Photo Tip: How to Win a Photo Competition

(Winning image in our first Photo Friday competition)

So, you’ve spotted this great photographic competition with an amazing prize and all you can dream about is winning it but the question you keep asking yourself is how? Well, I hope to share some ideas with you which can only serve to help you in your quest.

The tips or advice I am going to share with you comes from my own judging experiences and also being involved in the Sony Profoto Awards where I watched the judging in two consecutive years. Its actually rather interesting to see a panel of judges debating an image.

You Never Know Until You Try

My first tip is to try. You need to over come your fear, put a date in your calendar to make sure you enter and get your mind into the space so that you follow through and actually submit an entry. Your chances of winning are zero if you don’t even enter.


With your determination in the right place it is now time to do the ground work. The worst thing you can do right now is just grab you camera and start shooting. Slow down and do a little research first. Have you read the brief? It is essential to know and understand your brief. Shooting for a competition is no different to shooting for a client as a professional. If you cannot meet the brief you are not going to get paid.

It would also do you the world of good to look back at previous years and see the images that have won. Get a feel for what has worked in the past. You may also find that learning more about the judges gives you some inspiration or other ideas. I am not to saying you should suck up in your images but photography is subjective and understanding your audience be they judges or the intended final audience described in the brief, will help you meet their expectations.

Picking the Image

You have read the brief, done your research and taken thousands of photographs – hopefully not that many but it is up to you obviously. Now you have to pick your submission and you are having a hard time deciding what will it be.

Please, please and again I say please, do not send in a stack of images of the same subject taken at different angles, times of day etc no matter how good the subject is. Such a tactic says to the judges “I had a great subject but couldn’t decide on the best image myself so perhaps you can decide for me.” There are few things that frustrate judges more and it will weaken the impact of your entries.

Here is another tip. Remove yourself from the emotion you have for your images or even better get a friend or two to share their insights with you. What do I mean? I cannot tell you how often I see an image which is simply a snap shot and wonder what the person was thinking when they submitted it. I look through some of my images which I shot a few years ago and marked with stars thinking, at the time, that they were fantastic. When I look at some of them now I ask myself why I thought they were so great and recently I found my answer. Back then the actual shooting of the image was fresh in my mind, I could feel the emotion and sense the story. At that time I didn’t register that perhaps the background was busy, my mind had remembered the event in a certain way and rather than seeing the image as it is, it triggers my minds eye of the image as I felt it happen.

Remember that when your image comes up for judging, you are not going to be there to explain why you couldn’t use a different angle or wait for better light. In the end it is your image that has to do the talking and it cannot give excuses.

Going back to the point of getting input from friends, I had a discussion recently with a photographer who won an award for an image he did not like and had excluded from his final selection. It took two of his friends to persuade him to include that image and it got him a top spot. Remember, your view may no be the same as your intended audience.

(Picture by Werner Strauss from his article on “Rules can be Broken“)

Rules or Guidelines of Photography

This point kind of relates to the last two. In doing your research you will learn if your image will do better when it is following the rule of thirds, keeping contact with the eye, staying in sharp focus or having the horizons straight. While many judges I talk to like to find something new and different, they don’t simply pick an image because its “breaks the rules”. These guidelines are there because more often than not they give the more pleasing results. If you operate without of these guides make sure your image is all the more impactful for so doing. Being different means seeing things or interpreting things differently, not just being a rebel.


In the end photography is about having fun and knowing your audience. If you are shooting for yourself and it doesn’t matter if others like your image or not then thats great, its going on your wall not theirs. If you want to win a competition then you need to know your audience and appeal to them. You can still have your style, in fact it is increasingly more important to do so, but appeal to and know the audience in the end if you wish to succeed.