My Take on the 12 Elements

By Cheri MacCallum, M.Artist.MEI.Cr., CPP

There is no real “recipe” for earning a merit image in photographic competition except for a few guidelines. It’s more about a constant learning process.

I’ve been asked if I “shoot for competition,” and the answer is no. I photograph what I love. If I see something that turns my head…out comes the camera. With that said, I do give myself occasional assignments, but they are more to push me to try new things and keep the creativity flowing rather than for a “good competition image.”
That’s because photographic competition is in the journey, not the destination. Yes, I know that phrase is overused, but it’s true. The recognition when images do well is nice, but it means nothing without the education gained in the process. I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, but the “rules” were not invented by your state, regional or national associations and jurors just to make your life miserable. All the elements that make up good art have been utilized for centuries. It has to do with the human brain and how we process visual information.

I saw a post recently on a photographic forum about the poster’s view of photographic competition. I love it, and I will quote it here (with permission of course):

“Get better. Try new things. Enter photographic competition and get your work trashed and decimated in a public forum, take notes and enter again. Bring to a boil, don’t reduce to a simmer, burn the pot and grab a bigger one.”

Now, most jurors don’t “trash” or decimate images, but this quote says a lot about the learning process and how we feel when we hear jurors say things we really don’t want to hear, but need to hear to get better. Competition should be a constant learning tool that pushes us and raises the bar every year. We need to be able to take criticism to learn and grow. Don’t be offended and don’t be so emotionally attached to your image that you can’t listen to advice.

To help you get started on that competition education, here are my thoughts on each of the 12 elements that jurors use to score images:

1) IMPACT – Impact is the initial response when an image first appears. It’s the “wow” factor. Does the image cause your heart to skip a beat; does it invoke an immediate emotional response? Your title is also part of the initial impact. Does it make sense? Does it help tell the story or could it be confusing? A good title can go a long way in helping your score, but a bad one (or one that doesn’t make sense) could hurt your score.

2) CREATIVITY – Is your image, subject or treatment unique? Is it different than anything the judges have seen before? Does your image have a new twist or a different view? Creativity is about going beyond traditional and coming up with new ideas and new interpretations.

3) STYLE – Style is like a signature. It’s a visual way of expressing your thoughts via the way you use the 12 elements. There are always artists whose work we recognize because we know their styles. While we shouldn’t copy someone’s style exactly, we can be inspired and borrow stylistic elements, making a hybrid of styles into your own.

4) COMPOSITION – Composition is the arrangement of elements within the image, and done right, it can create feeling, motion and rhythm. We can create a feeling of peace or tension just by moving our subject, camera or crop around. Consider an image of a high school senior that is cropped for a traditional portrait. The result is a pleasing, comfortable image. Take that same senior, tilt the angle, place the subject off to the edge and crop a little into the head…and our traditional, comfortable portrait just became edgy and filled with tension.

5) PRESENTATION – How do you present your image to the judges? Presentation can include cropping, using backgrounds and borders and applying special effects to the image. If you use backgrounds or borders, make sure they complement the image and don’t distract from it. When if comes to special effects with digital filters, make sure they are appropriate for the image. For example, a harsh, grungy texture overlay probably won’t work well with a newborn’s portrait. Just because we have all these cool filters to use, doesn’t always mean we should.

6) COLOR BALANCE – Color balance is the use of color in your image and how they work together or against each other. Is there harmony between the colors? Do the colors work with the subject or do they overpower and compete for your attention? Using colors within the same half of the color wheel (adjacent colors) will create harmony and a comfortable feeling, while colors opposite from each other on the color wheel (complementary colors) create excitement and drama.

7) CENTER OF INTEREST – The use of certain elements—like composition, presentation and lighting—can draw the viewer’s eye and keep it on your intended center of interest. And that focus needs to be clear. Leading lines and element arrangements can take the viewer on a journey around your image, but the attention ultimately should rest back on the center of interest.

8) LIGHTING – Lighting goes a long way to create a mood and message, so the lighting we choose to use should be appropriate for the subject and the story we want to tell. Using a lighting technique inappropriately will cause visual tension and confuse the viewer. For instance, you wouldn’t want to use a flat light when high drama is the intended story, or use a really high ratio when you want to convey a soft feeling.

9) SUBJECT MATTER – Does the subject matter make sense? Does the subject fit into its surroundings? A very traditionally posed grandmother figure typically would not work in a grungy back-street alley setting, but a biker guy with tattoos and a leather jacket would.

10) PRINT QUALITY – How does your image look when printed? Do you have good density with good details in the highlights and shadows? If you are using a lab, make sure they know your image is for competition. When under the lights for judging, images printed normally will appear too light and washed out. If you print yourself, a trick I use is to take an image outside in the sun. If it looks good there—not too light or washed out—you’ve got it. Avoid matte finishes, too. Matte finishes are flat because the ingredients in the lacquer or laminate disperse the reflections of light bouncing off the print. Images with vibrant colors and rich blacks finished with a matte finish go flat under the lights. Gloss or luster finishes are better for competition because they let the color and tonal values come through unhindered.

11) TECHNIQUE – Technique is the use of a skill or skills to achieve the final print. To me, it’s pretty much a combination of all these elements!

12) STORY TELLING – Your image should tell a story, whether it’s obvious or a thought-provoking abstract. (Remember, your title can play a big part in the telling of that story.)

If you don’t already enter photographic competition, do so. Competition will make you better, period. And I know that for a fact. I want to thank Robert Symms, M.Photog.Cr., for encouraging me to enter my first competition years ago. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that encouragement and the learning process along the way.

Article previously published in GPPA’s Georgia Focus and SEPPA’s Southern Exposure magazines.

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