A Winner’s Advice for Entering Photo Contests

by Photo Life
© Anil Sud, Winner The World We Live In Environment category

© Anil Sud, First-Place Winner Environment category, The World We Live In

by Anil Sud, First-Place Winner of the Environment category of  last year’s The World We Live In

Entering The World We Live In image contest is a great way to participate in an photo contest with international reach while being hosted by a Canadian publication. It has a history of going back for many, many years and consistently draws a very high calibre of entries. Participating in a photo contest is a great way to put your best foot forward and share your prized imagery with like-minded individuals. If selected as a finalist or awarded a prize, it can serve as validation for your efforts and become a catalyst to go forward and produce even greater work.

When entering a photo contest, it’s important to keep several things in mind:
– Read and re-read the rules carefully. Small details in the rules could lead to disqualification of a winning entry if subsequently discovered to have contravened those rules. Some contests prohibit digital manipulation; others prohibit photos from being entered if they’ve previously been awarded a  prize. You want to make sure you are 100% in compliance with the rules to avoid being disqualified. If in doubt, best to send an email query to the organizers for clarification before entering.

– Have a clear idea what the categories are and pay close attention to the descriptions provided surrounding each category. They are there for a reason and will probably give you the clearest idea of what type of images the judges are looking for. I can’t stress this enough. You may have a stunning image of an eagle in the wild, but if the category is calling for wildlife in the urban setting, it’s not going to score high marks. All images entered should be strong, but it’s equally important that they are consistent with the theme of the category being entered.

– An image may fit more than one category so consider entering it in multiple categories if the rules permit it.

– I’ve found that images that are dramatic and have immediate visual impact tend to score higher in contests, particularly if there are very large numbers of entries. Remember that the judges may be looking at hundreds if not thousands of photos in rapid succession and have to make split-second decisions on whether an image advances to the next level. If it has any technical imperfections or doesn’t convey an instant message or strong emotion, it’s going to rank lower or be eliminated quickly. An image may have very pastel tones or have multiple subtle layers or qualities that need time to be appreciated. Unfortunately, they may get overlooked on first pass even though they can be very beautiful. On the other hand, if a subtle image survives the first or second round elimination, it may actually score higher when the judges are down to final deliberation and have the opportunity to fully appreciate the depth of an image.

– Try to be impersonal when evaluating images with subjects such as family or friends. The personal connection and emotional bond that the photographer has with the subject (think cute kid pictures of nephews and nieces) isn’t necessarily going to occur with the judges who have no pairing to the subject.

– Photo contests tend to draw tons of sunrises and sunsets, and the judges will tire of this quickly when seeing thousands of entries. Unless the image is extremely strong, I would tend to forego entering this type of subject.

– Be super critical of your own work before submitting. If you aren’t critical of your own work, don’t expect the judges to give you a pass. When in doubt, it wouldn’t hurt to have a friend (preferably a photographer) review your entries for a second opinion. If you have multiple versions of a single subject, only submit the one that conveys the message concisely. If you are not being brutal in your editing, you are not doing yourself any favours. The judges have to narrow down thousands of entries to just a handful of winners. By the nature of their task, they are forced to be brutal…so should you.

– Look at previous winning entries in online galleries or past contest issues of magazines to get a representative sample of the type of images that the judges select. This can give you a good sense of whether your submission is consistent with the type of photos that the judges prefer. I often keep back issues of photo-magazine contest issues specifically for this purpose.

– Look for a unique perspective when considering your image selections. Something that can pique the interest of a judge because of an unusual take on a commonly photographed subject will make the photo stand out from the crowd. Subsequently, it’s more likely to be short-listed due to the creative take. Avoid clichés at all costs. Believe me, the judges have seen it all and will be looking for something to break away from formulaic imagery. Even a well-executed technically perfect cliché doesn’t deserve to win a contest.

– Consider researching the background of the judges if known in advance. Should they happen to be photographers, evaluating the type of imagery they produce and share on social media or display on their website can provide insight into the style of shooting they connect with. Although I don’t generally do this, it might give you an edge over another entrant who doesn’t bother.

– I’ve noticed over the years that images that have some human-interest connection tend to do better in contests than those that are abstract or purely nature (unless that is what the category specifically calls for).

– Don’t get too caught up in winning or losing a photo contest. While everyone likes to win, the chances that any individual photographer will place or win a prize are extremely small due to the sheer number of entries but this isn’t a reason not to try. Remember, that this is art that we are dealing with, and judging is highly subjective. Personally, I take winning a prize in a photo contest with a grain of salt. (Conversely, I treat losing a contest the same way!) I’ve entered a countless number of photo contests over the years, and the number of rejections received could be considered crushing. Every once in a while, an image might get short-listed or even receive a prize. Such is the nature of participating in photo contests, and the sooner you can accept that, the better off you will be. When I make a submission to a contest, I try to assemble the strongest collection I have of thematically appropriate imagery, upload it to the website, press “send,” and then forget about it.

– Most of all, remember to have fun. Looking at contest-winning entries can be a great source of inspiration as they can provide a forum to bring out the best of the best work being produced. They can fuel your creativity to higher peaks and even reward your efforts with a prize if the stars align with the judges. If you don’t win, keep at it. Ultimately, it’s really the passion behind your image-making that counts, and the contest can be one vehicle to channel that energy.

My main sources of inspiration are quite varied. I regularly look at photo blogs like The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” and The Atlantic’s “In Focus” for human-interest photography. Regular visits to the newsstands finds me perusing sports, fashion, wedding, and lifestyle magazines, which covers a broad genre of inspiring photography. Of course, excellent photography can be seen online at sites like 500px and 1x.com. Finally, monthly printed photo magazines (like Photo Life) round out the list.

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