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Photo competitions are intriguing

A few weeks ago we had our trampey club’s annual photo competition, which is quite a lot of fun and it’s an excuse to see photos people have taken throughout the year. It’s the second photo competition the club’s run which I’ve entered, and the third (and last) to be judged by Shaun Barnett, who’s decided to focus on other things. Shaun authors and co-authors a variety of books about NZ tramping, typically full of photographs, and just recently he’s taken over as editor of the Federated Mountain Clubs Bulletin, which I bet is a lot of work considering he already judges lots of photo competitions for other clubs.

I’m not a photographer by any stretch (even as a hobbyist), but I do like to wave my camera around a lot on tramping trips, and this is typical for the demographic of our own photo competition where the majority of people (but not everyone) are primarily interested in tramping, but might pull out a camera from time to time. My own current toy is a Canon Powershot A720IS, which is almost exactly the same as my previous Canon Powershot A710IS, but the A720 has less water inside so tends to switch on. It’s not a typical tramping camera in the sense of being shock-proof or water resistant or extremely light-weight (it’s about 300 grams), but it takes the best photos on short notice that I’ve been able to manage for any camera in its range with which I’ve had a chance to experiment, so I just try to be careful with it and avoid damaging it.

For technique, I’ve been trying to make smaller adjustments as a consequence to some of the feedback that Shaun’s given, so I thought I might try and record some of the details here for better or worse. I guess if you’re entering photos into a competition judged by Shaun in the future, some of this might help with regard to the sorts of photos he likes. Obviously photography is very subjective and I think Shaun has always been the first to point out when he’s judging that people will never agree, and he’ll judge photos based mostly on technical grounds, I suppose because by themselves photos don’t usually give enough context to convey much more. I guess what I’ve liked about the way he does it, though, is that he’s very clear and consistent and will give specific reasons why he likes one photo more than another to help people improve their photography, and as someone who’s a relative novice and not a full time hobbyist, I’ve found this very helpful. It’s also just nice to have a second opinion on things, and he’s pointed out perspectives on photos I’ve entered that had never occurred to me.

In the Tongue and Meats [1] competition, there are several categories (landscape, hut life, water, etc). The categories I personally enjoy are the Drama and Hut Life categories, since I think I have a preference for photos that can be directly related to some kind of tramping experience, and the most obvious way for a photo to show this is to include people, or something related to people in the wilderness. The biggest category in the competition has always seemed to be the Landscape category, which is basically for scenic landscape types of photos, but I’ve not really found it to be as interesting. I think this might be because I don’t automatically associate scenery with tramping, maybe because I’m spoiled living in New Zealand. It hasn’t stopped me from trying in that category, though.

Back in the 2007 competition, I think I made a mistake of entering quite a lot of photos that meant a lot to me because I knew a story behind them, but which wouldn’t have meant much to someone without the background knowledge, and certainly wouldn’t have rated well on technical merit. For instance, I entered this photo of the flooded Waiohine River, which I just think is quite cool because it was reminding me of what the river was like during one of my favourite ever trips I’ve been on [2], for all sorts of insane reasons.

The flooded Waiohine River [3]

Shaun thought it was average at best and didn’t stand out, and particularly criticised it for having what he thought was water on the lens — which in my thinking had made it even better because tramping, rain and the Tararuas go together well. None of this came through just by looking at the photo with no context, though, and Shaun nailed the technical issues.

It was a similar case for these photos which I also entered, where as far as Shaun was concerned they (quite correctly) weren’t very distinguished from the rest of the crowd.

Windy Totara Flats, Tararua Forest Park [4]

I enjoyed taking this photograph a lot, which I think is why I entered it. From the same trip as the Waiohine photo above, this one’s showing Marie trying to get over the upper-Waiohine swing bridge with a gale force wind coming down the valley. (That particular bridge has been known for its preference to tilt by uncomfortable amounts in strong winds.) Shaun agreed that it was quite dramatic, but his main criticism of the photo was that the sharp focus was resting in the foreground rather than on the person crossing much further back, which is completely true. At the time this was one of my favourite photos and I felt a bit miffed, but it was completely fair given that there actually were a lot of photos that weren’t subject to the same kinds of technical inadequacies.

Lunching at Lake Man Bivvy, Lake Sumner Conservation Park [5]

This photo had people actually looking at the camera, which is much better than if everyone’s looking in random directions — which often happens when tramping because people don’t set out to model for photographs. Apart from this, though, there’s not a lot to make it stand out.

Walking out after a rainy night [6]

This photo from below Egmont had a story behind it and I also thought it was just amusing to show a slippery boardwalk covered in water. Technically it’s not great, however, especially because it’s overexposed, and there’s not a lot of interest without knowing more about what was happening at the time.

Hope Halfway Shelter, Lake Sumner Conservation Park [7]

I’m not sure why I even entered this photo of Hope Halfway Shelter, except that I think I just wanted to enter something extra in the Hut Life category — never a good reason. Shaun’s main criticism was that the colour seemed strange, which was a result of a weird colour-accent mode which I’d enabled on my camera at the time, which essentially does digital post-processing inside the camera to pick a colour and make it stand out. I was playing with this mode at the time and thought it was producing interesting results, but the judge wasn’t impressed.

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This photo was an opportunity where everyone was trying to see some kind of spider that was hiding, but the photo didn’t communicate what they were actually doing. In my own mind when I submitted it, I was thinking that it made it interesting that it wasn’t clear what everyone was trying to see, but in hindsight I think I agree that it just adds confusion.

My three landscape entries in 2007 also didn’t stand out hugely.

