How to Do Well in Photo Competitions

Summary – Yesterday I told you to shoot for yourself – not competition judges. You decided not to listen, but to go on and compete. OK, have it your own way. Here’s some advice on how to improve your chances for success.


My first piece of advice

😉 Avoid entering images like this 😉

A snow ball in hades has a better chance of survival

001D800E_130827_123356__DSC9488 pse-acrblog


My advice is based on  experience in

Competitions, critique sessions and large juried exhibits

Both as a competitor and judge

Now I just shoot for myself (and write)

A disclaimer –

This advice may help you do better in competitions, but

Is not much help in terms of being a better photographer

They aren’t necessarily the same

Sometimes mutually exclusive IMO 😦

A clarification –

I am not against camera clubs – to the contrary

A good club is an excellent vehicle for learning

Just be careful what you learn

If on occasion I use the word rule,

This really means guideline


1. Here is the 1st, and absolutely most important guideline

You must understand how judges think

Not only judges, in general, but also

The judge specific to your event


Further – know that apart from different judging styles

EVERY judge has one SAME thought in common

It’s the rule that each of them MUST follow –

“I MUST throw out 75% of the images that I see!!!”

This being the case, every image flaw

Large or small

Real or imagined

Is the end of the road for your image

Take no chances

If you have even the smallest doubt – about anything

Don’t enter that image!

And – you still don’t want to shoot for just yourself?


Read about how images are judged

Attend a judge’s training course if you can

This will give you the broad outlines of what to expect

Abiding by the “judging rules”  you learn won’t guarantee a win

However, violations are guaranteed an “Out!”


Assuming you know who a specific judge will be

Do some research & check out her background

For example, if the judge is a photo journalist you can expect

She wants to see images with instant impact

Pastoral landscapes are apt to fare poorly

Art & abstracts may cause heart failure

One PJ judge repeated multiple times during an event

“Art!! Out!!!!”

Know your enemy….

Often this info is easy to find; Google search is your friend

Try this – go to a club’s website where the judge appeared in the past

Scan the site for competition galleries

Find the winners from that judge

Knowing what a judge likes is a good first step

Of course “shooting to the judge’s strengths” has its risks, too

She may hold you to a higher standard

(The solution? Stop competing. Shoot for yourself.)


Given the above points about how judges think

Your “prime-directive” is

DO NOT give the judge ANY excuse to

Meet her 75% quota with your image

Any craftsmanship violation (exposure, color, focus….)

Is inexcusable and will get you an “Out!”

True even with intentional “violations” like

My out-of-focus lead image in this post

“The maker should work on focus. Out!” 😦

Hey. I know of a judge who threw out an otherwise nice image

Because its mat fell off during judging

Sorry – but that’s part of craftsmanship

(That judge was moi 😉 )


I could go on and on, but you get the idea

No – repeat NO – craftsmanship flaws

Compositions follow all of the rules

Thirds, level horizon, vertical verticals, etc.

If you deviate, say level horizon, make sure it’s

Tilted severely (like 30 degrees) so it’s

Obvious it was done on purpose

not carelessness

Creativity is good – but be careful

Your creativity may be a judges “crazy”


2. Understand how competitions are run

This one is simple but important

There are way too many images for the time available

I would not judge unless guaranteed that

There were no more images than

The event’s duration (in minutes)

Even so, with the overhead of moving images

Announcing winners & other inevitable delays

30 seconds per image (view, think, comment,…)

Was about as long as I ever had

Needless to say with this limit, I wasn’t asked to judge often 🙂

Typically a judge will have 10-15 seconds – for everything

This heavily stacks the odds in favor of

Images with a WOW!! factor

Unfortunately if you believe, as many do including judges

The best images are those that can hang on your wall and

You never tire of looking at them and

You see something new with each “look”

Those images don’t even last 15 seconds in competition

Competitions are skewed toward superficiality

A major nature photo exhibit once reported

The number of images entered & time spent during judging

It averaged out to 7 seconds per image

After participating for 4 years, I never entered again 😦


3. Understand the local photography culture

Different clubs (and areas) favor specific photo genre

In our area there is NVACC

Northern Virginia  Alliance of Camera Clubs (10 or so clubs)

They share a common pool of judges and training programs

They foster a shared photography style because of this

“Prepare to be assimilated; resistance is futile”

The Borg on Star Trek

Tough sledding if local clubs favor outdoor photography and

You prefer street photography


4. Subject matter

This is where the judge trots out that old (true) line

“If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen [fill-in whatever]

I’d be a millionaire”

Avoid the overdone iconic subjects & clichés

Make the ordinary extraordinary


5. Human psychology & quirks

Studies of art sold at auction found

Lots  of image preferences

Warm colors favored over cool

Landscape orientation over portrait

Pretty women over men (of any sort)

Very few viewers like cows in images

and on, and on

I once had an image thrown out for no reason

Other than it was Infrared and

The judge disliked IR

Not much you can do except, for sure,

Don’t enter a blue-tinted vertical IR of a man with a cow 😉


Subscribe (see sidebar). New posts daily.

