How to Lose a Photo ContestI entered the shot above in a photo contest during Photoshop World. It didn’t win. If it did, I’d have an entirely different post today. In fact, I actually thought that I was going to write my Photoshop World 2012 wrap-up today, but something urged me to write this post about the photo contest instead.
Photo contests generally don’t interest me at all. This one had something going for it, though. Nikon Professional Services offered up a Nikon D800 camera and Nikon 24-120mm lens as the first prize for the Real World Concert Photography pre-conference course. Now that’s an attention grabber! Although I took this pre-con a couple of years ago, I decided to try again. In my mind, it was a gamble. I pay $199 for the pre-con and have, at worse case, a 1:40 shot at winning a $4300 prize. It wasn’t about the cash value, though. I really wanted that camera and lens. I obsessed about it. I planned for it. I walked into that course with preconceptions of the winning image that I would submit. (note: pay attention to the use of “preconceptions”, because it comes up later). Ultimately, I all the things I said that I wouldn’t and few of the things I said I would.
The Real World Concert Photography course itself is great. I had a wonderful time taking it and shooting. The band was great, there was plenty of lighting and more than enough time to get the shots I needed. There was also a same-day deadline of 10:00pm to submit one, and only one, photo for an entry. That gave us about five hours to choose, process and deliver a photo.
Except, I had other plans. Literally. The first was a group dinner that started 30 minutes after the course ended. I ended up doing all of my work right there at the dinner table. My friends saw the shots I selected and folks gave me their input. After coming up with a bunch of picks, it was a matter of editing them down to one shot, and then processing that image. Then I went up to my room to e-mail it (which almost didn’t work) before I had to leave for yet another group event at 8:00pm.
From all of the class entries, the instructors (Alan Hess and Scott Diussa) narrowed things down to the final three. Then it was up to a popular vote during the keynote address to pick the winner. So I first had to make something good enough to pass the professional opinion of the instructors, yet also sway the audience. Alan tells me that he and Scott have rarely, if ever, picked the same one that the audience picked. That happened this time, too. They thought a different entry would win than the one the audience selected.
I over-thought this process when hindsight tells me it was really pretty simple. My preconception was pretty simple. I wanted three things for my photo entry:
- Backlit flare lighting
- Someone other than Scott Kelby as my subject
As you can see, that’s not the photo I entered. So why did I abandon my plan and enter this photo? That goes back to over-thinking my entry. As I examined each of my picks, I found some technical reason to dismiss them and was left with two shots — one of Scott and one of guitarist Tony Llanes. A lot of people at dinner voted for the shot of Tony, but I veered toward this one. Someone else made the same comment and there you go.
What kind of shots did I pass over as entries in this photo contest? Let’s take a look. Although the image above was processed, these shots are right out of the camera — some with a bit of cropping. First, I’ll show you almost exactly the photo that won the photo contest.I rejected it because I didn’t like the light on their faces. The winning photo used this same moment and expression, and a lot of Tonal Contrast (or some similar processing). It has energy and the audience responded to it enthusiastically. When my photo came up next, I could hear crickets chirping. I actually liked this shot a lot because of the interplay between Kalebra and Felix, but also because of the smiles. That was some of the emotion I wanted. Out of the sequence of shots I took with them together, this one did the best job of keeping both faces in good light and expression. I also had moments with Kalebra interacting with Tony on Guitar and Scott Stahley on drums, but one thing or another caused me to rule them out. It didn’t resonate with anyone else, so I cut it from the group. My hindsight tells me that was a mistake, but that’s hindsight. A lot of folks thought I should have gone with this shot. They believed the green background would really pop off the screen. Maybe they were right, since the winning photo had a green background. I just wasn’t feeling it, though. If you think that this shot would have won, I will gratefully accept a Nikon D800 and 24-120mm lens from you. Very gratefully. Here’s an example of a shot that I lined up and got blocked by another photographer at the last second. My one and only complaint was that a few of my fellow students stood up full height right at the base of the stage. I’m sure it was done unintentionally, but I’d like to repeat the lesson we were taught in the class. Stay out of the way of your fellow photographer’s shots. If this were an actual show and I was a paying customer, that photographer would be blocking my view of the stage. Good way to get kicked out of the pit, I’m told. Look! Another green background. That means this one could have won the photo contest. Kind of a nice moment on one of Scott’s songs. I killed it because of all the empty mic stands. I also thought I’d need to remove that shadow on his coat from the mic stand and clone out Tony’s shirt in the background. Finally, the random placement of the yellow light just threw me off a bit. I got a lot of moments during the final song when Tony and Scott Diussa went into some killer guitar solos. I put myself in position to catch the light flare that I wanted (not in this shot), but that’s one of the places where preconception failed me. I thought about the angle of the players and the lights. However, Tony and Scott were playing to each other. So no matter which side of the stage I chose to get that flare, I was also looking at the back of someone’s head.
Kelby Training released “A Week with Jay Maisel in Paris” during Photoshop World. Once I got home and started to watch, I got to a point where one of Jay’s pearls of wisdom really resonated with my failure in this photo contest. His advice was to avoid having preconceptions about what you’re going to shoot. Rather, accept what you’re given. I walked into this photo contest with ideas of flare and other things that I wanted. In my mind, I already saw the winning photo. Pre-visualization at it’s best! That directed my actions. I chose where I wanted to create photos of this concert based upon the image in my mind. Except, there was a problem. Some of the lighting cast patterns on the performers that just seemed bizarre to me. I rejected a ton of photos because of those lighting patterns. Here’s how it looked on the wall.This is a wide shot to show how much the lighting cast patterns on everyone. I zoomed in to get a shot like this on Tony, which was almost exactly what I anticipated. Big burst of flare, great guitarist — all good. It’s just that I didn’t know what to do with the pink zebra stripes on him. I heard later that another photographer Photoshopped them out for his entry in the final three. I loved the patterns on the wall. Many of us in the class shot from here to get those patterns. In fact, we were afraid that everyone would submit a similar image.
The problem with preconceptions is that you may get something different than you anticipated. On the back of my little camera screen, every shot looked amazing. I was smiling that I nailed so many shots. Then after I loaded them on my computer, all I could think about was “What the hell are these damn stripes?” Preconceptions are a bitch.
Meanwhile, experienced concert photographers like Alan Hess and Brad Moore fired away with an apoplectic insouciance and walked away with some killer shots. It’s enough to make me want to kick them both in the shins. However, it also tells me that the opportunities were there. I just went about it the wrong way.
My ultimate problem was thinking like a photographer. The audience didn’t respond to the light or the processing. They didn’t care about the stripes on Tony’s head in that shot. They saw the emotion and that’s why the photographer who submitted it won the photo contest. It’s a good reason to win. He connected with them on an emotional level and I didn’t.
Not to say I walked away empty handed. I won a full version of Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, which is worth the same amount of my entry fee. I had a great time and still broke even. That’s not such a bad gamble at all.
Of course, someone on Google+ decided to let me know that my photo is unremarkable. Therefore, I’ve decided to give up photography. Starting tomorrow, I think I’m going to make this a guitar blog. I suck at guitar, too, but at least I won’t hear about it from the guy on Google+.