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This was another making-up-the-numbers kind of entry from around Lewis Pass, which I think Shaun commented just didn’t have the right X factor to make it interesting. In essence, all it is is a couple of people walking away from the camera without much explanation. In tramping photos, it’s very common to see people walking away from a camera, because unless they’re well prepared, photographers will tend to end up behind people by the time they’ve pulled out a camera.

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This photo was taken in Lewis Pass on the same trip, and at the time I submitted it I actually though it looked quite cool with the clouds and the mist and so on, which (for me) also brought back recollections of a trip I’d enjoyed. None of this is directly communicated in the photograph though, of course, and Shaun’s main criticism was that it wasn’t very clear why one of the people seems to be holding a walking pole and exactly what they’re doing with it… which as usual is something I hadn’t considered at the time, because I’d been busy focusing on other things. I’m sure he would have found something else to criticise if it hadn’t been that.

Craig descends from Parks Peak, Ruahine Ranges [11]

My final submitted landscape photo was one that I took near Parks Peak in the Ruahines, which I quite like because (once again) it reminds me of an experience which the photo doesn’t actually communicate much about. When Shaun judged it, I think he basically saw just another photo of someone walking on a ridge above the clouds, of which there have been plenty.

I did get a couple of commended photos in 2007, though, which was neat.

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After I took this photo, it was of my favourite photos to date, and Shaun put it in his list of commended photos because he liked the framing, albeit keeping in mind that there weren’t many Hut Life entries that year, and he didn’t think any were good enough to actually declare them a winner. He did note that the billy-hook is in a slightly bad position (it looks like it’s stuck up Marie’s nose, tee hee). I’d thought this when I submitted it, but unfortunately it was quite a lucky shot in low light to start with, and it was simply the best one of quite a few. Shaun also found the whole false colour thing very distracting, which is something I hadn’t realised would be so significant until afterwards. If I’d submitted it again, I would have just made it black and white.

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The other commended photo I had in 2007, this time in the Drama category, was this one of Mike struggling to get over a ridge somewhere above Cattle Creek Hut in the Ruahines. I think I mostly submitted this because I thought it looked funny, and I was literally rolling around on the ground trying to avoid the wind when I took it. Despite all that, Shaun really liked it, apparently because it conveys a very windy atmosphere and, unlike some of the other photos I put in, it doesn’t need a back-story to be interesting.

This year, I put more effort into the selection of photos that I thought might appeal to Shaun, rather than ones I just thought were quite neat, and in particular I tried to find photos that might look better on their own merits rather than ones that just meant something to me. This also meant putting in less photos overall, but Shaun seemed to like them more which felt good after the extra thought I’d put in.

My two landscape entries were fairly unsuccessful, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s such a huge section as far as entries go, and I don’t really have as much interest in landscape photography.

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The first showed some cloud breezing its way over a saddle in front of Daphne Ridge in the Ruahines, which I thought looked quite cool at the time I submitted it, but Shaun commented that he thought the route-marking pole in the foreground was distracting. I’d thought the pole made the photo more interesting and gave it more depth, but it’s also a very subjective thing and Shaun’s point hadn’t really occurred to me until he mentioned it. The other landscape entry was a fairly boring scene of a couple of people walking up a valley in Nelson Lakes, which I guess I really only entered for lack of options.

Shaun liked my four entries in other categories, though, which was great.

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This was one of a lot of rainbow photos I took in the Tararuas after we’d spent all morning chasing rainbows, and I still really like it. I’d thought Shaun would have commented about the smudgy water on the lens in the lower left, but he didn’t so I guess I got away with it. Maybe he just didn’t see it as distracting.

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This photo of Sam collecting water on Bulls’ Mound in the Tararuas was one of my personal favourite photos ever. It’d started as one of those false colour photos from the days when I was experimenting with that mode in my camera, but after Shaun’s comments the previous year, I drained the colour completely so as not to annoy him so much. Shaun did like it (and put it in his commended photos), but also commented that he found Sam’s head-gear distracting, which he though was some kind of scarf. What was actually happening was the flap of Sam’s mountain mule pack had fallen over his neck and head. In my mind that just made it more interesting or conveyed that it was a hot day, or something, and it wasn’t until Shaun made his comment that I even considered that other point of view. When talking with Sam afterwards, he commented that if he’d known I was taking a photo, he would have pulled out a cup and used that to scoop water as an alternative to a cheap and nasty plastic bottle.

Shaun especially seemed to like my last two entries this year, which surprised me a lot because I hadn’t thought they were very strong when I entered them.

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I was pretty chuffed that this photo of Fi staring out from somewhere near Mt Dun in the Richmond Range won the drama category’s runner-up. When I submitted it, I’d thought it might have just gotten a comment that the camera needed to be higher for it to work properly, so as to make it easier to see the scenery that Fi was actually staring at. He didn’t seem to think that, though, so I guess sometimes subjectivity can work in your favour.

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The other photo that Shaun really liked (and gave the runner up for the Hut Life category) was this one of socks drying out at Waipakihi Hut in the Kaimanawas, which also surprised me because I’d thought he’d comment that the socks were uneven or not symmetrical or something to that effect. This one started off as a colour photo, but I made it black and white before submitting because I thought it could be more effective that way, and it seemed to work.

So that’s my experience with photo competitions so far, anyway. Things I’ve found most effective are to use the rule of thirds [20], to make sure photos are framed well (and I cropped a lot of photos, especially the second time around), to make sure people are either facing the camera, or are well-focused on some kind of object of the photo and doing it consistently (so if two people are staring, the third person shouldn’t be looking at their watch), and to keep out distractions. Doubtless I’ll keep learning. We’ll probably have a different person judging next year so it could be quite a different result. I suppose I’ll just continue waving my camera around randomly and hope it snaps something worthwhile every so often. Fun fun fun.