It’s that time of year, friends. Our annual engagement photography contest is quickly approaching. One of the first tasks our team tackles when preparing for a contest is selecting a judging panel. And the three judges we snagged this year are sure to make for one epic contest. Joining us for the 2023 Best of the Best Engagement contest are–drumroll please–Joy Zamora, Laurken Kendall, and Oli Sansom of Briars Atlas. They’re three photographers we respect immensely and who have made a lasting impact on the industry through their talent, personal style, and business success.
One important thing to note is that there aren’t any rules or guidelines given to the judges other than the following: “Entries will be judged anonymously based on merit, including the distinctiveness, skill, and artistry within the photo. But, we also want diversity. We try to make sure that collections speak to more than just one audience and that they represent a wide spectrum of photographic styles, cultures, and love.”
This is how we certify a unique and unbiased final collection for every contest. We don’t require the judges to choose a ‘specific type’ of photo–it’s truly up to them to pick photos based on their own opinions and standards. With that said, we asked our three judges to share more about what they’ll be looking for in this contest. And trust us, it’s not always what you think. Check out their tips, insights, and advice below.
What makes an engagement/couple photo stand out as the best of the year to you?
Oli Sansom: There are two factors: 1. does the image show an understanding of restraint? and 2. does the image show the photographer not projecting their idea of intimacy onto the couple? That’s the exciting stuff for me. And if those two things are answered, the image will probably stand out loud and proud.
Laurken Kendall: I am most attracted to work that feels believable as if it holds some truth about the subject. I think it’s important that we as photographers try to connect to our subjects as much as we can to create work that speaks to their unique human experience and relationship DNA. I’ll specifically be looking for this.
Joy Zamora: From my point of view, a couple or engagement session has several aspects that make it unique. The first important factor of a photo is that it gets the viewer excited. That it tells a story–even a brief one–and isn’t just a simple achievement of poses. You want the narrative to transport us into the emotions they are feeling in the photo.
I think it’s also important to submit a variety of shots. And last but not least, a wow factor. A photo that, just through its composition, delicacy, or even editing, surprises me.
What do you want to see in the submissions? Is there anything you hope not to see?
Oli: I want to see a diversity of couples represented. From a craft perspective, I want to see risk-taking. Not just in crazy techniques, camera-gymnastics, or the relentless pursuit of symmetry. Those are all fun things I am a fan of too. But I mean risk-taking in giving the more delicate images a chance. If you’re lucky to be a photographer, you probably got into it because you’re great at noticing the little things that matter. So I’m not just looking for some clean-edited majestic shot on a mountain. And I’m not just looking for a complex documentary image with 72 layers of things happening–though, attention to craft will, of course, be considered.
I’m looking for images that don’t hide imperfections–images that notice the small things and then incorporate tasteful, timeless simplicity into their editing. To me, that’s a key element of the most complex and long-lasting photographs–the understanding of restraint (and yes, I’m aware of the ironic lack of restraint in this unhinged word vomit you’re reading).
A great starting reference point might be the delicate environmental portraiture and documentary work seen in the BJP. I want to see people give a chance to the images they secretly lock away in their “favorites” folder but don’t think will fit into the perceived bombast of an award context. Let’s move past that. I’ve seen so many images not make the cut in contests that were the most incredible slices of social anthropology–that went beyond simply being images within our genre. Those are the images that I’ll personally be amplifying. Because those photos reveal the photographer showing themselves, and we’re in the business of vulnerability, after all.
I also want to see people take risks in what it means to represent intimacy and how they’ve taken their own bias of intimacy (which we all have) out of an image. And instead, let their couples show through–whether that’s a conventional take on intimacy or something we haven’t seen before.
Laurken: I love to see the mundane made beautiful. I’m looking for a vast representation of relationships. I would enjoy seeing engagement photos in locations that are unusual or unexpected. I also appreciate interesting/unusual light or perspective.
Joy: I want to see freshness. But above all, I want to see photographs where the photographer doesn’t seem to be there. I want to see cinematic moments, a unique atmosphere, and real human connection. Forced poses and “trendy” photos, which we’ve seen time and time again, don’t appeal to me. There is still so much to achieve and develop. So I want to see fresh ideas, new and daring points of view, and new editing styles. Everything new and fresh is welcome.
What is your process when it comes to selecting images to submit to contests?
Oli: My process has always been selecting a mix of images that are technically interesting or that have some interesting layers of story to them. And honestly, sometimes I can’t help myself from just submitting stuff that I think the judges will like. Sometimes it has worked, other times it didn’t–but it taught me that your own way of seeing the world can’t be faked. We should run with what feels right to us rather than playing for the audience.
Joy: It is quite simple. When you’re shooting, you tend to get that “this is the picture” feeling at some point. Whether it’s because of the connection you get or because you capture a truly unique photo. When I submit to a contest, the first thing I analyze is that the photos haven’t been done or seen before. But most important to me is that I disappear from the equation. I want the photo to talk about my couples and their love story. In a single photo, I want the viewer to feel what the subjects are feeling–whether that be melancholy, happiness, shyness, etc.
What gets you excited about couple/wedding photography right now? Are there any new styles, techniques, or people that you’re loving?
Oli: As ever, I’m loving what Si Moore is doing. His recent 6×8 film work is fabulous. And London/LA ex-pat Kate Hampson is simply making out-of-this-world stuff that isn’t like anything else around. She’s incredible! She’s the definition of risk-taking and building an incredible business to go with it. I’m also loving Rowena Meadows, who is explicitly focusing on the polarising side of family documentation. I can’t think of a single example I’ve seen of this approach in couples photography, and I’m dying to! Her work is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I guess the skinny on this is that I love seeing analog continue to kick ass in our space. Our genre has become more and more competitive and as was the focus nine to ten years ago, folks that hone in on finding a difference in their craft reap the business benefits–including myself. It’s an exciting time to care about photography as an art form and not just as a means of having a business.
