9 Fool-Proof Ways to Win a Photo Contest

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Photo contests offer many valuable benefits to photographers. They give us an opportunity to examine ourselves and our work, gain exposure, and ultimately push us to become better photographers. Do you feel like you are stuck in a rut? Photo contests also offer a means for expanding our creativity and stepping outside the box a little. I encourage every photographer, beginner or advanced, to consider entering into a photo contest and see how the experience improves you.

There are countless photography contests that you can participate in, both online and in your local community. For many of these you don’t even need to be a professional. Check out your local state or county fairs, or seek out photography groups within your area.

Whether entering a contest for the first or fiftieth time, there are several methods that, when put together, can give you that winning edge. These are 9 fool-proof ways to win a photo contest.

1. Read The Rules… Then Read Them Again

Remember in grade school when your teacher would remind you to read the directions before completing an assignment? Or to put your name on the paper before taking the test? This is like that, but multiplied by 100. Reading the contest rules is the first thing you do, and the single most important step to winning a contest. You would be surprised by how many entries are thrown out just on this factor alone. You could have the most amazing photo in the world, but if it violates any of the contest rules, it’s as good as not entering at all!

Make sure you read the rules prior to entering, and read them through many times. Check out important details such as entry submission date, entry format, model releases, etc. If you have any questions or hesitations about the rules, make sure to ask. Judging a photo contest between perfect entries is hard enough, so a single violation of the rules will guarantee your entry is thrown out right away.

2. Use Interesting Composition

One of the surest ways to stand out from the competition is by paying attention to your composition. Make it interesting! Don’t always place your focal point in the center, which tends to come off Rule of Thirdsas boring and predictable. Follow the rule of thirds by placing the focal point one-third of the way in from the edge of the frame. It is the simplest way to make a mediocre photo more compelling. But don’t stop there! Photo contests are a time for experimentation. Find new ways to make your photos unexpected. You want to catch the judge's eye and make your photo memorable. Try shooting from a new angle: maybe on the ground looking up at your subject. Or get in close, filling the whole frame. There are countless ways to make your photos unexpected by simply using a new composition. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

3. Be Obvious

Most photo contests revolve around one central theme or idea. You may be tempted to enter a photo you took years back that you absolutely love, because it kinda-sorta fits the theme. But when it comes to photo contests, kinda-sorta doesn't cut it. When the judges are down to the final two photos, and are struggling to make a decision, the photo they will choose is the one that undeniably, without a doubt fits the contest theme. If you want to win the contest, you must stick to the theme – the more obvious, the better. If you want to be creative, do so! But be well within the bounds of the contest theme. Be so obvious that a 3rd grader could see your photo and think Yes, that looks like wild nature (or whatever your contest theme is).


4. Get Perfect Sharpness

If your photo does not have perfect sharpness, throw it out. This is crucial. Soft images are the second step most judges will take during the elimination process, after throwing out contest rule violations. If you don’t know how to get tack-sharp photos, learn how before you enter into the photo contest. Taking 10 minutes to learn how will make the biggest difference in your chances of winning, and will catapult you past the dozens of amateurs who didn’t take the time.

5. Be Willing to Sacrifice

This is what separates the wanna-be photographers from the real photographers. More often than not, getting the glory shot takes sacrifice. When normal people are asleep at night, you are awake trying to get that Milky Way shot you’ve always dreamed of. While normal people take the paved road, you take the dirt path through bushes, mud, and mosquitoes to get to that amazing sunset. Normal people stare as you stop on the sidewalk to get pictures of that beautiful stained glass window.

Getting the glory shot means loss of sleep, trudging through mud, odd stares, and uncomfortable positions. But getting the glory shot is worth it. If you aren’t afraid to take pictures in rare, unexpected conditions, you will get the pictures that no one else dared to get. And more likely than not, your photographs will stand out leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. So dare to be unexpected, and dare to get the pictures no one else is taking. You might just be daring enough to win the photo contest!

