As one of the biggest photography competitions in our industry, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to guest judge Junebug’s annual Best of The Best Wedding Photo Contest 2022.
Alongside the Junebug team and two other guest judges, Eshant Raju and Lukas Piatek, we reviewed a total of 8,071 images and were a part of choosing the top 50 winning photos of the 2022 wedding season.
About Junebug’s Best Of The Best Wedding Photo Contest
Since 2008, Junebug has been searching for the year’s best wedding photos. With the help of three guest judges, the Junebug team opens the contest up to submissions from wedding photographers worldwide to highlight real love stories that have been documented over the past year and award the year’s most powerful submitted images.
Behind-the-Scenes of the Judging Process
Perhaps the most interesting part being a guest judge was getting to peek behind the curtain to see how the winners of this contest were chosen. In an article written by the Junebug team in 2020, they lay out a five-step process for choosing the top 50 winning images, which I’ll add some more perspective to from my own experience:
Step 1: Finalize Guest Judges and Open Submissions
Each year, Junebug invites three guest judges to help judge the submissions. While I don’t know exactly how the guest judges are chosen, Junebug shares that “the guest judges [they] work with are folks that [they] consider to be industry experts.”
Once the guest judges are confirmed, submissions are opened. There’s typically a submission period of about 3 weeks, when wedding photographers from around the world can pay a small fee to enter up to 20 images of their best work from the previous 12 months.
It’s important to note that a few unique, contest specific rules are specified including: photos must be from day-of wedding or elopement coverage of real couples (no engagements, styled shoots, or or workshops)—the full contest rules can be found on Junebug’s site.
Step 2: The “great cull”—the guest judging process
This process may change from year to year, but here is my experience of Junebug’s guest judging process for the 2022 contest.
Receiving anonymized images
About a week after submissions were closed, the guest judges (including me) received 8,071 images from Junebug in a “Box” folder (similar to Dropbox) titled “Blind Submissions.”
This “Blind Submissions” folder of submitted images was “anonymized” by turning the original file names into code numbers, so judges are unable to see the name of the photographer who submitted each image. Junebug shares that the submissions are also anonymous for their team team so that no one—including Junebug—has access to who submitted the photos during this first round of the selection process.
For an example of what “anonymized” images mean, here’s an example of what a photographer’s submissions looked like on my end:
The next set of images from a different photographer would look like:
And so on…
The first number in the anonymized file names represented a photographer’s name, and the second number represented the number of photos they submitted (up to 20).
Because of the file naming convention, one thing that I found very interesting while judging is that while each image is judged on its own merit in this contest, because of the file names, I did view each photographer’s whole set of submitted images in one clump rather than all submitted images being shuffled randomly together.
Another interesting note is this: being a guest judge is a completely solo task. We all judge the images on our own, by ourselves at home, and therefore we have no idea what the other judges are thinking or picking or what their judging criteria is. I never saw Lukas‘ or Eshant’s selections at any point in this process.
Once the images were downloaded, Junebug’s judging instructions were to import them into an album/collection in Lightroom for the culling process. Each judge was to independently review each photo and narrow the selections down to our top 200-400 photos (Junebug required each judge to choose no fewer than 200 favorites).
There was no predetermined judging criteria, meaning I had free reign to choose my favorites based on my own personal standards. (I’ll dive into how I specifically judged the images later in this post).
This part was the most time-consuming of the judging process, and I personally spent about 15 total hours on this step. I went through the whole collection 3 times and did 3 rounds of culling to accomplish the following:
- Round 1, I added a 1-star to images I thought had potential
- Round 2, I added 2-stars to images that I thought were the best out of the 1-star images
- Round 3, I went over the 2-star images one more time, to get down to my favorite 400 images that I rated with 3-stars
A thorough breakdown of my approach with regard to each round of judging and the criteria I used is shared later in this blog.
