Some thoughts about camera clubs photo competitions
When photography became an increasingly important part of my life, I was looking for educated feedback on my images that might help me improve. First I joined 500px, then later Instagram to show my work. However, I felt that neither of these sites were the right place to get honest and educated feedback that would actually help me get better.
Then I discovered a local camera club, Morris PhotoColor Club, a town over from where I live, and quickly became a member. They run educational programs and competitions where members submit images to be critiqued and judged by an outside judge. 
The competitions run in three levels : Entry, Advanced and Salon. New members start in Entry and move up to Advanced and Salon based on points earned in competitions. A good judge will take the levels into account when judging, and be a little bit more tolerant with the 'Entry' group, and progressively harder with the more experienced "Advanced" and "Salon" groups. 
The members each submit up to three photos across two categories, usually "open" (anything goes), and an assigned subject for the week, such as Action, Street, Abandoned, Birds and/or Wildlife etc. The  judge goes through all the submitted images within level and category, comments and rates each photo in a first pass. A photo can get a 6, or 7:
6 means the photo either got disqualified, for example because it didn't meet the assigned subject, or because it's not good enough. Not good enough could be because it's technically not up to snuff, for example it's not sharp were it needs to be, blown out highlights, artifacts, bad cloning etc. Or the image doesn't have an identifiable subject (more on that further down in this post). 7s get reviewed in a second pass, and are assigned scores of 7 - no prize, 8 - Honorable Mention, or 9 - Equal Merit Award. 
After that, the winning images, 8s and 9s, get replayed, the photographer's name is revealed and everyone claps. The names of the photographers whose image didn't get a 8 or 9 are not revealed, and nobody got humiliated in public. This also allows members to take risks and submit images that they might not be sure about. 
After the competition has concluded, the participants fill out a survey about how they felt about the judge. Was he fair, consistent, easy/hard, constructive etc. The anonymized feedback is consolidated and shared with the judge, and it also helps the club decide if they want to invite that judge again next year. 
Q: Do competitions help you become a better photographer?
A: Absolutely, and without reservations 'Yes'.
Judges themselves have been serious photographers for many years, they go through trainings from camera club associations, they know what good photography is, and what is just a snapshot. So critiques are at least somewhat informed. Secondly, and I think that's a big one, because the competitions are anonymous, they can be honest and frank with their critique. Only the names of the makers of winning images get revealed. So the judge can be honest and frank about an image without embarrassing the maker in public. 

Q: What is the benefit of competitions?
A: The biggest benefit for me is the comments from the judges, good and bad. Some judges are more verbose than others, and go through great lengths giving advice on how, in their opinion, the image could be improved. Over time, one keeps hearing the same comments about images, and patterns crystalize on what makes an image successful and what doesn't. Of course, this is not scientific, the critique is subjective, and sometimes I don't agree with a judge. There are also judges that have a lane, like bird & wildlife photography, and have difficulty judging other genres, like Abstracts. But for the most part, and especially over time and as a collective, they are correct with their assessments. 
Q: What have I learned from participating in competitions?
A: The judge seeing the image for the first time, is free of any emotional attachment that the maker might have. The maker might have walked for hours in the heat, with blisters on their feet, and they finally arrived at the location, took the picture, even-though the light was a bit disappointing. But they put so much work into getting the shot, they still love it, because it reminds them of their experience. But that experience doesn't necessarily transport through the image, so much so that to a neutral person it's just a not very good image. Or the composition would have been better if the camera was further to the left or right, but that was not possible because there was a cliff. That still doesn't make the image any better.
To me that was an important lesson to realize. The image has to stand on its own, it either works or it doesn't. The circumstances under which the image came to be, in most cases, don't matter. 
Perhaps a photo is not technically or compositionally perfect, but it is of someone or something that we love, and that we want to remember. But as much as we love the photo, objectively, and looked at in isolation by a 3rd party that doesn't know why we love it, it might just not be a great photograph, and might not do well in a competition. And that't totally OK. 
Q: What makes a winning photo?
A: Obviously there is no one "recipe" that works every time, but there are some general guidelines that might be useful:
    - The photo has to fit the theme and technical specifications to pass, so read the rules for the category. 

    - The photo has to be technically sound, i.e. exposed properly, sharp where it needs to be sharp, free of 
       visible dust spots, excessive noise and so on. 

    - Judges like a thin white border / stroke around the image, especially with darker ones, to be able to
      tell where the image ends, particularly when set against a black background.
    - The image has to have been made with intent, it's just a random snapshot. It means that the maker paid
       close attention to every detail, be it in camera, or later in post production. The photographer is
       responsible for every detail in the photograph. Less is usually more. Distracting clutter that doesn't
       contribute to the image should go or be toned down. So 
watch the edges and borders. That distracting
       branch sticking in from the side is not the viewer's problem, but that of the maker. Either get rid of it, if    
       possible in camera by means of composition, or during post-processing. Or embrace it and deliberately
       make it part of the image. The beginner-mistake is not noticing it in the first place because we didn't pay

    - It has to be clear to the viewer what the photo is about, ie what are we looking at. To quote Ansel Adams:
      "There is nothing worse than a sharp photo of a fuzzy subject". This doesn't necessarily mean a physical
      subject, it can be mood, a color, textures, shapes, light or a moment etc. Whatever it is, it has to engage
      the viewer, make them want to spend time with the image and explore it, enjoy it, or maybe ask questions.
      We want to stir an emotion in the viewer. A similar quote is by Rick Sammon: "If someone complains about
      the noise in an image, it is not a very good image". Ie if someone notices the noise in the image the
      subject matter is no strong enough.
      But on the other hand, an image with a very strong subject, does not necessarily suffer if it's not  
      technically perfect. I'm thinking about some of the iconic press-photographs, like the man in front of the
      tank in Tiananmen-Square or "Napalm Girl" from the Vietnam War. 

    - The photo should have a flow, where the eye is able to identify the subject and naturally go to the
       different parts of the image, without getting thrown off by distracting elements that aren't supposed to
       be there. Every element in the image has to be there for a reason. Things that don't contribute usually are
       best left out. Less is more.
In conclusion, if you are looking for honest and constructive feedback on your images, and you want to improve your photography, I highly encourage you to find and join a camera club and enter images into competitions. The feedback on your own images, as well as hearing it on other participant's images, will make you more aware of what makes a good image, and ultimately it will make you a better photographer. Plus you might meet some like-minded people that share the same passion and yourself.  
Thank you!
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