Be brave! To enter is to learn. Dennis Orchard’s thoughts on photography competitions.


September 7, 2010 by N@

With an impressive number of letters after his name, Dennis Orchard is a highly respected photographer and international photographic competition judge.

Dennis is returning to the International aperture Awards judging panel for third time in as many years and is an invaluable member of the team.


Twice UK Wedding Photographer of the Year, Dennis has, for the last 6 years, Judged internationally at WPPI Las Vegas and has also been a UK national Judge with SWPP. Dennis holds the highest award at WPPI, the Accolade of Lifetime Photographic Excellence and in 2006 was honoured with WPPI’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Services to the Photographic Industry.

How long have you been picking up a camera?

Before I ever picked up a camera I would pick up and “read” photographs. My aunt was an agent for a mail order catalogue and every year she would get a wall calendar with scenes of woodlands, waterfalls & cathedrals. From the age of 5 I would spend hours looking at the smallest detail in the images. By the time I was 8, I was hooked on “Viewmaster” 3D reels. Not the ones you get now which are all cartoon based, but the “Countries of the World” series. I travelled the world through those little 3D images and I still have my collection. I was 11 before I saved up to buy my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic. I still have the photos I took with my first roll of film. They are landscapes.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a photographer?

Not at first, because I really wanted to be a secret agent!

At 14 in England you get an interview with a Careers Advisor. I remember going into the room and seeing all these books on banking, insurance, engineering, marketing etc. And I couldn’t see a single book on Photography. So more for devilment than anything else, I said that I wanted to be a photographer. The poor chap didn’t have a clue about photography as a career and told me to find out what courses there might be. I did some research and discovered a 3 year Higher Diploma course in Photography, Film, Television, & High Speed Scientific Photography at Harrow College, London. I enrolled on the course at 18 and came out with a 2.1

What is your speciality as a photographer?

In my early days I only shot Landscapes. I worked for a Stock Library in London (which eventually became Getty Images) and travelled Europe with a plate camera photographing for Calendars & Posters. At that time my speciality was composition and my images would often sell because I would find different angles from which to shoot well known locations. Over the last 15 years I have moved over to photographing people. I started shooting editorial photography for The Daily Telegraph and other magazines. Eventually I found my love for Wedding Photography and I consider this to be my current speciality. The most important skill I have acquired in wedding photography is the ability to make people relax in front of the camera.

When you’re not shooting for clients, what kind of images do you like to shoot?

Last year I did a little “street” photography in Bath City (a World Heritage City). I limited myself to only one lens (85mm) and one aperture (f1.2). It was quite challenging to do. I also took some time off after a wedding in Scotland and drove around for a couple of days doing “moody” landscapes. This kind of personal work should be made into an exhibition, I know, but I am lazy & quite content to post it on Facebook and wait someone (or anyone, please!) to say they love it.

You have been an international judge for many years now, how did you first get into judging?

I paid a vast sum of money in a brown manilla envelope to Bill Hurter at WPPI!!!

OK but truthfully. In 1999 I won UK Wedding of the Year and part of the prize was a trip to WPPI Las Vegas. I entered the 16×20 competition for the first time that year and fell off my chair (literally, as I’m known for liking the odd Vodka) when two prints scored over 80 and I got my first 2 Accolades. I decided to go back the next year and enter again. I got 4 that year and in 2001 WPPI asked me & two other “Brits” to speak at the convention.

The following year one of my images got a Grand Award in Wedding Photojournalism and so WPPI asked me to speak again. Over the next couple of years I enrolled on the WPPI Accolades Programme. Through this programme you receive a point for each print scoring 80 + in competition. The highest award (for reaching 65 prints over 80) is the “Accolade of Lifetime Photographic Excellence” I achieved that in 2004 and they asked me to speak and also judge for the following year. In 2005 I got First place in “Wedding Photojournalism (Humour)” and WPPI asked me to judge for the second time (I must have done something right). In 2006 they gave me their top award “WPPI Lifetime Achievement Award” and I’ve been invited to judge every year since then. I have also judged at international level in Northern Ireland, Erie, Estonia and Baltic States and of course your IAA.

Do you think there are extra considerations to be made when entering an International versus Local competition?

I think in any competition it is important to establish the style of image that “fits” the profile of the organisation running it. For example, in America, it is unusual for a print to come First in both WPPI & PPof A. In the UK we have our Royal Photographic Society and the winning style with them is quite different from our British Institute of Professional Photography or Master Photographers Awards. So enter all your best images for local awards and then select, from the ones that do well, for International competition. Study the winning entries from the international comps to ascertain the style that the organisation leans towards.

In short: Don’t read Venusian poetry to a Martian…. they just won’t understand it!

