The value of participating in non-commissioned projects in a photography career is very high, and photo competitions are a good example of that.
In 2019 I was always busy, and hardly ever took on any photo work that was not a paid job, such as weddings, headshots, event work, etc. The big problem with this was that nearly all of my photographic efforts were to please a client, and there was far less opportunity to draw upon my own ideas, leaving me under-stimulated in the creative department. It was not until I made the decision to participate in a state-wide portrait competition that I realized the error of my ways, and that it is important to feed your creative side to keep yourself from burning out.
The competition I entered was open to anyone within the state of Utah, and was to be judged by photo industry icons Joel Grimes and Josh Rossi, among others. The only real rules were that you had to pick from one of several “themes” for your shoot idea. I chose the theme “Weird West.”
Having made friends with a local TV actor and model, I spoke with my talent at length, bouncing ideas off each other. I have always tried to be open-minded to ideas in the creative process, and his experience in modeling helped us narrow down a good wardrobe for the shoot.
For the shoot location, I scouted the general area I liked, ultimately finding a former polygamist ranch that fit my needs well. After obtaining permission to use the location, I moved on to hammering out some of the final details. We were going to draw inspiration heavily from old 1960s Marlboro Man ads, greaser movies, and modern western cinema.
Using connections from my work on a TV series, I procured a historically significant prop car that I felt fit the theme I was going for — a 1960s Mercury big body. I also scouted a location that worked well for my concept. It was a former polygamist ranch in Utah, so the “weird” was still in full effect.
No good project ever happens without some setbacks, and my full frame Canon DSLR did not return from being a repaired by the time the day of the shoot popped up, but I had recently purchased my first mirrorless camera, a Fujifilm X-T20, although I had very little experience shooting with it yet. I told myself if I was any kind of photographer, I could pull off the shoot with just the little Fuji.
Ultimately, I was right. So right, in fact, the success of this shoot would be what convinced me to pull the trigger on a flagship Fuji body, and eventually switch completely to Fuji, one of my favorite career decisions I have thus far made. Attached to the X-T20 for the duration of the shoot was what I now hold dear as my favorite lens ever—the Fuji XF 35mm f/1.4. This combo was miniscule in comparison to my Canon full frame DSLR and the hulking lenses I shot with at the time. It was a strange sensation at the time, attempting to place in a competitive situation with other professionals all while holding a camera that at the time still felt like a toy.
But a toy it was not. The camera was brilliant, and combined with that lens it was a beast. I was able to use my strobes with it after I figured out I could use a variable ND filter to keep my shutter speed within the flash sync speed while shooting wide open.
With a highly serviceable, albeit unfamiliar camera, and access to my lighting gear, me and my model arrived at the set location and began the process of creating a series. I planned to choose the final competition submission image from that series, and was aiming to make each of them as good as possible, using a variety of approaches.
The image that ultimately won the competition had a simple and clean approach. I framed my model sitting in the driver's seat with the window frame well centered around him. I had my strobe coming from 45 degrees and pointing downward, and the sun positioned in such a way that it would create rim light on my model as well.
Another successful shot in the series took an approach that pulled on a silhouette aesthetic, invoking a hot dust afternoon feeling. Its execution was simple, since I left the strobe alone and just made good use of the EVF on the XT-20 to create the exact framing and effect I wanted.
After the light faded from the evening sky, I planned to involve astrophotography for one shot, so I made a 12-panel stitched multilevel panorama of the night sky using the very fast f/1.4 abilities on the only lens I had with me, my 35mm. I would then take that sky and blend it into a shot behind the subject. This method of swapping skies feels more authentic to me, since it was the actual sky out that night, and not some random image pasted behind my model.
Finally, I played around incorporating match light into a scene in low light to create a dynamic look for another option in the series.
After shooting the series, I carefully culled and edited them. Deciding which one to be the final submission image was not easy, but I am grateful for the one I chose. Its simple execution resulted in an extremely clean image, and I think that was factored into the final win. I was pretty shocked when I found out I had won, and very grateful, but the competition had been strong, with some of the other entries being downright envy-inducing.
After I went on to get the thumbs up from the competition judges, those images went into my portfolio. They have often drawn attention to me as a photographer, and have been valuable to me, especially when more than one client has hired me based on their approval of those photos. In the end, the entire effort resulted in multiple reasons why it's a good idea to test yourself like this once in a while, and I recommend it to anyone.