An Interview with Brendan Ó Sé

The Mobile Photography Awards are currently receiving submissions for their 7th annual competition. The iPhone Photography Awards have a call for entries through March of 2018 and the Mira Mobile Prize winner was recently awarded for 2017. These are just a few of the photography competitions available for smartphone photographers throughout the world. When other contests are added, locally and globally, then photo enthusiasts shooting with smartphones have numerous opportunities to submit their creative work for an opportunity to rise to the top.

In the past few years I’ve submitted my own work to these and other contests, on a local and global scale. I’ve experienced the rush of having pieces selected as winners and honorable mentions and the disappointment of rejection. I wondered, as I prepared my entries for yet another contest, if I could gain some insight from someone who has experienced these competitions from two different perspectives. Brendan Ó Sé immediately came to mind, so I caught up with him to see if he would offer a couple of thoughts. An interview ensued which I’m gladly passing on to you.

A word about Brendan before we begin. He is a highly recognized photographer throughout the world with top photos in all of the aforementioned competitions and many more. Brendan was part of the original Apple World Gallery of images shot on the iPhone 6 in 2015. His photography was showcased on billboards and posters in major cities around the world. He has also served on the juror panel of the Mobile Photo Awards and will enjoy that role yet again this year. For readers to gain a greater understanding of his talents I will be including a link to his website and social media connections at the conclusion of this interview.

Apple World Gallery – Brendan Ó Sé

Brendan, I want to thank you for this opportunity. Will you briefly describe your involvement in mobile photography contests?

I’ve been a judge on a number of them now over the past few years. It’s great to be on the other side of things after previously being an entrant. I guess having been fortunate enough to have won in the major mobile photography competitions (MPAs, iPhone Photography Awards and Mira Mobile Prize), the organizers invited me to judge in these competitions. It’s been a great experience, and also one that comes with responsibility to ensure the best images get the recognition they deserve.

Brendan Ó Sé

Would there be any advantage to try to guess what a certain juror is looking for and submit photos according to his/her tastes?

From my own experience I know how hard it is to put together a series of images to enter a competition. The selecting part is easy. The hard part is deselecting. The thing about the MPAs is that Dan Berman (founder) assigns categories randomly to judges. So, it is very unlikely that I would get the Street Photography category. Also, speaking personally – though I am sure it is the same for most judges – I would be hesitant to select an image which people might feel was very similar to my own style of photography, unless it was a stellar shot that could not be ignored.

I probably will repeat myself in this interview, but I really believe you’ve got to go with your instinct on these things and not be guided by what you think judges might like. I know I have entered competitions thinking a particular judge likes a particular style, and entering accordingly. It never works out.

Brendan Ó Sé

How important is the storytelling aspect of submitted photos in contests?

Photos are springboards for stories. Strong images will connect in a way that the viewer can enter the image and allow his or her imagination to build on what is presented.

How does composition figure into selecting a photo for submission?

Hugely. A technically perfect photograph cannot compensate for a poor composition, but conversely a dynamic and engaging composition can overcome technical flaws. For me, photography is always about composition, story and the moment.

Brendan Ó Sé

How daring should a photographer be when it comes to originality? Should all caution be thrown to the wind or is it good to exercise discipline according to the “rules” of photography?

I am not really one for rules. Rules can stymie creativity. Again it comes back to trusting yourself. If you are an experimental photographer and entering the MPAs, there are categories there just for you, like Digital Art/Photo Illustration, Visual Effects and The Darkness.

I think it is a good idea to check the winning shots in the different categories from previous years to get an idea of the types of images that can fit.

Brendan Ó Sé

What do you find are the most common mistakes people make when entering smartphone photography competitions?

Well, the biggest mistake, one which surprisingly does happen, is to enter an image that is not shot and edited on a smartphone.

Other mistakes would be when you have three killer shots of the same person or the same location, but they are all in essence just variations of the same. Don’t enter the three. You are diluting your chances, as all three will not be selected.

Take some time to check previous winning shots in the different categories to see if your shot is a match in type. Often entrants will post photos that just do not fit the category. In saying that, I must commend Dan for ensuring high-quality images entered in the wrong category do not get looked over.

Brendan Ó Sé

Do you believe it is helpful to get second opinions about what to enter?

Definitely, but ultimately you’ve got to trust yourself.  

Brendan Ó Sé

So let’s say I go to someone for confirmation about my photo selection. Who would you recommend I seek out?

I have a couple of people who I would trust. My wife is probably the best judge. A simple nod or shake of the head does it for me with her. I would say to reach out to a photographer friend who will be honest with you, but ultimately go with your guts and enter what you feel are your best shots.

Brendan Ó Sé

Brendan, you’ve been extremely helpful. To finish up, if there is one most important tip you could give someone entering a smartphone photography contest, what would it be?

Prepare for disappointment. You probably are not going to win. I know that sounds harsh, but it is the truth.

But here’s the thing. If you enter a competition, you want to win. You want all others to come after you. There is no other motivation. When you don’t win, you can feel despondent. You examine your work. You hold it up to that of the winners. You cast an overly-critical eye on it and wonder where the hell you are going in your photographic journey. But, this feeling passes. And it passes because the endeavour, the hobby, the passion you have for it cannot be diminished by the choices of a judge or judges. No, the passion, the desire to show what you see and to show how you see it surfaces and you get out and you shoot again. And you enjoy it. You get back to looking at others’ photos and they inspire you and the whole things kicks off again. You want to learn. You want to sharpen and sensitise that eye to see better. And you begin to dream that next time will be your time. You’ll win.

I guess what I am saying is competitions are great if you do well, but they sure do suck if you don’t. Photography should not be a competitive pursuit.

My advice to anyone entering a competition, be it photography or not, is to always get back to why you do it. You will find that the answer is because it’s fun. If it’s not, then give up. Find another hobby.

Brendan, I want to thank you for giving us all a better idea of how we can remain passionate about our smartphone photography and remain focused on what is important at the same time. I know I’ve certainly learned so much from you in this interview and I’m sure many others have as well.

Learn more about Brendan through his website and following his social media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Tommy Wallace is a smartphone photographer based in central Arkansas with life experiences branching as far as the Pacific Island of Guam. Locally he photographs the people and places of Arkansas and participates in photo competitions close to home as well as internationally. Follow his insights on smartphone photography through his SmartPhotos Blog where this interview first appeared.