Crop Don’t ‘Shop: How One Photog Had His Winning Nat Geo Contest Photo DQed


Winning the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest is a pretty incredible feeling. Being disqualified 72-hours later for a minor editing decision… that one doesn’t feel quite as good. But that’s what happened to photographer Harry Fisch who, for a few glorious days, was living every Travel Photographer’s dream — shortly followed by their worst nightmare.

The story goes something like this. Shortly after returning from his latest photography expedition with Nomad Photo Expedition, he received an e-mail from Nat Geo. For a moment he let himself believe he might have been lucky enough to make the top ten, only to open the e-mail and find out he had won the entire contest.

Of over 22,000 entries from 150 different countries his photo (above) had been chosen as the best. The next few days flew by in a blur as Fisch sent off the required materials to Nat Geo and began telling his closest friends. He was even preparing to write a press release for when the prize was officially published. But then he received another e-mail — this one told him he was disqualified.


It turns out he had removed a plastic bag from the right edge of the original photo (above), something strictly against the the contest rules. He could have cropped it out. He could have darkened or burned the bag into near non-existence. The only thing he wasn’t allowed to do was digitally remove it.

He immediately sent out several e-mails to Nat Geo photographers and even senior photo editor Monica Corcoran, but the damage was done. Corcoran’s reply was sympathetic, but there was nothing she could do.

Ultimately it’s a lesson to us all: read contest rules carefully. Even Corcoran admitted that cropping the bag out or even leaving it in would have “had no impact either way,” but the rules are the rules and other photographers in the past had been disqualified for similarly minor alterations, no exception could be made.

Still, the photo remains as an example of exceptional photography, validated by the highly critical eyes at Nat Geo even if it was ultimately disqualified.

National Geographic, how I won and lost the contest in less than one second [Nomad Expediciones Fotográficas Blog]

Thanks for sending in the tip, Leigh!

Image Credits: Photograph by Harry Fisch

  • cosmo_polite

    And how did they know he edited the photo?

  • Cochese

    Damn. That’s got to be the most amazing feeling and then most disappointment a photographer could ever have within a weeks time. D;

  • Michael

    Most likely they requested a copy of the original to verify compliance with contest rules.

  • ryan180becker

    Am I the only one who thinks it looks like the bag was added in post rather than removed? (The bag just looks funny after seeing the altered photo first. haha)

  • cosmo_polte

    Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Poor fellow.

  • Mansgame

    I love this trend. A photograph can not have things taken out or put in or else is falls into mixed media art or fine art photography. I’ve been in a few photography contests where I saw the winner or top10 qualifiers add new things like borders, make the moon bigger, add birds, unicorns, etc. and while the final result may have been good, it’s in a different category

  • Sid Ceaser

    I’ve seen some of those PPA contests where winners have basically turned the portrait subjects into soft focus plastic models. Horrible stuff. Not the same as NatGeo, but, still, ewwww.

  • G W

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s not that great an image anyway? No offence but how this won the prestigious Nat-Geo photo competition when it looks like it could have easily been taken on a phone is beyond me…

  • Jared

    It wasn’t just the bag. It looks like he removed some distracting bits of another boat on the left side of the frame.

  • Marcus

    The best image in world probably wasn’t captured in a Higly priced DSLR…
    For me it was an year exposition of the sun path through a pin-hole. You can find it in google.

    It’s not about the gear.

  • Dave

    Foolish move. Did he think they wouldn’t notice?

  • mortimer121

    im not thinking this images deserved the first place to begin with.. but hey im not an NAT GEO editor…

    about the rules… it´s ok for me.
    if they say no cloning then that means no cloning.

  • Keld Bendtsen

    Looks more like a ‘legal’ crop on the left.

  • Julian Tröps

    Its not about the gear that isn’t so great. It is the picture it self. I was wondering that this picture can win a contest with over 22,000 entries..

  • A.P.S

    So, what do you think about the image? Do you think the image above is great?

  • Duke Shin

    4chan thinks otherwise

  • Edward G Negron

    I, for one, don’t think it is a very strong composition in the first place. Just not a stellar photo. Not my cup of tea.

  • pete n pete

    There are a lot of ways to tell that a photo has been through photoshop. What I’m wondering is why the photo was “vetted” prior to anyone being notified. If that’s such a hard and fast rule that he was disqualified, wouldn’t that be one of the first things they check?

  • Dean T

    Good decision. So easily cropped, so easily burned. People need to learn, these disqualifications are the lessons.

  • Kelvin

    Agree with GW

  • Destin

    Rules are rules but does anyone else get the feeling competitions are going to extreme lengths to avoid paying out the dough? Or is the prize awarded to the next in line?

  • Pablo

    I don’t understand why image manipulation by “burning/dodging” is allowed but not with Photoshop’s tools. It’s still image manipulation. Adams didn’t think the “negative” was the final image. It still had to be manipulated through developing and printing.

  • Eric Larson

    i know – THAT won the “entire contest” – ??

  • palmbook

    I think it totally deserves the prize. It might just not suit your taste. You might want to see a picture with more impact. I find this photo beautiful and subtle. It depicts the story and the mood very well.

