Friday, December 14, 2012

Secrets of An Award Winning Fine Art Photographer

When I look at the statistic for visits to my blog, I'm sometimes puzzled at the Google searches that lead viewers to my site.  A few days ago, one viewer found me with the search: "fine art photography winners secrets."  It got me to thinking:  I haven't written a blog entry on winning awards, yet I've won my fair share.  Many beginning and mid-career photographers want to win a local, regional, national, or even international award.  Not only is it good for business, it set you apart from the ordinary and shows that other supposed experts recognize your superior abilities or the excellence of your photographic product.  It can also make you feel good for a couple of days.

Mayan Beauty by Tom Bell
You'll notice that a photographer who wins awards keeps winning them.  It's not luck.  It's because they have what it takes to be an award winning photographer. There are several reasons.  While I may not be able to make you an award-winning photographer with this one blog entry, I can offer a few bits of advice that will get you on the way.  Don't skip to the end, but the #1 secret to being a fine art photography winner is there.

Mother and Child by Tom Bell
1.  If you want to win a fine art photography contest, be a fine art photographer.  When I enter a contest, I know I'm putting my work up against the best in the world.  I won't enter if I don't have an image that is blow-away, one that makes an impression on anyone who sees it, including gallery owners and fine art curators.  It's not good enough to have an image of a kid with the most beautiful smile in the world, or one that truly shows the strife of a laborer in a third world country.  It's also not enough to convert it to black and white and add a little vignetting around the edges.  Almost everyone can learn to be competent photographer.  Not everyone has the aesthetic to naturally be one of the world's best fine art photographers.  If everyone had it, you wouldn't be appalled at how much bad and mediocre photography is out there.  This being said, most of us have to work for it; we work very hard to make images that break a threshold of excellence that not everyone else will rise to, simply because they haven't worked hard enough to get there.  Be a fine art photographer.  Don't fall for the neighbor's "Oh, what a great picture of your daughter!  You need to enter that in a contest."  Look at the photo:  is it a beautiful picture of your kid, or is it fine art.  There's a big difference.  If it's a beautiful picture of your kid, it might still be a winner at local contest or one that is looking for a theme, such as Summer Happiness or the Big Smile Photo contest.  Otherwise, print it, frame it, and put it on the mantel for friends and family to enjoy.  They will think you're a fine art photographer even if the judges don't.

Arch of Santa Catalina by Tom Bell

2.  As I said, there is a lot of bad and mediocre photography out there.  There's also plenty of good photography and lots of excellent photography.  Study photography.  Go to web sites with the type of photography you want to do:  abstract, portrait, wildlife, landscape, etc.  Then make sure you have the equipment to do the job you want to take on.  Your $800 kit camera and lens probably won't make you competitive in a wildlife contest where the competitors not only love living in the wild for weeks at a time and risk being eaten by their subjects to get the shot, but also have $30,000 in lenses and camera equipment.  On the other hand, the $800 camera, or a $100 point-and-shoot, might be just fine for street photography or flowers or architecture.  You be the judge.  Look at what the best photographers in the world are doing.  Can you compete with the equipment you have?

Woman of Chichicastenango by Tom Bell

3.  Okay, now you have the camera, lens, tripod, etc.  You also have Photoshop or another program to edit your photos.  Do you have the skill and knowledge you need?  Maybe you have the vision for the most astounding image in the world.  Do you have the skill and means to make it happen?  Do you understand the mechanics of your camera?  Do you really understand composition?  Do you know how to correct levels and how to convert an image to black and white?  Do you know how to make the image come to life?   If not, get books, take classes, download tutorials, join groups, get advice from other photographers, practice, practice, practice...  If you want to win an international photo contest, you may have to become a learning fanatic.

Antigua Garden by Tom Bell

4.  Shoot what you want to shoot.  I've been told that I have an unfair advantage in winning photography awards because I shoot exotic locations and exotic people in remote villages that most people will never be able to visit.  True that I sometimes shoot in exotic locales, and it's certainly not a disadvantage, however, it's not true that that gives me an unfair advantage.  I won a major international award for a photo of my dog that I shot in the hallway of my house as I was coming home from work.  Pick a subject that appeals to you.  If you have the resources, travel to a remote Indian village in Guatemala, or to Antarctica to shoot icebergs.  If you can only get to your backyard, shoot in your backyard.  Learn to see whatever you're shooting as art.

Mr. Watson by Tom Bell

5.  Here it is:  the #1 secret to winning fine art photography competitions - Know that you're one of the best. Know that you will at least make it to a finalist spot against thousands of others.  Know that when you submit to a contest that you will be a winner.  You are now a fine art photographer.  This is not about having a positive attitude, by the way.  It's about knowing yourself and your product.  If your product is good, really good, but not good enough, know it.  Don't waste your time and money on submitting.  Wait until you've refined your skills to break through the threshold of the very best.  Only a few will do it.  When you reach that point, you won't have to tell anyone you're a fine art photographer; they will know it from looking at your work.  When you've truly reached that point, you'll win recognition in any photography competition you enter, maybe first place, maybe third, maybe honorable mention.  But you'll win time and again because you did what it takes to reach that level.  Okay, you say you've reached that level and entered three or four competitions and didn't win anything:  it's now time to reassess.  If you really have the degree of excellence you think you do, a panel of judges from galleries and museums and fine art programs won't miss it, and you will be recognized.  You say they must have missed something.  I'd say it's more likely that you're missing something.  It's not that you're not good.  It's not that your work isn't good.  It's just that you have to reassess, go back and do whatever it takes to be the best.  Recognize it and work even harder.

6.  Here's the #2 secret:  Work even harder!

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