Elements of an Award Winning Image by Scott Robert Lim
A photo must be exceptional and when first viewed, it must immediately “wow” or have impact. If you do not initially sense the “wow” feeling, it probably is not award winning. There has to be an element of surprise and awesomeness that hits the viewer immediately. As a judge, if I don’t get the “wow” feeling, I start looking for things to rip it apart so I can justify not giving it an 80+. If I feel an immediate impact and emotionally the image speaks to me, I down grade any small mistakes I may see and show more grace in scoring.
The image must appear to be created by a master photographer. Any bad element in the photo that shows that the photographer does not know the basics of lighting, posing or composition will not score above 80. The photo must show these fundamental skills yet be creative and show beauty.
Exceptions- If one area of strength is very strong- it could carry the weight and win an award. For example if there is exceptional beauty in a portrait, it could win even if it is not creatively composed or the lighting is average. Superior strength in one factor can cover the slight weakness in other areas.
Here are the qualities I look for when I critique images or when deciding which prints I want to submit into competition:
Exceptional beauty– the subject(s) must look strikingly beautiful or the landscape/background must take your breath away or demand our attention.
Creativity and Originality– Does your image have a fresh perspective and not something seen a million times over? Is the posing creative? Is the background different or unique? Do you show a unique angle or perspective? Is the lighting different or sophisticated?
Creative Posing– do not submit images with subjects posing in ways we’ve seen thousands of times. You can use a classic pose but give it a twist- change the perspective, the angle, the emotion, etc. Give your image personality. For example, if you are going to submit a picture of the Eiffel Tower it better be unique because we’ve seen a million Eiffel Tower images just like we’ve seen a million wedding pictures. The same holds true with posing- just don’t use the typical pose but a pose that really accents the beauty in the subjects. Make a woman look like a woman and a man look like a man- enhance their unique attributes and amplify it (show off a woman’s curves and a man’s strength). Does the photographer demonstrate full comprehension on how to pose and work all parts of the body to amplify beauty, even down to the minute curvature and angle of the hands. All body parts must look natural and be pleasing in composition, any pose looking stiff will not win an award. A pose must portray an attitude or emotion- confidence, sexiness, romance, etc. When looking at subject(s) are they posed in a way that makes you feel an emotion when you look at it? Poses that are common don’t do well BUT if there is exceptional beauty either in the background or in the subject, then it can win an award. CM Leung is great at this- amazing composition and backgrounds but very understated and natural posing in many of his images. His vision, composition and post processing is extraordinary and he is one of those artists that literally can create an award winning image ANYWHERE. Everyone should take a look at his amazing work.
Lighting. Does the lighting look natural and believable? It must be evident the photographer knows portrait lighting- ¾, short side, profile, split lighting, Rembrandt, butterfly, loop, etc. Judges love detail on the image so show texture and shape by using shadow, yet it can’t look too dark in areas. There must be detail shown in the brightest parts of the image and in the darkest parts of the image for wide dynamic range. If highlights are blown and or darks are clogged up, it can be grounds for not scoring 80+ because it shows the photographer has not mastered lighting. Judges love seeing more than one source of light on the subject and in the background too. Does the lighting create drama or amplify the tone or mode of the photo? Beautiful, soft, huge light works well for a portrait. If you’re gonna show an image with just one light, all the other components of the image must be pretty good to overcome simple lighting. Remember my lighting principles- sandwich lighting with an interesting background that is lit.
Styled. The subjects must show some sense of style- it must have its own “mojo”. Judges like to see subjects creatively dressed and styled because it enhances “beauty”. Style helps compliment a photo and gives you a couple extra points. So if you are bordering on a 79, the style of dress on your subjects if done well, may put it over the top!
Expression. Subjects must have “mojo”. Subject must not show a bland or blank stare but have an inner confidence or personality. This is actually a direct reflection of the photographer. “Your photography is a mirror to your soul.” If your images lack sizzle, romance, sexiness, glamor, etc. it is probably because the photographer has no idea on how to bring it out in their subjects because they are uncomfortable showing that personality in themselves.
– Make sure skin tone looks realistic.
– Photoshop skills are a must. The prints that score well usually have a “fine art” feel or they kinda look like a painting. This is true for the moment but styles change so beware. A great photo is a great photo regardless of the post processing. Post processing can make the difference in a few points, so if your print is a 79, good post processing could put it over the top.
– If you are going to break the “rules” of basic photography skills, it must be evident that the photographer did it on purpose and knows that they broke the rules- i.e. if a musician appears to play a “wrong note” in a song yet keeps playing the wrong note throughout the song, then it appears that the note was intentional and the artist was doing that on purpose to paint the song in a creative manner.
Don’t be afraid to submit images. Go in thinking you will not score high on any prints you enter but you want to learn and see where I stack up.
Consistency. Every squirrel finds a nut, meaning many people submit for their first time a few images and win an award. This sometimes can be a false sense of security because those first few images we submit are the very best images we have taken over the course of a few years. A true test is if we consistently win awards year after year. This means we are producing award winning imagery every six months or so.
Don’t be discouraged. I know many photographers who have submitted many times before winning an award. Winning an award can be very hard so don’t feel bad if you don’t win. Winning awards consistently is a sign that we are bringing freshness and creativity into our images on a regular basis. Winning awards don’t always translate into making more money right away but it does give us confidence and credibility in our industry.
In Summary, prints that win usually exhibit BEAUTY and Creativity while demonstrating excellence in lighting, posing, composition and post processing skills. An almost impossible feat to accomplish, that is why winning an award feels soooooo good!