6. Tell a Story

We all are human (yes, even the judges!), and as humans there is something in us that loves a good story. Even in our beginnings thousands of years ago we told stories through cave paintings, TellAStorydances, and simply word of mouth. The best photograph is one that tells a story, evokes an emotion, or conveys an idea. The judges are looking for a connection with the image – one that tells them within the first few seconds of looking at it that yours stands out from the rest. Practice looking for the stories happening around you, whether it is two people conversing on the street, repetition of shapes and colors in nature, or an object caught in action. Maybe the storytelling is done during post-processing when you heavily crop an image to create a sense of mystery and question. Whatever your story, be careful to stay within the parameters of the contest and not stray from the core theme.

7. Be Inspired

One of the most helpful ways to get your creative juices flowing is by looking at the work of others. Look for inspiration from your favorite photographers, or the abundant photography across the internet. But more than anything, seek out the work of previous winners of the photo contest you are entering. Most contests use the same judges every year. Viewing the work of past winners can show you what the judges look for in a winner, and you may even see a pattern. As objective as the judges try to be, they are still human. See if there is a trend among previous winners. Perhaps the judges lean towards a more artistic style, or perhaps they prefer more photojournalistic images. Let these previous winners be your guide, while being careful to maintain originality.

8. Get A Second Opinion

When deciding to enter a photo contest, it is always helpful to get a second opinion on your work (or third, or fourth…). The more feedback you can get on your work, the less subjective you will be when critiquing your images, and the more prepared you will be when it is time to submit them. You don’t need to seek out a professional photographer to give you feedback, though that would ImprovePhotoFacebookbe very helpful! Simply ask your peers, your family, your friends. Sometimes they will see something that you never noticed because you are too close to the subject. You can even search for critiques online – try our Improve Photography Facebook page! There are many great online communities built around helping photographers grow and improve. No matter what the feedback, in the end your photography is ultimately yours, so go with your instincts.

9. Don’t Give Up

Whatever happens, don’t give up. If you win the contest, congratulations! It is a wonderful feeling knowing your hard work has paid off. But you won’t win every photo contest. Even the best photographers lose. Think of it as an opportunity you had to better yourself, to be more creative, and to have fun! Think of the knowledge you gained and the doors you may have opened. You gained exposure for your work, which in itself is a reward. Look at the winners and see what, if anything, you can learn from their work. In the end, even if you lost, don’t let it keep you from trying again! I think it is best said in a quote by Mary Pickford: “For this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.” Never give up on your work. If you didn’t win this contest, try another.

I hope these tips were helpful to any of you who are considering entering a photo contest. For those who have entered photo contests before, what things did you learn coming out of it and what advice would you give to those who are looking to enter?

27 thoughts on “9 Fool-Proof Ways to Win a Photo Contest”

    1. Thank you kindly for this art. I am about to jump into my first ever photography competition (An international, at that!) I was invited to participate through my Instagram account. (visiones_de_vida_ll).

      I’ve been doing some research and came across your article (I’m subscribed to your site). Thank you very much for this. I have 2 and half months before submission and fees are due.

      Your truly,

      Raúl Luis Jr.

    2. Some great tips but unfortunately many of the photographs that now win competitions are very highly manipulated in photoshop and look totally fake.

  1. If you enter to win, you are going to be disappointed almost every time…especially in the beginning before you know what you are doing. Instead, enter to see if you can get selected into the show, enter to get to know the better photographers in your area, enter to be a part of something bigger. You may be surprised how many accomplished amateur photographers there are in your area.

  2. Another one:

    Look at the purpose of the contest. If they goal is to find 13 images for a food calendar, then “modern food” will not be depicted “right” with a disgusting fast food piece, awesomely photographed, taking a moral stand.. but the same image may win if there is an anti-obesity campaign running the contest.

    What is the contest for? What is “allowed” to win? What are they looking for?

