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Top 10 Tips to Win Photo Contests - What the Judges Look For

written by: Loreena Walsh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/25/2009

Learn the top 10 tips for winning photo contests and you could be on your way to creating your own award winning photography. Find out what the judges look for when judging photo competitions.

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    Get Started With Photography Contests

    Gone are the days when Photography Contests were considered the domain of the professional photographer. There are hundreds of photography contests available to both amateur and professional photography enthusiasts. From local camera club contests to international photography competitions, themed or open entry, there is sure to be a contest to suit every keen photographer.

    Of course, just with any other contests, there’s no better feeling than winning. The validation that judges are as impressed by your photos as you are is reason to be proud. For many photography enthusiasts, they may battle to ever experience that winning feeling, but don’t despair, here are 10 tips for winning photography competitions that will put you on the winning path.

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    1. Understand the Photo Contest Rules

    It’s really vital that as a first step, you understand the terms and conditions of the photo contest you are entering. There have been many competitions where amazing photographs are disqualified because they haven’t followed simple rules of entry. Be sure to check instructions on file format, file size, subject or theme, entry close, entry fees, mounting instructions for submitting prints, maximum entries allowed and any other special instructions.

    Another important consideration is copyright transfer. Some competitions state ownership of copyright once your photograph has been entered, of course this is not something most photographers would be comfortable with, so it definitely pays to check all the fine print.

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    2. Creative Interpretation of Themes

    Often a photography contest will be based around a specific theme. For the amateur photographer it's great to keep an eye out for local area photo contests. Competing locally often means there's plenty of time to capture that perfect shot without having to travel from home. It also means that professional photographers are less likely to enter, especially in photography competitions that are run by newspapers and local companies.

    No matter what the theme, whether it be a single descriptive word such as "love", "smiles", "family" or a complete brief on exactly the type of photo required, be sure to think outside the square. Think about the theme and then think about different aspects of the topic. Love could include a number of interpretations, often children and family, so think about including animals, a heart drawn in the sand at sunset, or a heartbreak scene.

    A small warning, while it's important to creatively interpret photo contest themes, be sure to stick to the theme, something too way out with no artistic reference to what the judges would expect could lose the competition even if it is the best photo of the day.

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    3. Creative Product Placement

    If the photo contest you are entering is being sponsored by a specific company or product, then as long as it is practical and it makes sense, use their product in the shot. Of course this isn't always possible, but it really can influence the outcome of the contest. Be creative with product placement, boring shots of your subject holding a bottle of juice, standing in front of a company sign etc, aren't going to inspire, get creative and increase your chances of winning.

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    Please continue on to page two to learn additional tips and tricks on how to win photo contests and what the judges look for.

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    Winning photography contests is possible for anyone. Learn what the judges are looking for and the top 10 ways that you can increase the chance of winning a photography contest.
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    4. Understand the Rules of Photography

    Just like with any art, it's always fun to break the rules. Just remember that before you go breaking the rules of photography it's a good idea to know what the rules are! For example, understanding the rule of thirds is one of the first things amateur photographers should learn. Understanding great composition techniques, framing your subject and a number of other common rules can be broken to create inspiring and award winning photographs. Just remember, there is a good way and a bad way to break the rules.

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    5. Plan Ahead to Stand Out

    Photography contests run all year worldwide, most professional photographers enter the same contests each year and have a set photo contest schedule so they can plan well in advance. Get to know competitions that may run regularly and take time to capture inspiring photos across a range of subjects. For example, if you know there is a photo contest in summer with the theme "fun", chances are that a majority of entries will be of the beach or outside summer activities. Make your entry stand out by having a winter theme (prepared earlier of course). Drag your snowy or wintery photos out and enter one, you might just be surprised.

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    6. Tell a Story

    All great photos tell a story, what's important is that people who view your photo, especially the judges, can tell what that story is. Take a look at your photo and look constructively. If you weren't the one taking the picture would you be able to tell what it was about or what the photographer was trying to achieve? Even better, get some friends and family to take a look, and ask them to tell you what story they see within your photo.

    If an entire photo essay is required for the contest, be sure that the photos are well linked but still different enough to add depth and interest to your chosen theme. Your photo essay does not have to capture the same object or subject in each shot but using techniques such as creative product placement or location you can carry the story throughout.

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    Please continue on to page three to learn additional tips and tricks on how to win photo contests and what the judges look for.

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    What do judges look for when judging a photography contest? Here are the top 10 tips on how to win a photo contest.
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    7. Evoke Emotion

    Another trait of great photos is their ability to evoke emotion. What do you feel when you look at the photograph? Similarly, ask friends and family how your photo makes them feel. Be sure the story & emotions of your photo reflect the theme of the photography contest.

    Emotions about a photo don't always have to be positive ones to win photo contests, what is important is that the image you capture raises some feelings to the viewer. It may be happiness, shock or awe, but know what emotion you are trying to aim for and using great technique and post processing be sre that is what your final image portrays.

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    8. Technical Excellence

    Before you enter a photo contest be sure that the photograph you are submitting is one of technical excellence. Shots that are out of focus, blurred, taken in low light, over exposed or under exposed, have lens flare or any other number of issues should not really be submitted as a photography contest entry.

    There are however exceptions to the rule, and there have been many out of focus photos that have won contests, the trick is knowing how and when to break the rules to create an artistic and classic photo.

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    9. Appropriate Post Processing

    One must remember the tip for winning photography competitions is to use post processing techniques appropriately. Like other areas of life, when it comes to photo post processing, less is often more. Basic edits such as fixing levels, contrast, and cropping can all take your photo from ordinary to amazing, but don't be tempted to take your adjustments too far.

    A great photo will stand out for just what it is, great. It is unlikely that by going to the extremes of photo editing that you will create a masterpiece, more likely you will find judges looking straight past your photo. Another important reminder is to be sure that editing is allowed for submissions. Many photo contests list specific post processing that is allowed, and all other techniques may cause disqualification, so it pays to read the terms and conditions to be sure.

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    10. Have Fun

    No matter what happens with your entry, enjoy the journey from the first click of the shutter to sending your entry in. Not everyone can be a winner, but you never know whose eye you might catch or just what surprised can come out of entering contests. Enjoy taking photos, continue to improve your skills and ideas and keep entering.

    Having your photo on display and hearing great feedback from judges can help take your photography to another level. The most important thing is to relax, enjoy the creative process and you just never know when a photo contest win might be around the corner.