Sorting top images into ranked folders
After the first round of judging, I had exactly 400 images in my 3-star folder of favorites due to the insane quality of the images submitted.
From here, I was instructed to sort my top photos into three categories: Gold, Silver, & Bronze.
- The “Gold” folder contained my “definite winners” selections, and needed to include at least 50 images (I chose 79). These were my 5-star rated images.
- The “Silver” folder consisted of my “second favorites” or “possible winner” selections (I put 177 images in my silver folder). These were my 4-star rated images.
- The “Bronze” folder held my “honorable mention” images (I put 144 images in this folder). These were my remaining 3-star rated images.
This second part of the judging process took me about 3 hours to complete. I went over each folder several times to ensure they were sorted to the best of my ability. Altogether I spent about 18 hours in the 6-day judging period I was given selecting and sorting my favorites.
Sending photos back to the Junebug team
When the judges were finished sorting their 200-400 favorite images, we were instructed to zip the 3 ranked folders and send them back to the Junebug team.
All three of us guest judges completed this process individually and did not see each other’s selections. After we sent our favorite images back to the Junebug team, our jobs as guest judges were essentially complete and the Junebug team reviewed our selections before choosing the 50 best images.
Junebug’s weighted point system
Junebug shares that they use a weighted points system for the next step of their process:
“While still anonymized, the images in each of the judge’s folders are given points based on a weighted system. For example, if a photo appears in one judge’s Definite Winner folder but an Honorable Mention folder for another, that image is rated less than if it had been ranked as a Definite Winner and a Possible Winner by the two judges.” [Source]
One interesting tidbit I learned is that while sometimes there is consensus among judges, a lot of times there isn’t. We have different tastes, after all. In the 2022 season, Junebug shared with me that there were no images that were found in all 3 of our “Gold” folders, and in fact, only one image was found in two of the judge’s “Gold” folders.
This goes to show how subjective judging is and how much it’s completely down to each guest judge’s individual personal artistic preference—as well as Junebug’s.
Step 3: Finalize the Collection
After the points are tallied, the Junebug team reviews the top 50 images. At this stage, the photos are still anonymized to maintain impartiality and fairness.
The final review is important to Junebug because it “ensure[s] that the images showcase diversity in style, diversity in couples, and have the wow factor that will appeal to a wide audience.” [Source]
Step 4: Fact Checking Submissions
At this stage, the submissions are no longer anonymized so the Junebug team can “fact check that the images fit all of the requirements for submission.” [Source] This includes making sure no one photographer is overly represented, and that all submissions adhere to the contest rules.
Step 5: Revealing The Final Collection
Once the winning 50 images have been finalized, the gallery is sent back to the guest judges for review. We had about a day to give any additional feedback before they contacted the winners.
Fun fact: 17 of the final 50 images selected for the 2022 winners were in my “Gold” folder (into which I put 79 images)—so while each guest judge does play a part in which images are selected, the differences in opinion between all of the judges—guest and Junebug alike—impact the overall winners.
Ultimately, the judging team at Junebug are the only people who fully understand the exact process of how the winners are chosen; however, being a guest judge was a fascinating experience and I’m excited to share my insights on how I decided on my personal favorites.
My Approach to Judging
Since I was free to use whatever criteria I wanted to judge the images, when tasked with narrowing down 8,071 images to 200-400 into 3 ranked folders within 6 days, I quickly realized that I needed to come up with a consistent culling strategy to accomplish this daunting task.
In order to be as efficient as possible, as mentioned above, I did 3 rounds of culling on the 8,071 images to narrow them down to my favorite 400. In each round I kept only a few key criteria in mind so that I could make decisions as quickly and as rationally as possible.
My “Round 1” Culling Strategy & Judging Criteria
So how exactly did I go from 8,071 images to 79? What strategy and criteria did I use? I think transparency is helpful so that if you are submitting to ‘best of’ contests, you have greater insight into how to improve your submissions.
