Q -- Are there any particular techniques for winning photo contests?
A -- Your question couldn't have hit me at a better time; I recently helped judge the Pictures of the Year, the largest news-oriented photo contest in the world.
After three bleary-eyed days and nights looking over the more than 10,000 entries at the University of Missouri, I became convinced that there are a right and a wrong way to enter and win photo contests.
This contest was for pros, newspaper and magazine photographers, and even they made some mistakes.
One was in the presentation: The prints had to be mounted on 11" x 14" mounts. Some entrants made their prints smaller, even down to 5 by 7; these lost out in impact to the larger ones, especially to the fullbleed 11 x 14s.
The mats used also had a bearing. A black or dark gray mat made a stronger frame than the conventional white, concentrating attention on the picture; the white mat pulled the eye to the edge.
The best prints showed evidence of many darkroom techniques. Besides dodging and burning in, to show more detail in both highlight and shadow, flashing and reducers were used. (Flashing is burning in areas to darken them by using a simple pen flashlight. Reducing is done by "washing" the highlight areas even whiter with ferrocyanide solution applied with a Q-Tip.)
Cropping and composition, too, were important. A print that was tightly cropped, whether in the camera viewfinder or with the enlarger, won out over a smaller image with extraneous detail. And in the picture-story categories, in which a number of prints were mounted on three boards as a sequence, the composition and arrangement of the prints made a big difference in how clearly and quickly the visual story was told.
In fact, one of the top winners edged out competition not because of the strength of the picture story but because of how well the sequence was designed together.
Surprisingly, color prints didn't have an advantage over the black-and-whites. It used to be that a color print had an automatic advantage; that's true no longer. The novelty has worn off, and the same rule applies to color as to black-and-white: It better be a good print or it's out.
These observations on technique don't mean that the technical dressing is going to win you the prize. The substance or content of the picture is equally or more important. But usually a sloppy picture-taker is a sloppy picture-printer as well.
The best way to learn how to take winning pictures is to just look at them. See what the trend-setting photographers are doing and try to understand how and why they took a particular photo in just that way. That doesn't mean that you should copy them, but it will give you ideas of how you can take your own. 1978, Los Angeles Times.