17 things you should know to win your next photo contest

“I’m sure I didn’t win this photo contest. I’ll just stop in to check as a formality,” I told myself as I pulled into the parking lot. 

I was a college student, fresh out of one of my first photography classes. Just for fun, I entered one of my photos into a local contest. It was an image I took of a New Orleans sunset on Lake Pontchartrain. Secretly, I really dug the photo, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the camera store that hosted the competition.

From beginner to professional photographers, the lure of a contest can be too tempting to resist. Winning a photo contest can be great as a validation of your skills, an excellent learning experience, and an incredible ego boost.

If you are considering entering a photo contest, here are some questions you should answer before shipping your entry.


Your initial research

Do you know the rules? For a contest organizer overwhelmed by entries, this is the easiest way to start cutting down the number of photos to review. If the rules say submit an 8x10, the first thing they will likely do is toss out all the non 8x10 photos without even looking at them. 

One of my old bosses used to say “on the first pass, we get rid of two types of entries: things that shouldn’t be here but are... and things things that are supposed to be here but aren’t.”

It was his way of saying ‘let’s not waste time with someone who can’t follow basic instructions.’

Did you follow the theme? Along the same vein as following the rules is staying within the theme. Don’t bother entering that great Fiji sunset photo in a Cherry Blossom contest. No one will even look at it.

What criteria will the judges use? Some photo contests are judged based on the quality of the photo, others are popularity contests. How will you win?

Who are the judges? It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the bio and portfolio of the contest judges. I like knowing what they think is good. Of course they are likely to recognize quality in genre outside of their expertise, but it can’t hurt to give them something familiar to consider.

What do the past winning entries look like? I’d scan the past winners for any patterns or clues to what typically makes the cut. Past performance isn’t always a guarantee of future results, but it is a heck of a hint.


Thinking strategically 

What does the organizer really want? Who is sponsoring the contest? What business are they in, and what might they really want from this contest? For instance, if a contest is hosted by your city’s travel bureau, you can infer that they are looking for images to showcase the city. Photographing in a travel magazine style might be a good strategy.

How much ownership will they take? Always be very clear how much control of your image you are willing to relinquish. Some contests will ask you to wave all ownership and rights to your image completely. This will allow them to use your photo in their own advertising or any other way they choose. If you are competing for exposure in a national publication, you might be willing to sign off on that approach. Some companies or ad agencies hold contests to get photography without having to pay fair market value. Are you okay with that? Make an informed decision.

What are the benefits of winning? Some contests are worth it for the chance to win money or camera gear. Some are worth it for the prestige or exposure. I have a friend who enters every contest she can because she just wants to have a long list of awards on her bio. What’s your motivation?

What are the costs? You can expect to pay a nominal fee to help the sponsors administer the contest. I’d be wary of exorbitant entry fees, especially from a sponsor with a track record you can’t verify.

Will you receive any feedback? For many photographers, good feedback from the judges is almost worth the price of admission. For me, nothing is more frustrating than getting a thumbs up or thumbs down without any further info on why. Of course, not all contests can respond with this level of detail to each entry. If you are entering contests to help learn and improve, it might be a good idea to focus on the ones that provide you more feedback.

Will you need model releases? Some contests will insist you provide model releases for any recognizable person in your photo. This is your first clue that they intend to use your photo commercially -- meaning, expect a winning photo to make it into the sponsor’s marketing and advertising. Even if the contest doesn’t require a release, you might still consider it. If an opportunity arises to license your photo, at least you will be prepared.


Submit your best photo

Is your subject obvious and in pin sharp focus? This is low hanging fruit for judges looking for reasons to discard entries. Make sure your subject is unambiguously clear to the viewer. Your judge is not going to work very hard to figure it out. 

Once your subject is clear, the judge will then want to know if it is sharp. Pay attention to camera shake or an auto focus that missed your focal point. 

Did you capture perfect exposure? The basics matter more than ever. You’d be surprised how many contests I’ve judged where the photographer didn’t take the time to get the basics right. It’s hard to win when you haven’t crossed that threshold.

Did you try a creative approach to the photo? This is a good time to let your creativity shine. You have to expect that judges will see plenty of photos taken from eye level or with no creative composition or storytelling. You are looking for an angle or an approach that will make your image stand out in a sea of sameness.

Did you name and describe your photo? This is a nice touch for me. A name and title completes a professional presentation of a photo. 

Did you get feedback from peers or mentors? After you have done all your own work in producing and selecting your best, get some feedback from other photographers you respect. Don’t just show them a photo and ask “do you like this or not?” I’d want honest feedback on the best photo and qualitative feedback on the strengths and weaknesses.

Start by showing your three favorites and ask them to choose the best one. In many cases, you will begin to see some trends. When you have a clear winner, ask for feedback on three things that work and three things that can be improved. Push for specifics rather than generalities.

Enter early. In the off chance judges begin looking at photos as they come in, you want to give yourself every opportunity to get careful consideration. Ideally you would expect them to look at all photos at the same time, but you can’t always count on that.

My first experience with a photo contest was a good one. The camera store selected my sunset as one of the winners and displayed it in their window for a month. Talk about an ego trip. That was really all I wanted.

Nobody wins every photo contest, however and neither have I. But throughout the wins, losses and learning opportunities, I’ve found that the clearer we are on the answers to these 17 questions, the better our chances of coming out on top.