How to Win Your Next Photo Contest

Win a ribbon for your photography
Win a ribbon for your photography

Do you dream about seeing one of those big, fat, royal blue ribbons adorned over one of your favorite photographs?  It’s a major accomplishment to win a ribbon at a photo contest, and it can be a milestone on your path to photographic excellence.   But every path has to have a beginning, and I’m going to help your find yours.


First of all, you need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We all have our favorite photos stashed away in the far corners of our quickly growing collection of hard drives.  It’s time to get them out, dust them off and take a good, long, hard look at each and every one of them.  And you’re going to have to ask yourself some pretty tough questions as you review your portfolio of favorites.

As you look at your photos, put yourself into the position of a contest judge.  A judge is looking at a lot of photographs, not just yours. Over their collective lifetimes photography judges have looked at more photos than they can possibly remember, and one more shot of a sunset at the beach isn’t going to make them stand up and shout.   So the first question you have to ask yourself is “Does your photo stand out?”  The photographs that have the best chance of catching the judge’s eye combine impact, technical excellence and creativity.


If your photograph has impact, it will immediately generate an emotional response in the viewer.  They might feel happy or sad. They might have an overwhelming feeling of wonder.  They might even feel a little bit jealous that they didn’t take the picture themselves.  It doesn’t really matter what they feel, as long as they feel something.  If they walk away without some emotion response to your photo, they won’t remember it and they won’t come back to it.

Technical Excellence

Technical flaws will put you out of the competition.  It’s as simple as that.  Just imagine you’re on a cooking show and you’ve burnt the bacon.  You might be the most creative chef in the world – but burnt bacon is burnt bacon.  You just can’t get past it.   If you have an element in your photo that’s supposed to be sharp, it had better be sharp.  Your exposure needs to be spot on.  You should have seamless retouching, and your printing, matting and framing need to look professional as well.


Impact and technical excellence are pretty easy qualities to define, and they’re even easier to see in real life.  Creativity though, isn’t nearly as easy to qualify.  And then there is creativity’s big Catch 22.  To be creative, you need to be somewhat different from the norm, but if you go too far, your creativity might cross the line and become incomprehensible to the average viewer?  Too little creativity and you’re no different than anyone else.  Too much, and your work is misunderstood.  It’s a tough call, but my personal opinion is to “Aim for the Fences”.  If you are passionate about your work, then you owe it to yourself to present it with pride.  And if you don’t win the contest, you are at least exposing your audience to your individual style.

But let’s say you do really want to win a photo contest.  What can you do to put the odds in your favor?


First of all, read the rules.  You don’t want to lose a competition simply by making a silly mistake, like not taping the ends of your hanging wire.  Read each and every rule and if it’s not clear, fire off an email to the contest manager for clarification.


Do some research.  Most contests post their winning entries and if you do a search, you can usually find the winners of past years.  Now, just like with the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  Sometimes contests get new judges, or they keep the same judges but their tastes and interests have changed. Or you might get the judge who is on a diet and now only likes photographers of food.   But, at least you’ll have an idea of the types of photographs they have liked in the past.  It’s better than nothing.  If you check the winners for several years and you don’t see a single photograph of a flower, that’s got to tell you something.

You can also research the judges themselves.  Chances are they have a website that showcases their own photography.  Now I’m sure judges consider themselves impartial to style, but I’d bet that impartiality can be stretched a bit if they see a photograph that reminds them of their own work.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to create a piece just to mimic a judge’s style, but it could be the deciding factor if I was choosing between a couple of images I already decided were good enough to enter.

Get Some Experience

Be a big fish in a small pond.  You probably don’t want to enter some big national photo contest your very first bolt out of the gate.   It seldom pays to bet on that kind of a longshot.  Instead, consider some smaller, local shows.  Maybe even your local County Fair.  County Fairs are great at giving out lots of awards, and they often offer a couple of “classes” for entries, so professionals and amateurs aren’t competing directly against each other.

Okay, you’ve gone through your images and selected photographs that have impact and creativity as well as showcasing your technical competency.  You’ve done your research and you’ve selected photos from that list that will meet the requirements of the show, as well as appeal to the show judges.  Now, how do you actually deliver the goods?  While an awesome presentation of your photograph won’t guarantee you a ribbon, a poorly printed, matted or framed photograph can certainly hurt your chances.  Here’s a little bit of advice to help you put together the perfect package without breaking your budget.


There is nothing wrong with printing your photograph on your home printer.  But, I suggest you only print your photos at home if you have a dedicated photo printer, high-quality photo paper and you are familiar with your printer’s ICC color profiles.  ICC color profiles match your printer, your ink and your paper to achieve the best results.  If that seems a little bit too technical, then make sure you stick with paper of the same brand as your printer – those ICC profiles should already be built into your printer’s software driver.

As an example, if you’re using an Epson Printer, choose a high-quality Epson photo paper and simply select that paper from the drop down list when you print.

If you’re sending your work to a photographic printing company, it’s a good thing to know that not all of these companies are equal when it comes to quality.  A discount department store or pharmacy probably won’t take the time and effort to make sure your photograph comes out right.  You might do better with one of the big name commercial printers like Snapfish or Shutterfly, but to get the very best results, consider a professional-level printer, such as ProDPI, Bay Photo or Nations to name a few.  To find out more about printing companies, but sure to check out Jim Harmer’s 11 Online Print Labs Compared.  They do tend to be a little bit more expensive, but if you sign up on their mailing list, you’ll most likely receive special email offers.  That can save you a bundle.