I went through all 8,071 images one by one and gave a 1-star rating to those I thought had decent potential. My goal was to give as many images a “chance” to win and I ended up giving about 1,600 images a 1-star rating (roughly 20% of the total submissions.)
2 goals while culling round 1
- Use my own personal set of “dealbreakers” to filter out images that were unlikely to end up in my top 400 images—Due to the high caliber of images submitted, I used my personal set of fairly objective criteria (shared below) to avoid giving a 1-star rating to an image that would unlikely to be a winning image in a contest of this caliber.
- Narrow down individual photographers’ submissions to their best photos—Knowing that Junebug will ensure no single photographer is overly represented in the final set of 50, I tried to give a 1-star rating to at least one image from each photographer unless there were “deal-breaking issues” with every image in their submission. For really stand-out photographers, I sometimes gave 1-star rating to roughly 80% of their entire submission. Since I viewed each photographer’s whole submission in one clump due to the anonymized file naming convention Junebug uses, it was easy to tell what images had been submitted from the same photographer, and I viewed them in sequential order while judging. Since styles vary widely in this contest, I found it easier to pick the “best” images from each photographer for this 1st round, which I could then compare against each other in subsequent rounds. Since I knew that Junebug will not award multiple images from a single photographer I culled in this way to support giving each photographer the best chance to be awarded.
What I considered “dealbreakers”
If an image contained one of these issues, I did not give it a 1-star rating for this round. You can consider this a list of my personal wedding photography pet-peeves:
- Issues with gear, lens choice, settings, or lighting—Unintentionally blurry images or just the wrong choice of aperture that led to blurry eyeballs, extremely overexposed or underexposed images, harsh light used incorrectly or unintentionally, an ISO that led to extremely grainy images (that wasn’t an artistic choice or necessity for the situation), the use of a super-wide angle lens that led to distorted faces
- Unpolished or problematic editing—Unintentionally obvious or way overdone AI masking, way overdone HDR, unintentional overexposure (blown out highlights), super “flat” editing that had no contrast of any kind, “crunchy” over-sharpening, unintentional or unflattering color casts on skin, ghostly or dead looking skin tones, obvious distractions that draw your eye away from the subject that could have easily been removed
- Unintentionally crooked images that should have been straightened—Crooked horizon lines or crooked prominent vertical lines that should be truly vertical—i.e. indoor images with crooked door frames, windows, corners of walls, or crooked buildings outside
- Cropping issues—Crops where the subject was unintentionally slightly off-center, chopping off feet in the middle, subjects’ limbs going right up to and touching the edges of the frame, the bottom of a dress slightly chopped off, a subject all the way at the very edge/corner of the frame (without leading lines directing your eye to it), leaving distracting objects around the edges of the frame, and images that could have benefitted from cropping but weren’t intentionally examined to make a conscious decision about what stays in and what should be cropped or edited out
- Composition problems—Unfortunate overlapping/layering of objects in a frame including background objects going right up a subjects nose or out their heads, other people’s fingers appearing to go in the mouth of another subject, horizon lines cutting through subject’s heads, bouquets right in front of one of the main subject’s face, a subject being completely lost due to a cluttered image
- Lackluster or problematic subject matter—Images that immediately “fell flat” for me because they didn’t have some kind of visual interest or didn’t intrigue me in some way (subjects looked bored, emotionless, uncomfortable, or I couldn’t identify a subject, a stale detail photo, etc.), or images with subject matter that I consider problematic including clear issues with Leave No Trace or images that showcased a couple being endangered or endangering other humans, animals, or wildlife.
- Technical issues with the submission—Images with watermarks or that were extremely low resolution (significantly lower than Junebug’s recommended 1500px on the long edge) to the point where I couldn’t judge the quality of the image
Round 1 was time-consuming due to the volume of images, but not extremely difficult or mentally taxing. To me, between selecting each photographer’s best images, and eliminating images with my personal dealbreakers, there was an obvious top 20% of submissions that revealed itself, showing a photographer’s skill and experience in how they utilized their gear, settings, and their intentional artistic choices with lighting, composition, and working with their clients.
