How to Win Photography Competitions :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Win Photography Competitions

by David Peterson 2 comments

I know you have some pretty awesome shots in your portfolio. Maybe even so awesome that your friends have encouraged you to enter them in photography competitions. You might have even won or placed in those competitions - but if you're like the vast majority of your fellow entrants, you came away disappointed.

The sad truth is, awesome photos don't always win photography competitions. That's because judges are human beings, and human beings can have vastly different opinions and different tastes. Photography is subjective, and just because you think your photo is awesome, and your friends think your photo is awesome, and all those perfect strangers on Flickr think your photo is awesome, doesn't mean that Bob T. McJudgester is going to agree with you.

So is there a way to improve your chances? Let's find out...

[ Top image The Golden Morning - 1st Prize winner by Flickr user gnews pics]

Short of bribing your judge or bribing his therapist for a complete psychological profile, yes! There are ways to improve your chances. The first, simplest and probably most overlooked is to follow the rules. I know, photographers abhor the word "rules." But if you want to win competitions, you need to conform. I know, I know, you abhor the word "conform," too. But you'll just have to trust me on this one.

Get the competition guidebook and read all of the rules, then read them again. Then review them a third time as you're preparing your photograph for entry. Rules may include everything from the size of your photo to the number of photos you can submit to how thick your mounting materials are. And I know it seems petty, but you will be disqualified if you fail to do everything the way the rules told you to.

  • Sony SLT-A99V
  • 400
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)

chess by Flickr user mikeyp2000

Rules also include things like the competition theme. If your competition theme is "horses," don't submit photos of mules, donkeys or zorses. Stick with horses. You might get away with bending the rules a little, but you might not. Don't take the chance, especially if your entrance fee is at stake. Of course you can exercise a little bit of creativity, but use good judgment. A horse's shadow might still fall within the theme, but a shot of your daughter's My Little Pony may not.

Take photos specifically for the competition

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
  • 800
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 80 mm

Sea Lions by Flickr user flythebirdpath~}~}~} to beautiful, wild ALASKA

It can be very tempting to go through your portfolio and find something that fits the theme, but it's a much better idea to start from scratch. Photographing something specifically for the competition will be a good challenge, but it will also guarantee that you have all your bases covered. You'll be shooting for the theme, but you'll also be shooting for the competition. This means putting a creative spin on whatever that theme is, but also understanding the particular trends that your competition and its judges have followed in the past.

Some competitions require you to take a new photo, and not use one from your portfolio. (Yes, those pesky rules again!)

Do some snooping

OK so it's not the same as bribing the judge's therapist, but if the competition has published the names of its judges, you can get a pretty good idea of the sorts of photos Mr. McJudgester enjoys simply by looking at his work. Start by Googling him and see if you can find his work on Flickr or on his blog. Spend some time looking through the images and getting a feel for his style. Chances are, he tends to choose winners that are similar in style to his own work.

  • Canon PowerShot S5 IS
  • 100
  • f/4.5
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 72 mm

Monarch Cat by Flickr user Vicki's Nature

Of course, he may just as easily be the opposite - perhaps his ego won't allow him to appreciate stuff that's similar to his own style. So the next step is to see what sorts of images have won this competition in the past. Better still, if you can find other competitions where McJudgester was on the judging panel, study those winning images and make note of things like style, subject approach, etc. Of course I know I don't have to tell you not to copy, but don't copy. Judges at photography competitions will not forgive you, and neither will anyone else. It's acceptable to use a similar style but the photograph you ultimately do submit needs to be completely unique.

  • Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 5 mm

Icelandic landscape #15 by Flickr user shchukin

Did I say "Unique?"

Uniqueness is important not only because you want to avoid making anyone mad, but also because you want to stand out from the crowd. Let's say you've decided to enter that horse photography competition. Think about what most horse photographs might look like. They might be beautiful head shots of show horses in spotless silver-embellished halters, or they might be show jumpers executing that perfect jump over a well-manicured hedge. Now think how many shots just like those your judges are going to have to look at.

What you want is that one makes them stop - something really original. How about that show jumper's back legs as they hit the ground or a horse's silhouette through a cloud of dust? Something a little different will make your judges stop and notice you, and differentiate you from all your samey competitors. Aim for that shot that makes people go "wow". That's the one that has the best chance of winning. Not sure if your photo has that "wow" factor? Show it to your friends and family. Post it on Flickr. See what kind of feedback you receive, then decide whether it is worthy of competition.

  • Canon EOS 30D
  • 100
  • f/4.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 21 mm

Slept On by Flickr user grandia

Ensure Your Photo is Sharp and Print is Good

Don't submit an entry that isn't tack-sharp - unless your composition includes deliberate motion blur. Keep distractions out of your background. Make sure you follow the rules of composition, or that you break them wisely.

And don't submit prints that aren't good, either. For black and white, look for those perfect whites and perfect blacks. For color, make sure that your colors are true and not washed out or muddy, and make sure that there is the right amount of contrast. And before you add a border to your prints, ask yourself if the image needs the border, or if it can stand on its own. If you're adding a border to dress up a second-rate photo, the judges are going to know. Only include a border if your photo doesn't really need it.

Enter Early

Don't wait until the last minute to submit your entry. That's what everyone does - and those last-minute entries might just get lost in the deluge. That's not to say that last minute entries can't win, but you'll have a better chance of catching the judge's attention if you aren't vying for it from amidst an enormous stack of other photos.

Oh and one final tip: make sure you understand the fine print before you submit your work to any competition. Sometimes, entering your photo means that you give up your rights to it. So you might win, collect your prize money (or title, in the absence of actual prize money) and then discover that the competition sponsors now get to use your photo in posters, advertisements, billboards or whatever they like without compensating you for it or even asking your permission. Because permission was implied when you entered. If this bothers you, find another competition that respects your worth as a photographer.


Photography competitions can be really fun and rewarding - they're a great way to hone your skills, tackle a challenge and get your work out there in the public for others to see. Just remember that not everyone can win, and if you were one of those left out of the ribbons, that doesn't necessarily mean that your photo isn't a great one. It just means you need to keep trying.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Paula says:

    Very informative tips! I agree, in competition, you should have a unique style. Not just an image or photo, but with meaning and significance.

  2. Vasantha says:

    Very Useful

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

10 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.