Laurken: I think it’s trendy to try it all right now, and by that, I mean pull out the full bag of tricks. Double exposures, motion blur, reflections, colored lights, foreground interest, perspective–I love it because it’s allowing for creative exploration and individual expression. It’s empowering photographers to just play around and find out. So many times, social media gets us stuck in a loop where we are seeing the same kind of work over and over, then subconsciously repeating it ourselves without realizing it. I like new techniques over trends so much more.
Joy: Right now, we are seeing a clear trend towards editorial and fine art styles, from my point of view. Perhaps the surrounding landscape has lost strength in favor of the fashion and style of both the couple and the guests. I’m not one to get too caught up in fashion, but I do like the fact that flash is being used again. Also, the fact that value is given to group and family photographs.
Taking risks in the editorial aspect and getting new perspectives and poses is a lot of fun for me. All without losing the narrative and the human connection–without forgetting that we are photographing normal people in love. I am passionate about what Mari Trancoso, Ana Hinojosa, and La Txina are doing–a lot of feminine power.
What advice do you have for photographers wanting to get more recognition in the industry? How about business growth advice?
Oli: Work out what growth means to you and how that aligns with your personal goals. Respect from your peers? Money in the bank? A stream of leads? A more discerning clientele base? They’ll all result in different approaches. If you want more recognition, who do you want that recognition from, and what is the goal attached to it? If you want the recognition of a large pool of fresh photographers for a leadership role, that will mean a very different strategy than if you wanted the recognition of, say, clients looking for a specific and unique photographer. The former will take one strategy, the latter will take another, and they’ll each lead to very different places. One type of recognition will be louder, one softer, and it’s anyone’s guess which will earn you more money. Work out what you’re attracted to, what will serve your business or creative needs most in three, five, or seven years, and follow that.
Laurken: Recognition and business growth have the same recipe–create what you want to, photograph how you like, be empathetic to your subject, and seek to make them feel seen. Don’t hide who you are, don’t gatekeep your skills, and don’t feel like what you create has to make sense to anyone else. Never let external expectations or judgments stop you from making weird art or releasing a product you are being called to release. Be available and willing to help your peers but stay the course of your own artistic evolution.
Joy: My first piece of advice would be to start creating real human connections with other suppliers and colleagues in the industry. We’ve given a lot of weight to social media, but we can’t overlook that, in the long run, it’s critical to have good support in the real world.
Studying many photographic styles to create our own will give a lot of clarity. Instead of jumping from one fashionable bandwagon to another, if we can find a look that makes us special, we will create a new need in the market. And, of course, educate yourself with others who have already walked the path you want to walk.
Can you share one (or multiple) of your favorite engagement photos you’ve taken? What makes it/them your favorite?
Oli: 1. I love this one of J & A. It’s a bit of a tech-wank image, but it was a fun experiment. I wanted to see what it would be like to represent a whole lot of different couple dynamics in a single image. There are exactly 500 individual images in this one frame, and it’s turned into an original technique that’s been a hell of a lot of fun to develop with several more shoots like this since.
2. This image of Dan and Dre on Kodak film that expired in the early 1960s was an early favorite. I love the simple light-play and use of them as design elements rather than a vessel for physical connection (we got tons of those, too, ha!).
Laurken: I love this photo because it feels believable. I think that’s important when viewing a photograph.
Joy: 1. These two are Anne Marie and Benjamin, and their love story is so unique and different I was scared to shoot them. We spent the whole day together in the mountains, walking around and talking about life. Eventually, Benjamin began whispering something in Anne Marie’s ear. That moment of connection was so special for me to witness. I love their auras, their emotional presence, and the kindness they project.
2. I can’t exactly put it into words, but there is something about this photo that fills me with passion and joy. And it’s not the fact that they are nude. But instead, it’s more about the intimacy that most people don’t see in relationships actually being visible. Also, in this couple’s session, I forced myself to shoot only 50 frames. Each photo was a risk. That ray of light did the rest.
Do you have any final words of advice for contestants hoping to win this year’s competition?
Oli: I actually feel that awards and contests are a unique opportunity for photographers to consider their impact in advancing how couples, intimacy, or community–all the stuff we’re immersed in–are represented in images. And if it’s an image that could change other people’s idea of what it means to represent those things, then there’s a good chance it’ll rank pretty high–I hope–in this competition. This stuff isn’t just for your couples–you’re all history makers in your own way, and I think that’s a pretty neat realization that’s accessible to every single photographer, whether you’re brand new or highly experienced. Honoring that will beat technical gymnastics and perfection, in my book, every single time.
Laurken: When making your submission, screw what you think anyone else is going to like. Send only photos that move you and speak a little truth about your subject and a little truth about yourself as an artist. Those are the ones that will stand out.
Joy: Enjoy taking the photos. And above all, analyze what new look you are sharing with us. Focus on the little story we can see and feel within just that one snapshot. The more of your own essence you can put into the photo, the better. Good luck to all of you!
A huge thank you to our three judges for taking the time to answer our questions with such thoroughness and honesty. We truly cannot wait to see what is submitted. And, with that, add March 21st to your calendars, photographers! Contest submissions will be open from March 21st – April 12th. Submit now!