Jay Sousa: Fair photo contest a great way to hone your skills

By Jay SousaJune 7, 2013 

The long tables in the Merced County Fairgrounds pavilion were stacked with hundreds of photographs just waiting for me to judge them.

There were photos of family pets, sunsets, flowers -- lots and lots of flowers -- babies and kids doing funny things, vacation travels, and more sunset and flower photos.

The county fair, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday June 16, has always had a large photo competition. I was honored to be selected to be the judge for this year's photography contest.

If you entered photos, please don't be too mad at me if you did not do as well as you would have liked. The competition was fierce as there were a lot of very good images and, of course, many that could have been better.

During the three-plus hours that it took me to make the decisions on first-, second- and third-place awards in the many different categories. I scrutinized all of the entries very carefully weighing the pros and cons of each image.

I tried my utmost to be very fair and impartial, as a matter of fact the names of the photographers were not visible to me.

Entering a photo contest is a great way to build your photography skills, give you motivation to shoot and possibly get some recognition. Plus, you might win a couple of bucks to help finance your expensive photography habit.

A few observations that I came away with after my judging stint may help you to do great in the next contest that you enter.

The first images that I eliminated from consideration were pictures that were technically deficient, don't enter a print that has flaws, such as poor exposure, bad composition or a lack of sharpness.

Sometimes we get emotionally attached to an image and even though it might be a bit out of focus we enter it anyway. Don't -- a judge won't have that same attachment to the shot and it will be one of the first to be eliminated.

The next important piece of advice that I can give you is to make sure that the image that you enter stays true to the theme of the contest or category.

I had one very nice photo of a foothill scene with some cows in the foreground and some mountains in the background. It had a lot going for it, including good lighting and great technical attributes. Unfortunately it was entered under the architecture category, and I had to eliminate it from consideration. It would have done much better under the landscape category.

Keep in mind that someone judging a large amount of images is going to quickly eliminate the tried and true.

New perspective

to familiar subject

As much as we all like looking at a nice sunset or flower photo remember that they have been done to death and judges are looking for a fresh look at the world. Be creative and try hard to create images with a new and different perspective.

The other flaw that I saw on a regular basis while judging were images that could have been very nice but were ruined by having been made at the wrong time of day. Great lighting is crucial in doing well in a contest. Try and make your images during the "golden hour": either the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset.

The last bit of advice I have for you is to be honest of your skill level and enter in the level that is appropriate for you.

I saw too many photographers enter in the advanced competition when their skill level was more intermediate. If you are new to photography, keep shooting, keep learning and don't get frustrated if you don't win. Just have fun and before you know it, you too will be bringing home blue ribbons in the advanced class.

I have a couple of learning opportunities coming up. The first is a night landscape photography workshop in Yosemite Valley on July 20. Email me at jay.sousa@sbcglobal.net for more information.

The second is College for Kids at Merced College. This digital photo class is for kids third through eighth grades. Contact Merced College Community Service office at (209) 384-6224.

Jay Sousa, a former Sun-Star photographer, has his own photography business in Merced, conducts private classes and teaches photography at Merced College.

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