We all want people to like and enjoy our images. Social media is plastered with countless pictures whose owners are all seeking attention and some kind of approval from others.
Often, entering photography competitions can bring us back down to Earth with a bump. Our favorite photos may not win anything at all. Rather than curse the judges, we can use this as a learning opportunity. Most competitions won’t give you detailed feedback, so you won’t always know precisely why the image didn’t win an award. But, there are common technical and creative criteria that judges use both consciously and subconsciously. While we can’t help looking at things subjectively, despite our best attempts, there do tend to be common factors for competition winners.
First of all, you have to make sure that you follow the rules and guidelines with your entries. Otherwise, you risk being disqualified! Once your image finds itself in front of judges, there are then things that judges tend to look for. We will look at these in some detail later. Finally, it is important to be open to improving. There might be areas of your work that you don’t realize would benefit from extra training or practice. Competitions can reveal these. We may feel a little resentful, to begin with, but if we want a chance of winning something another time then we need to be open to finding ways to grow. Similarly, we also need to be open to and understanding of the subjective, personal nature of how we each see images.
Top tip: Don’t just compete to win – compete to grow.
Meet the Basic Requirements
If you don’t follow the rules you aren’t going to win! There is no point in entering photography competitions if you don’t follow their guidelines. You may simply be disqualified before a judge even looks at your image. Check the format, image size, color space, and naming conventions first of all so that you know your file will be accepted. You must also ensure that you are not breaking any of the regulations. Some competitions may only allow pictures of wild animals and not domestic ones or those that live in zoos. Others may have categories where no post-production is allowed. Breaking these kinds of rules is likely to get you banned and disgraced, even if your image were to slip through the net initially and win.
Enter the right number of images into the correct (or most suitable) categories. Give them files at the size asked for and in the right format. Don’t give the organizers any reason to disallow your entry. I know it sounds obvious, but it is easy to miss something in the rules and people do get disqualified from competitions at all levels. You won’t get anywhere by rebelling against the regulations. Maybe debate them another time, but when entering competitions or salons it is time to be on your best behavior!
Top tip: Read the rules and guidelines and then read them again! Make sure you stick to them.
What are Photography Competition Judges Looking For?
As a competition Judge for the Societies of Photographers, I work with a set of criteria when judging an image. These 10 elements are readily available on their website on a page describing what the judges are looking for. Other photographic societies and competitions may also have the marking scheme or guidelines for assessment available on their sites. If so, make sure you read them as they are a great source of information that can help you to get into the mind of the judges.
Excellent Camera Technique
Avoid technical errors – make sure you have good technique backing up your artistry. Judges will be looking at things such as:
- Choice of Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO
- Lens Choice: Focal Length and Perspective
Basically, we want to see that you are in control of your kit and that you know what you are doing. If you are losing sharpness because you have some motion blur in your subject or from trying to hand-hold a longer exposure, then this comes across as poor technique (unless it is obviously Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) or the like). Perhaps you have got a little too much in focus and could benefit from a shallower depth of field. Or maybe the focal length you’ve chosen distorts the subject badly and doesn’t look considered and deliberate. If judges see anything like this then your image won’t do well. The industry expects to see some degree of technical mastery from its award-winners.
Top tip: Practice until good technique becomes second nature. Make sure that whether you stick to or break the “rules” it looks to others as though you are in control and acting deliberately.
Use of Lighting
How a scene is lit can make all the difference. Whether it is the warm glow of sunrise on a landscape, beautiful gradients of light on a product, or the controlled contrast of Rembrandt lighting for a portrait, your photo can go from OK to great if the lighting looks good. So, whatever genre you shoot, it is vital to have good quality, interesting light for your subject. Sometimes that might mean that you need to revisit a landscape on another day when it isn’t looking flat under a grey sky. It could mean getting training in studio lighting and reshooting images where lighting patterns are a little off. Even with a great subject you still need great lighting to win awards.
Top tip: Any light, natural or otherwise, can look dull or interesting. Work hard to avoid dull!
Judges want to see images that look like they have been put together deliberately. Even if we can’t work out your precise intent, a well-composed image helps us to read it and perceive a sense of structure. You may choose to use a well-known device such as the “rule of thirds” or “golden ratio”, but that is not what a judge is normally looking for (there may well be exceptions to this, but hopefully that would be stated in the guidelines for application). Your image needs to look like you meant it rather than being a happy accident. There are all sorts of ways that you can compose an image and all sorts of reasons for choosing the various tools. Award-winning photography shows the photographer’s input, the deliberate arrangement of elements to create a composition.
Top tip: Arrange elements within the image deliberately. Make sure we can see your interpretive stamp on the composition.