My “Round 2” Culling Strategy & Judging Criteria
After eliminating 80% of the images in round 1, I reviewed the images individually again. For this round, I gave a 2-star rating to my favorites and my goal was to get as close to the requested 400 images as possible.
I found this round to be significantly more difficult and much more subjective. I had already eliminated all of the photos that were (in my opinion) not each photographer’s “best” or were stale, boring, or with technical issues, so this round was all about paying attention to the emotions, storytelling, creativity, originality, and ultimately, the less tangible judging criteria.
From judging round 1, I also had a better understanding of the overall caliber of images that had been submitted to this contest, and I knew I was going to have to a) be ruthless and b) trust my gut, or I would never be able to eliminate enough photos to end up with a final set of 200-400 images.
In order to do this, I came up with two overarching questions in mind while trying to narrow down 1,600 really amazing images to 400.
My mental questions to judge round 2
- “Does this image really stand out above the rest—with something unique, creative, or original?”
- “Does this image impress me as a professional photographer, because I know how difficult or intentional it was to achieve?”
After asking myself those questions 1,600 times during this round and examining the similarities between images that passed to the next round (as well as those that did not move forward) I’ve identified the list of qualities for images that really impressed me.
To clarify, the following lists weren’t pre-determined “judging-criteria” that I was measuring each image against, but rather observations that revealed themselves through this judging process.
Qualities of stand-out, impressive images (that therefore earned a 2-star rating from me)
- Unique and original content—Images that showcase subjects, settings, poses, moments, and circumstances that you don’t see every day, images that I was dying to know the story behind, images that took bravery to submit because they were weird, wild different, or “out-there”, images where I could clearly see a photographer’s confidence in their signature style—meaning they had fully leaned into expressing themselves and photographing the way they like vs. following trends
- Excellent storytelling—Images that told a powerful story in a single frame that I could immediately understand even though I wasn’t there, images that really transported me to the place and time and made me feel like I was present in that moment, or images that were so intriguing they made me stop and stare because they told a deeper story the longer I looked
- Intense emotions—Images that evoked a strong feeling in me and even though I didn’t know the couple or their family—images that made me want to cry, laugh, or created a feeling of shock, awe, wonder, or bewilderment
- Creative use of surroundings—Whether it’s a spectacular landscape or indoor or outdoor architecture, the photographer set up the shot in a way that impressed me with their creative problem-solving—they didn’t just go for the most obvious or default set-up, they had a unique creative vision, and worked to execute it, and images that made me say “wow, how the heck did they think of that?”
- Lighting mastery—Images where you can see the photographer is extremely adept at utilizing natural or artificial lighting (or both) to achieve their vision such as harsh light that just perfectly highlights the right subject matter, unique exposure such as partial or total silhouettes, edge lighting, indoor or nighttime images with unique light sources, or just an overall creative use of light that you don’t see every day or is quite difficult to master
- Strong documentary skills—Images where the photographer expertly documented a unique one-time moment and had to nail it perfectly on the first try, absolutely insane moments that made me say “Wtf??” or “Omg that happened?!” out loud behind my computer
- Powerfully executed compositions—Images where my eye was guided immediately to the subject right away, really intentional framing, effective use of layering (foreground, midground, background) for visual intrigue and storytelling
- Technical excellence—Images that showcased next-level experience and skill with gear, settings, challenging lighting situations, and post-production, just those flawless frames that I said to myself “dang, I’ve been a professional wedding photographer for 12 years and I don’t think I could have done that, that’s f-ing hard!”
