Starting with the Right Title


Image Competition Success
Katherine McClure

Unlike a blockbuster movie, the journey of print competition is so personal that your own adventure will not be diminished by reading someone else’s. But in case you don’t know where to start, or if you are experiencing writer’s block for the first time, here are some steps that may help lead you to success. Just like your favorite movies, competition images are built using the same set of ingredients.

“Two Bedrooms, One Bath”

Whatever your motivation for competing, you may struggle with where to begin. Some photographers keep a folder on their desktop year-round with images they would like to come back to. Some artists go back through the last year of client work looking for the hidden emotion. Some create styled shoots to bring a very specific vision to life. But me? When I’m stuck, I start with a title.

A Title with Emotion –  I am sure there are others out there who do the same as me. I just haven’t met them yet! But over the years, I have used the same process to ‘fill my case’ and have laughed, cried, and merited along the way. While I often use humorous phrases to begin my brainstorming, you can start with any phrase that evokes emotion. “Audience in Their Underwear,” for example, creates a very specific feeling on its own. But it definitely isn’t enough on its own to tell me exactly what my image should look like. As with a memorable movie quote, you want a phrase that stands out.

“Blew It”

Explore the Story –  Once I have selected my phrase, I explore how to tell the story of it. This one could be quite risqué as an image of an audience actually wearing only underwear! Or it could be heart wrenching as you see someone unable to go on stage, paralyzed with stage fright. But I wondered what would it mean to a child to actually imagine something like that for the first time? That expression seemed worth exploring, especially as my daughter was beginning to perform on stage with her cello the same year. This exploration is just a rough draft until the storyline comes through. Once I know the direction the image will go, it is time to start filling in the details.

Select your supporting cast –  That is when I bring in the supporting cast. My title is catchy, my storyline has a mission, and now I start using my tool belt of supporting elements. Who is my model? I happened to have one willing with a flexible schedule that matched mine. She was young but willing to try to hold still and was excited to create something special.
What mood were we creating? Lighthearted! Without a lot of phone calls and travel, we just didn’t have access to a stage, so I simplified. I chose high key lighting and a bright white seamless to minimize the importance of the actual location. What expression are we using? This was fun! She knew I needed the big surprise face, so she practiced in the mirror to get the best shape for her mouth. We explored with and without teeth options, and laughed a lot. What composition? I planned an off-center crop, but left lots of room to breathe in case something else worked better.


Create the Image –  Then we got to work. Our practice time in the mirror had shown we need definition on her lips. While stage makeup can be overpowering even at a young age, we knew red lips would give the image just a bit of punch. She added red nails for fun, and wore the simplest white clothes we could find. A bit of retouching was all it needed to bring it all together. “Audience in Their Underwear!”

“Audience in Their Underwear”

“Two Bedrooms, One Bath” tells a different story. Yes, it is a self-portrait. And yes, it is the only one I’ve ever entered, but I was still a novice when this one went to IPC. I only had three solid images in my case and needed a fourth – with only 48 hours left until the deadline – when the title came to me. As I explored it, I knew I could use my home as the location. My kids were very young, so that meant my cast was… me. I hadn’t done my hair that day, so I needed to hide it in the towel. I knew judges critiqued skin retouching (a growth area for me at the time), so I hid it under a face mask. I was still struggling with hand posing, so I hid the hands, too! A huge umbrella and a self-timer were all I needed (along with the 179 outtakes).

“Blew It!” began as a play on words about messing up in a relationship. But, in exploring it more, the bubble became a secondary subject. I wanted to highlight the contrast of masculinity and the pink bubble gum, so my model needed a dark beard. It was the definition problem again – the color of the face was too similar otherwise. I was exploring more about color synchronicity in general, so I actually went shopping for a pink suit. In real life, it is a bit more coral, but we got pretty close!

Coaching for the right expression was trickier here. I wanted the look to be a bit embarrassed, but funny enough it didn’t become too sad. The eyebrows really brought it all together on this one, and now the studio has an extra colorful suit on hand!

Try It Yourself –  Next time you are filling your case, or having a bit of a creative block, try starting with a title. Explore the possibilities that open up just from the phrase itself. Keep exploring the story until you know what you need to bring the image to life and then showcase your supporting elements. See what you can create for print competition by starting with the spoiler instead!

Katherine McClure, M.Photog., CPP, of Prairie City, Iowa, has been creating award-winning portraits displayed in art collections worldwide for more than 20 years. Join Katherine, along with Allison Russell, at the iHeart Photography Conference and Expo in 2021, and learn how to run a successful studio, regardless of the size of your market area. They are sponsored by Miller’s Professional Imaging.