Becoming a master of the Photography Contest.

I feel like my life’s mission recently is sharing secrets to help other people get better in one area or another of photography and I guess that’s cool since I’m a photography teacher.  In this column my objective is to make you more capable of winning in photography contests.  Speaking from the position of being a contest judge I must say that many of you seem to think that you just enter a photo and take your chances, but that can’t be further from the truth.  There are some things about taking the photo and choosing the photo to submit that are important, but you must go further than that if you want to actually win.  All of this is coming on the heels of judging the East Wichita News (EWN) Annual Photography Contest and being very unhappy with some of the entries.  The sad thing about it; is that we had to disqualify at least 25% of the entries, mostly because of bad printing and most of that was done at home on an inkjet printer.  Quoting from my fellow judge Harvey Beal “I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a professional quality print.” That being said I’m going to go through a hit list of problems and suggestions for avoiding them.


  • Poor Composition – Make your subject obvious.
    • The judges should have absolutely NO question what your subject is the moment they see your photo.
    • Eliminate distractions from your photo by cropping as necessary to better highlight your subject.
  • Poor Print Quality – this is the quickest way to guarantee a losing entry.
    • Professional Printing does NOT mean that you spent a couple-three hundred dollars on a printer and bought some paper called “pro” or “professional”.  It means having a professional print the image for you.  The EWN contest that we judged recently had a prize package worth $275 for each category.  Doesn’t it make sense that it could be a good investment in that entry to pay $4 or $5 for a real professional to make an 8 x 10 print for you?
    • Every image does not automatically look better on Glossy paper!  Pick the paper that is best suited for each individual image.  This is another place where the professional printer can assist you.
    • Don’t waste any time convincing yourself that you are perfectly capable of making a professional quality print.  Go ahead and make your own print, then have the same image printed in the same size by a professional printer.  When you lay the two of them side-by-side on a table and compare them you’ll see the same differences that the judges see.
  • Poor Technique – Learn enough about your camera and it’s controls to make a good image from the start.
    • Your subject MUST be focused and properly exposed.  That includes having enough Depth-of-field for your entire subject to be in focus as it should be.
    • Use an appropriate ISO to maintain good image quality.  Higher ISO settings create noise in digital images thereby degrading the quality of the image.  When your image shot at 1600 ISO is competing with a similar image shot at 100 ISO you lose.  I know that’s lacking the usual sugar-coating you might expect, but it’s the plain and simple truth.
    • Get a proper exposure when you take the photo.  Lightening the image on the computer is NOT going to make a winning image.
    • Your image must have IMPACT so it will be seen when it’s standing against hundreds of other entries. If your image requires a title or description for somebody else to understand what it is, it’s not the right image to submit in a contest.
    • Get your digital camera sensor cleaned!  You may have a great image and a high quality print, but if you have sensor dirt all over the image you’re going to lose.  One of the images rejected in the EWN contest could have been a winner, but it was loaded with spots from sensor dirt and didn’t make it to the final cut.
  • Wrong Category – It’s up to you to choose the category correctly.
    • When you select your entries for a contest make sure they fit the category in which you are entering them. 
    • Read the contest rules and make sure you understand what images are appropriate for each category.  If you don’t have an image to fit one of the categories don’t submit an entry for that category.
  • Breaking the Contest Rules – This is never a good idea.
    • Read the rules!
    • Adhere to the rules!
    • In most contests the administrator or the judges are responsible for making sure the entries comply with ALL of the rules.  Even if the administrator accepts an entry, that doesn’t mean the judges will let it stand when the competition begins.  If the judges are overwhelmed by bad or rule-breaking entries they become even more critical of the other entries and in some contests that could mean that NO prize may be awarded for some categories.
    • When you cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ for each of your entries you give the contests administrators and judges an easier job and makes your entry much more likely to be a winner.
  • Pick a winner – That’s what the judges are charged with, but only after you do the same thing.
    • DO NOT submit a photo into a contest unless it’s a real hero among your own photographs.  If the photo you pick for your submission doesn’t stand out strongly amongst your own collection, there’s an extremely good chance that it will not stand out among the competitors’ images.
    • Be very critical of yourself, just as we judges will be in the end.  If you are among the last 3 or 4 entries being considered to win a category your only chance is to survive the extremely critical eyes of the judges.  We are going to be looking at every detail on all of those entries.  That’s the place where you need to have done such a good job in picking and printing your image that you make it hard for us to not pick your image. 


In all of this I also recommend that you get somebody else to look at the photos you are considering for entries and get another opinion.  It is also a good idea for that person to know the contest rules.  But don’t influence them with your opinions, take their advice and then reconsider your choices.  That doesn’t mean they will be right, but it’s good to get an objective second opinion just the same.


Copyright 2010 Jeff Cowell, 


~ by jrcowell on November 2, 2010.

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