How to win photography contests

As much as I like this image, it probably wouldn't win in a photo contest. Find out why below.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be one of three judges for the year-end photography competition of the Colorado Council of Camera Clubs, a group of five camera clubs in the Denver metro area. We spent nearly an entire day going through over 180 entries across numerous categories and different media types. We saw 35mm slides, digital projections, and prints in each category. As we discussed in episode #138 of The Image Doctors podcast, there are good photographs, and then there are contest-winning photographs. If you are planning to enter a photo contest, here are some tips to help you improve your chances of winning.

Your best image might not be so special

Good, solid images won’t cut it in a competition. The judges are looking to see images that make a lasting impression. The advice we were given was to rate each image on a 5-point scale. A score of “3” would be given to a “typical image by a camera club member;” in other words, a solid but not particularly inspiring image. Images that had bad composition, were clearly out of focus, or looked like a snapshot were scored lower. A score of “4” was given to images that we felt we’d remember later that day, and a score of “5” was reserved for images we felt we’d remember later that week or month. By these criteria, most of the “solid” images didn’t stand out as winners, but by no means was that to say that they wouldn’t look good as a framed print in someone’s house. It just meant that for a contest, the rules are a little more stringent.

Know your category, and stick to it

If you enter an image in a particular category, make sure that you read the category description to make sure your image fits. We saw many images that were overlooked, so to speak, in broader, generic categories (e.g., “Nature”), but won awards in specific sub-categories (e.g. “Animals”). We also discriminated images in specific categories if they didn’t seem to fit the description of the category well.

Print quality matters

If you enter a print, be careful of your technique. I really enjoyed looking at the print entries, because they not only had to be a good photograph, but they had to be technically implemented well in the final print too. If your image is highly cropped, don’t try to print it out as 16×20! We quickly eliminated entries where the photographer thought bigger is better, except by printing their photo so large it was full of visible stair-step artifacts (jaggies). If your image looks good as an 8×10, then print it as an 8×10. If your print has banding or other artifacts in it, it’s not going to do well even if the photograph is compelling. For black and white prints, consider using a printer that has more than one black ink. While we didn’t judge mats, some contests do, so check the rules.

Watch out for cliché subjects and processing techniques

When you’re a judge, you’re put in the unfortunate position of scoring images that make a lasting impact. That means, if you enter a photograph of a place or subject that’s been photographed hundreds of times, it just won’t have the same visual impact on the judges unless you’ve done something completely different with that subject. Yes, I know you are proud of your shot of Mt. Rushmore, but if it looks like the shot you can get on a postcard from the gift shop, it’s not going to win a contest. Again, this isn’t to say that these entries aren’t great photographs. Many times, they are. They just won’t be winning photographs. Another trap you can fall into is over-processing. There are many interesting filters and plug-ins for Photoshop, etc. out there, but if your image looks like you just chose a random, extreme filter in the hopes that it would make your photo more “creative,” you might find yourself on the short end of the stick at the end of the day. Creative filters can be very powerful when used properly; other times they just turn your image into a 3rd-grade art project. And remember, no filter will cover up the fact that your image is poorly composed or lacking a strong subject, so handle with care!

Watch the fine print

Earlier, I mentioned the importance of knowing the details of the category you enter your image in. Even more important, however, is reading the fine print of the contest entry requirements, especially in large-scale or online contests. I refuse to enter or judge any competition that doesn’t allow the photographers to retain the rights to their image entries. Sometimes the rules are just written by people who are blindly using boilerplate marketing requirements, other times the contest sponsors have a more sinister motivation– using your images to make money that you won’t see a dime of. I recently saw an entry requirement for full-size RAW images. Sorry, that’s ignorance. I’ll never submit a RAW file. Moreover, this same competition required 18-megapixel images. I guess they didn’t want images from Nikon DSLRs!

Don’t expect feedback on why your image did or didn’t win

While competitions can be a source of great pride for the winners, we judges didn’t have the time or ability to write critiques of the images we saw. If you are looking to improve your photographic talents, then consider joining a camera club that offers critique sessions rather than just competitions. You’ll get a lot more feedback when you submit your images for critique rather than just enter a contest and wonder why your image didn’t win.

4 thoughts on “How to win photography contests”

  1. I enter a fair share of contests, and I have to agree with what you say. Now, with so many people taking pictures, especially of well known tourist destinations, you really need to be unique with how you shoot a subject. Having a recognizable style doesn’t hurt either.

    And competition is fierce. I only enter contests with a fee, usually $25-$35 per entry. I was reading a post from a site that had a contest with no entry fee, and they said thanks to the 20,000 images that were entered. How could judges even look at that many images without their brain turning to pudding?

    And as for rights grabs, there are several contests I would love to enter, but the terms a way too broad. And these are well respected magazines and websites. When the terms state that they, and all of their sponsors, can use all entered images any way they want, forever, with no credit line or payment to the photographer, I don’t know why anyone enters.

    Have Fun,

  2. Jason:

    Where can I find a comprehensive list or guide of available photography contests? Does one exist?

    Thank you,

    Jim Kirchner

  3. Here’s a business plan for you. Expected earnings: $300.00 hr.
    Set up a site or an area on your blog for togs to send you a photograph they plan to enter in a contest. Guarantee them that you will spend at least 30 seconds judging their photograph. That’s about how long most judges spend on initial looks anyway. Then you’ll spend an additional 30 seconds per photograph giving a one sentence reason why the image did not rate a “5”, or simply rate it as a 5 if you think it’s that good.
    Charge $5.50 (PayPal) per submission. You can sit down once a week and look at people’s pics and make $300.00 an hour doing it.
    You’re welcome.

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