The Real Motivation Behind Entering Photo Competitions

December 20, 2017

By Jerry Ghionis

All Photos © Jerry Ghionis

As we approach the deadline for entering WPPI’s The Annual 16 x 20 Print, Album and Filmmaking competition, this is the perfect time to share a few thoughts about how competition can affect us. The live judging will take place at WPPI on February 24 and 25, 2018, and whether you’re a first-time entrant or someone who has been submitting work for over 20 years, it’s equally exhilarating and nerve-wracking to see your image, album or film show up in front of a panel of judges!

Winning image from 2005.

Winning image from 2006.

Winning image from 2015. What do all of the above images have in common? They’ve won me first place in the WPPI Wedding Couple Together category over the years. It’s one of the most fiercely competitive and contested categories in the competition. Would they win today? I’m not so sure. After all, you are only as good as your last creation.

Competition is a symbol of your commitment to the craft. Earning awards and becoming a Master or a Grand Master of WPPI is not a short-term goal—it takes many years to achieve. But if you have dedicated yourself to mastering the craft of photography, the process of this competition is incredibly beneficial. It always pushes you to create your best work, and it forces you to put a date on your creativity. For example, it can be easy to tell yourself, “I’d really like to go out and try some new technique or try some new poses or concepts,” but then life gets in the way and you may never get to it. If you are motivated to do well in a competition, though, that will often force you to find the time to try new things, to explore new concepts and to express your creativity. Beyond all of that, your clients are the ones who are the ultimate beneficiaries of all of that extra hard work and creativity. And that, of course, will often translate into success for your business as well.

I see so many people demoralized when they don’t get a score of 80 or above. In recent discussions, there have even been calls to lower the bar on what a silver award should be to make it easier to get one. The question becomes, “What’s the point of competition when ‘everyone’ wins a prize?” Every competition gets its value from its integrity, and the difficulty and hard work it takes to reach the pinnacle. If being a “master” of something were too easy, then the title would not hold any weight. Before you are called a master, you must master. Don’t forget the famous saying, “A master has failed more times than a beginner has even tried.” An entry that won first place five years ago sometimes may barely receive a score of 80 today. Competition sets a benchmark to measure against, and the bar is constantly being raised.

When the judges score your entry well, you might say, “They get me.” And when they don’t award your entry, you say, “They got it wrong!” A poor score you didn’t expect sure does sting, but don’t forget that you learn more from your failures than you do your successes. There was some criticism that the judges of the First and Second Half competitions this year were too harsh. My question in response is: Who did contestants on American Idol want to impress, Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul? Simon was harder to please.

Innovative work in concept, technique and execution is usually highly rewarded. If you just copy a winning formula, how do you expect to receive a great score? If you enter a “cliché” image, then it must be an incredible version of that cliché to be rewarded well. When a judge scores an entry between an 80 and 84, it’s considered above average in most areas. If your entry receives a score of 75 to 79, it means that your entry is considered to be good, saleable work consistent with professional practice. That’s a good thing, and it’s what you should be doing. Don’t be discouraged when your score is in that range. The truth is, I use competitions like WPPI’s The Annual as a vehicle to reinvent myself year after year. But even more importantly, I’ve realized after all of these years that it is the creative process that always excites me and makes me happy.

One of my favorite categories of the competition is the Album category. It is a bigger challenge to me because instead of creating just a single great capture, you have to create an entire collection of them, compile it all into a cohesive story and sustain the emotion level throughout. I found that I began challenging myself at every wedding by beginning the day and telling myself that this wedding was going to win the album of the year award. It made me think differently on the day, and it made me photograph differently. It forced me to think outside of the box and not always do those predictable poses. It made me get out of my comfort zone and not ever have an “off day” or be lazy. Then when it came time to design my albums, I would have to try to design them in a way that was very different from any albums I submitted the year before or that I had seen in a competition previously. I would always try to find a new element, a unique twist that had never been done. The result is that over the years, I have submitted a 3D album, a vintage album, a Vogue style album, a fully leather album and even a “legacy” album that featured four generations of the couple’s family. Many of them have won first place at WPPI, but above all, I have some very happy clients who have one-of-a-kind wedding albums to cherish.

After 15 years of entering WPPI The Annual competition, I will be resigning the ability to win a category or Grand Award. Melissa and I have been directing the competition for five years now, and as we are now WPPI community directors, I believe I’m wearing one too many hats to be allowed to win either. I certainly have no power as to who wins or not—only the judges do—but I care about the competition’s integrity. All that being said, I will still enter. I simply love the process, and I’m addicted to the excitement of it all. Competition is not only about what I can get out of it. As a veteran in this industry, it’s a responsibility that you and I keep on inspiring each other to be the best we can be.

If you are curious about the WPPI competition but have never entered, then you should jump in! You have nothing to lose except for an incredible learning experience. I encourage you to attend the live judging on February 24 and 25 for some of the best photography education in our industry.

There are categories celebrating almost every genre and discipline. I can’t wait to see what you guys enter this year. I truly wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for WPPI’s competition.

Jerry Ghionis is widely regarded as one of the best wedding photographers and educators in the world. The USA Nikon Ambassador has won more awards than any other photographer at WPPI where he became the first Grand Master.

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