How to Win Prizes with your Pictures

One of the great thrills for any photographer is to see your pictures published in a fine book or leading magazine. But winning a prize with your image easily tops that.

Your image has caught the eyes of the expert (and pretty hard-to-please) judges. That’s rewarding in itself. But you know too that your picture has been singled out of thousands of other entries: this is nectar to the ego, if nothing else.

I was one of the judges of the Sony World Photography Awards which was celebrated last month in Cannes, France and trawled through thousands of images for that (though not all the 70,000). Alongside the Awards, I was also a judge for the University Shoot-out in which ten of the leading photography schools of Europe competed for over Euro €45,000 of Sony Alpha A700 cameras and lenses. I’ve judged a couple of other competitions since then: in one case, reviewing several thousand images a day.

Primarily, of course, prize-winning images are fabulous shots. But you’ve probably looked at some winners and wondered why they won. It’s because being a fabulous shot is not enough.

There’s more to it, and that’s what I want to share with you here.

Go Somewhere Different

The world is getting smaller, we are all travelling more and to more adventurous places. Yet the same old locations or types of locations turn up again and again. Monasteries in Bhutan. Taj Mahal. Canyon de Chelly. Ngorongoro Crater National Park. Of course that’s because those locations are fabulously wonderful for photography. They are, dare I say it, almost too easy to photograph.

The beauty of photograph is its ability to open your eyes. And when you open your eyes to beauties and loveliness near you, another miracle happens: you open other people’s eyes too. The best example of that I know is Bruce Davidson’s work on Central Park, New York – not many people’s first choice for a photography expedition. Take a look at what Mr Davidson can do: some of these images, like the birds in the snow, the couple nestling together, are the closest to music that I know:

For more from the book, look up Bruce Davidson’s ‘Central Park’ at (it’s not in the main list of books but hidden under ‘Books’).

Anyway, all too often, what happens is that competitions receive numerous images from the same place. This makes judges a little bored, they get a little testy; they like surprises. So, if you do find yourself in one of these wonderful, but popular places …

Shoot Something Different

Try being different: look at how others photograph the famous sights and see if you can do something out of the ordinary. That’s one way to surprise judges. A slant on the subject that’s unusual, a funny angle, or touch of humor can work wonders to a hackneyed or clichéd scene.

Wildlife photographer of the year winnerWe have so many wonderful pictures of well-known subjects, we are at the point that the less-obvious is preferable. We know what elephants look like now – roaming the plains, charging at each other, charging at the cameraman, feeding on trees. So now quite an abstract shot of an elephant makes it to the top. Indeed, that may now be the only kind of elephant shot that will not be passed over by judges. See the winner of last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year. While you’re at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year site, take at look at the Creative Visions of Nature section. I like the Lion’s Tail.

Avoid Imitating Last Year’s Winners

It’s useful to learn from what wins but that’s not the same as sending in a very similar shot for next year’s competition. The reason is that, even if your shot is better than last year’s, judges will remember. And no-one wants two similar-looking shots to win the top slots. You can imagine that photography magazines and websites, whose editors have similarly long memories, will think when they receive a picture that looks the same as a previous winner. It will not seem like new material (it’s not).

For competitions that have been running a few years, it’s worth looking at the past winners so you can work out what not to submit. I guess it’s advice similar to previous point, but in bucket loads.

Take a look at the winners galleries in Travel Photographer of the Year, for example.

Remember The Competition

You’d be amazed at how little attention people pay to the competition rules. It’s obvious really, but I have to say it, having judged competitions where literally thousands of entries have been rejected simply because they did not comply with rules in one way or another:

Read the rules, follow the instructions to the letter!
Let me say it again: Read the rules, follow the instructions to the letter!

In one recent competition, only one of the set of finalists actually followed the rules to the letter. Strictly, we could have simply disqualified all the others but fortunately, the finalist who followed the rules also submitted the best photos – maybe there’s a lesson in that.

Technical Quality Tops

It also goes without saying that the technical quality of what you send in should be tops. By that I don’t mean that you have to use the big shooters from Sony, Nikon, Canon, Pentax to make the shot as even top competitions will accept images from 6-megapixel cameras. And I don’t mean they have to be perfectly sharp.

But they have to look as if you’re in complete control of the image: if it’s meant to be blurred, it should be blurred by just the right amount. If the horizon is on a slant, it should convincingly so, enough to make it look deliberate. If anything is not focussed perfectly, it should be for a reason that enhances the visual message.

And finally, do not over-sharpen or over-saturate your images. With modern cameras it should not be necessary to add much, if any, sharpening. And it should not be necessary to pump up colours by much, if any.

Send in Good Time

Being human, we tend to leave things to the last minute. In the days of snail mail, that did not cause too much of a problem: the poor competition office simply got flooded with sacks of mail in the last few days to the deadline. These days, there’s a real problem: when everyone tries to download images to the competition in the remaining day or two, the server is drowned, its band-width – think of a canal carrying water – cannot cope with the amount being sent in, and it crashes like a canal flooding with rainwater. Files get lost, corrupted, you have to send again: it’s chaos you can do without, so enter in good time.

Read the Sub-Text

I find it’s best to print the rules out and carry them around with you for a while. No-one quite gets every nuance of what they are looking for into their rules. You may have to read the sub-text or between the lines. Look at what kind of company is the main sponsor, that may affect the choice of one of the winners.

For example if the competition is about animals, ensure that you do no stress your animal in making the photograph or use any cruel method – like tying them to one position or use live bait – to obtain your results. This may not be specifically forbidden but you can be sure the judges will be expert at spotting tell-tale signs.

However, if one of the main camera manufacturers is involved, don’t worry that they’ll be prejudiced against shots made on other cameras (unless the rules forbid it, of course). In my experience, camera manufacturers are very broad-minded about who uses which make of camera.


And here’s the final ingredient: it helps to have a bit of luck, but the more you enter, the more luck you’ll have.

By the way, when you search for competitions to enter, don’t forget to try ‘call for entries’ in addition to the obvious strings like ‘photo competition’. Online magazines are good sources, as is: (scroll down past the ads).

The best of luck to you!

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Barry N. Frankel

January 20, 2010 @ 6:43 am

This article is awesome. Gave me a lot of nice ideas where and what to shoot photos at in order to make it more interesting and exciting to go on the field.

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