I was a judge on Fearless Collection 47 and I have opinions.
Judging a collection of more than 10,000 of the best Fearless wedding photos in the world definitely gave me a lot to think about. It’s a humbling experience and, I have to admit, some of the images I’ve seen made me a bit jealous. If this is the level of photography that we deliver to our clients, then we truly are in a golden age of wedding photography and there are many happy brides in the world.
However, as I was going through the images, David Fincher’s words came to mind:
People will say, “There are a million ways to shoot a scene”, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.
I believe that wedding days are somewhat scripted events with generally predictable outcomes. Two people, who love each other for a greater or lesser number of years, decide to commit to each other. They prepare for a ceremony of sorts to symbolize their new commitment and then they celebrate. Granted, within these general parameters the possibilities are endless, but when you say “wedding”, most people agree on what that means and how it tends to unfold.
For photographers and for wedding competition judges this means that pretty much any image you can think of will come up in a contest multiple times: brides crying reading emotional letters, warm hugs with elderly family members, kids doing funny things during the ceremony, wardrobe malfunctions, perfect sunsets that are amazing for that 5-minute photo shoot during cocktail hour, girls being girls, guys being guys, copious amounts of alcohol, etc.
And here is where David Fincher comes in. In my judging experience, the great majority of the images I saw were at least technically sound and captured the subject matter adequately. They were images that, by reasonable standards, clients would be happy with. However, within the context of a competition, you end up comparing different renditions of similar moments. Apples to apples, as much as that’s possible.
During my first round of selection, out of all the images I saw, less than 5% stood out. Those were the truly unique images that I was hoping to see among the finalists of Fearless 47. Not all of them won this round, but they all triggered a strong reaction from me: a smile, a cringe, some sort of identification with the subject. Most of them had great composition, with clean backgrounds and nothing to distract from the subject matter. Some of them were loud, obvious moments, or explosions of colour, or technically complex images. But some were incredibly simple, and clean and just…. “aww”. I laughed when I saw the image below. Other than the small number of images, though, it took three rounds of selection for me to decide on a list of finalists.
There’s a paradox I see here: on one hand, there is a finite way we can shoot any given scene and if 10,000 photographers each photograph on average 20 weddings per year, we’ll run out of options eventually. On the other hand, uniqueness is always encouraged (and I’m not just talking about wedding photography, it’s EVERYWHERE). Some different approaches and angles work great initially because of the novelty value, then they become a technique mastered by all (think backlight rain shots, silhouettes, small people in big landscapes, bouquet with hands, etc.). Some standard angles work because they consistently deliver outstanding results. Think of “bride crying” and you will have in mind a very specific set of angles from which you’d photograph that. It’s not even about photographers copying each other, it’s about choosing the “best” ways to capture an image.
Take for example women using their phones with personalized covers. One of them is a recent award by Răzvan Dănăila, the others are images spotted in this round of judging (since the judging is anonymous, I don’t know the authors, but get in touch for proper photo credit). All these images are great, funny, two of them seem auto-ironic in a way. Because Răzvan’s image is the first one I saw, that is my reference for this photo. But at the same time, this seems to be the optimal way to capture this sort of scene and I like them all.
Oftentimes, the difference between a good photo and an awarded photo was in some small detail. For me, the plush toy on the bride’s dress instantly turned this photo into an award.
It seems that grooms and bridal parties spend a lot of time in pools. But this photo – the perfect moment he touches the water, like The Creation of Adam was an image I instantly loved.
But, like I said, there is always a “good” way to capture a scene, which is why I also loved this shot.
Photos don’t have to be fancy, or clever, or use gimmicks and trickery. Kids play at weddings all the time, but when everything aligns so perfectly, you have to be ready.
These are the sort of tiny differences I saw between images I liked and images that won awards. The bad news here: most of our photos are not unique. The good news: most of our photos are not unique. When we stop worrying about making unique images, we can concentrate on the craft and consistently deliver great images. That way, when that double rainbow appears, we’ll be ready.
If you came here looking for quick tips to improve your photos, thank you for reading this far. I do also have a few quick tips. :)
- Read competition rules. Make sure you resize the images according to requirements and submit images without watermarks. It sucks that this is still a thing.
- Don’t expect judges to be your photo editors. If you submit three similar images of the same scene because you can’t decide which one is better, chances are none of them is strong enough.
- Ask for help. Show your contest images to people you trust before submitting, get a second opinion.
- Edit diligently. A heavy hand with the dodge/burn brush breaks immersion. If you’re not using some sort of pen and graphical tablet for your local adjustments, please consider doing so.
- Keep doing what you’re doing. If you have photos you believe in, keep sending them in. The difference between good and awarded is usually razor-thin.
There is no big secret to winning a photography competition. You just need the right mix of camera mastery, post processing technique, for something magical to happen in front of you and for you to be ready. Just be aware that this will rarely happen. Most of the times you will do your best in suboptimal conditions (congrats!). Some other times, something amazing will happen right in front of you as you switch cards (better luck next time!). Every now and then, everything will align perfectly, but the same thing will happen to someone across the planet and for some unknown reason their photo of something almost identical will win and yours won’t. But that shouldn’t be the point. Just keep shooting, give everything a chance to align and see where that takes you.