How to Win a Photography Competition
Looking to win a photography competition in the New Year? Whether it be at club level, or international level the devil is in the detail. The judge is looking for the best, but also has to exclude the rest. If the judge can find good reason to remove the majority of the entrants, then selecting the best from whats left, makes choosing a winner so much easier.
If the reasons why the judge might exclude your entry are eliminated, then your image can reach the shortlist. From there, it is down to which photograph the judge will put first, and that is a subjective judgement, that no one can predict.
To make an image competition ready, is a lot of hard work. There is no point polishing sh*t.
Pick an image that is outstanding.
- First impressions count. There has to be impact. There has to be a Wow!.
- Make sure the picture tells a story, otherwise it is just a record shot.
- There has to be photographer input, otherwise it is just a snap.
- Find an emotive connection: sadness, happiness, humour, joy, fear, surprise. Ask how does the image move me?
- If the image is perfect, but there is no emotional content, the judge will look for extraneous reasons to reject e.g. “Could have done with a figure in the foreground” or “Do we need those figures in the foreground?”.
- Pictures of family members that you love, are not usually winners. There is an emotive connection with yourself, but not with the judge.
- Try to avoid cliche shots. Do we need another waterfall with a 10 stop nd filter?
- Don’t try anything too clever, like multiple layering for no creative reason. It is just an excuse the judge will use to mark low.
The judge will always go for a safe selection. A well composed picture that is technically perfect. The judge will therefore be looking for obvious mistakes. Composition rules are of course meant to be broken. In this instance however, it is just another excuse the judge can use to give the image a low score.
Look for any composition blunders that should be eradicated, otherwise your image will be eliminated.
- Judges love the rule of thirds. Don’t put the horizon in the middle of the image, otherwise the judge will pounce.
- Judges love three things not two, not four. Three.
- Don’t crop too tight, give room for the subject to move into and out of the picture. Judges love commenting on cropping.
- Watch diagonal lines that lead into the corner of the picture. Some judges don’t like it.
- Create a strong focal point
- Give the eye a route to follow. Leading lines for example. Don’t let the judges eye wander out of the frame and get lost.
IQ is more important than the subject in a photography competition. The judge is likely to be ambiguous about the subject, but image quality can provide endless negative feedback. It is possible to fix a lot of IQ in post production, so very carefully critique your entry.
This is a long but vital check list.
- First get rid of spots by cloning them out. There are tools in Photoshop and Lightroom. It can be embarrassing, and fatal if the judge finds a dust spot.
- If the image is not pin sharp in at least one important part of the subject, then reject it totally. No amount of post sharpening can recover what is not in focus.
- Do not try to use creative blur, even motion blur. Unless you get it 100% right, e.g. when panning a race car, it just gives the judge another handle to grab.
- Blown highlights will lead to instant dismissal.
- Pull out the detail in shadows.
- Any dark or light areas will pull the judge’s eye away from the subject.
- Straighten that horizon, it is too obvious a mistake to make.
- Correct any converging verticals
- Check the white balance. Remember in RAW there is no auto balance
- Add contrast, a flat image looks like a pancake.
- Use the clarity slider sparingly. It is often hard to see, but it can make your images seem over edited. The judge will see it if you do not.
- Sharpening in post production is one of the most difficult skills to master. Use only a little. Note that Lightroom sharpens an image by 25% during import. Less is more.
- Judges will be on the look out for any halo effect which can be caused by a number of factors, including too much clarity and over sharpening.
- Pay attention to saturation and vibrance. Was the grass really that green?
- Examine the image for colour casts.
- Don’t allow one colour to be too dominant.
- You may have a good artistic reason for converting to mono. The judge however will look for any defects that are being hidden.
- Judges will often remark in club competitions that, “I would have cloned that out”. Get the message.
- Clone out all extraneous detail which is not part of the image. If I was painting this picture would I add that detail?
- Examine the background. Clone out anything that will take the eye off the subject.
- Dodge and burn to darken the background and illuminate the subject.
- Get rid of any distracting elements, lamp posts etc.
- Crop out any unnecessary foreground.
- If there is no interest in the sky, crop it out or replace it.
- Examine the edges and clone or crop out any extraneous artefacts.
- Consider adding a touch of a vignette to draw the judge’s eye into the composition.
- A vignette will also darken the edges, and tone down any unnecessary detail.
- Be careful not to give away your post processing, e.g a clumsy clone stamp.
- If you must have a key line, go for mid grey one pixel wide.
Make sure that your image meets the photography competition criteria.
- Is there a size limit e.g. 1600px x 1200px? Is there a file size limit?
- Is a border required?
- Is there a limit on the number of entries?
- Does your image fit the competition category you are entering.
- Is there a format for the title?
- Use the title to communicate with the judge. What do you want them to see? The title may be the only handle the judge has on the image.
- Find out who the judges are. Research their background and the type of photography they enjoy. If you give them what they like, you may just be in with a chance.
That is 50 top tips, not for winning a photography competition. These are 50 top tips to keep your picture in the judging process, long enough to be considered a winner.
N.B. The image featured was entered into a competition run by the Royal Photographic Society and used on their corporate Christmas Card in 2016.