Grand Prize Winner Withdraws From 'Outdoor Photographer' Competition

Grand Prize Winner Withdraws From 'Outdoor Photographer' Competition

Outdoor Photographer awarded the grand prize of their "Great Outdoors 2021" to a composite image that violates the rules of the competition as stated on the official website. This controversy gives rise to an ethical question regarding photography competitions that fail to enforce their own rules. 

The image in question, according to the photographer's own description on social media, is a composite blend of several images "shot through the transition from post-sunset to pitch dark and blended in best of the atmosphere of the evening." This style of processing has grown in popularity in recent years. It incorporates photography techniques and digital post-processing techniques that allow the artist to maximize the visual impact of the final image. As you can see from the grand-prize winning image below, these techniques are quite effective. The result is an impressive image that draws the viewer in immediately.  

These techniques, though somewhat controversial, are not the issue at hand, at least in terms of their photographic legitimacy. Many competitions allow the use of such methods. This competition, however, does not. The image was awarded the grand prize (a $2,000 USD cash prize and an array of gear worth nearly the same) despite the fact that the rules of the competition bar the use of such techniques. See below for the specific verbiage, directly from the official Outdoor Photographer website. 

We reached out to the photographer, who informed us that at the time of submission, they did not have a clear understanding of the rules of the competition. After receiving notification that their image would be a finalist, but prior to being awarded the grand prize, they attempted to reach out to the administrators to withdraw the submission from consideration, admitting fully that the image did not qualify. At the time of our correspondence, they had received no response or acknowledgement of the attempt to withdraw. 

We also reached out to Outdoor Photographer for comment. See their statement below. 

The photographer, Shashank Khanna, did indeed attempt to contact us to advise us of this prior to the final judging and announcement of the contest winners. Unfortunately, his email was misfiled by our customer service team and this information was not available to our judges. We have since been in communication with Mr. Khanna, and in the interest of fairness to all our contest entrants, he has offered to withdraw his submission. We accept his withdrawal. We regret any embarrassment this has caused Mr. Khanna and commend him for his honesty and transparency. Accordingly, we are elevating the Second Prize and Third Prize winners to First Prize and Second Prize respectively and awarding the Third Prize to photographer George Garcia for his image, “Barren Valley Sunset.”

While their response seems fair enough, the issue does not rest here. There is a greater ethical issue at hand regarding the administration of photography competitions. We have been in correspondence with many other photographers who were upset at the outcome of this competition and who made attempts to reach out to the administration, yet received no response. The majority of entrants presumably submitted images that fall within the established rules of the competition, and they paid the submission fees under the assumption that the competition administrators would make a reasonable attempt to enforce the rules. The competition website even suggests as much.

As part of the judging process, our judges at their discretion may request the original RAW file or JPEG capture for review.

Putting aside the fact that most experienced landscape photographers will immediately recognize the winning image as a composite, we have to ask why Outdoor Photographer made no attempt to enforce their own rules or verify the authenticity of the prize winning submissions. This would be the bare minimum when we consider the ethical demands of regulating a paid-entry photography competition. Ideally, however, verification will take place as early as possible in the judging process to ensure that non-qualifying images are not being compared to images that abide by the rules.  When anything goes, it is much easier to create a visually impactful image. It is clear that verification is a critical step, however it is also a resource-intensive (i.e. expensive) process. We have to ask whether any competition choosing to omit this process has done so simply in order to reduce overhead costs. Considering the relatively high cost of entry, the relatively low value of prizes and the fact that unlimited entries are allowed, presumably they have the budget to pay someone to verify submissions. There are many photography competitions, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Natural Landscape Photography Awards with even stricter submission guidelines, yet still do a thorough job enforcing rules and verifying images. 

In addition to these ethical concerns, Outdoor Photographer's "Great Outdoors Photo Contest" does not place any sort of limit on quantity of submissions. This means that those with greater financial means can submit an unlimited amount of images, affording themselves a clear advantage. This is less of an ethical concern and more an issue of general fairness, which the community expects these sort of competitions to strive for. 

