Photography Competitions | What Makes a Winning Image

There’s no doubt that entering photography competitions can be a fantastic way of gauging your progress and can really help you to progress. Of course the term “photography competition” can cover anything from winning the wooden spoon at your local camera club right up to world-class competitions run by the established professional photographic institutions and bodies. So it makes sense to enter competitions which are targeted towards your particular level and to gradually enter the better competitions as you progress and improve. Competitions aren’t for everyone, there are usually only a very small number of winners and therefore there are likely to be an awful lot of losers. Of course those entries are not necessarily “losers” since many of the non-winning images may be very good indeed, abundantly saleable even. So why don’t these images win? Quite simply because competition judges are looking to see that a list of important criteria are met, since this will indicate the photographer’s technical and creative abilities and their understanding and control of their craft.  Clients on the other hand are likely to be far more interested in how a photographer captures emotion or moments which are precious to them. But when it comes to competitions, what makes a winning image?

  • camera craft – the photographer must demonstrate an understanding of exposure, metering, depth of field, colour temperature and tonal range
  • an understanding of the subject – portrait photographers must demonstrate skill in posing and directing their subject (to show emotion and narrative); sports photographers must show evidence of capturing decisive moments in the action; press photographers must understand narrative, and so on
  • composition – there are many elements which create a strong composition, from the very complex to the very simple. Competition judges will at the very least expect the photographer to understand subject placement relative to other parts of the scene, the use of colour, shape and form, leading lines, rule of thirds, pattern and texture

  • creativity – the ability to betray the subject in an interesting or aesthetically pleasing way – the initial impression of an image is vitally important and images with impact will always do well in competitions – aim to give the judges the ‘wow’ factor
  • light – an understanding of how light can be used to shape the subject and reveal form and texture
  • processing – the way you process your photographs can make all the difference between a flat uninspiring image and one with real impact. Competition judges will expect to see a full tonal range and plenty of detail. It might also be appropriate to process the image more creatively if the subject matter demands it. There must be no blown highlights and you will need to take care to avoid blocking the shadows or introducing banding or colour casts

  • output and presentation – you’ll need to show an understanding of the printing process, from monitor calibration, preparing the file for output using the correct profiles for the media on which it is to be printed, to sharpening at the correct level and ensuring correct density in the finished print. Then the print must be mounted in a way which compliments the photograph, with meticulous attention to detail

It’s not uncommon for me to receive e-mails from photographers who are disgruntled or upset because they have received a low score in one of the industry competitions. Often the images have glaring faults such as blown highlights, missed focus, motion blur, camera shake, noise, over sharpening, incorrect white balance, to name but a few common errors. Part of the problem is that many photographers become attached to their own work, perhaps their friends or family have told them their pictures are great and the photographer has not yet reached the stage of being able to recognise problems and weaknesses within their work. This comes with experience and training and you really have to be able to detach yourself from your pictures before you will be able to assess them impartially. The leading photographic bodies such as The Societies, the British Institute of Professional Photography, the Master Photographers Association and the Royal Photographic Society all offer mentoring as part of their membership package and I would encourage anyone interested in competitions or distinctions to submit images for critique. Initially it can be a shock to receive the comments back but after a ‘sinking in period’ the photographer can normally start to see what the mentors were talking about and can then take steps to make the necessary improvements. All of this comes with experience, and takes time and patience. Learning what makes a successful image is a bit like learning to perfect your golf swing or your tennis strokes, you will only become consistently good with years of practice and at least some degree of coaching. So don’t be put off if your images are not well received, see it as the start of the journey of improvement and aim to do better with each submission.

Qualification panels are a little different to individual image submissions, in that a panel (a collection of anything from 15 to 25 photographs) must work as a cohesive whole. Panel submission must show a range of skills and therefore some diversity in composition, framing and viewpoint. It would therefore be extremely risky to submit a collection of head shots, unless you could create the necessary variety using subject expression and emotional impact. If you offer the judges more than two alike images in any panel, it’s likely you will fail. One of the best exercises when considering a panel submission is to review as many existing successful panels as you can, so that you can see how the photographer has met the various criteria against which he or she will judge each panel submission. I repeatedly hear photographers say “I want to submit a panel but I don’t want to have to change what I do and shoot for the judges”. This is quite a misguided statement – you not shooting for the judges, but you have to understand that those judges are required to mark panel submissions against a set of criteria – but if you cannot successfully meet that criteria then your panel will fail. That has nothing to do with the individual mindset of the judges,  instead it’s about demonstrating that you have the necessary skills against which professional qualifications are awarded. This is quite a logical, if you think about it.

Here in the UK there are three professional levels of accreditation, examined by the established photographic bodies. These accreditations are Licentiate, Associate, and Fellow. At Licentiate level the client knows that the photographer has been assessed for general competency and can be expected to provide images of a consistently merchantable standard. An Associate is a creative perfectionist who has gained a comparatively rare place in his or her genre and quite often Associates will go on to judge other photographers and will advise on Panel submissions. Then there are the Fellows, who have demonstrated a level of uniqueness and creative excellence which squarely places them at the forefront of photographic artistry – Fellowship is often referred to as the ‘photographer’s Everest’.  Any photographer submitting a qualification panel will do so before the Fellows of the awarding organisation.

I recently came across an excellent PDF on the website of one of my favourite photographers, David Ziser, who has a fantastically informative blog: Digital Pro Talk. The PDF talks you through what to look for in a successful competition print and can be downloaded here: How to get Winning Scores in Print Competitions

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  • Stephen Scharf - March 6, 2013 - 4:20 pm

    Great photos and illustrative images, Lindsay. As always, your posts for photographers are educational, thoughtful, and informative.


  • Mag D - March 11, 2013 - 11:05 am

    Brilliant write-up Lindsay, your explainations of the ‘pros and cons’ is a great help to novices like me, some of them I have never even thought about, now I am looking more carefully at photographs . .. making comments and of course picking out faults that I myself have made. Thank you.

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