First Class Photography: Contests

At some point, you may become interested in entering a photographic contest. There are many to be found on the Internet, in newspapers, and in magazines. Local, national, and international exhibitions are also available. Your local club may be a good place to begin your search. In addition, you’ll find photo contests offered in connection with both local and state fairs. Some require an entry fee.

A Win-Win Situation

One simple fact should be obvious: You can’t win a prize in a photo contest if you don’t enter a photo contest. Of course, this means you must take a chance of not winning. Notice I didn’t say that you take a chance of losing, because in my opinion you never lose if you enter. You always learn something from the experience.

I’ve known photographers who’ve entered many contests before they began to win. I’ve also known some that won with their early efforts but never seemed to be able to do it again. Then there are those few who won ribbons in their first contests and keep on winning. They are rare. However, even if your photo doesn’t win a ribbon, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good photo. On the other hand, if you enter a club competition in which the images are scored and your photo receives low scores from several different judges, then you may wish to take a close look at your work. There’s probably something amiss. (I’ll share an example from my early experiences later.)

Why enter a contest in the first place? I found that doing so made me look at my pictures more closely. I also studied the work of other photographers and saw what made their results good or bad. I began to apply what I learned to my own work, forcing myself to weed out the poor photos that I had initially thought were good. In a few years, I looked back on the pieces I had entered early on and wondered what I had seen in those images.

Selecting Your Entry

What does it take to have a winning photograph? First, read the contest rules carefully and make sure your photo is in the correct category and fits all the size rules plus any other technical rules. It’s terrible to lose because you didn’t pay enough attention to the guidelines. Once, after a large local contest, I was told my photo had been picked as the winner–until someone decided to measure the size of my mat. The width of the mat from the photo to the outside was off. There were definite rules, and I failed to follow them. I paid the price. That’s part of the game.

Next, you must have a photo that’s technically excellent. The exposure, sharpness, and composition must be well done. In addition, there may be many photos similar to yours in the contest, so you must include one essential ingredient in your work: originality! Your image must have something different about it–something a judge can hang onto to pick it out of the crowd of other good photos. For example, if your photo is going to be a nature shot of a wild bird, try to get one of the bird doing something unusual such as building a nest or feeding its young. If your shot is of your pet, don’t just shoot Rover lying down. Capture him in a humorous predicament. Or have him looking as majestic as he could possibly be. Seek out something different.

I mentioned that I had an example I wanted to share with you from my earliest days of serious photography. Back in 1964, I took two photos of the same scene. It was a very lucky shot, but the fact that I saw it, got out of the car, and took the shot had nothing to do with luck. An old boat rested with its bow on the grass in front of me and its stern in the blue water of a pond. Beyond the boat, blue water disappeared into fog as cypress trees blended into the fog near the water. A reflection of the trees stretched out from the fog across the water between the trees and the boat.

The only difference between the two photos I took was that in the first, I had the boat come directly out of the center of the bottom of the photo. In the second, I had the boat coming out of the left-hand corner. I liked the original shot best, so I entered it in several exhibits. It did so-so, but never won any ribbons. As a lark, one day I entered the second shot of the scene. Voila! I won a ribbon. In fact, the second version won many more ribbons and awards for me. I also sold it several times. (Guess which image I like best now?)

The old boat in the foggy pond was an unusual subject, but I chose the wrong perspective. When I got that right, I had a winning photo. Actually, I found out which was the better image by showing the two versions at a camera club meeting and listening to the reaction of the viewers. Listen and learn.

Keeping A Sense of Perspective

Lastly, you can’t wear your feeling on your sleeves if you want to compete. I’ve witnessed many people decide not to enter a contest, because they couldn’t stand to see their favorite photo subjected to the scrutiny of a judge. Remember; a judge is a person. That person will have his or her own set of likes and dislikes. If the final decision comes down to two technically equal photos, then the judge may well pick the subject matter he likes best. This is not always true, but it happens.

Judges also make mistakes, like the time one gave my monochrome color shot a second place in the black-and-white division and then bought the photo. I was honest and told those who ran the show what had happened. They told me to keep the ribbon and money. If the judge likes your work, she likes it. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t. You’ll win some, and you’ll lose some, but you’ll always be a winner if you learn.


So remember:

1.) You can’t win if you don’t enter.
2.) Enter to learn. Listen, but never argue with a judge.
3.) Look closely at your work before entering. Enter only your best work.
4.) Read and follow the rules closely.
5.) Carefully mat your photo within the rules. The display can make a difference.
6.) Shoot and pick a photo that is different, but it must be technically very good.
7.) Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeves. (Judges have their own likes and dislikes but they have the advantage of having seen more photos than you have.)
8.) You’ll win some and lose some, but you’ll always win if you learn!

Now go enter!

Note from the Apogee Photo Editor: Be sure you read this before entering any contest on the Internet and make your decision based on knowledge.
Photo Contests Revisited: Are They Still “Photo Fishing”?


By Willis T. Bird

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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