When we consider the facts of this story, we begin to gain an understanding of the ethical issues at hand with photography competitions. We encourage our readers to read the rules closely prior to giving money to any competition, even if they are organized by established and trusted institutions. The judgement process is often not as fair as it may appear. Luckily, there are some questions we can ask ourselves before we enter into any competition to ensure it is administered fairly:

  • What level of post-processing do they allow?
  • Do they enforce these rules via raw file verification?
  • How early in the judgement process does this verification take place?
  • Do they limit quantity of submissions?
  • Is the administration responsive to questions and e-mails?

Photography competitions are an important institution in the photography community. They drive the development of the art form, and when administered fairly, they are a place where the community can come together and enjoy one another's work. This makes it all the more important that we place a demand on the organizations that administer these competitions to do so with fairness, transparency and accountability. 

Devin is a landscape photographer based in the western United States. He enjoys capturing images of mountains, forests, waterfalls, deserts and seascapes. His passion for landscape photography extends to post processing and education. He offers live feedback and instruction for Lightroom and Photoshop via his website.

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ah, however crooked or misunderstood the rules of that competition - the withdrawn winner photo looks extremely ugly - like a 3d render made at artbreeder's :))
and I am sure, each single photo of that stacked composition will be a very fine high-class photo in itself. beware of those kind of fake aesthetics to draw the eye of the naive beholder! and beware of all and any competitions, where you have to pay submission fees - the organizers should pay and organize, not the photographer/artist.

Fair enough but the merits of the image itself are totally subjective and definitely not what I wanted to focus on with the story. I really just wanted to point out that not all competitions are created equal. Some provide value to the community and others provide value only to their own bottom line.

I think there are many competitions that only exist because they charge very reasonable entrance fees and I'm perfectly ok with that because they provide immense value to the community and a very modest bit of income to the organizers. Nothing wrong with that.

Controversial might not be the appropriate description of this situation. I see no controversy. Controversy is defined as a type of dispute, disagreement, or an expression of opposing views. A public state of contention.
This is a misunderstanding that was handled very professionally. If you want an attention grabbing word for the title, you could use scandalous but that might be a bit of a stretch too.
I just don’t see a controversy existing between the photographer and this contest.

True but the actual controversy is between the competition administrators and the community. They made no attempt to verify images or enforce their rules. That means most people paying good money for a fair chance are not actually getting what they paid for because their qualifying images are judged next to images that shouldn't even be considered, per the rules.

I agree. However, at the risk of being pedantic, the title still says the controversy lies with the prize winner, not the rules, competition, or the organization. It seems the photographer made an effort to avoid what could have been a very controversial situation.

Fair enough. I did do my best to make it clear that the photographer made every attempt to do the right thing, and focus on what the competition organizers did wrong but it does require reading the article

Pedantic? Lol just say overly scrupulous or precise. Get off trend man...

I believe you’re being a bit pedantic.

If a misunderstanding followed by an honest effort to rectify the problem is controversial then I agree with you.

I'm not getting the excuse that verification is a resource-intensive process. You're asking one entrant for a raw image—not every entrant. It only becomes intensive if judges are picking shady images.

I agree at the very least it would require minimal effort to verify the prize winning images. That's still not totally fair though because that means throughout the judgement process, qualifying images are judged against images that shouldn't be considered. You need to verify all first round picks to be totally fair. Not many competitions do that though because it takes time and someone has to be paid for that time. Natural Landscape Photography Awards sets a great standard for how a competition should be run because they verify early on in the process. They'll even tell you exactly why you were DQ'd

On balance I would have to disagree. It's fine if the resources are available to determine qualification of every entry but that's not realistic in the vast majority of competitions. Definitely a case of time/cost vs. reward.

And this doesn't really affect the final shortlist (assuming say 15 categories and 20 finalists then 300 RAW file checks seems plenty of work for the competition team) since if a non-conforming image is found at that stage (and before announcement) then another image can be promoted. If an image isn't good enough to make the final 30 then fair doesn't come into it because they were never going to make the final shortlist.

