Recently, I had the opportunity to be one of three judges for the year-end photography competition of the Colorado Council of Camera Clubs, a group of five camera clubs in the Denver metro area. We spent nearly an entire day going through over 180 entries across numerous categories and different media types. We saw 35mm slides, digital projections, and prints in each category. As we discussed in episode #138 of The Image Doctors podcast, there are good photographs, and then there are contest-winning photographs. If you are planning to enter a photo contest, here are some tips to help you improve your chances of winning.
Your best image might not be so special
Good, solid images won’t cut it in a competition. The judges are looking to see images that make a lasting impression. The advice we were given was to rate each image on a 5-point scale. A score of “3” would be given to a “typical image by a camera club member;” in other words, a solid but not particularly inspiring image. Images that had bad composition, were clearly out of focus, or looked like a snapshot were scored lower. A score of “4” was given to images that we felt we’d remember later that day, and a score of “5” was reserved for images we felt we’d remember later that week or month. By these criteria, most of the “solid” images didn’t stand out as winners, but by no means was that to say that they wouldn’t look good as a framed print in someone’s house. It just meant that for a contest, the rules are a little more stringent.
Know your category, and stick to it
If you enter an image in a particular category, make sure that you read the category description to make sure your image fits. We saw many images that were overlooked, so to speak, in broader, generic categories (e.g., “Nature”), but won awards in specific sub-categories (e.g. “Animals”). We also discriminated images in specific categories if they didn’t seem to fit the description of the category well.
Print quality matters
If you enter a print, be careful of your technique. I really enjoyed looking at the print entries, because they not only had to be a good photograph, but they had to be technically implemented well in the final print too. If your image is highly cropped, don’t try to print it out as 16×20! We quickly eliminated entries where the photographer thought bigger is better, except by printing their photo so large it was full of visible stair-step artifacts (jaggies). If your image looks good as an 8×10, then print it as an 8×10. If your print has banding or other artifacts in it, it’s not going to do well even if the photograph is compelling. For black and white prints, consider using a printer that has more than one black ink. While we didn’t judge mats, some contests do, so check the rules.
Watch out for cliché subjects and processing techniques
When you’re a judge, you’re put in the unfortunate position of scoring images that make a lasting impact. That means, if you enter a photograph of a place or subject that’s been photographed hundreds of times, it just won’t have the same visual impact on the judges unless you’ve done something completely different with that subject. Yes, I know you are proud of your shot of Mt. Rushmore, but if it looks like the shot you can get on a postcard from the gift shop, it’s not going to win a contest. Again, this isn’t to say that these entries aren’t great photographs. Many times, they are. They just won’t be winning photographs. Another trap you can fall into is over-processing. There are many interesting filters and plug-ins for Photoshop, etc. out there, but if your image looks like you just chose a random, extreme filter in the hopes that it would make your photo more “creative,” you might find yourself on the short end of the stick at the end of the day. Creative filters can be very powerful when used properly; other times they just turn your image into a 3rd-grade art project. And remember, no filter will cover up the fact that your image is poorly composed or lacking a strong subject, so handle with care!
Watch the fine print
Earlier, I mentioned the importance of knowing the details of the category you enter your image in. Even more important, however, is reading the fine print of the contest entry requirements, especially in large-scale or online contests. I refuse to enter or judge any competition that doesn’t allow the photographers to retain the rights to their image entries. Sometimes the rules are just written by people who are blindly using boilerplate marketing requirements, other times the contest sponsors have a more sinister motivation– using your images to make money that you won’t see a dime of. I recently saw an entry requirement for full-size RAW images. Sorry, that’s ignorance. I’ll never submit a RAW file. Moreover, this same competition required 18-megapixel images. I guess they didn’t want images from Nikon DSLRs!
Don’t expect feedback on why your image did or didn’t win
While competitions can be a source of great pride for the winners, we judges didn’t have the time or ability to write critiques of the images we saw. If you are looking to improve your photographic talents, then consider joining a camera club that offers critique sessions rather than just competitions. You’ll get a lot more feedback when you submit your images for critique rather than just enter a contest and wonder why your image didn’t win.