NZ Geographic reveals the secret to winning photography

NZ Geographic reveals the secret to winning photography
How to win the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year

Image credit: Natalie Slade – Society and Culture winner 2012

There is less than a month to go until entries close for the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year competition. In a show of support to potential entrants convener of judges James Frankham has revealed 10 tips for producing winning photographs. 

"Shoot stories, not subjects," says Frankham. "Follow that story with the intention to tell it in an honest and thorough way, and you will win the support of your subject and create images that have gravity far beyond superficial snaps."

The competition categories include landscape, wildlife, society and culture, and photostory. For more information, tips and to enter, visit the New Zealand Geographic website; there's a total of $6,000 up for grabs and an expedition voyage. 

And thanks to James Frankham, here's how you win:

1. Understand your subject

Be it an animal or a landscape, a person or an event, to capture the essence of a subject you will first need to understand it. Understand how to approach your subject, how to interact with it, and fall in love with it, just a little bit. Appreciate how the light plays a sheen upon its feathers, how an unsolicited smile crosses their face when talking about their kids, how the outgoing tide leaves a pattern upon the shore that is only evident at sundown. 

2. Understand your audience

A picture of your cat has meaning for you because it is your cat. You know it and love it, but you wouldn’t expect other people to respond in the same way to a photograph of your cat as you do. An editorial image succeeds when it can communicate something to a third party, making the image meaningful and engaging to a wide audience. That means choosing a relevant subject in the first place, then framing it in a way that can communicate truths and vitality to someone who has never seen it before. 

3. Be original

How many pictures of logs on beaches do we need as New Zealanders? It’s like we’re the driftwood capital of the world. Choose a subject that hasn’t been done to death, and find an original way to capture that subject that brings out its essence. What makes sharks most sharky? What is it about your street that makes it entirely different from other streets? What is it that makes the person in front of you light up in a way that expresses their inner beauty?

4. Go wide, go close

Long lenses are for photographers without legs. If you have legs, you will need just one lens for 90 percent of your editorial subjects. A 20mm prime will do just fine. Stay wide and move closer. It will force you to interact on a more meaningful level with your subject than shooting from the shadows, and it will create more immediacy in your images. 

5. Shoot stories, not subjects

As fun as wandering and shooting aimlessly may be, the best photographs result from a photographer approaching a subject with intention. What is the story? Now follow that story with the intention to tell it in an honest and thorough way, and you will win the support of your subject and create images that have a gravity far beyond superficial ‘snaps’.

6. Dispense with the rules

Forget about the “law of thirds” and similar daft rules of composition promoted by photography blogs. Don’t worry about shooting with the sun behind you. Don’t fret. Unusual compositions challenge viewers to think about an image differently, and shooting in difficult circumstances will result in more original images. Shoot during storms, or in the dark. Shoot when the content dictates it, let your subject determine the timing of your shutter. 

7. Don't stray far

There are more stories in Avondale than there are in Antarctica – more human colour, more drama, more pattern and complexity. You don’t need to go far to find a story, and if you already know a subject well then you’ve got a head start. Explore those opportunities and approach the places and people you know well with a critical eye.

8. Let your subject be the hero

Content is everything. So let the content sing. Don’t soak in saturation or hide it behind filters or attempt to dazzle folk with clever camera work. It’s not about you. It’s about the subject before the camera. So step back from the limelight, make your contribution invisible, and let your subject be the thing that viewers remember.

9. Don't overcook it

Heavy-handed use of the clarity slider, overcooked HDR and vignetting are regularly used to make a bad photograph appear slightly less bad, or at least bad in an arty way. But hundreds of good photographs are ruined by overprocessing. Step away from the computer, and go back into the field, to that place where every good photograph ever recorded has been made. 

10. Understand the competition

Look at previous winners, and read the terms and conditions to ensure that your images qualify. Don’t enter competitions that take your copyright as a photographer or demand blanket rights, be suspicious of competitions that demand an entry fee and ensure that your work will be properly credited. Never, ever, give away your copyright, to anyone or any organisation. Never, ok? You’re worth more than that.