How To Win a Photo Contest (including a sneaky bonus tip)

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Recently I was asked to judge a photo contest for a small camera club. The skill levels of the participants ranged from beginner to advanced, and after viewing the wide variety of entries, I began to think about simple ways to increase anyone’s chance of winning. Follow some or all of the tips below to maximize your chances of your photos rising to the top of the heap. I’ve sprinkled in some photos that I’ve entered in previous photo contests.

Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

Follow the theme

Got an absolutely amazing photo of the setting sun over the ocean? If the contest theme is fall colors, then its probably best to save that great shot for a more appropriate contest. Good judges will disqualify even stunning photographs if they don’t suit the theme of the contest. Along the same lines, make sure you pay attention to all the criteria. You don’t want to waste your time or the judge’s by submitting photos that will be technically disqualified.

The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Tell a story

Some contests provide an opportunity to fill in information about the photograph. If there is a description field, use it! But don’t just describe what the photo already shows visually. Rather, tell the story of how you captured the photo and what you were thinking when you clicked the shutter. This is your opportunity to “sell” the photograph to the judge, so use the space wisely. Any details you can provide about motivation, technique, or even processing can help cement the image in the judge’s mind so that it is remembered later.

A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass
A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass

Get independent opinions

It is always a good idea to ask your peers what they think about the photos you are considering for a contest. Gather a selection and ask your photo friends to act as judge. You might be surprised by their choices. In the past, I’ve gravitated toward photographs that I’ve spent a lot of effort taking and processing, and that has influenced too much what I thought of it, regardless of whether it was actually a good photograph or not. Asking for others’ opinions can help prevent your personal skewing of a photograph’s merit based on the effort it took to produce it.

Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA
Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA

Point your subject into your frame (not out of it)

Whether your photograph is of a person, animal, or even mountain, it is always more aesthetically pleasing to have the subject face into the frame. That means there is more space in front of the head than behind it. The same is true for direction of motion – if an animal is walking or running, put more space in front of it than behind. So what about the mountain? Most mountains (or trees, or clouds, or …) seem to point in one direction or another. Put more space in front of the direction it is pointing than behind it. Of course, many rules are made to be broken, and sometime going counter to the rule can add a lot of tension to the photograph. But make sure that the judge will recognize and receive that tension well.

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Avoid converging lines

Find plenty of separation between your photograph’s main elements and avoid converging lines. Space between major subjects helps the photo breath, and convergence can create unintended tension points and generally looks sloppy. Usually converging lines can be solved in the field by moving your camera forward, backward, side to side, or up or down. Try to find the right perspective that when flattened into a two dimensional photograph, leads the viewer easily through the frame.

Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park
Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park

And now for the sneaky bonus tip….

Get to know your judges

If possible, try to find out who is judging the contest. Some contests will publish this information outright; others you might have to dig around a bit. Spend a little bit of internet time finding out more about the judges and what style of photography they gravitate toward. Have they judged a contest before? Which images did they choose previously? Chances are they will judge the current contest based on similar criteria. If the contest is judged by a panel, try to contribute at least one photo that matches each judge’s personal style and tastes. This may seem like cheating, but any leg you can get up on the competition is a worthy pursuit.

Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills
Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills

Hopefully these tips get you thinking about photo selection and photo taking for the next contest that you consider entering. This can help you maximize you time, effort, and money!

Palo Alto Baylands

While I usually don’t make location specific posts about birding, I did want to call out Palo Alto Baylands as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s great birding spots. Located in Palo Alto right along the bay, it provides the birder with a variety of species, from water birds to song birds to raptors – there is always something interesting to see here. It even holds one of the best viewing areas for the elusive (and endangered) clapper rail. Here are a few photos of what I found there on a recent morning.

A song sparrow perches on wild fennel in the morning sun
A song sparrow perches on wild fennel in the morning sun

Song sparrows are one of three most common sparrow (along with white and golden-crowned) species seen at Baylands. The ubiquity of the house sparrow in the suburbs gives way to the song sparrow this close to the water. With common birds such as this, I try to create photos that go beyond just showing the bird, but also show some behavior or interesting background. In this photo, I liked the way the sparrow is tilting downward (he was eating from the wild fennel) – it creates more of an action pose.