Qualities of images that did not stand out to me (in a wedding photographer competition of this caliber)
- Unoriginal photos with fairly common subject matter or that weren’t challenging in any way to create—Whether it was a really overused outdoor location, a super common pose, or boring/uncreative use of light or surroundings, I had to be a bit brutal with this round. If I saw an image and thought “I’ve seen 100+ versions of this same thing in this contest” or “I myself have taken basically this exact image 100+ times before,” it didn’t get 2-stars from me.
- Emotionally “flat” or static images that didn’t tell a story—When compared other images that were extremely dynamic, had intense emotion, and told such powerful stories, even the most technically perfect fine art studio image with an emotionless face, just doesn’t stand out in a wedding photo competition with other images that make you feel something. I kept a lot images of couples standing still, facing you, looking right at the camera with no emotion at 1-star
- Solo portraits—I think my previous point is also why it’s overall more difficult for solo portraits to end up in the 50-winners of this competition, because images with a couple or more people tend to be more dynamic, tell more of a story, and showcase more emotion. There were definitely some incredible solo-portraits submitted, but for reference, only 7 out of the 79 in my “Gold” folder were solo portraits, and only 2 of Junebug’s final picks of the 50 winners were solo portraits
- Photos without in-focus human subjects or (at least implied) faces—Weddings are ultimately about people and again, this all goes back to storytelling and emotion, but I do not think it’s worth submitting detail or landscape images in this type of wedding photography competition that judges individual photos on their own merit. I also think it’s challenging to stand out with images where the couple is blurry and only a background landscape is in focus, the bottom half of a couple with their top half cropped out, images of just hands, or slow-shutter images where everything is completely motion-blurred. I absolutely saw some incredible detail photos while judging, but compared to a couple crying reading their vows, they just didn’t emotionally grab me in the same way. I only put one really incredible detail photo in my set of 79 (my “Gold” folder), but there was not a single image in Junebug’s collection of 50 winners that didn’t have a clear, in-focus, human subject in it. Only 3 images in Junebug’s set of 50 winners don’t show faces—and all 3 of these are wider landscape images of the backs of a couple’s heads photographed from behind (so they at least have implied faces).
- Vertical images—Only 11 out of the 79 images in my “Gold” folder were vertical, and unfortunately, I think this is due to the fact that judges are all viewing images on a computer, and that we were instructed to cull them in Lightroom. All else being equal, a vertical image doesn’t show up as large as a horizontal image under these circumstances, so it’s more difficult for it to stand out and make an impact on judges. My advice would be to only submit vertical images that are absolutely incredible, or find a way to crop them more horizontally to get more “real-estate” when a judge views it. There were only 7 vertical images out of the 50 winners that Junebug chose in 2022.
- Most Composites, Double-Exposures, Slow-Shutter, Diptychs, Triptychs, Fractals, Filters, Mirrors, & Tilt-shift lenses—My overall comment about these creative techniques is that using them won’t automatically make an image better, more creative, or award-worthy. I’ll call myself out here and admit that I have used these techniques to “spice up” a boring scene before for my clients, and that’s a perfectly fine strategy to have in your toolbelt as a wedding photographer. I think these are all really fun, artistic tools to use when the situation calls for it, but I certainly saw a lot of images with one of these techniques that didn’t have anything else creative or unique about them. Overuse of any of these techniques can sometimes become a “creative crutch”—which is something I’ve seen happen to myself as an artist. My advice when it comes to submitting images to a stand-alone image competition is to be selective, intentional, and when using any of these techniques, make sure they are being used to tell a better story, or highlight emotion. My “Gold” folder of 79 images included 3 composite images—and of these, 2 were chosen in Junebug’s 50 winners (the two images below). In my opinion, both of these are excellent examples of using the technique of composite editing to serve a higher purpose of telling a more powerful story in a single frame.
Also in my “Gold” folder of 79 images was 1 amazing image with a clever use of a fractal, 2 images that utilized mirrors, and 1 with a really creative use of an effects filter; however, none of these ended up in Junebug’s top 50.