It’s been said many times that entering a competition is more than just winning. What do you take out of a competition when you enter?

Probably more like “What does entering a competition take out of me!” Anyone entering a competition will suffer the agony of deciding which images to select, closely followed by the despair of having left it almost too late to enter, and then for many, the guilt of forgetting about the whole thing and then, eventually, the self delusion of thinking “Well competitions don’t mean anything and all the judges are out of touch anyway” I admit to all those feelings!!

BUT! To enter is to learn. Sit in on the judging and see what the judges have to say about your print. Compare your image to others in the competition. What is distinguishing your image from theirs?. This comparison and questioning of your work can only lead to better photography and a clearer idea of where your style is leading you. This is what you gain from entering competitions.

What are the first 3 things you look at in your images when you enter a competition?

OK First has to be print quality. No judge is going to award good marks to a print that is too light, lacks contrast or is mounted poorly. Beware the bright lights of judging. Many prints which appear fine in daylight look pale and washed out under Competition lighting. Find out (from the rules) the lighting conditions for judging and print darker to accommodate.

Second has to be “story”. A picture is a communication. Ask yourself what is this picture saying to me. It can be quite simple like “We are a couple in love” or a landscape which proclaims “Look at how mighty & grand the World is” It can be more subtle like the work of Andreas Gursky. But whatever the story is, it must be believable. Brides without back support being dipped backwards by their Grooms while having the blood sucked from their necks is NOT a story I ever wish to tell.

Last and probably the most important is EMOTION. In fact if I were to have my way I would probably put EMOTION in first second and third place. But the emotion has to be real and not contrived. This for me is what sets apart the “good” from the “breathtaking”

What advice would you offer photographers entering a competition for the first time?

Be brave. Enter for the experience and the education. Don’t take it too seriously and don’t give up too soon. Try and find competitions where each entry add to a future award (such as the WPPI Accolades Programme) This will give you the incentive to carry on.

When you do win, which you will, if you enter and learn from the judging comments, tell everyone and be very very proud of your achievements.

5 thoughts on “Be brave! To enter is to learn. Dennis Orchard’s thoughts on photography competitions.

  1. Dennis, you have got me laughing through and through! Besides being an excellent judge, your words here show what a lovely person you are! Your very last point , about emotion, (and the negativity of that horribly popular “Dracula” pose!) is something I feel passionately about, but occasionally wonder if it even filtered pass some judges criteria, when the contrived and artificial, rule-following images, seemed to take precedence… Thank you for the encouragement to enter!

    • Sooooo!! There is another soulmate for me on this planet!!!

      Elaine, I love your play on “REEL” and agree with your passionate plea to end the “dippy Dracula poses”

      However it’s not always that easy to do that when judging impartially. I have to conceed that there is a market for dramatic posed photography and there are talented photographers out there, doing it very well. As a judge, even if it is personally not MY style of photography, I still have to award the print a high mark if it is executed and printed well. Unfourtunatley, what seems to happen is a lot of less skilled photographers see pictures like this winning awards and other more subtle, natural, & emotional images being dismissed by judges as mere “Snaps”. They then naturally assume that this style is what wins!

      From my own standpoint I feel best qualified to assess an emotional image on it’s merits because i try to take them all the time and I know how hard a genuine one is to achieve. I like to be a balance on a judging panel and give some extra leaverage to the obsreved, story telling image rather than the image meticulously created to the finest detail by the photographer.

      This is my particular crusade in judging but i need my fellow judges to be open and respect my views and in return I must also respect their superior knowledge of more formal styles. You don’t win the argument by shooting your opponent! 🙂

      I do hope you enter and gain something from the experience.

  2. Excellent sense of humor! Well, I only say that because when I make references to poets from other worlds and bribing high ranking officials I get dead silence, weird stares and incredulous blinking……

    I feel compelled to friend you on facebook just so i can comment on a photo, “I love it!”

    Thanks for an entertaining and informative interview.

  3. Dear Carlos (or is it Benjamin and you are just being formal?)

    Anyway, Dear CB. Have you ever considered that you are, indeed, a Venusian, and that all the people who you tell your jokes to are Martians? And perhaps the Martian equivelent of a huge great burst of laughter is to be dead silent, stare wierdly, and blink incredulously. You are probably a lot more successful than you imagine.

    The same may be true of your entries in print competitions. You have probably entered competitions where the judges give the least marks to the best prints. You have then gone away feeling disheartened.

    Well that’s not what happens in the IAA competition. The judging panels are from all over the solar system and there are bound to be a few from Venus who will truly appreciate your work. So please please enter and give them something to judge that they will understand. If you still get low marks then perhaps you should consult your family tree. Maybe you’re not from Venus after all.

    Bring on the FB friend request.

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