After seeing the latest critique from fstoppers, I’m not sure articles about ‘controversial’ composite images are relevant to this site… we couldn’t find any leading lines so we just made some in photoshop.

Thx I was also immediately thinking about the last critique where they choose 2 (!) compositings from one artist in a contest named "your best photography 2022". A compositing is a picture, but at least I wouldn't call it a photograph.

"digital post-processing techniques that allow the artist to maximize the visual impact of the final image"

Wow - is there a something like an Emmy for "spin"?

(And no, it didn't come from the photographer.)

Only in competition would an image be dissected to see how it was made and see if it follows the rules but outside the competition in the world, this image is a winner, nobody cares how you made the photo, what they only care is that it's attractive and interesting, so who cares what the judges say, after all in the much larger competition (the public) it's a winner.
I would prefer my photo to be liked by the general public than a group of judges, the general public is a much larger group than the group of judges.

Looking at all of the things that are popular with the general public, I don’t think I want to be on that list. Popular and quality don’t often overlap (sometimes they do but mostly it’s coincidental when it happens). Most of the time, the general public are eating big macs while listening to Justin Bieber just after watching whatever crappy reality show on tv.

I sell prints. I don't make prints to please other photographers. I make them to please my customers. I don't care if they eat caviar or fish sticks. If they like what I'm selling, then my photos are golden.

And just so you know, several prints I sell have done well in competitions. Maybe the judges eat Big Macs. Tonight, I had home made egg salad samiches and I listen to Megadeth, Concrete Blonde, and Three Days Grace just to name a few.

You get nose bleeds up there on the high ground?

I sincerely apologize as I seem to have misrepresented myself. I enjoy a Big Mac just like a lot of people, but I never claim that it is quality food. That’s the issue at hand. There are large parts of the population that hide in their ignorance of anything quality. A Big Mac is good enough for them they don’t need to try anything new. I don’t care to be associated with that demographic, but I could go for a nice greasy burger (hold the pickles). However, this weekend I’ll be at my favorite quality restaurant. If you were there I’d even buy you a drink even though you judged my character based on one small comment 😁

If you read what you wrote and look at it objectively, you will see how I came to my conclusion.

One of our favorite things to do was to go to nice restaurants. We lived in New Orleans for 20+ years and used to go to places like Commander's Palace, GW Finns, Galitoire's, and so on. But my wife has MSA, kinda' like Parkinson's on steroids, so that part of our life is no longer feasible.

Anyway, I'll take back my previous snarky comment. By the way, I'm grilling lamb burgers tomorrow. Just a step or three above the Big Mac. ;-)

I think we’re probably on the same page. These article comment sections are atrocious when it comes to communication. Everybody tries to say what they think and are rarely understood in full context. Anyway…I live only a few hours from New Orleans. One of my favorite places.

The next time you're in New Orleans, have an overstuffed roast beef po'boy. :-) Just wear your hazmat suit so you don't get gravy all over you! I really do miss it.

The same thing can be done with film it’s just easier with digital. I’ve seen much more complicated composites made with film negatives. Just look at Jerry Uelsmann.

??? I’m curious what that means.

Well you can always look at the raw files, no?

Love the photo. I'd be interested in seeing more of the photogs work

You'd think the organizers (Outdoor Photographer) would at least make sure the judges have read and understand the rules. You'd also think a photographer of that caliber would be able to read and understand the rules too. Go figure! Certainly an embarrassing fiasco for all involved.

Would love to see the email he sent, and analyze why "Unfortunately, his email was misfiled by our customer service team..."

that's code for "we don't check or respond to the e-mail address provided to entrants."

They received many e-mails from entrants and other photographers letting them know about this issue and refused to acknowledge it for weeks. In fact they don't even respond to general questions regarding the competition. They did nothing until they received my e-mail about this article and realized the issue was gonna go public and decided to go into "damage control" mode.

Why not just ask for ‘untouched original raw files’ as the image people submit to competitions? The competition’s should be about what was captured by the photographer not about how good his post-processing is.