After closely reviewing my 1,600 1-star images, I ended up with around 500 images that I had rated 2-stars. I still wasn’t narrowed down to the 200-400 favorites that Junebug had asked me to select, so I went for a 3rd round.
My “Round 3” Culling Strategy & Judging Criteria
For this round, I switched to a process of “negative” selection instead of “positive” selection (meaning I removed my least favorites instead of selecting my most favorites). I went over the set of images a few times until I had removed the “weakest” ~20%, until I had exactly 400 favorite images.
To accomplish this, I again used my 2 internal questions:
- “Does this image really stand out above the rest—with something unique, creative, or original?”
- “Does this image impress me as a professional photographer, because I know how difficult or intentional it was to achieve?”
…just in a more brutal way.
The competition was fierce at this stage, and I had to be incredibly ruthless to remove images that just weren’t quite as original, creative, storytelling, emotional, or technically difficult as the rest.
When I got down to my set of 400, I took a break from judging and came back to sort my images into the three folders Junebug wanted the next day.
Separating into Gold, Silver, and Bronze folders
The final step of the Judging process was to take my set of 400 favorites and sort them into 3 ranked folders.
This step was actually the easiest of the whole judging process because I didn’t need to fully disqualify images from consideration since all of my top 400 images would be receiving some “points” to be contenders for the winners, no matter what folder they ended up in.
I went over my set of 400 favorites several times and sorted them with the following criteria:
My “Gold” Folder
Junebug asked that I put at least 50 in this folder that were my “definite winners,” and these were fairly easy for me to identify. Throughout this culling process I had already 5-starred some images that just blew me away at first sight. They absolutely deserved to win in my opinion. I put 79-images in this folder that were 5-stars due to being incredibly unique, original, creative, and which told insanely powerful stories, showcased once-in-a-lifetime moments, made me laugh and cry, and which convinced me, that even with 12 years of professional wedding photography experience, how much more I still have to learn.
My “Silver” Folder
Junebug’s instructions were to put “possible winners” in this folder. These were my second favorites, and they were exactly that—judged on the same criteria, but they just barely fell short of the images in the “Gold” folder. There were a lot of images that came so close to winning in my opinion and wildly impressed me. I put 177 images in this folder that I had rated my 4-star images.
My “Bronze” Folder
Junebug called this the “honorable mentions” folder of images, the ones that I think are “good enough to receive recognition”—I put all the rest of my 400 favorites in this folder, and there were 144 images total that had 3-stars from me.
Tips for Entering Junebug’s Best Of The Best Wedding Photo Contest
After an incredible 18-hours of reviewing the best of the best wedding photos from photographers around the world (in a 6-day period), I came away with some fascinating insights that will shape my approach to submitting photos for this contest in the future that I want to share with you, too.
Here are my biggest tips that I’ll be using the next time I enter, which I’d highly recommend to anyone submitting to increase your chance of winning future Junebug’s Best of the Best Wedding Photo Contests!
My top advice to succeed in Junebug’s Best of the Best Wedding contest
Take risks—prioritize originality over what’s trendy
My #1 recommendation after spending days scrutinizing 8,071 of the BEST images from photographers all around the world, is that if you want to stand out, send in the stuff the judges haven’t seen before.
Go for the weird, the wild, the different, those absolutely insane moments that make you go “wtf??” “Omg that happened?!” If you send in an image that’s similar to something we’ve seen 100x other times, it’s going to be difficult for a judge to choose yours over another similarly good image.
My tangible recommendation here is to make a solid one third of your submission just really WEIRD, crazy, and out-there.
Tips to take risks:
- Choose an “insane moment” over a technically perfect image every time
- Don’t fill your entire submission only with standard, safe, good, pretty images or images that there could be 50-100 other versions of in this contest.
- Choose images that showcase your own bold unique style over what’s trendy
It takes bravery to follow this advice—but this was my biggest eye-opening takeaway from my judging experience.
