Photography Contests: The First Pass, or The Final Cut

Photography contest judging is an interesting experience, but not nearly as interesting as trying to explain to an individual why they didn’t win.  Ask anyone who has attended my seminars or classes, and you’ll find that I’m not noted for being the most politically correct person in the world.  So when it comes to educating people about the contest(s) they didn’t win, I’m a bit on the direct side.  That being said, it’s time for a group session on the things you can do to at least get through the First Pass.

The “First Pass” as I’ve referred to it: is the 1st viewing of the contest entries where we toss out the photos with no chance of winning.  Your entry has to have impact, so it demands at least a second look.  If there’s no impact you’re not going to win, it really is that simple.  Your photo is standing against many others and the judges have to use time wisely so they can get to the winning entries in short order.  In evaluating your own photos for impact it’s imperative that you remember this simple idea: Impact does NOT equal personal attraction to the subject.  Any photo of your child may have special meaning for you but that’s not going to catch the eye of a judge.  Separate yourself from that personal attraction, and be objective about the compositional impact you’ve captured in the photo.  That could mean you need to crop a little more creatively, so the judges will quickly find your subject and be drawn in for the critical second look.

Do not assume that your print quality is “good enough,” unless you’ve compared it to other prints.  When the judges line up the entries that made it through the first pass we start looking for print quality and technique.  If you print the photo at home with an inkjet printer, and it’s being compared to a lab quality print the difference can is sometime vast.  In a recent contest I spotted a photo that was absolutely the best entry in the show and it easily made it through the first pass and even the second pass.  On closer inspection I determined that the print was inferior because of banding caused by the printer being out of calibration. 

Printing photos is an art that requires a lot of skills and experience.  Not every photographer has these skills, and therefore should take advantage of the experience and skills of a professional lab to make the prints. Before you submit your entry, do this simple test: Make a 4 x 6 or 4 x 5 print at home and have the same image printed by a professional lab, in the same size.  Compare the two prints and decide for yourself how well your homemade print stands up to the competition.  That’s exactly the kind of comparison the judges will be seeing.

Clean up your image before you make your final print.  Get rid of background junk and meaningless “extras” that take away from your subject.  No, I’m not saying that you should Photoshop your image and make ridiculous edits.  I am saying that you should crop the image so it best highlights your subject.  You should make sure the color, focus, exposure and sharpness are all in good order.  Details count when you make it to the Final Cut, and you want your entry to make it through.  If the entrants in a contest saw how tough the competition sometimes is during the judging, the quality of all entries would certainly improve. 

Of all the contest entries I’ve seen; none trouble me more than those great photos that don’t make it because of a poor quality print.  Presentation really does count in a photography contest, so makes sure your entry stands out.  If you force the judges to give your photo a second, and even a third consideration, your chances of winning increase.

Lessons for the losers

That header is pretty rough language, but it really is the best way to get to the point: you are not going to win every contest you enter; get over it and learn from it.  If you entered what you thought was your best effort and you didn’t win, you have a great opportunity to learn how to better yourself.  Compare your photo (exactly as entered) to the winner. Even if you need help from somebody else;

  • Determine how you might have made a better photo.
  • Figure out if you used the wrong paper for the subject of your photo (yes, it really does matter).  If you used metallic paper for a subject that would look better on a matte or luster paper, that could make the difference.
  • Consider the possibility that you entered your photo in the wrong category, or maybe even in the wrong contest.  Did you pay attention to the rules of the contest and make sure your subject fit the category it was entered in?
  • Depending on the contest; size could matter.  If the winner submitted an 8 x 10 and you only submitted a 4 x 5, that could create a disadvantage for you.
  • If possible, talk to the judges (with your photo in hand) and ask for advice.  You might be surprised by how willing they are to teaching you something.  But please; if the judges are trying to get out the door, be respectful of their time, they usually don’t get paid for these gigs. 
  • If you really don’t understand the differences; consider taking classes to learn how you can improve your photography, and / or printing.

© 2010 Jeff Cowell,

Click here to check out seminars available by Jeff Cowell


~ by jrcowell on February 6, 2010.

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