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Do you need to enter photo competitions to become a better photographer? Certainly not, but for some of us, the process can be very rewarding, if not a little humbling at the time. I love telling the following story.

Above is a poor quality scan of an original 4x5” tranny of a tree. It’s amazing how emotionally close we get to our images. The photo was taken on Easter Island many years ago and was one of my favourites. I had lots of photos of the moai (heads), but it was this lone tree surrounded by a mound of loose stones that I really liked. It was shot in the late evening with a beautiful soft light and I loved it! (The original is not nearly so contrasty as this rendition.)

I entered it into the AIPP National Print Awards, the forerunner of the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards. It was one of four entries and while I can’t remember what the others were, I clearly remember the score for this one and a judge’s comment. Standing at the back of a darkened judging room, with five esteemed judges and a panel chairman sitting around an evenly illuminated print stand, I held my breath as one by one they stood up to inspect my print. It seemed to take an age before they carefully entered their scores, but I fully expected a tally of 80 or higher – surely this print was a Silver Award?

Well, no. The panel chairman read out the score: 74. He then asked if any of the judges would like to make a comment, to which Ian McKenzie (a past AIPP President and who would in later years become a very good friend) said, “Well, it’s just another travel snap”.

A travel snap! Couldn’t the judges see the print quality, the fact it was shot on a large format 4x5” camera, the luminous nature of the light and the exotic location?

Well, no.

Flash forward five years or so and I am cleaning out my studio. I find a bunch of old prints and, being in a bit of a hurry, quickly flip through them one at a time, throwing them onto the rubbish heap. Yuck. Horrible. What was I thinking? Many of my old prints simply weren’t that good.

And then I picked up my Easter Island tree. This print, unlike the others, stopped me in my tracks, but not because I still liked it. Gone was the emotional baggage associated with the wonderful trip and the effort required to shoot it. In front of me was a plain, rather boring print and all I could remember were Ian’s words: It’s just another travel snap. He was right.

Are the judges always right? I have some other prints that bombed in competitions that I still like. Competitions are great because they put your work into context within the world, but it doesn’t have to be the only context. I think the judges were generous giving my Easter Island tree a 74. And I still have great memories of being at that location all those years ago.

Making better photos doesn't mean you have to enter a photo competition, but the things you do to make a better competition entry are EXACTLY the same things we need to do to make better photos for ourselves. If you're on the path to improvement, check out my How To Win Photo Competitions package. We have a new pricing regime and there's also a 50% off sale at the moment. Check it out here.