Win A Photo Contest

Some of the best images we see here at DP come through our contests. Whether you’re motivated by the great prizes, exposing your images to a big audience of fellow photo enthusiasts or the possibility of being published, entering a competition can be a rewarding part of being a photographer.

What do judges look for? We’re going to assume that the hallmarks of a technically sound image, such as precise focus, correct exposure and balanced composition, don’t need much more than a mention here. All of those things certainly matter, but fine technique alone probably isn’t going to launch you into the winner’s circle. And while there’s no set of criteria that can guarantee your photograph will rise above the rest, we do have some tips that will get you going in the right direction every time you decide to enter.

Grab Attention. Avoid Clichés. This is definitely challenging, especially if you’re entering a contest with a theme. If the subject is portraits, it’s tempting to enter the standard smiling face-forward shot with soft focus. It’s a formula that often works well, but it may not stand out among thousands of other images. Silhouettes, reflections, self-portraits, environmental portraits or focusing on a specific feature, such as the eyes, all offer something a little different. Try to figure out the shot you expect most others to take and then go in a different direction.

Finding interesting, unique or even humorous subject matter often results in some of the best pictures. Before you hit the Submit button, ask yourself what sets your image apart from others. Maybe it’s the lighting or composition or color. Maybe there’s a strong graphic element. No matter the answer, just asking the question will help stretch your creative skills in new ways.

In trying to get on the judges’ radar, it’s also a good idea to play to your strengths. If you’re into street photography and the contest has a travel or locations theme, enter street photos taken while on a trip.

Stick To The Rules. If there’s a theme, don’t venture too far from it. While there’s room for interpretation and creativity, make sure you’re not leaving too much up to the imaginations of the judges.

Make sure you know all of the technical rules so you don’t end up submitting an image that violates some aspect of what’s allowed. You may enter an awesome photo, but not taking the time to know how many shots can be submitted, entry date requirements, image size limits and entry formats could result in the judges having to discard your entry. Another thing to pay attention to is how the images will be used. Every contest does things differently, and most don’t require you to sign away all rights to your image. But by submitting you do often give the organizers and sponsors the unlimited right to use your image in promotional material regarding the contest. You still own the photograph, but you agree to let the organizers and sponsors use it for drawing attention to the contest.

Tell A Story. Good photographers are good storytellers. You want to enter images that a judge can look at and immediately know what the idea or emotion is that you’re trying to get across. Images that connect with the viewer are often those that tell a story and evoke some kind of strong emotion or reaction.

In figuring out what kind of story you’d like to tell, it may be helpful to have a look at the winners of previous contests. The idea here isn’t to copy what they did, rather it’s to give you some hints on what kind of images grab the judges’ attention. It’s also worth keeping in mind who’s running the competition because it could tell you about the type of image they’re looking for. If you know who the judges are, doing some research on their work can give you a sense of the kind of photography they may appreciate.

The Wild Card. After you’ve gone to great lengths to deliver an image that’s both strong in technique and emotionally appealing, there’s still a bit of an X factor that comes into play. Your photograph is competing against hundreds, maybe thousands of others. While you can eliminate any technical flaws by making sure the image is sharp, exposed properly and composed well, what separates very good from great is harder to delineate.

You can start by coming up with subject matter that’s fresh. So if you’re entering a contest that focuses on location, try finding a place that hasn’t been photographed repeatedly. Or if you’re capturing a popular spot, look at images of how it’s most often portrayed and then figure out a new way to shoot it. Originality is often the something extra that makes winning photographs stand out to judges.

Don’t forget that judges have their own tastes, so all you can really do is think about what you’re trying to capture and then create the best possible image you can. Win or lose, participating in photo contests is a great way to showcase your work and improve your skills.

ESSENTIAL GEAR

If you’re going to take a photograph that’s worthy of Grand Prize, make sure you have some of the tools that will help you get top-notch quality.

1 Take a tripod.

Even in the age of image-stabilization technology, a tripod is still invaluable for taking sharper pictures. Besides having the support, a tripod locks in your composition for careful review before you shoot.

2 Play with light.

Photographs with dramatic light can make quite a statement. If the natural light isn’t giving you what you want, combining an external flash with modifiers, such as gels, ring lights and reflectors, can help you refine and create light that’s more dynamic.

3 Consider a filter.

You don’t have to wait until you’re in front of a computer to make adjustments. Using a filter will often do that for you. A polarizer controls surface reflection so colors become more saturated, while a neutral-density filter reduces how intense the light is in bright conditions. With less light, you can slow shutter speed to blur motion or open your aperture to limit depth of field. Plus, there are tons of other options for adding color, shooting a black-and-white image and creating special effects.

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