Look at each of the guest judges on the panel’s portfolios really carefully—and also review the collections of past winners, and curate and edit your submission accordingly
Since the guest judges are allowed to pick their favorite images based on their personal preferences, look at what each judge has posted on their own instagram, their website portfolios, and their blogs to get an understanding of their personal artistic preferences. Write down things you notice are important to them or key markers of their styles and what they self-identify as good “art.”
- Are the guest judges’ images more styled and editorial or more candid and documentary-like?
- What type of poses and moments define their work?
- How would you describe their editing? Is it weird and wild (stylized) or clean and timeless? Is it all color or do they love their punchy black and white images?
- Is there work more of those “omg” dramatically crafted portraits, or undirected in-between moments?
Also make sure you closely review the past winners of this award to get a good feel for Junebug’s preferences—since they have the final say and clear stylistic preferences. Particularly ensure that your editing style of submitted images is within the range of styles represented by what they typically publish on their blog.
In regards to editing, every publication has their own style and vibe. While there are a wide range of editing styles featured on Junebug’s blog and in the contest, some artistic editing styles aren’t within the range that tend to be chosen as winners. For photographers who have editing styles that fall significantly outside of Junebug’s preferences or the guest judges’ editing styles, I’d suggest making tweaks to the edits of images that are submitted to this contest. If your style is so significantly different that doing so would result in your winning image not being at all representative of your work, there might be a contest that is a better fit for your work.
Once you’ve reviewed the guest judges’ work and taken notes on their specific styles—use the notes you’ve taken to help guide your final curation and how you approach TLC edits of your images. What are TLC edits? Read on.
Give each of your images award-winning level TLC with cropping and editing
No matter what your editing style is, make sure that you give close individual attention to every single image you submit and finesse it with cropping, editing, and retouching. This may be significantly more fine-tuning than you normally do, but don’t give any image a reason to be thrown out, when a better crop or more polished edit could have improved it.
Tips for finessing your crops & edits:
- Make sure your images are dead-on “straight”—Whether that’s with prominent horizon lines or any strong vertical or horizontal lines, do not submit an unintentionally crooked image
- If you have a centered crop, make sure it’s actually centered and you’ve considered the “visual weight” of the wedding dress(es) or veil(s) if applicable
- Keep a close eye on the edges of your frame—Make sure you don’t cut off feet, limbs, or the bottom of dresses, or that your subjects or their limbs aren’t right on the edge of the frame. If it’s a close call, crop it much tighter or add more background to the frame. Overall, be incredibly conscious about what you decide to keep in the frame vs. not. If it doesn’t add to the story or is distracting, clone or crop it out.
- Do the “squint test”—Before submitting your image, squint your eyes so that your vision is a bit blurry and look at your image. Do you see any foreground or background objects that are super bright or dark or just distracting from your subject? If so, see if you can clone or mask them out—it will significantly improve your composition. Judges won’t know what wasn’t there if you take it out, but they will notice if your composition isn’t drawing their eye as powerfully to your intended subject as another image that is more polished.
- Be careful with over-editing—Watch out for overdoing your brushes/masks, extreme “HDR-style” like pushing shadows and pulling down highlights, or oversharpening.
Be confident in your selections and re-order your submission to avoid similar images being next to each other.
My top advice here is: Don’t send in nearly 2 identical images from the same wedding
I’ll raise my hand and admit that I have actually done this before when submitting to this contest; however, being on the other side of table as a judge, I can’t express how annoying it is, when you’re already scrutinizing over 8,000+ images, to come across a submission with two images from the same part of the day from the same couple that are fairly similar and then having to agonize between them.
As a judge, this tactic feels like the photographer lacks confidence in their choices. I also noticed that it’s really hard to appreciate the gravity of an image if it’s right next to one in your submission that’s only slightly different—it can actually make both images lose their potency and not stand out as clearly.