Calibrate Monitor

One of the most common problems people encounter when they print photographs is having them all come out too dark.  That’s because most of us have our LCD monitor’s brightness controls maxed out to the right.  You can correct this easily by either turning down the brightness (I usually have my monitor’s brightness set at 80, but I turn it all the way down to 35 when I’m processing photographs), or you can add brightness to your photograph before you print.  You can find the right settings by trial and error, or you can invest in a Color Calibration Tool, which will automatically adjust the brightness of your display.  The added benefit of a good Color Calibration Tool is it will also calibrate your monitor’s color palette so you’ll ensure your prints look exactly like what you’re seeing on your screen.


Most photo contests have a limited amount of wall space.  To make sure as many high-quality photographs as possible get on the wall, size limitations are strictly enforced.  Most of the time, you’ll want to stay with a frame size of approximately 16 x 20 inches.  Frame size is calculated by the inside dimensions (the opening) of the frame.  If you added a frame width of 2 inches to a 16 x 20 inch frame, your total frame size would be 20 x 24 inches.  Finally adding those two dimensions together gives you 44 inches.

It’s relatively easy to walk into a frame shop and come out with a 16 x 20 inch frame.  You can even find pre-cut mats that are designed to fit perfectly in your new frame.  But, then you’ll come up against a problem that has been plaguing photographers for years – the inside opening of your mat doesn’t match the dimensions of your photograph.  Why in the world frame manufacturers and photo printers continue to concentrate on 8 x 10, 11 x 14 and 16 x 20 inch prints, mats and frames, when digital cameras produce 8 x 12, 10 x 15 or 12 x 18 photographs is beyond me.  But it leaves you having to make some difficult choices.


The easiest thing to do is to crop your work to fit a standard size.  This means you’ll have to reduce the width of your photograph to fit your mat.  Then you can buy off-the-shelf mats and frames and you’re done.  The second thing you can do is print your photograph in whatever format you prefer, and then cut or have someone cut a mat to match your print.  If you have the skills and the tools, cutting mats yourself costs more up front, but saves a lot of money down the line if you’re going to be framing lots of photographs.


But having a custom mat is only the beginning.  Now you’ll have to find a frame to fit it.  The best-looking presentation includes a mat that has the same dimensions around each of the sides of your photograph.  A two-to-four inch mat looks great.  And while having the same mat dimensions looks the best, there’s nothing wrong with having an 11 x14 print in a 16 x 20 inch frame.  Before you invest money in prints, mats and frames, make sure to take a moment and draw how it will look on a piece of paper.

Final Bits of Advice

  • Judges look at photographs first, and then they’ll examine your entire presentation to make sure the framing choices you made are appropriate for your work.  You do not need, nor in most cases will you score extra points for double matting or overly expensive frames.  Best to stay with white, off-white or black mats.
  • If you’re planning on signing your photograph or your mat, please remember the contest committee will probably put some tape over your name before it’s judged.
  • Your photograph, in most cases, is for sale.  Make sure you are providing a complete package that will not fade, discolor or fall apart.  This means using high-quality materials, including acid-free photo paper and mats.  It also means using wood (or metal if it is allowed) frames.  And the hanging hardware should be sturdy enough to hold the entire weight of your framed photograph.
  • Many contests are now allowing photographs printed on canvas, metal and even acrylic.  Make sure you check to see if you need to frame these alternatives.  And remember to stay within the size limitations for the show you’re entering.

Attend the Judging

After waiting with bated breath for the show to release the names of the winners, now it’s time for you to bask in the glory of your new-found fame.  Well, that might be taking things to the extreme, but having a judge place a ribbon on your photograph is a kick and I guarantee it will make your day.

If you do win, or even if you don’t, there are two more things you should do when you enter a show.  Make sure to attend the show’s opening reception.  It’s your chance to meet the judges, the other photographers in the show and the people in your community who care about photography. The connections you make may very well open up new opportunities for you to share your art.  Plus, you’ll get the chance to see some really good photography.  And if that weren’t enough, there’s often free food!  How can you pass that one up.

Finally, some judges are generous enough to schedule a walk-through review of the entire show, so contest participants can gain some insights into what they were thinking as they made their decisions.  You’ll gain some great insights that will put you on the path for even more competitive successes in the future.  Good luck!

This article was guest contributed by Kevin Reilly

3 thoughts on “How to Win Your Next Photo Contest”

    1. Credit goes to the guest contributor Kevin Reilly on this one. I pretty well added only the image of the ribbons at the top 🙂

      I agree though, Kevin has a great article here that should help anyone who wants to enter a photo contest – especially one that requires it be printed and/or matted.

      One thing I would add is that I tried mounting a print of mine for the Utah State Fair this past summer by myself and did a HORRIBLE job of it. Here in Utah there is a great little printer called Pixels Foto that does a great job with prints and could have done the mounting for a very reasonable rate. Wish I had done that. I thought that the mounting would be easy enough it wasn’t worth the $8 to have it done, but I am a photographer and not a printer so I will totally pay for that service in the future.

  1. Your Comment * Hi, the article was very helpful to me. I would also want to add that from my years of observation I find that photo contests are not a true measurement that could be relied upon to find a photographer’s excellence. You’ll find grand prizes sometimes won by beginners.

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