  • No sidebar? Click here or the blog title at the top of this page.

Another option – Click on the “Follow” button at the bottom right of the screen.

  • Or – “Follow” in your admin bar, displayed at the top of the screen, for logged-in users.


7 thoughts on “How to Do Well in Photo Competitions

  1. Hi Ed, I follow your posts with great interest if not full agreement. I rarely comment on post of any kind, but feel I must address this one. I took a judging course to learn what criteria should be met. Then I found that I was expected to judge. Gulp! I was always reluctant, but realised I was performing a service that could be valuable. I have always tried to look beyond the “rules” to find what was the photographer’s intent when making the image, occasionally unsuccessfully, but sometimes I have been the only person in the room to ‘get it’. My point is that not all judges are tarred with the same brush, just as there are differences in all photographers, but there is a degree of similarity in thinking that can be quite discouraging for really creative people. A small but salient point.

    Thank you for this column, and I hope you keep up the good work. I often forward the link to people I know who might find your writing interesting.

    Sincerely Tony Wood.

    • Tony,

      Thanks for your really thoughtful observations regarding judges. Obviously, you are absolutely correct. There are lots of good judges out there and they should be treasured. Unfortunately, in my experience, they’re vastly outnumbered. To “un-tar” some of them, I must say that the greatest competition flaw is not with the judges but with the overly large number of images to be judged. How can anyone, even a really good judge, do or say anything intelligent when given less than 15 seconds to do it.

      Again, thanks for telling the other half of the story.

  2. Yep, same here as with Tony. I think if this is what you see in judges then it’s about time you started to judge the judges and threw these out. I firmly believe that there are smarter people out there who take pride in looking a bit deeper into entries they receive for a contest. At the end, Monet fetches pretty good money for his works these days. So there must be some people appreciating his works and throwing their hard earned dollars into it…

    • My comment to Tony regarding the “real problem” in competitions still stands. Apart from the occasional truly poor judge, the real problem lies in the number of images in a competition. It’s difficult to get clubs to limit entries. A local club cut the entries from 4 to 3 and that helped – but not enough. A recent competition there still brought in nearly 250 entries (a 300 member club). In this 2 hour event (including a “half-time” potty break and the time to present and remove prints on a viewing stand) that leaves the judge 30 seconds maximum and actually more like 15-20 seconds per image during which s/he’s expected to make cogent comments (as well as decisions related to the ranking of the surviving 25%).

      Changing the size of the entry pool as compared to the total judging time will result in an immediate improvement in judging. As I said, I would not judge, when asked, if the club would not restrict the number of entries to no more than the length of the event measured in minutes. Almost none were willing (and I was not able 😉 )

      My suggestion has always been – do critiques (anonymous or otherwise for folks who are “afraid”) – with a panel of 2-3 critiquers to give several points of view. Allow as many entries as desired but no one gets a 2nd image critiqued until everyone has had one done (and so on). If it’s all about that cheap little piece of cloth called a ribbon, participants should get over it (or contact me and I’ll send you one of mine – after I find them).

      • Sorry, there was an overlap between your earlier and my response… Yes, understand. And am shocked when you write about 250 entries. Nobody can, in a single session, make 250 decisions in a fair manner. That’s not a competition, that’s just a gigantic fools show. I think you might have chosen the wrong club 😉

  3. Judging in both hemispheres is identical. Too many images, not enough time if the judge prefers to comment on each image. I once was asked to select the image of the night immediately I had commenced to examine over 80 images in the allotted 60 minutes. What a farce! Every club is different but the majority of judges are the same. Not sharp enough, poor composition, horizon not straight or to high or too low, soft at the edges, cropped too tight, not cropped enough, too busy, not enough detail. The list is endless. No wonder many young photographers give clubs a miss.

    • Thanks for the confirmation that the larger problem is the clubs and not the judges – and it’s everywhere. I guess I can’t use this as an excuse to move down under (the common remark by me & my wife when frustrated by US politics is – “let’s move to Australia”).

Comments are closed.