  • Sharron Benn

    It’s a wonderful picture. But it wouldn’t have won if the bag was left in the photo anyway because it is distracting. And I can’t really see what’s going on in the picture.

  • hdc77494

    Didn’t I read somewhere that the winning NG photograph was a tiger IN A ZOO???
    Second, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t accept the same photo from the photographer with the trash bag added back in.

  • DamianM

    sorry you feel that way but Its actually pretty well done and really anything can be photographed with a phone now (this blog seems to point it out well)

    —the subtle color

    —the perfect composition


    Its really a great photograph worthy of the title but sadly he got carried away with the technology and lost.

  • 9inchnail

    That’s because you haven’t seen the rest of the entries

  • 9inchnail

    Propably. I mean, it’s Nat Geo, it’s not like they lack the money.

  • 9inchnail

    And what if I don’t shoot RAW? How can they know if I submitted the original or an edited version?

  • 9inchnail

    If you want to keep the original aspect ratio, which you propably have to (I don’t think they want square images, we’re not on Instacrap after all) you can’t crop the bag without ruining the composition.

  • Paul Van Jaarsveld

    If that image won the comp, then I don’t know what the heck happened to photography and National Geographic. Does anybody remember the image of the Afghan girl from Vol 167 No 6 June 1985? Sure you do. That’s an award winning image.

  • DafOwen

    At a guess – dodging + burning is a possible technique with traditional printing and so most competitions allow it.

  • DafOwen

    Agreed – unless the original E-mail was a “you’ve won – but we just want to check the RAW” – the photographer might have used a little creativity when talking about the mail.

  • Alan Wood

    To everyone saying how bad this photo is: I look forward to seeing your winning entries in next year’s competition.

  • Nicu Buculei

    *every* photo goes trough photoshop, but some types of editing is allowed, while others aren’t.

  • Nicu Buculei

    if you don’t shoot RAW, then you send the unedited JPEG. is trivial to tell if a JPEG was edited or not, from the mere look of it to examining metadata.

  • Nicu Buculei

    i don’t think they say the photo is bad, but not as great as expected. surely in the contest are photos those people may consider better.

  • Pete

    what do they say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

    All I thought when I saw it: it’s a typical NatGeo picture. It has truck-loads of athmosphere, tells a story, is beautifully exposed and the composition is spot-on (well, except for that bag…)

  • Alan Wood

    OK, point taken. It seems that the way photos are judged has changed over time. When I first started entering camera club competitions using film, the emphasis on judging was biased toward technical competence rather that subject matter. Now that it is much easier to produce the quality using digital, the subject and the context of the picture is much more important (as it should be I think). This photo is very atmospheric and says a lot about the people in it. I like it a lot and wish I had the skill and imagination to do similar.

  • Attila Volgyi

    the zoo pic won in a different category

    he entered with a photoshopped image not the original – he got disqualified because his entered photo was manipulated – once you enter a competition you cannot change what you entered….nor edit it after it has been judged

    and why the hack had he alter the image in the first place? it is rule number one: don’t alter a photo – especially if not needed

  • Attila Volgyi

    I don’t think the article’s conclusion is right. “Rules are rules” doesn’t mean “read contest rules carefully”, but don’t even think about altering a photo in the first pace. Period.

    I would not constrain this rule to be applied only for contests and only because they do not allow it in their rules. Let this be the common thinking about photography. Just like “don’t lie” is a common rule not just in the journalism world but in every day life as well….and should be considered everywhere like that.

  • Fischi

    I dont think its a “best of contest” image anyway, but removing a piece of dirt shouldnt be enough for disqualification. NG has gone way over the top with this one.

  • kevdog

    Petty rules, enforced in a petty matter.

  • pete n pete

    Definitely. It’s like someone trying to argue that a film image was modified because it was chemically treated in a darkroom.

    But, let’s use that as an example. Say this was 20 years ago, and the rules stated “You can’t use chemical x or process y in your submitted image.” Wouldn’t the right thing, straight off the bat, be to check and confirm that x or y wasn’t used PRIOR to it being moved along in the contest? Why would you wait until you’d decided it was -the- image?

    Yes, rules are rules, but it seems unfair and, really, kind of mean.

  • Greg Kowal

    Everyone is allowed to critique but there is a difference between a critique by someone who knows about the art and someone who doesn’t know much. I would value the critique of an educated person on this subject a lot higher than a random comment on the internet.

  • Alan Wood

    Again, fair point. I jumped in rather quick with my comment because it seemed that people were criticising the picture without putting much thought into what they were looking at. Also, please don’t be so angry – we are all here to enjoy ourselves and hopefully learn something as well. :)

  • Jessica Marie

    However, keep in mind that you don’t need to be a professional photographer (or professional anything) to be able to decide whether or not a photo moves you. I don’t think that you can place a value on someone’s feelings about something based on whether or not they are a pro. Feelings are feelings. Remember that.

  • Jessica Marie

    Amen! It really bothers me how many people claim to be photographers, when they are really image creators. If you rely heavily on Photoshop to produce what you’re going for, you are creating an image. Not a photograph. There is no problem with either, just don’t claim to be one when your the other. Seems pretty fair and pretty simple to me.

  • henneh

    are you jealous?