A white-tail kite perches on a large branch
A white-tail kite perches on a large branch

Baylands has the occasional visit from a bird of prey. Kites are seen anywhere from the water up into the foothills, hunting large, open spaces. Other birds of prey I’ve seen include fly-overs by osprey, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, and norther harriers.

A female yellow warbler pauses briefly on wild fennel in the morning sun
A female yellow warbler pauses briefly on wild fennel in the morning sun

The smaller passerines get me excited because they are much harder to photograph than water birds or sparrows. The are small, fast, and rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds. The most common warbler here is the yellow-rumped, but orange-crowned and yellow warblers are not uncommon. There are many many others, from chestnut-backed chickadees to bushtits – all of them equally hard to photograph. I loved the tonality of this image – the yellow on yellow really works here, blending the bird into her background.

A domestic goose swims through still water reflecting fall color foliage
A domestic goose swims through still water reflecting fall color foliage

Palo Alto Baylands also has a man-made pond that attracts a wide variety of migrating ducks throughout the year. There are also quite a few year-round residents, including this domestic goose. Most of the resident ducks here are cross breeds of domestic ducks and mallards. But this pond is also a great opportunity to see migrants up close, including ruddy ducks, greater and lesser scaup, northern shovelers, american wigeons, and a variety of teals.

An american avocet stands in shallow water, catching the first rays of morning sun
An american avocet stands in shallow water, catching the first rays of morning sun

Finally there are the water birds. Habitat here includes plenty of tidal wetlands, so these species abound. All the usual suspects can be seen here, and there are good viewing angles in morning and evening. In this photo, the earliest morning light is lighting the feathers of this american avocet. In spring, there is a popular nesting area for avocets and black-necked stilts. Photographers line up to capture cute photos of hatchlings venturing for the first time out into the mud flats.

For birders there is always lots to see at Palo Alto Baylands. If you live near or are visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to put this on your list of bird spots to visit.

Adobe Photoshop Anti-shake Put To The Test

I first heard about Adobe’s astonishing anti-shake feature In October 2011 when they demoed it at their user conference. The tool works on photos that were focused correctly but had a slow enough shutter speed to introduce camera shake (usually from hand-holding the camera), resulting in a blurry photo. To put it simply, the tool will analyze these photos, attempt to derive the directional path that the camera was moving along at the time the photo was taken, and correct that blur path. If it worked, this would be the holy grail of photo correction, finally disproving photography teacher’s mantra – “You can’t fix a blurry photo.”

At the time it was touted as a feature “in development,” which in software speak means it is something we’re tinkering with, but might actually never be released. Therefore, I was very surprised when it was announced as a headline feature of Photoshop CC. Now that this was out, I was excited to put it to the test with some real world examples from my catalog. Would this be a handy tool in the digital photographer’s toolbox, or just useless demo ware – a good idea with poor execution?

To start with, I needed to find a couple of test photos. I did a metadata search in Lightroom through my entire archive for photos taken with my Canon 800mm lens at a shutter speed of less than 1/200 of a second. Even when mounted on a tripod with the image stabilizer turned on, such a slow shutter speed usually introduces camera shake. This results in blur, even when the subject is correctly focused. Most photos taken at this speed with that lens are mistakes, usually due to a rapid change in light or background. And almost all of them become throwaways, never seeing the light of day on my web site.

I quickly found two candidate photos, one of a female ring-necked pheasant at 1/180 seconds which was almost sharp, and a much blurrier shot of a swimming common gallinule at 1/100 seconds.

I first worked on the pheasant and brought it into Photoshop. I duplicated the background to create a working layer and opened the anti-shake filter. The first thing the tool does is to pick a portion of the photo and analyze the edges to make a judgement about the motion of the camera at the time of capture. It automatically selected a portion of the face, probably because it has the sharpest edges in the photo. I slightly adjusted the detection square so that it just included the most important parts of the bird’s face. This is the area I wanted maximum sharpness. Other than that, I left all settings default. I had no experience with custom settings here, and in those cases, it is usually best to leave things alone to see how the tool performs.

There is a large preview in the tool, but I found it didn’t really help me determine if the shake was corrected or not. I hit OK to see the following results:

In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

Compare the corrected photo above with the original below.

