It's always instructive to look at the best images in a competition for both inspiration and to understand what the current judging fashions are.
The results of the 2018 Focus awards have been published and in looking at the Photographer of the Year section it seems to me that many of the images have subtle manipulation which moves them into the fine art genre, something that I enjoy. The photographic basics of great light and colour and a clearly articulated subject presented with simplicity, still apply, but there are two more factors; technical excellence and creative interpretation.
Perhaps the latter is controversial for those who claim a traditional approach to photography. ‘Interpretation’ harks back to Pictorialism which was the dominant photographic style in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which images were often softened and manipulated to make them appear more painterly and therefore more readily acceptable to the arts community. But then around 1930 the f/64 Group, lead by Ansel Adams, put an emphatic end to that approach with their Modernist tradition that accepts the photographic image for what it is – sharp, detailed and contrasty. Manipulation was confined to ensuring that those qualities were rendered to best advantage. I think that most of the images we see today are still in that mould. However, with the help of powerful software, photographers are exploring the possibility of "making" an image, not with the motivation of the Pictorialists, but in a contemporary, interpretive way.
What does that Look like? Of course, in art, the possibilities have no limits but here are two examples.
First, you don’t have to go beyond the six images of Photographer Of The Year, Timothy Moon, in the 2018 Focus Awards. (See link above). The images follow the values of the f/64 group in terms of technical excellence and in being faithful to the nature of the technology.