    Sometimes this does not matter, a lot of times, though, it does.

  3. http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalregister/galleries/72157635803111794/

    I was just notified that I had a winning photo in the 2013 National Historic Landmark Photo Competition! They allowed 10 photos per person, so I entered 10. (Lord knows I’ve been to enough historical landmarks!) Many people only entered one or two. Look at the competitors’ photos to see what you’re up against. Just because it’s your favorite doesn’t mean it’s on par with what is being entered. Pay attention to the rules. Some don’t allow any adjustments to exposure, sharpening, etc.. Know what you can do- and what you can’t! Lastly, make sure that whichever contact email you give them, that you check it! They had been trying to notify me for over a week that I had won, but they were going to my junk mail box! I almost didn’t make the release deadline!

  4. These are all good points, but I take exception to the title. It these were really “fool proof,” everyone who followed them would win.

  5. Great suggestions. As a judge and someone who runs photo contests, these are very good ideas. But let me add a couple of additional thoughts.

    Judges don’t always agree. A winning image in one contest, or even published images, may not be selected or even make the finals in other contests. Contests and judges opinions vary. Don’t expect a great image to be recognized in every contest.

    There is a difference between technically excellent and well executed images and contest winners. A simple portrait with perfect lighting, tack sharp, and a great pose is a great accomplishment, but it is unlikely to win a competition. You also need a “moment” or something special that goes beyond the norm.

    It’s very difficult to differentiate an image of a common subject. In nature photography, 75% of submissions are birds or mammals. Most of the birds are common wading birds or common raptors. Most of the mammals are bears, lions, big cats, giraffes or zebras. If you use one of these subjects, you better have captured something truly exceptional and have a perfect image. A simple portrait with no action is unlikely to be recognized.

  6. Great overview, Christine. I think its important to enter photo contests not necessarily for the chance to win, but it gives you a much better idea of what other people are shooting and a chance to improve your skills. This is especially true of contests built around a single theme.

  7. You can enter a contest as getting a new photo assignment so you don’t get bored or run out of ideas. U can just use the contest as a starting point to get you outside and SHOOT pix. U dont even have to enter. A site that holds weekly contests on the web is dpreview.com

  8. Thanks for the great advice! I would definitely emphasis knowing what has won in the past…I entered a local photo contest and made sure I was “on theme” for the contest. However, the photos that actually won had no connection to the contest theme at all…they were “human interest” images, which were good, but from the standpoint of the contest theme they should have been discounted immediately. So know your judges if you can and what they like in an image. The actual winner of the contest I entered, a photo of a fighter in between rounds, was an image that was three quarters black…in terms of a quality photo, it was a dog. So try to know what to expect…the best images don’t always win…

  9. I would suggest a WOW factor at a quick glance. I suspect judges must make a quick pass through hundreds or thousands of entries. They probably don’t look closely at EVERY photo, or even most. You need to catch their attention, as though they are quickly flipping through pages of a book, and make them stop flipping for a second.

  10. Look at photographs that are winners. They should tell you what people want to see. Often you can get a good idea from observing last years winner.

  11. If you want to place or win a contest, be sure it is a judged contest, not a popularity contest. I’ve seen contests with winners whose pix were completely off Mark, but who had summoned 50 or more of their friends to “like” their submissions.

  12. My camera club runs a national open competition. I just participated in the selection day, in which three well-renowned photographers sifted through and judged the 4000-odd images. What it taught me is it’s all about initial impact, and doing something different. We saw so many of the same, contrived images repeated over and over. The judges took about 5 seconds to record their votes (electronically) from first seeing the image.

  13. what happens if it is for like a school competition for every school how would i win or what are the main thing i need to do?

  14. Reyna
    You should first follow the given rules and the rest is your skill, refer my above comment, hope that will help you

  15. Ramon de Fuego

    You are adorable, and I want to make sweet, sweet love to you down by the fire.
    Also, thanks for the article.

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