This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.
This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.

As I said, the original was almost sharp but not quite. But I was blown away with how sharp the corrected photo was! This definitely turned a throwaway into a keeper. (Thanks Adobe!) Here is a closer crop comparison to help see the improvement in sharpness.

The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

Very satisfied with the results of the ring-necked pheasant, it was time to really put the anti-shake tool to the test. I opened the common gallinule photo and followed the same steps above. This photo is much blurrier than the ring-necked pheasant, but I was fairly sure the subject was in focus, just blurry due to camera shake. This time I again chose a target rectangle around the bird’s head, as this was the area of critical focus (especially the eye). The results are below:

In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
In this photo, the blur introduced by camera shake has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

The photo above is corrected, and the photo below is the original.

This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.
This image is the shot straight out of the camera, suffering from slight camera shake.

In this case, the sharpness improved quite a bit, but the results were not as stellar as the first photo. The resulting photo almost looked a little too crunchy, with small halo artifacts here and there. That said, this photo now became usable at smaller sizes. It will find a new life in web use and for smaller prints. Here is a crop to do a detailed comparison.

The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop's new anti-shake tool.
The top image is the shot out of camera, suffering from slight camera shake. The bottom photo has been corrected using Photoshop’s new anti-shake tool.

So what do these two real world tests tell us about the tool? First and foremost, this is not a panacea for blurry photos. This is no reason to go sell your expensive tripod on eBay. However, it can rescue some photos that are right on the verge of sharpness, but suffer from some amount of camera shake. And for those photos, it really does a fantastic job.

I’ll definitely spend some time scouring some of my older photos that I rejected because of camera shake. I’m very impressed with how well Adobe was able to pull this off – it is definitely a worthwhile and very usable feature.

Photo Fix Or Photo Fraud?

I was able to digitally remove the mud, restoring a close approximation of what the chicks' reflections looked like behind the mud.

I took this photo last year of a black-necked stilt and her three young chicks. I had set up in my usual position, with my lens close to the water surface in order to achieve a more intimate eye-level perspective. I was happy with the shoot and this shot in particular, showing all three chicks together with the mother standing protectively over them.

The only thing that bothered me each time to looked at it was the out-of-focus mud bank just peaking up into the frame. It had not been a concern when I was shooting the mother by herself, but once the chicks were introduced to the scene, the mud cut off parts of their reflections and became a distracting element.

The original image included a distracting mud berm obstructing the reflections of the chicks.
The original image included a distracting mud berm obstructing the reflections of the chicks.

This week I took another look at the shot and realized I might be able to pull off digitally removing the mud feature, and finally fulfilling my original vision. The result is below.

I digitally removed the entire mud bank across the bottom of the photo, and restored portions of each chick’s reflections to rebuild what had been hidden behind the mud. While I was at it, I removed a distracting out-of-focus blade of grass from the left hand side of the photo.

I was able to digitally remove the mud, restoring a close approximation of what the chicks' reflections looked like behind the mud.
I was able to digitally remove the mud, restoring a close approximation of what the chicks’ reflections looked like behind the mud.

Was my change acceptable? Ethical perceptions of photography range wildly. Each photographer and photo critic sits somewhere on the spectrum from thinking that photography is merely a form of art so it is up to the artist’s vision, to thinking that any changes to what was captured by the camera is unethical and not acceptable.

In fact, ethics in photography cover topics other than just post-processing manipulation (which probably gets 80% of the attention). Even when a photograph represents accurately what a camera captures, it does not mean that the scene wasn’t artificially created by the photographer.

I think the judgment lies in how the photograph is presented to the audience. Is this presented as a work of art created in the mind of the photographer? Is it a natural history image, meant to accurately depict a natural scene or behavior? Do the digital edits in any way change the fundamental portrayal of that natural scene or behavior?

For example, in the digitally altered image presented in this article, if I had artificially inserted any of the chicks into the scene with the mother in order to create more emotional impact, that would go beyond what I consider an ethical representation of my work. It would be depicting a behavior in a species that never actually took place. However, the edits I have made fall inside what I consider ethical. I have not changed the position or behavior of any of the subjects of the photo. I have only removed an aesthetically distracting element in order to create a more pleasing photo.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions on the matter.