Photo Contest Tips From The Judges

Photo contests are a wonderful way to challenge yourself. Nothing motivates a photographer to create beautiful images more than the thought of submitting them to a panel of judges, and the chance of winning a prize doesn’t hurt, either. Even if you don’t win, the experience will make you a better photographer. Unfortunately, most photo contests offer no feedback, no way of hearing what the judges thought of your images. If you can’t know why you didn’t win, how do you improve your odds for the next contest—and, more importantly—how do you improve as a photographer?

Judges of photo contests have a unique perspective because we see so very many photos. Sometimes the difference between being a finalist in a contest and being rejected comes down to minute differences in technique, composition and tone, and sometimes it’s much less subtle. Bad composition, poor subject selection, a misunderstanding of the rules of composition (and when to break them) and a huge array of pet snapshots comprise the majority of submissions for a contest.

We’ve seen it all, and we’re going to see it all again in the next contest. Trust me when I say that we don’t want to see bad photography in a contest. It gives no joy to reject a photo. Each photo we “reject” when we’re rating images causes a slight pang of regret. We know it’s a person who had high hopes of winning, someone who took a picture and looked at it and said, “I love this photo, the judges will, too.”

While judging a contest, a few common themes come up, a set of tips we wish we could transmit to our submitters—some thoughts about the process of capturing images, in general, and some things that judges are looking for, things that can help your photography, whether you’re entering a contest or not.

INTENT IS EVERYTHING

My good friend, photographer Martin Gisborne, wrote this on his Facebook page. “One of the things that I’ve always loved about photography—and one of the things that I try and impress upon people when they ask me about becoming a better photographer—is that you need to learn how to see. You need to look. A lot. You need to figure out what you are seeing, figure out why there is interest, there, for you. Only once you’ve done that can you figure out how to translate that into a photograph.

Once you start to really look at the world, then you’ll look at the world in a different way whether you have a camera in your hand or not. And I love that.”

There’s a marked difference in photography between seeing and looking. Snapshots see the world. Selfies see the world. Good photographs look carefully at it. They pick out the details of a scene, they look for the contrasts, the beauty and the humor in everyday life.

Every photo submitted to a contest needs to have been from looking at the scene and crafting an image. It might take a microsecond to look and to feel a scene—this is true of the world’s best sports photographers—but it took a lifetime of trying to look in order to be able to do it in an instant.

An instructor of mine at art school once said to me, “What we call art, it’s the byproduct of real art.” The art is the creative process, not the finished photo.

If a photograph doesn’t convey attention or intent, then it’s not going to win. Judges can feel the intent of a photo (or the lack of it). The winning photos often hit us the second we see them. The job of the photograph is to carry the emotion of the creation of art, and we can feel if a photograph is missing that intent.

UNDERSTAND WHAT THE CONTEST IS ABOUT

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a color image submitted to a contest that’s for black-and-white photography. That’s an automatic reject.

If the contest is a portrait contest, don’t submit a landscape with no people. If the photo is for a macro contest, don’t submit urban street scenes (unless they show how nature breaks through that landscape).

Likewise, if the contest is for sports photography, be sure there’s some sport represented in there. It could be the celebration after the sport, it could be a locker room scene before a match, heck, I’d even like to see a shot of people filling up a bar to watch the Stanley Cup finals on TV or at a tailgate party—but there has to be something that says it’s a sports photo.

MAKE SURE YOUR PHOTOS ARE IN FOCUS

This rule seems so obvious that most people will skip past this, but stick with me. Not only do we get photos that are completely out of focus—there isn’t a focus point anywhere in the photo—we get them where the wrong thing is in focus.

We see portraits where the subject’s nose or earlobe is the focus, not the eyes. We see this all…the…time. If you’re using focus as a compositional tool, be sure the photo is clear enough to explain why the focus is on something besides the obvious subject.

Sometimes we wonder if particular images are out of focus because of the output of the file submitted. I suspect that often there’s a general softness issue that crops up when people export photos without attention to this effect. But the photograph you submit is the one that we judge. Before you send it, check it at 100% and see if everything looks good, because we’ll judge finalists at that resolution, as well.

We all know that our children are the most beautiful things in the world, but too often that can cloud our judgment. Many photos of children don’t have good composition, lighting or meaning, as is the case with this photo of my son, who’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

WILL THIS SUBJECT MATTER TO ANYONE ELSE?

A huge problem with most submissions it that the subjects chosen are often personal to the photographer, but meaningless to anyone else. Your cat, your child, your parakeet—they aren’t interesting by themselves to anyone but you and your immediate family. This is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of judging a contest—we see photos of kids or pets that are obviously packed with love, but the photos are meaningless. If there’s no unique perspective on a cat, then it’s just another cat photo.

Generally, we’re done with seeing pets and babies, unless the contest is called “Pets and Babies,” and then we’re all in, which brings up these next rules.

COMPOSITION, COMPOSITION, COMPOSITION

The winning photos in contests are well composed, either through purposeful setup or through simply having a good eye when the photo is captured. Poor composition will result in elimination, even if the rest of the photo is amazing.

Be wary of distracting elements in a photo—tree limbs, lampposts, stray hairs (that’s really important in portrait and wedding contests), other people, etc.

