the moon was going to rise towards the left hand side of this photograph. With the channel still prominent in the foreground here I was reassured that even if my initial idea wasn't going to work that I could make something of it.

My final part of planning was checking the tide. Whilst there are many possibilities in the rocks at this spot, given I was after a 'certain look' I wasn't sure I could fulfil my own brief. More importantly, these rocks are prone to getting battered by the sea and rogue waves occasionally wash right up the rock slabs. Angourie translates to "Noisy Ocean" and is a surf reserve for good reason! If the sea didn't behave, I might not be able to get to the rocks in question and even if I could I might not be able to move freely on them.

The tides on 19th March (top) and 2nd June (bottom). The tide was lower on the 2nd but with more of a swell there were some decent sized waves washing up the rocks.

Comparing the tide tables for 19th March and 2nd June I could see that the tide would be lower and that I should be ok. I packed the car and drove the mere 5km down the road to Angourie.

Upon arrival, I noted a layer of cloud on the horizon that would assuredly block the moon's initial rise. Despite clear skies forecast and above me it's always what's on the distant horizon that catches you out.

I managed to get onto the rocks I wanted without problems, and started setting up. I checked out the channel and there were a few potential compositions as well as confirming that my original composition wouldn't work (using TPE on my phone I could see the moon would be out of shot).  I don't tend to get too fixated on a certain composition, set-up and wait. When photographing by the sea possibilities come and go by the minute and you may even find your position swamped by the time the 'big moment' arrives. I tend to spend time looking about to find different possibilities rather than fixating on one shot.

Part of my finder instinct is that if something catches my eye I go for it. Quite often I go out with one idea of what I'll photograph and return with something quite different. So it was here as I watched the big waves rolling in, the light of the setting sun catching their spray as it filtered through the palm trees behind me. I pulled out my 100-400mm lens and started adding to my series of "Waveforms", a combination of "short long exposures", panned and ICM wave portraits.



As the moment of moonrise approached, I switched back to the 24-70mm and started to re-check compositions along the edge of the channel, paying particular attention to the sea. The tide may have been further out but with a bigger swell than in March the waves were still coming some way up the rocks, ruling out some shots I had sighted close to the rock's seaward edge.




As the moon breached the distant blue cloud and moved into the pink sky, I took a few telephoto snapshots with my Fuji XT1 before returning to my Canon set-up on the tripod. I made a series of shots as I worked up and down the channel, until the sea pushed me back and the colour faded from the sky. The resultant shots were not quite what I had originally envisioned, but made for a worthwhile trip. I've fallen in love with moonrise, it feels like a truly magical moment. Next month I shall probably try my luck down at Mara Creek.