10 Tips to Help You Win Photo Contests

The winners of the 2011 Ocean Art Photo Contest were just announced a few days ago.

If you get a chance, it's worth clicking through to take a look at the selected photographs. There are some real "crackers" among them...to borrow a term that Marty Snyderman used many times during our group chat with fellow judges Martin Edge and Bonnie Pelnar, along with contest organisers Scott Gietler and Michael Zeigler.

The judging process for competitions like this is opaque, at least to people who submit photos. After you enter a contest, the next thing you hear is either "Congratulations, your image placed!", or nothing. Zip. Crickets.

In either instance, you might scratch your head and wonder why your photo was selected or why it wasn't, as the case may be.

This can be frustrating. Especially if you're looking to enter more contests in the future and could do with some feedback on the things you did well, as well as hints on how you could improve your odds of success.

I've had the honour of helping to judge several contests in recent months (DEEP Indonesia, Underwater Festival, Ocean Art) so I thought I'd share a few pointers as a means of providing some insight into how photos are selected or weeded out...pre-game mental prep for next year's contests, so to speak.

One caveat...the thoughts below are personal; they are things that affect my decision process. I am not in any way speaking for any of the other judges or contest organisers, so please don't give them grief if you take issue with anything I've written.

Whether you find yourself nodding and thinking: "Go figure. Tony actually has some good points" or shaking your head in disgust and sighing: "What an numbskull," I hope the issues I raise below will be thought-provoking and perhaps even help with your entries in upcoming contests.

For what it's worth, following are some of the key points that go through my mind when looking through photos.

1. Weed Out the Obvious
I'm referring to things like out-of-focus images, poorly lit photos, blurry shots (not intentionally so), and other basic issues with the techniques and mechanics of photography. In many contests, the organisers pre-screen entries, so a lot of these get taken out before the judges see them. But sometimes a few slip through, and in some cases, there isn't any pre-screening.

To cut to the chase...there's just no point entering images with issues like these. I know, that's harsh, but in order to stand a chance in any decent competition, you need to be your own worst critic.

If you find it difficult to be cold-hearted and objective about your own images, try to find someone you trust who can tell you: "This sucks!" without hurting your feelings.

Bonus points if that person can explain why as well.

2. Weigh the Subtle
These are considerations like composition (just a tad to the right, cropped a bit tighter, etc.), overall eye-catchiness (a bit hard to define, but obvious when you see it), minor blemishes and irritants.

Subtle issues are things that could go either way, depending to a large extent on the level of competition. What I usually do is take a quick run through all the images in a given category and make an initial gut assessment of overall quality level.

I don't pick any photos. I just make a mental note of whether the category is say super strong, so-so, weak, etc. When I go back through to do a first cut, the stronger the entries are, the harsher I am with subtle points.

Images in a photo competition are, after all, judged against peer entries.

Here's one example of something that might sway my opinion: Say you have a mind-blowing photograph of a bunch of manta rays taken near the surface, but just visible in the background is a diver with his head out of the water...so what you see, in effect, is a headless diver. This doesn't necessarily mean I'll cut the photo in question, but if there are other strong entries in the category, it'll definitely affect my decision.

3. Bemoan the Tragic
In every contest I've helped judge, there have been great photographs that were entered into the wrong category. In the most recent Ocean Art Photo Contest, there was a very nice photo entered into the Marine Life Behavior category, one that I immediately pegged as a high quality entry.

The thing is, when we got together via the magic of the internet to discuss our choices, we came to the reluctant consensus that the photo didn't actually show any behavior per se. Had it been entered in the Portrait category, I'd wager that it would've been among the top choices.

Bummer...because I really liked the photo and wanted to give it recognition. (Translation: I whined, but the other judges were correct.)

I suppose this goes without saying, but when you enter a competition, it's a good idea to read the category descriptions and ensure that you put your images up for consideration in the most appropriate one.

4. Nix Xerox Shots
There is a fine line between emulating someone's photo style, and just plain copying it. One of the advantages of being involved with several major contest is that I've seen lots of images. I don't always pick up on photos that are straight copies of other winning photos, but when I do, I immediately cut them. No questions asked.

I might be more of a stickler about this than other people are, but to me, photography is art. Art, by definition, requires originality.

There's certainly nothing wrong with studying other people's images and learning from them (in fact, that's the best way to improve), but if you want your images to receive recognition in a competition, avoid using the Xerox machine.

5. Bin Trendy Shots
Trends and fads come and go. I hate fads of all types, not just ones pertaining to photography. Fads can be subjects; fads can be techniques; fads can be places. But in all cases, fads are easy to recognise, and they're bad...especially in the context of entering contests.

With the ease of communication and information flow facilitated by the internet these days, it's particularly easy to sucked into the latest trend. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to the latest "in" destination, photographing the latest "cool" animal, or trying the latest "new" gadget, but just keep in mind that when everyone is visiting the same place, photographing the same animal, or using the same tool...it's difficult for your image to stand out from the crowd, because by definition, fads foster conformity, not originality.

