Winning a photo contest, or placing highly enough for your entry to be featured, could be a great source of publicity. It can help to raise your profile as a photographer, and will also be something that you can add to your CV or website. Most photo contests also come with great prizes, such as equipment which you can use in your work or monetary rewards.
Taking part is half of the battle, but even if you participate, you need to know how to win. Follow these tips to make the most out of every entry, and ensure that you are not wasting your time.
Read the rules
Don’t just read the rules once, and not just twice either. The rules are probably the most important part of the entire contest, and if you get them wrong or miss something, your entry may not be eligible.
There are lots of things to pay attention to. The first thing you need to know is who is allowed to enter. If it is restricted to a certain geographical area or age group, you may find that you are not able to take part. It’s also important to note what type of images are eligible. Must they be taken after a certain date? In a certain country?
You should also make sure that you understand what will happen to the images that are entered. If you are handing over your rights in totality, you might want to think twice. This would leave the way clear for the company behind the contest to sell your images as stock later on.
Finally, note the submission rules. Normally there will be guidelines for the size of the image, but there might be other stipulations too. You might have to name the file a certain way or attach it in a certain way, such as in a zip file. There might be a minimum or maximum number of images if you are entering a series.
Quite simply, if you don’t read the rules properly, you might have no chance at all of winning. Read them one last time before you submit to be sure that there is nothing you have missed.
Research the theme
When you have decided that you want to enter and you know the rules clearly, it’s time to think about your image. While you might have something on hand already that fits, it’s likely to come off much better if you shoot something especially for the competition.
Think about the theme very carefully. You can do an image search, and look around for inspiration on sites like Pinterest and Tumblr where photographs will have been tagged with the keywords you need. Many themes are open to interpretation, with words like “hope” or “Spring”, while others might be more specific: you might be tasked with putting together the best possible image of a plate of food in a restaurant, for example.
You want to keep the theme clearly in mind as much as you can. It’s no use going for a clever, arty interpretation that leaves the judges scratching their heads. It’s far better to ensure that the composition and technique are top notch, rather than going for something obscure, even if it is unique.
Take some time to research the contest itself, too. If it has ever been run before, you could take a look at previous winners to see what style or quality they presented. You can also research the judges to see what kind of work they produce. It might help you to come up with something that they appreciate!
Think of it like taking an exam. When you sit down to answer the questions, you know that your aim is to produce the answers that the examiners are looking for – answers that are supposed to be given to you during your study. A photo contest is fairly similar, in that you just have to give the judges what they are looking for. Finding that out may be a more difficult task, but it can be done.
Plan your idea
The best images are often those which are carefully thought out. You will have researched the theme already and seen lots of ideas, but how many of them are all too common? You don’t want to simply submit an image which is the same as every other entry, as this will get you nowhere.
In order to truly stand out, you want to create something that is less obvious. The other option is to create something so technically brilliant that the judges can’t ignore it. Depending on how confident you are in your skills, this may be a challenge that pushes you too far.
The main things you want to look for are these: a compelling subject; striking colours or tones; strong composition; and clear interpretation of the theme. It’s a lot to think about, but the more you plan, the better your outcome will be.
Practice makes perfect
If your first try at getting a shot isn’t what you hoped for, don’t just give up and submit it anyway. You need to do your absolute best if you want to win!
Technical brilliance does not come naturally to everyone, so it may be that a little practice is required. Research beforehand about the right settings to use and how to create the best lighting for the particular situation you will be shooting.
Shoot again and again, and for as long as possible. You may only need one image to enter the photo contest, but if it takes 1000 shots to get there, then that’s how many you have to take. If the rules allow for photomanipulation or Photoshopping, then you may consider creating a composite from the best parts of several images. This will allow you to present an image which is technically perfect.
Of course, choosing that final shot may be a difficult task, especially if you do shoot at large volume. One common mistake that you can avoid at this stage is failing to pay attention to the whole frame. The model in the middle of your shot may be in focus and looking great, but the man who walked into shot behind her could spoil the whole image.
Pay attention to the sides of your frame, and any part of the background which can be seen. Also watch out for colours which clash or draw attention to the wrong part of the frame. These can all be enough of a distraction to score your photograph down.
When you have narrowed your selection down, it’s a good idea to ask a few friends or family members which shots they prefer. You may get conflicting opinions, but it’s a good way to at least gauge reactions. They may also spot something odd that you had not noticed.
Finally, remember that the best images are often those which incite a reaction, especially an emotional one. If you can reach out to the judges and pull on their heartstrings, you will definitely be in with a shot of getting the prize.
Triple check everything
Before you submit, read the rules again. Yes, AGAIN. There are so many little mistakes you could make that might rule you out of the running, and you don’t want that to happen. Are you allowed to use photographs which have already been published? If not, then be aware that putting an image on social media is widely regarded as publishing these days!
It’s also worth giving your entry a final check before you hit send. Have you chosen the correct file to submit? Did you save the correct version out of Photoshop? Have you left any obvious marks from your retouching efforts?
Only when you are absolutely sure that everything is right should you hit send. If you do it too early and then realise you have made a mistake, you might find that it is too late to change anything about your submission!
If at first you don’t succeed…
Make sure that you don’t just enter one competition and leave it at that. Like anything, entering photo contests is something that you can get better at with experience! If you end up not winning, take a look at the photographs which were selected and compare them to your own. Where do they succeed? Where do yours fail? Did you interpret the theme correctly, or could you have done more?
This experience can be carried forward into your next contest. Keep trying and building up your work for these entries. The technical skills you learn might be invaluable for your career as a photographer, and you will also be gathering some fantastic images for your portfolio.
Even if you enter a hundred contests without winning, keep going – you might find that number one hundred and one is your lucky break! Once you do win, allow yourself a short break to bask in the feeling of success. Then get back to it and see how many more you can win!