Historically, except for photojournalism, this has never been the case. Photos almost always have some sort of processing after the photo has been taken. Aside from a few exceptions, most famous photographers throughout history, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Richard Avadon, etc. used a lot of post processing (you can do most techniques in the darkroom as you can in photoshop and you can push a photo just as far and over process in the darkroom). The difference today is it is so much easier and less costly (every post processing technique I use in the darkroom and I fail and waste a sheet of paper is a few dollars in the trash and it adds up. The undo button on the computer is cheaper).
Submitting the raw files with the submission to show the amount and type of post processing might be a solution. But requiring no postprocessing would be out of step with the historical standard of photography.

Not even "except for photojournalism" is a raw file ever the final product. Raw files are proprietary formats encoding the sensor output. Even photojournalists have to convert an image to some other format. Even if you shoot in jpeg mode on the camera, the camera is doing processing of the raw file, i.e., post-processing, albeit using a camera manufacturer's presets.

Sounds like the photographer who created the winning composite image was an honest and good person. The 2nd through 4th place winners (who were ultimately elevated to 1st-3rd place) got lucky this time.

I haven't ever participated in "serious" photography competitions, but I have submitted to a local display (which has paid entry and awards winners in various categories). Year after year the winner pool includes some photos that blatantly violate the published rules of the competition, which always rubbed me the wrong way.

So this wouldn't count as a HDR exposure stacking?

You're kidding (I hope).

It's almost like the contest is just something they go through the motions for as a revenue stream, and not as something they take seriously. One would think "Outdoor Photographer" would employ judges with even the most basic understanding of outdoor photography which would allow one to see a stormy, glow heavy, sunset light Death Valley dune shot with stars in the sky as being worthy of the even the laziest scrutiny. Instead it appears no scrutiny at all was given and that's sad. Their contest doesn't seem to state who the judges were and what their qualifications are for judging, but it should be obvious now that qualifications were not needed for the judges nor for the images in the contest.

Thanks Kurt, I agree completely. The whole thing just feels very phoned-in. I actually meant to point out in the article how sketchy it is that they don't identify their judging panel. I didn't want to make any assumptions for the sake of the story but it feels like an intern sifted through and picked a big batch of their favorite images and passed them to an editor who picked their favorites from that batch and then that's the whole process. I'm not saying that's the case here, but the point is that it easily *could* be the case because they aren't transparent about the process or the judging panel. It certainly feels like nothing more than a revenue stream.

As the organizer of a major competition that was referenced in this article, I first have to say that you can take everything I say here with a grain of salt. With that being said, I personally think the photography community should hold competition organizers to a very high ethical standard and we should expect them to be as transparent as possible. Even if the main focus of a competition is to generate income for the organizer, there should still be some ethics around how things are run. Regardless of what you think about competitions, I personally think in this case OP has done a great dis-service to the landscape and nature photography community. The competition, as far as I can tell, seems to be their stab at staying relevant in a dying industry (magazines), which is fine, except that we should expect more from this institution. I actually was contemplating entering the competition because of the rule that was broken by the original winner here as I personally like competing against more straight images when it comes to my own work, so I reached out to OP to ask who their judging panel is. IMO, that is one of the first things photographers should consider before entering a competition because it can give you a good indication of what they might be looking for. They never wrote me back. That was a huge red flag for me. Then, it seems, they had no process in place to validate that the winning entries met their rules, which is another huge red flag. And before someone says, "that probably would cost too much," trust me - it doesn't need to. We validate every single RAW file for our entries that make it past a certain stage of our competition. It's a lot of work, sure, but if you have rules they should be enforced, period. Anyways, nice work on this article Devin - I applaud you for writing it and for the ethical way you conducted yourself in contacting both the winner and the organizer before publishing. My only other thought is that I wonder if no one would have ever said anything or if you hadn't written this article would anything have been changed? The original winning photographer was eager to announce they had won, seemingly after they "withdrew" via email, so they clearly were fine with the outcome... and nothing was changed until after you contacted them for this article. That is very suspect, IMO.

I'm waiting until PetaPixel tells me what to think.