An example here is the use of snoots. Snoots are not new or original by a long shot. In recent months though, they've become an "in" thing, with lots of photos that were obviously taken with a snoot showing up on the net and in contests. Whenever I see a photo with an overexposed spot/ cone of light surrounded by black, I want to gag.

Don't get me wrong. I have used snoots and snoot-like instruments for dog years, and I love them. But the thing about snoots is that they are tools. They are not magic sauce that makes an otherwise dull photo into a prize-winning image.

And as with the use of other tools, it's usually best when the result is subtle. In other words, if the first reaction that someone has when looking at your photo is: "Oh, you used a snoot", then the tool has overpowered the subject.

Photography is about subjects, not tools.

6. View Greyscale/ Monochrome Shots with Scepticism
If you greyscale an underwater image or convert it to black and white, there has to be a good reason. Too often, people do this just because the visibility is bad. That's not a good reason; bad viz. is just part of underwater photography.

There are certainly some images that work well in greyscale or black/ white, but shooting in monochrome is a different discipline, requiring a dedicated thought process/ approach, and in many respects, can be more difficult than photography in colour. This is true whether you're shooting underwater or on land.

Simply using software to change colour to monochrome doesn't cut it in most cases for underwater images.

If by converting your image to monochrome, you bring out an important point or evoke a feeling/ emotion that wouldn't work in colour...terrific! But if that point, feeling, etc. isn't immediately obvious, don't bother.

7. Consider Photo Quality Over Subject Matter
Photo competitions are first and foremost about photo quality.

This may sound like a "duh" statement, but there are always photos that appear to have been entered for subject matter rather than photo quality.

Photos of big animals most often fit this description, but this also applies to photos of rare animals or amazing events.

Big animals have charisma and presence, so as subjects go, they stand out. More people can relate to sharks, rays, dolphins, whales, and such than to teeny-tiny crustaceans, for instance. But there isn't an automatic hierarchy that dictates that big animal shots are better than small animal shots.

Ditto for amazing events like the Sardine Run, sailfish in Isla Mujeres, mantas at Hanifaru, whale sharks in Cenderawasih, and so forth.

It's easy to get carried away by the excitement of seeing amazing events, or getting a photo of a great white shark, but in my book at least, if you enter a photograph of a big animal or spectacle, the picture has to be more than good. It has to be out-of-this-world fantastic (like this winning manta image taken by Tobias Friedrich).

Bottom line...I'll always choose a fantastic shot of a smaller animal over a mediocre photo of megafauna or mega-event.

8. Look for Originality
By this stage, I will have reduced the number of photos to a manageable number, and I'll shift gears from looking for reasons to toss out entries to seeking reasons to choose winners.

The first thing I look for is originality. This is, in a way, the inverse of #4 above.

There is no easy way to define originality, but I know it when I see it. Look at the winning photos in any decent photo contest, and there will be a high originality quotient.

As but one example, look at this winning photo in the Nudibranch Category, taken by Salvatore Ianniello.

The radiating tube worm "ceiling" made this shot stand out like a penguin in Times Square. Maybe someone else has taken an image like this before, but I haven't seen one like it. It was an instant "Like!" for me.

9. Look for the Wow! Factor
A related, difficult-to-describe attribute I look for is the Wow! factor. Perhaps above all else, this is the single most important ingredient in a prize-winning photo.

It's the quality in an image that makes you stop, take a second look, and mutter "wooooow" as you stare at the picture. It's often an intangible quality not attributable to any one factor, but is something that's conveyed by the entirety of the photo in question.

Again, take a look at the winners of any photo contest, and you should experience a number of "oooooh" and "aaaaaah" moments.

10. Listen to the Force
Finally, it comes down to personal choice.

The best competitions receive lots of technically perfect entries that are original and have Wow!-factor appeal.

Every judge has different likes and dislikes, so given the same pool of photos, it's highly unlikely that any two judges will come up with the same selections. In the most recent contest judging, I had a chance to group chat/ discuss with the other judges, which was useful and fun, as it allowed us to exchange views and share observations about photos that we felt deserved recognition.

Listening to the reasons why someone else liked a photo changed my perspective in a few instances. As with many aspects of life, listening was as important as talking, if not more so.

So that's it. There's certainly nothing earth-shattering in what I've spelled out, but I hope that writing out some of my thoughts will help shed a little light on what happens behind the scenes, not just in this most recent competition, but for all photo contests in general.

While the list above applies just to me, and there are some points that are unique to underwater photography, I suspect that most judges for most photo contests go through a similar mental process.

You may have already picked up on this, but the selection process is often as much, if not more, about elimination as it is about picking winners.

So when you're deciding which photos to enter, it might be a good idea to make like you're a judge, and edit/ cut/ select photos accordingly.

One last note before wrapping up...always bear in mind that if your photo wasn't picked, it doesn't necessarily mean your photo wasn't good, or even great. The best contests are the ones that receive a plethora of mind-blowing entries, which often makes it impossible to give recognition to every photo that deserves it.