Fearless Photographers Collection 35: A Judge’s Perspective

Want to know what it feels like to judge one of the strongest wedding photography contests with the best wedding photographers in the world?  Awesome.  Inspiring.  Overwhelming.  And fun.

With Fearless Photographers leader Huy Nguyen and fellow judges Dennis Berti and Dorota Kaszuba, we tackled the Fearless Photographer’s Collection 35, one of the largest collections ever.  This photographic competition had over fifteen thousand entires, and we narrowed them down to 89 single images.

I remember entering photo contests as a photojournalism student in college and attending the live judging.  This insight was tremendously helpful and confusing at the same time.  One thing photographers don’t realize, when they enter their photo for a competition, their image gets viewed for one second or less.

One second.  What can you say in less than a second?

Each photo is viewed and sorted with a photo being edited Out or In.  Watching a judging is monotonous with each image being judged “Out.  Out.  Out.  Out.”  One year, it seemed the “Out’s” were endless until one image appeared on the screen.  You couldn’t see what the photograph was, if it contained people, it was an indecipherable, blurry mess.

The judges disagreed.  “IN!  IN!”  they shouted.  None of my friends in the audience could understand what they were voting on, and what it meant to them.  A minute later, they realized they had judged two images (in slide form) that were stuck together.  Everyone had a polite chuckle, the judges viewed each photograph separately and, you guessed it, both were OUT.

I learned at a young age that photographic competitions are extremely subjective.   You can learn a lot sorting through fifteen thousand photographs, so I thought I would share some insights with you.

Don’t stop shooting.  Many of the award-winning images were tiny little moments in one very busy wedding day.  When you are hired to photograph a wedding, sometimes it’s difficult to separate yourself from what you are hired to do and what is actually a nice photograph.  It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset of “How does this photograph add to the story?”  This thought can be limiting to your coverage and it doesn’t allow you, the photographer, to have some fun.  Play with light.  Forget about the subject (typically, the bride) and just make a strong photograph because you want to, not because it’s one photo on a list of hundreds you must take during a wedding day.  Keep the camera to your eye and just keep exploring!

There were hundreds of photographs with tiny wedding clients and vast landscapes.  How can you make yours stand out?  You have to have the killer package.  Great light.  Strong foreground AND background.  And yes, even the miniature clients MUST have a moment.  Too many photographs were beautiful, but had bored subjects.   There has to be a worthwhile moment, or the image is instantly forgotten.

I ask my students the same question.  “What is the intent of this photograph?”  If you don’t have a clear answer, then the photo isn’t as strong as it should be.  We saw so many photos of wedding couples in locations and situations that didn’t make any sense.  Before you ask your clients to stand in a wheelbarrow, for example, there should be a good reason behind it.  You can add in lighting and location to help tell the story, but it should start with a strong foundation, and it should always try to answer “Why?” the photograph was taken.

If you are going to ask your clients to mug and pose for the camera, what is the reason behind it?  How can you make this a strong, emotional image?  You can create some fun and entertaining images this way, but it should be an elevated photograph with strong lighting, moment and composition and leave the viewer feeling satisfied.  Otherwise, it’s a party picture with folks hamming it up simply because a camera is on them.

It’s a wedding.  You see one every week.  Stop shooting what it looks like.  What does it feel like?  Go beyond the standard imagery, try something unique and different.  You don’t need to see your client’s dress, face, etc. in every single image.  A strand of hair can be the subject of the photo.  So can a hand.  An eyelash.  A teardrop.  Don’t limit yourself with shooting literally all day, keep trying for something you haven’t seen before.

I want to congratulate everyone who entered this contest, because it takes courage to do this, and it means you are invested in furthering yourself in your wedding photography business.  I hope some of these tips help, but the most important tip is to not take photographs just for contests.  That’s one of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make as you can lose your emotional connection that way.  Don’t be a contest photographer.  Just shoot for you, and make yourself happy.  This will make your clients happy.  And a happy photographer is what we all should be.  🙂


Candice C. Cusic started taking photographs at age six and ruined her mother’s countertop with darkroom chemicals while studying Photojournalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Her career includes 11 years as a staff photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, 13 years as an Adjunct Photojournalism Professor at Northwestern University and 3 years as an Adjunct Photojournalism Professor at Columbia College.  Candice is the founder of the Moment-Driven Workshop: CHICAGO April 4-5 2017, the Shoot With Your Heart Workshop April 6 2017 and the Moment-Driven Workshop: LONDON May 2-3 2017.

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