Story and Photography by Karen Schuenemann
A few years ago, a friend said to me, “You already have NO.” I asked what he meant. His response has stuck with me ever since, and has served me well. If you sit back and don’t put in the effort, you already have NO. If you don’t try something that you dream about doing, you already have NO. If you don’t attempt to do anything at all, you already have NO.
When I began to think about entering photo contests, I used to wonder why I should even bother. It takes time, money and effort, right? But that’s not what I heard when I encouraged some talented friends to enter contests. Instead, what I heard was “I don’t have anything special.” Having seen their work, I KNEW they had some special images. What did I say that got them to enter the contests.? I tell them that they already had NO!
So, yes, I started entering contests, too. One thing that motivates me to enter a few, select contests each year is that I learn so much from the photos that won in the past, and seeing them helps me better understand what makes a great image. From the dazzling beauty of a grand landscape to the small intimate details in a macro image, from the environments in which the images were shot to the animal behaviors they depict, I learn and am inspired.
From reading the contest details, to choosing and preparing my images, to finally hitting the “submit” button, I also learn about my photography. This both excites and moves me forward. It is no longer about winning a contest because, from the start, I am winning! I’m learning how to select and prepare the best images I have for that particular contest. I’m learning from past winners. I’m improving my understanding of composition. When the contest-winning images are announced, I celebrate, even if none are mine. I often keep the magazines that feature the best images of contests I’d entered. Those photos continue to inspire me long after the contest ends. And they make me study the craft that went into making those fabulous images.
It is, of course, your decision to which contests to enter and which images to select. Be aware that, in order to really figure out if the image is good, you absolutely have to set aside any personal bias or affection for a photo. Our minds are clouded by what our photos evoke: that great time, special place, magic moment, wonderful person…the list goes on. We need to set those factors aside and focus on the image. Is it exposed properly? Is it well composed? Are there any technical faults? Beyond the basics is what I refer to as “the Magic.” Does the image convey something special? Does it connect my heart to the natural world? Is there something different and unique about the image? Does it speak for itself?
Your photographer friends can be a great help in evaluating your images. Ask their opinion and listen to what they say. Show your pictures to your friends or coworkers and ask them what they think. Watch their faces and read their responses. This can really tell you if your photos are resonating and creating an emotional reaction. What you learn can help you better select and edit your work for contests, and help you take better photos in the future!
Once in a while, we have an image that is transcendent … we simply KNOW that it is a great image the moment we take it. When I was in Bosque Del Apache last year in January, we had gray, overcast, stormy, cloudy weather. Bosque was actually closed our first day there, and half of it remained closed for the entire trip.
I took my workshop participants to Bernardo, about 20 miles down the road, and discovered more Sandhill Cranes than I’d seen in years in Bosque!! Even with those dark, menacing skies and frigid air, I knew that there was going to be a liftoff. I told my group to hang in there and wait. Even if we had a flat and dreary sky, it would still be worth it to see the birds ascend. All of a sudden, the sun peeked through the clouds and thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes took off. It was a MAGICAL experience and the images that were produced were, likewise, MAGICAL.
On that cold, dreary day, I KNEW one of my images would be amazing, so I entered it in a contest. It was honored by the 2017 Audubon Photography Awards as Professional Photographer Honorable Mention, one of top awards in this prestigious contest. I was, and still am, so honored and humbled. As I prepared to enter the photo in the contest, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would receive this honor.
Of course, not every prize-worthy photo is going to garner instant fame. About 10 years ago, I learned something important about persistence. If YOU believe in your image, then don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t win the Grand Prize, or even get an Honorable Mention. If it really speaks to you, that’s what’s important. Don’t give up on it. One of my first successful contest entries was an image that I’d submitted to a variety of local and national contests over the preceding two years. I really liked the image, and my photography friends liked it, too. Something about its mood and simplicity spoke to me. On a lark, I decided to enter it in the Los Angeles County Fair. Later, I attended the fair and saw a big ribbon next to it. Initially I thought that the ribbon was for another person’s image. Guess what? It was mine! I was honored with Best of Show for an image that had gone nowhere in previous contests. This illustrates several key takeaways: 1) Believe in your image; 2) A contest is a crap shoot, by which I mean that anything can happen and; 3) If you don’t enter, you already have NO.
Now, my motto is “Keep on Shooting for the Stars.” You NEVER know what may happen!
I’d tell anyone and everyone to put your work out there! Enter at least a few, select contests that reflect your style of photography. Give it a try! Amazing and magical surprises may await! No matter what the judges say, you will be a winner when you overcome your self-doubts, when you learn new techniques, and when you are inspired by other incredible photographs. By pushing the boundaries of your own photography, by processing and preparing your own beautiful image, by pushing yourself to be a better photographer, you’re a winner in every contest that you enter.
And remember, you already have NO!
Karen R. Schuenemann is a nature and wildlife photographer exploring the parks and wetlands of Southern California. Her work focuses on the nearby “Urban Wilderness,” such as restoring wetlands of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and protecting the elusive bobcats in San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. She puts special effort into introducing the next generations to our parks and preserves and to the legacy and responsibility that comes with them.
Schuenemann’s work has been won numerous awards and appeared in a variety of publications. She founded Wilderness at Heart Photography in 2015, teaching and leading workshops to places ranging from Bosque Del Apache, to the Grand Tetons, to Africa, and is a Permittee of the National Park Service.
Karen celebrates life with her husband and two dogs in San Pedro, California.