As we’ve already mentioned, it is important to get the technical elements right. But don’t forget that “rules” can be broken. Something subtly outside the norm can look like a mistake, so go bold! Make it obvious that this is a deliberate artistic choice rather than a technical lapse. Breaking a “rule” for the sake of it is unlikely to lead to a great image. Do so with purpose – use a technique a certain way to make a point or to tell a story.
Judges see hundreds or possibly thousands of images when assessing competition entries. One way to catch their eye and stand out from the crowd is to be original. Something that stops you in your tracks and disrupts the flow of very similar-looking pictures has a chance of doing well. It still has to have the elements of technique, lighting, and composition in place. But to be noticed amongst a sea of technically good images you need something extra – a degree of artistry or originality.
Another thing: watch out for trends.
It might be tempting to copy others if there seems to be a trend for certain types of images to do well. However, this can be a bad move. For one thing, by the time you’ve done your version, it might have already become old hat. Others have been working at this for some time before their images have been seen winning awards. So, further down the line, it will be harder to wow the judges with something they have seen a lot. Secondly, it could side-track you from developing your own style. Sometimes we get inspired by something different and that can be a good thing. But if we are trying to chase awards by doing what the judges seem to be rewarding right now then we can derail our own progress and become a less successful cheap imitation of someone else. It is better to learn from and be inspired by others’ images while continuing to cultivate your own style.
Top tip: Develop your own style – be inspired by others but don’t copy.
Careful with Image Titles
Sometimes you may be limited to a particular naming convention for your entries, such as your name_category_country or the like. If this is the required format, then obviously you should adhere to it. However, many competitions allow you to enter your own title for images with few requirements (in some cases anything not including your name). This can be an opportunity for you to guide the judges’ thinking when they view the image. If you are worried something might be misunderstood or that the story is potentially too ambiguous then the title may be a useful way to offer clarification. Perhaps there is a reason for the styling or the posing or the use of color, for example, that the judges may not pick up on straight away. By all means use a descriptive title if it helps them understand.
However, don’t let the title carry too much weight. There is a danger that if the image only works with its title present that you are testing your copywriting skills more than your photographic ability… If the title doesn’t get read out or displayed then you may be in trouble if you are relying heavily on it. Likewise, if the title is too long then it becomes rather ridiculous and may simply be cut off or ignored. When presenting qualification panels such as for Fellowship, it is normal to read a statement of intent. This helps the judges understand the body of work, the reasons for it, any constraints that were in place, etc. Very rarely is this the case for individual pictures. Aim for images that tell their own story with titles that are a gentle lead, rather than a big neon sign.
When submitting prints there are further things to take into consideration. You need to make a good impression by presenting the print well. Make sure that you choose an appropriate paper type and mount, for example. Tatty-looking prints make a bad impression. An unusual colored mount may take attention away from the print, so risking a lower score. You should be presenting your best work in the best way you possibly can within the rules of the competition. Yes, this can cost more, but there is no point in entering substandard prints as they just won’t score as well.
Take a look at my previous article on creating the perfect print for more information on this topic.
Top tip: Invest in good quality prints for competitions and tailor the paper and mount to suit the image.
Don’t Give Up
Doing well and becoming one of the best in your field always takes practice and perseverance. If you put in plenty of hard work, then you would expect to improve and increase your chances of success.
Top tip: Choose competitions that don’t have a limit on the number of awards, but instead give awards to those who reach a particular standard.
Where the awards on offer are limited, you always rely a bit on luck and on what others decide to enter. With some of the monthly competitions run by photography societies, they often have a benchmark for achieving an award that can mean each month there can be any number of award-winning images from zero to double figures. That way you know that if you reach the standard, you gain an award, even if there are others whose images are still deemed better than yours.
You Might Not Win Anything
Despite all your efforts, it is of course still possible that you might not win anything. It is important to be able to learn to live with this as competition success is by no means guaranteed. If you put all your emphasis on trying to win something, then you could risk falling out of love with photography and being resentful towards others. Try to see each competition you enter as a goal for improving something about your image-making. If you focus on your creativity and technique rather than on what you think is needed to be a winner, then you may well find success without having to chase it.
Top tip: Make sure that first and foremost you keep making images that you like and that you enjoy creating.
Keep Learning and Improving
Even if you do start doing well, allow yourself to keep evolving your own style. Think of the competition as a way to focus your improvement and get some kind of measure of it rather than as an end in itself. Listen to feedback if you get any. Seek out feedback from photographers and artists whose opinions you value and trust. They may be able to point you in the right direction to get your work to the next level. Never think that you know it all and have no need to work on your skills. There is always something you can do to broaden your creative horizons and hone your technique. If you keep getting better, then you increase your chances of success.
About the author: Joe Lenton is a qualified Judge and Mentor for The Societies of Photographers and has also judged for photography club competitions. He works as a freelance advertising photographer and his work can be seen at joelenton.com. All of the images in this article have won awards in competitions.
Image credits: All images © Joe Lenton, all rights reserved