Mel Sinclair Photography | Tough Competition

Tough Competition

October 17, 2014  •  2 Comments

I do realize that writing a blog about this very subject is touchy for some; the many differing opinions out there are fiercely protected by passionate egos, both of which have valid arguments. I’m not siding with one or the other, rather, presenting how I approach the act of entering competitions, and managing my expectations.

The point is, that it doesn’t really matter which competition we’re talking about, you could easily apply it to any single one of them in the world and still draw on the same ideas and thought processes. I don’t know if I have anything unique to add to this tough old cookie, but maybe I do, so in the off-chance that you learn something, please let me know!

I’ve entered many competitions throughout my short (relatively) time thus far taking photographs. It’s getting close to about five years of entering comps and although the outcomes have drastically changed over time, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’ll never know what you got out of it.

It can be a very rewarding experience, however, if you are not prepared for it, you might be disappointed or left with a bad taste in your mouth for future competitions. Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to accept that not everyone may see what you do.

Many will try argue about the worth, whether you're worth it, whether the entire process is worth it. Only you can decide what you want out of it.

Since experience is the best teacher, let’s start from the beginning.

^ 3rd Place Amateur Landscape, International Loupe Awards 2011.

“I have some images I really love, I’d like to enter these.”

Managing your expectations: Part 1.

That’s a great start.  This is a photography competition after all.

I want you to look at your images and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this my best work?
  2. Why do you love these images: what particular element makes them amazing or worthy of entrance?
  3. What do these images say about your practice, your work?
  4. Cut your emotional ties to the work. What are fresh eyes going to see in it?

Be honest with yourself. If you are so connected to an image, that you couldn’t let it get any kind of criticism, then you need not enter it. The answers to the questions above will reveal themselves to you.

Question 1: We’re being critical here. Gun to the head, is this your best work? If not, why not? What can you do to improve it?

Question 2: Element. There has to be a single part, perhaps the focus point, a detail well handled. What part of the image is the special element?

Question 3: This is the big one. You’re on a national or global stage. Will this image be the one that you get remembered by? Is this image fitting with what you want to be known for? It is a possibility.

Question 4: This one is tough to do. I won’t lie, but you have to stop playing favorites. You cannot protect your images like children that never get punished or ever told that they’re anything less than amazing, all the time. You must forget everything you know about the image. Pretend you are seeing it in a magazine, taken by someone else.

^ My best known image. Doesn't do so well in commercial competition, but is most popular with viewers.

“What’s in it for me, what do I get out of it?”

Managing your expectations: Part 2.

Plenty, actually.

This is also where we come to loggerheads with powerful and differing opinions.

You have those that want to see value for money, who focus on the entry price and come to the conclusion that it is not for them. That’s fair enough, but remember, competitions are businesses too. For these people I only hope that you do not let this factor limit you, after all, you did buy a camera, a lens and all the accessories, maybe think of this as a single yearly accessory?

Let’s look at what’s IN a competition, aside from your competitors.

The Judges.

We can’t have a competition without the mediators, a football match without the referees… yeah you get it. The people that are chosen to pit your image against thousands of others, they are usually well-respected industry professionals. They should be notable and well-versed in their own practices. If they’re not, respect them like your boss or your school principal. They deserve it, as they give their time (time is money) knowledge, taste and expertise.

Since every judge draws on their knowledge and expertise, you will have a varying field of such to impress. I would seriously recommend researching your judges, looking at who they are, what they’ve shot, how they shoot and soaking all that knowledge juice up. Some say to play to their tastes, some say not. You need to have the courage to put your work forward, to show them the world through your eyes, and prepare to be judged.

Who’s your momma!

Prizes. Fame. Fortune.

If you’re doing it for any of these reasons, you have to seriously rethink your approach and adjust your expectations right NOW. These are the things added to make it a sweetener. Like sugar to coffee. Only a small percentage of top entrants will see a prize. They’re as rare as the white whale, as hard to get to as the moon.

If you want to be told that you’re doing a great job, that your images are fantastic and unique, go speak to your mum. If you want fame, go do a nudie run at a football stadium and if you want fortune start playing the lottery.

These three things are reserved for what the judges deem to be the best of the competition. Note the operatives here "the BEST of the COMPETITION. Not the world where we are right now. On the basis of what they're shown, of all that they've seen in this competition.

