Photography Contests

The First Pass or The Final Cut 

In the Wichita, Kansas area I’m often called on to judge Photography Contests and I want to share a little wisdom with those who enter these contests and others.  In all that I share in this column, remember this: most people judging Photography Contests are Photographers themselves, so you’re not going to get by with simple snap-shots. 

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 try to be objective about the compositional impact you’ve captured in the image.  That could mean you need to be a little more creative in how you crop your image, so the judges will quickly identify your subject and be drawn in for the critical second look. 

Do not assume the quality of your print is “good enough” unless you’ve compared it to others that you didn’t print.  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 there can be a vast difference.  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.  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 to best highlight 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 to be one of the entries 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.  

Each year I judge a number of Photography Contests including one for the East Wichita News and The Portrait of Botanica, where I see hundreds, if not thousands of new images. Of all the entries I’ve seen; none trouble me more than the 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. One last comment I’ll add is: take your camera out of auto mode and get a little more creative with all aspects of your photos.


Photo Seminars by Jeff Cowell© 2010 Jeff Cowell,


~ by jrcowell on August 10, 2010.

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