Image Competition, What Are You Afraid Of?


by Brad Barton

Join Brad Barton LIVE on February 22nd at 7PM as he presents, “Image Competition:  What Are You Afraid Of?”   Learn More

Years ago, I went to dinner during our Texas State Convention with a group of friends after print competition concluded. I had admired all the hanging images for a couple of years, but had convinced myself no one would be interested in seeing what I did. At the time, I was primarily doing actor headshots, but I also was co-producing a local haunted house and creating promotional images. I joked with a friend, a recent Master of Photography recipient, that I wanted to enter a certain image from the haunted house just to be in the room when it turned so I could see the judge’s reaction. He took a look at the image and said, “Actually, you should enter that. I think it would merit.” With some additional encouragement, I entered my next state competition and every state,
district, and national event since.

Over the years, I have encouraged others to follow my example, put aside their fears, and embrace the process. These are some of the more common excuses I have encountered.

Excuse #1: I’m not good enough. One of the first things I realized is every one of the jurors and other volunteers is there for one goal: to improve your skills. Competition jurors are not criticizing your work, they are critiquing it. They are giving you suggestions on how to improve. Embrace that idea, listen to what they are saying, and use it. Once you do, you will find yourself approaching all of your work with that competition advice in your mind.

Excuse #2: My clients would never buy that. My Facebook feed is regularly filled with funny memes and commentary about the seemingly crazy images coming out of some fashion show. What people who have not been in the fashion industry do not realize is that these are not intended to be designs for next season’s apparel. These are experiments in colors and materials. They showcase a designer’s strengths – with difficult blends of materials, colors, and concepts.

Many images you see in print competition are the same. By showing something difficult or amazing, a client knows you can handle their family portrait. Other images are personal projects done solely to fulfill the maker’s creative soul. Art doesn’t have to sell to be art. I have personally had new clients find me because of print competition work. They say, “I don’t need that, but I know you can handle my photos.”

Excuse #3: I don’t do all the Photoshop and Painter work you need to win. Those aren’t photographs. I do photography, not Photoshop. First and foremost, it isn’t about winning. Done right, print competition is about competing with yourself, to improve your work, and to better your own merits and scores each year. That said, many photos that merit are not elaborate Photoshop pieces. They are masterful creations using a camera, light, and shadow.

However, improving your basic Photoshop skills is directly analogous to improving darkroom skills of old. Ansel Adams used some cutting edge dodging and burning techniques to make his prints years before computers, never mind Photoshop. If he were creating today, he would be using every tool at his disposal to make his work the best it could be.

Excuse #4: I don’t have the time. It’s a waste of time. Every time I finish a session, I will take a second look at the images and pull aside any that I think might work as a competition piece. Then, when a competition deadline draws near, all I have to do is look through that folder and find my favorites. If you spread the work out over months, you will find the time.

As I progressed in my competition path, a funny thing started happening. Not only did I notice a significant improvement in the quality of my daily work, I began to notice a significant improvement in the quality of client I was attracting – and a significant improvement in what they were willing to pay. Improving your skills and income is never a waste of time.

Excuse #5: Client work doesn’t merit. Personally, about half of my merits have been from client work (yes, even from the haunted house!) and about half from personal projects. I know dozens of Masters that only submit client work. If your client work is solid and follows the 12 elements of a merit image, you absolutely can merit client work.

I have heard many more excuses over the last 10 years. If it is important to you, you will find a way. If it is not, you will find an excuse. If you still do not think you are ready, allow me to share my favorite quote from Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it is 11:30.” It’s 11:30. What are you afraid of?

Brad Barton is a North Texas based artist who tells people’s stories and captures their emotions in sometimes fantastical, sometimes bizarre, sometimes surreal ways. Using his imagination, camera, and digital tools, he has created work for clients big and small. His work has been published in nationally distributed books and magazines, has been featured in feature length motion pictures, and has won numerous awards. He holds Master of Photography and Photographic Craftsman degrees from Professional Photographers of America and continues to teach and write about art and photography. For more information on Brad Barton, visit his website: