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How to Win a Photography Contest (11 Expert Tips)

How to win a photography contest

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Darren Rowse, Andrew Suryono, Yauhen Zaremba, Simon Bond, Nicholas Moeggenberg, and Christina N Dickson.

Photography contests are a wonderful way to improve your photography. While photography just for the sake of photography is a lot of fun, a competition can help you raise the bar as a photographer; after all, you know your image will be seen by a discerning group of judges and possibly even displayed along with other winners.

Photography competitions come in all shapes and sizes, and they range from small online contests and local competitions in photography clubs to international photography competitions entered by pro photographers.

Having judged and entered my share of photography competitions, I thought I’d write up a few tips for aspiring photographers looking to enter – and win! – photo contests.

1. Find the right photography contest for you

There are hundreds of photography contests out there, but instead of entering them all, find a few contests that you are particularly interested in. Many photo contests are easy and free to enter, while others will charge money, so pay careful attention to this!

Also, look for subject-specific contests. If you feel that your strength is in portraiture, then search the web for “portrait photography contests.” Whatever your strength is, find a handful of contests with that theme or subject type and bookmark them.

And try to vary the contests you enter based on how they are set up. Don’t only enter contests based on visitor votes, for instance; consider a mix of options to maximize your chances.

2. Know and follow the competition rules

how to win a photo competition

While they might be a little boring to read, the terms and conditions of entry to the competition that you’re entering are the place that you need to start when considering if and how to enter.

There are two main reasons for this:

  • How will the images be used? – Each competition will use the images submitted differently, and it’s worth considering the implications of this. The first competition that I entered made one of its conditions that they could use the images in pretty much any way that they wanted after the competition. This left a lot of photographers angry when their images started appearing all over the place.
  • It can mean the difference between winning and losing – One of the heartbreaking things about being involved in a competition is seeing the many wonderful entries that are submitted incorrectly, and, as a result, are not able to be considered for a prize. Read the rules of the photography competition to see how many shots you can submit, when they need to be in by, what format they should be in, etc. And stick to these guidelines; otherwise, you could well be wasting your time!

3. Stick to the competition theme

This leads us to our next tip, which is an obvious but important one: stick to the theme! I am always amazed when judging competitions by just how many of the images leave a lot to the imagination of judges in terms of how they relate to the theme.

While there is generally room for creativity and interpretation of themes, there’s only so far that a group of judges will allow an image to stray from the indicated theme of the competition.

While it’s always possible to find an image in your archive of shots that fits the theme of a competition, I actually have more luck when I shoot something new with the competition in mind. I not only get better results that way, but it also means I’m taking new images and learning more about photography in the process!

4. Follow the submission guidelines

how to win a photo competition

Pay attention to the image dimension that the contest requires you to submit. Typically, a lot of photo contests are bombarded with image submissions from all over the world, so they only require you to submit a small-resolution version of your image. Make sure to resize your image according to their specifications.

(Some photo contests are so strict that they’ll immediately disqualify your image if it’s not submitted according to their specifications.)

Make sure you pay attention to the submission deadline. Photo contests won’t let you submit images once the deadline has passed. Mark your calendar and set reminders!

5. Do some research

how to win a photo competition

After you’re done going through all the contests’ rules and regulations, it’s time to do some research. You’ll need to research and study previous winners’ work, and you should also study the judges’ work if you want to increase your chances of winning.

Image 3 study judges work
Image by Andrew Suryono

By looking through the previous winners’ work, you’ll get a sense of how they won the contest. Pay attention to their use of composition and color; also consider the message that they’re conveying through their photos. Pay close attention to their post-processing approach, and consider how it strengthens their images.

And always remember:

Photography contests are judged by humans. It’s subjective by nature. So by looking at the judges’ work, you’ll get a sense of their style and what kind of images they like. For example, if you find that most judges in the contest capture strong black-and-white images, you’d better think twice before submitted images with bright, saturated, and punchy colors.

6. Pick your images carefully

After you’re done with your research on the previous winners and the judges’ work, you’ll need to select images for submission based on your findings.

Go through your portfolio and see which photos stand a real chance of winning the competition. Be very selective with your work. I know that it can be hard to be self-critical, but doing this will dramatically increase your chance of winning the photo contest.

Pick photos that match three conditions:

First, you should personally think that they are better (or equal to) the previous winners’ photos.

Second, they should match the judges’ style and interests.

Third, they should show your own unique photographic style.

Matching all three of the above criteria can be hard, so just do your best. Then, submit your images, cross your fingers, and wait for good things to happen!

7. Aim for technical brilliance

This should go without saying, but from my experience as a judge, I can only say that many photographers seem to settle for less than their best.

If an image isn’t perfectly focused, exposed well, and composed strongly, don’t submit it. Instead, take another photo (or select a different shot).

Don’t settle for mediocre results, because the judges certainly won’t!

8. Avoid distracting elements

One of the big mistakes that I see in judging photography competitions? The photographer simply has not paid attention to every part of the frame.

Distracting elements pop up in backgrounds and foregrounds, and there can be pops of distracting color that draw the eye and detract from the overall image. It may not seem like much, but scanning your photo for distractions before entering the contest can mean the difference between complete failure and great success.

9. Go for a reaction

how to win a photo competition

As I think back on winning images in the last few competitions that I’ve participated in – both as a judge and as a competitor – it occurs to me that they all do a great job of connecting with those who are viewing the image.

So you should try to do the same! Tell a story, hit people with emotion, do something with a shot that connects with the viewer and evokes some sort of a reaction, whether sadness, happiness, humanity, gloom, or love.

Technically great shots without a soul will leave judges wanting something more. I know that when I’m faced with the choice between the technically perfect file and a shot that is slightly less technically excellent but that connects with me, it’s the latter image that usually gets my vote.

10. Promote your work

If you’ve entered a competition that relies on audience votes to determine the winner, then don’t just hope for the best – instead, encourage people to vote!

The best way to do this is on social networking sites. Copy and paste the link to the contest on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, your personal blog, etc., and tell people to vote for your photo. Let them know what the prize is, as well (they’ll be more inclined to help you if they know what they’re helping you win!).

Many people who enter voting contests just submit their photos and check back at the end of the contest to see if they’ve won. Therefore, if you are actively trying to get votes from friends, family, and fans or your work, you have a much greater chance of taking home the prize.

11. Enter another competition

Image 4 andrew suryono pictures trophy
Image by Andrew Suryono

Did you win?

Yes? Build upon your success and enter another one. No? Do try again! The glory of winning a photography competition fades in time – but the lessons that you learn in competing will stick with you forever.

Winning a photo competition: final words

I can’t guarantee that you’ll win any photo competitions, but at the very least, these tips will certainly increase your chances!

Don’t get discouraged if you submit an image and it doesn’t win. Remember that a photography competition is always subjective by nature. If an image doesn’t win one competition, that doesn’t mean it won’t win another. Also, there are plenty of benefits that you can get from joining a photo contest even if you don’t take home the prize.

Follow the guidelines above, enter as many photography contests as you possibly can, and hopefully you’ll win a couple. At the end of the day, it’s a number game!

Finally, keep shooting, and don’t forget to have fun!

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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