Learn about the Rule of Thirds, and when to break it. Many times, the winning photos in a contest are those that successfully flout conventions, but do so in a way that’s intriguing, not off-putting. A crooked horizon works if it adds to the photo, it doesn’t work if it’s accidental. Likewise, an object blocking part of the frame works if it’s put there intentionally and contextualizes the photo.

A lot of photography is about what’s not in a photo.

MASTER LIGHTING

Many photographers are afraid of utilizing light, either on-camera or off-camera. That’s a shame, because a lot of the best photos we see are masterfully lit. In any photo contest, someone is going to submit something that’s well lit, and a lot of people are going to submit things that needed a boost from lighting. If we’re between two similar photos and one is better lit, that’s the winner.

Good lighting doesn’t a
lways mean using flash lighting or even man-made lighting. Sometimes it’s a matter of successfully using a diffuser or bouncing light off a reflector. Sometimes it’s just a matter of facing subjects toward the setting sunlight or a campfire or a car’s headlights, and not shooting them with the sun behind them and shadows on their face.

This photo was part of a three-hour-long photo shoot with a burgeoning magician. While there were a number of great shots in the session, this wasn’t one of them, as it suffers from poor exposure and a strange look on the subject’s face. We often see images that look like they were chosen because they were the best of a shoot, but submissions need to be the best of the competition.

THINK OF YOUR COMPETITORS

When you’re entering a contest, think about your competitors and what they might be offering, and ask yourself if what you’re submitting is likely to be better than that of the other entrants.

In one landscape and travel contest I judged, several entrants did beautiful shots of bridges; in fact, I saw more than half a dozen bridges. The one that went to the round of finalists had the most masterful use of lighting and composition of the bunch, but the margin was narrow.

Many times this difference is more obvious, usually with common subjects. In travel photographs, there often will be several photos of markets and locals (read on for more on that), so I put them aside to compare them all as a group, comparing the success of the images against the other shots of the same type of subject.

ONLY ONE TAKE

Entrants occasionally will submit multiple takes of a photo. Sometimes these alternates are different crops of the same photo, sometimes they’re both a color and a monochrome version of the image. What this communicates is that the photographer is unsure of the best version of his or her image. And if photographers can’t tell which of their photos is the good one, we can’t, either.

Each of these images shows a typical problem that’s common to contest submissions. The beachscape photo shows the oversaturated and unrealistic colors typical of many HDR submissions. The photo of the building might document its construction progress, but lacks any visual impact. The boardwalk is cluttered with competing horizontal and vertical lines and, generally, bad composition.

ENOUGH OF HDR ALREADY

HDR photography disasters are aplenty in photo contests, especially those with landscapes and travel themes. HDR (high dynamic range, if you’re not familiar) photos combine a number of shots at different exposures to create an image with a more natural and vibrant representation of a scene than a single exposure can capture. It’s very handy for bringing out both the highlights and the shadows in a scene.

However, HDR is often used to create images with hypersaturated colors and unrealistic tonal range, and these super-tonal photos usually go right to rejects.

ENOUGH OF THE FILTERS ALREADY

A corollary to the HDR rule—we know there are some impressive filters for Photoshop. It’s not necessary to show us that you found some cool ones, unless it actually improves your images. Most egregious are portrait shots that are smoothed out by retouching software past where they should be used, and the result is someone who looks like they’re made of rubber.

DON’T DROP IN OR REMOVE ELEMENTS UNNECESSARILY OR UNSKILLFULLY

Don’t use Photoshop to place a moon over a building. And, if you should use Photoshop to drop in a moon over a building, be sure to do it well. I’ve seen moons in photos where the selection wasn’t smooth enough and the ’shopped moon had jagged edges. The moon doesn’t have jagged edges, and contest judges know that.

I’ve also seen images where the Clone Stamp is used improperly to remove something, and it leaves an incongruous, large, blotchy spot behind. That’s an immediate reject. If something is removed (like dust), there should be no trace of it.

Contests calling for travel or street photography are filled with snapshots of people, and they often show a lack of engagement with the subject—they look like the images were stolen moments. For this photo, I spent a lot of time talking with the subject, Jimmy, who wanted to talk and asked to have his photo taken, which gave the photo an intensity that many submissions lack.

STOP TAKING PICTURES OF ANONYMOUS WRINKLED PEOPLE

Travel contests are filled with images of older people in some suitable foreign location with a surfeit of wrinkles. While that’s fine on the surface (pardon the pun), the problem is that usually there’s no connection between the photographer and the subject. These pictures often appear to be captured hastily, usually surreptitiously.

This can work, but the most successful photos of people in other lands convey a connection between the photographer and the subject (that’s not just true of travel photos), and the language and cultural barriers in many of these photos show that there was little attempt to break down that barrier. We see a lot of half-smiles or grimaces on the faces of the subjects, indicating the camera is a bit of an inconvenience to them.

One of the best tips I ever read for the serious food photographer was to hire a local guide for at least one day that you shoot. In most Asian, African and South American countries (where the bulk of these submissions seem to come from), guides are incredibly affordable, and hiring a local gives you incredible access to people and places. (You can Google to find a guide in-country while you’re planning your trip, but you often can ask your hotel if they recommend someone, as well.)

FOLLOW THE RULES

The tips for making a winning contest entry are, of course, the same as the rules for making good pictures, in general: authenticity, simplicity, emotion and composition. That’s what people are looking for in a good photograph, whether it’s for a contest or not. 

You can reach David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss

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