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Pointers by Paul's Photo

How to Shoot Contest Winning Photos

When entering photo contests many photographers ask, "what does it take to win?" It is quite simple- your image must achieve the ultimate photographic quality, communicate the goals of the contest and stand apart from the rest of the entries in the judges' eyes. As a judge, sponsor and organizer of dozens of photo contests I offer the following “secrets” to entering winning photos.

First and foremost, follow instructions! Read and understand the rules, submission guidelines and requirements of the contest. Submit only photos that adhere to the time, location and other guidelines set forth in the “rules.” Enter pictures formatted, sized and titled as requested and provide all the requested information. If prints are requested submit the largest print size allowed. If digital files are requested submit the largest file allowed. Make sure your files are named correctly, the proper file format (JPG is universally readable) and your files open properly. Enter as many photos as allowed, but limit entries to one of each subject, story or idea. Don’t compete against yourself! Finally, don’t wait until the last day to submit your cherished “winners.” If your photos are worthy of entering give them plenty of time to arrive and be judged properly.

Stay on target. Every photo contest has a clearly stated or implied goal. Learn it, know it, use it and focus on it! If you carefully read the entry form and contest literature, you will gain insight into what the sponsors and judges are “looking for." The more knowledge and insight you garner the more success you will find. Without exception contest winners typify the goals, vision and voice of the contest.  For example, the Cancer Society photo contest will look for a winner that exemplifies the hope, strength and courage of a survivor. The Creative Photo Academy’s “Seriously Fun Photography” contest images should embody the excitement, creativity and joy of picture taking. The Geographic Society photo contest will choose pictures that encourage travel to exciting and exotic locales. The Easy Reader “Picture the South Bay” photo contest judges are looking for images which capture the spirit of our community showing the natural beauty and the fun “beach cities” lifestyle. The LA Zoo photo contest judges are looking for images that highlight the zoo’s collection of plants and animals that portray the animals and the zoo in a pleasing light. Winners always capture the look of "being on safari" at the zoo. The Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy contest solicits pictures to highlight the natural beauty and “wild” aspects worthy of preserving on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Each organization, magazine or newspaper's contest will all have their own goals. Remember that most photo contests are designed to gather photos for a magazine issue, calendar or advertising campaign. Your images must be appropriate for the desired publication and on target with the goals. Bottom line: capture the spirit of the contest in one image…Tell the "complete story" with your photograph and you will be successful. Remember, the judges are not looking for the best picture but the picture that best communicates the goals of the contest.

To be selected your photo must stand out from the crowd. Most photo contests gather hundreds if not thousands of entries. How do you assure your picture is selected as the best? There is no guarantee or “formula” for winning pictures as all judges or panels of judges are human beings with differing views and bias. You may increase your chances of being noticed by submit images that offer a different view or perspective on the theme. Great photos most often capture a unique moment in time, beautiful light or an unusual subject.  All three are critical in producing a winning image. A photo anyone can make at any time will not generally win.  The technique, subject and treatment must be beyond the ordinary to make your image "jump-off the table" and into the judge's consciousness. Remember, digital files must be seen as “amazing” as a small thumbnail on a monitor and prints must attract attention while on a table with dozens of other entries!

To win you must insist on quality at every step. A contest-winning photograph must communicate succinctly and display superior image quality with razor sharp detail, stunning color and brilliant contrast. Choose only your best-of-the best of each subject and enter that one best photo. There are no excuses allowed. Your photo must speak for itself. It all starts in capturing fantastic photos in the camera: light, subject and lens are critical. Shooting under dynamic light and producing meaningful exposures is paramount. Exciting use of light and shadow define great photography and great photographers. Utilizing creative composition controls the subject and the viewer’s interest. How you treat the subject gives it the communicative value required to tell your story. The lens choice controls angle of view, perspective, foreground and background and picture clarity. Image sharpness is a result of a photograph made with high quality optics, proper use of shutter speed to stop action, f-stop for depth-of-field and focus point to achieve high image quality. There is no substitute for a properly focused, properly exposed image shot with a professional quality lens. Double check your entry for critical sharpness and fantastic color before you make the submission.

The final step is the most critical. More contest entries are rejected because of poor quality printing that any other reason. Digital printing and editing are crucial to producing contest winning pictures. In the digital age you must learn to use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom properly to edit and print your photographs. You must learn to use your Canon or Epson professional photo printer or find a pro-quality lab you can trust to print your pictures. Effective editing and quality printing always separates winners from losers! The question is “How much editing?” Certainly cropping & sizing, adjusting levels (lightness & darkness) and color balance are required on every single picture. You may be tempted to use “all the tricks” on the computer. Resist at all cost. Judges can see (and will reject) an “over Photoshopped” picture quickly! Make your stunning print of an amazing subject tell the story. Let the color, light and life of the subject steal the show. Club-store prints, hoaky special effects and over processed hoo-haa never goes anywhere in a quality competition!

To win a contest you must produce a fantastic image which capture the spirit of the contest. You must catch the judge's eye and set yourself apart from the competition with stunning quality and a beautiful print. As a photographer you must use your skill, cunning and artist's eye to produce the winning image. Look for light, color, expression and composition when selecting your image for submission. Most importantly, enter. If you do not submit any entries you are guaranteed never to win!

Consider carefully.

Edit ruthlessly.

Print precisely.


Best of luck to everyone!

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