Personal Development.

Correct. You enter your work, you should be open to whatever the outcome.

Big secret, there is no one body or organization in the world that can tell you what the current best photo EVER is. And there never will be. Because this is an ever-evolving game, a rotating door if you will.

Let's be truthful and realistic. You should expect nothing from the competition. You should have no high eager hopes pinned on any image or outcome. Why? Because high hopes are the precursors to disappointment. Confidence however, that your images are solid and will perform well, is the right attitude to have.

Expectation and Confidence are different things.

It’s more likely that you’ll walk away with perhaps a silver or bronze, maybe some air-swings (non-awarded images). The very few incredibly chanced will get the higher gold’s or platinum’s. Even less again will get a crowning definition, a notch to add to their belt. Whomever wins, deserves your respect, congratulations and not your criticism, disdain or arrogance.

I enter competitions to:

Benchmark. Find out where I’m at with the current state of the industry.

Examine the current trends in both judging preferences and subject matter in any given year.

Place myself among my peers and put my best in the running, to see where it takes me.


The fact of the matter, unlike any online image sharing like 500px or Flickr, Facebook or Instagram et al until the ends of time (there’s too many!) the judges are simply not hitting a “Like” button, there is a process of critical analysis happening, of looking beyond what they can see, and looking for what they can’t.

So, after it seems like you’ve waited forever…

The Darkside of LightThe Darkside of Light

^ Silver award with Distinction, AIPP APPA 2014

“The Results are out and…”

Managing your expectations: Part 3

Before you open any results emails or correspondence, before you open the winner’s gallery to find if you placed in the Top 50, 10 or 5, I want you to take a deep breath and reaffirm to yourself “I entered the best work I had at the time, regardless of the outcome now, I shall accept it.” Because this is all you can do.

If you are not satisfied, jumping onto social media to attack the competition, the judges or your competitors is simply poor form, and people will remember you by it. Not quite that fame you wanted?

Let’s complete the circle of critical analysis.

REGARDLESS of whether you got an award on an image or not, there are still lessons to be learnt:

  1. The Top 50 Winner’s Gallery: Was there an overall theme the judges favored? What was this theme and how does your work fit into it?
  2. The Top 10: What makes these images more excellent compared to the rest, try to understand technical elements like light, texture, tone, shadow, line and form. Use of colour or not?
  3. What image won? Why do you think it won? Was anything done differently in this image compared to other entries?
  4. What could you have improved on, to bring your image up to award standard?
  5. If you still are at a loss, if you have a mentor or some other photographer who you respect, send your image to them and ask them to review it honestly.

Spend a decent amount of time looking through every single image close up (or as close as you can), look over the images, critically analyzing them to yourself* in your own time. (*nobody likes a sore loser who posts this publicly)

Hey, remember, if you didn’t get the results you wanted, this is not the end. Pick yourself up, get out there, shoot and soak up the knowledge of others. There's always next year.

There’s a big beautiful world out there.

Go create something amazing!


If you have any doubts about my experience or training, please visit my About section to read about me.


This is a great breakdown on why you should enter competitions, but one of the main reasons I havent entered any big ones is because of fashion.

There is a very strong and prevailing style that is popular at the moment (and a different one every 5 - 10 years or so) and I don't shoot or edit according to the fashion. I have seen the NZIPP awards and they should be called the Photoshop awards quite honestly and that means I will never do well while that style is prevalent in the most important people of all - the JUDGES.

I have spoken to some judges about this and the good ones will recognise I have a point but comment that good judges should rise above their personal preferences and judge an image based on its merit. My question is "how many judges are good ones who will act like this" and I suspect the answer is something along the lines of 'not as many as we would like there to be' - meaning too many judges are not aware of their own preferences and prejudices and judge based on those, not in spite of them.

Its a shame because I am getting to the stage when I want to have my work viewed and taken seriously and feel I need good educated feedback to give me real direction where to improve, and work harder. But without opting for an expensive mentoring program (which still runs the risks of the above) Im not really sure where to go next.

Maybe I should just enter some anyway but it can be quite expensive, and setting myself up for failure is not really my goal here!
Mel I think you nailed it here. Having entered comps myself and experienced wins and fails, I totally agree with your comments...well said
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