In my opinion, it’s okay to submit a few images of the same couple/event, but they shouldn’t be too similar—and ideally, they shouldn’t be right next to each other in your submission. I suggest changing the order number of your submission (in their filenames) so that your submitted images from the same event do not show up right next to each other when the judges view them. This will help the judges appreciate each of your images individually and make each one truly stand on its own merit.
Be wary of types of images that are unlikely to win
From analyzing Junebug’s past collections of winners, my opinions, and my experience being a judge, these are my personal conclusions:
- Commonplace, cliché, or trendy images—Odds are, if you’ve seen 100 images similar to the one you’re wanting to submit from your Instagram feed, or you’ve taken 100+ similar images like it yourself, it won’t stand out in this competition and is unlikely to win. The two types of images I think I saw the most while judging were: 1) confetti-tossing and 2) the dance floor. It’s not impossible for these images to win (heck, there was a confetti image in the winning 50 this year), but just be mindful of really trendy, overused, commonplace subject matter, locations, and poses when curating your work.
- Vertical images—Only submit them if they are absolutely jaw-dropping and truly stand out way more than your horizontal options. Otherwise leave them out, or crop them to be horizontal. There were 7 vertical images in Junebug’s top 50 picks in 2022.
- Solo portrait images—Only submit them if they are incredibly original, creative, out-of-the-box or if they tell a powerful story or have intense emotion. There were 2 solo portraits in Junebug’s top 50 picks in 2022.
- Details, landscapes, blurry couples/faces—There may be a few exceptions here but, in my opinion, you can skip submitting these. There’s such a strong “human” element to a wedding photography competition, that these types of wedding images are very difficult to rank compared to photos that include in-focus humans showing emotions. 47 of the 50 images in Junebug’s top 50 picks in 2022 showed clear faces, and the other 3 were images were wider landscape shots photographed from behind a couple so you could see the back of their heads. There were no detail shots in Junebug’s top 50.
- Using creative techniques as a crutch rather than to accomplish a unique creative vision—When it comes to double-exposures, slow-shutter images, fractals, filters, mirrors, & tilt-shift lenses, make sure you’re using them intentionally to tell a better story and to enhance an already unique, creative image. Ask yourself two questions, “If I took away this creative technique, would the image fall completely flat?” “Did I use this technique to tell a better or more unique/powerful story of this moment?”
Guest judging the Junebug Best of the Best Wedding Photo Contest was incredibly rewarding and a huge honor to get a “window” into so many photographers’ wedding seasons of the previous year. I feel that through this experience, I got to know the whole industry so much better. I feel connected to each image I saw and felt the second-hand fulfillment of getting to be part of these moments in couples’ wedding days.
One thought that struck me multiple times while judging is how wild it is to be a wedding photographer. I looked at images from dozens of countries of couples whose language I probably don’t even speak, but was able to understand this part of their story, who they are, what getting married means to them… that is incredible.
We have this superpower of storytelling as wedding photographers that transcends geography, culture, and languages—love is a universal language that we get to communicate through our work. That is a gift.
Another fascinating take-away for me was how much more time-consuming this was than I had initially anticipated.
It was the toughest culling job of my life, and after all was said and done, I spent about 18 hours on this project and received $500 as payment for judging. Of course, participating as a guest judge was not about money—I did it because I knew it would be a priceless learning experience (and I was right) but I also want to be as transparent as possible about my experience in the name of education (and to share just how seriously I took reviewing each submission).
Thank you to the Junebug team for inviting me to be a guest judge. I am so glad I got the chance to experience this process and it truly reminded me why I love what I do at Adventure Instead so much!
To everyone who submitted, keep going. I saw so much talent, creativity, and artistry in these submissions, and it made me so proud to call myself a member of this community.
I’ve talked about my complicated relationship with awards before, but this experience has massively inspired me to continue to push my art forward for both my clients and myself. I saw so many photographers’ submissions that absolutely blew my mind, and I am incredibly humbled to have judged such a high caliber of talent and artistry.
xx Maddie Mae