As a professional photographer, entering a photo contest can be a big decision. Entries often cost money (which you could be using on new gear or workshops) and it’s important to also consider things like the submission rights for the contest, jury makeup and prizes before moving forward.
Once you’ve found a contest you want to pursue, the next question to answer is how you can stand out from the hundreds, if not thousands, of other entries. We’ve rounded up seven tips to get you ahead of the competition and onto that list of finalists and winners.
Cover image by Rory Doyle, 2019 Zeiss Photography Award Winner.
1. Be at the top of your game
Jurors are just like us: they’re consuming content all day long. Many of them are editors, museum curators and professional photographers themselves, and they’re scrolling through Instagram, magazines and newspapers every day. Remember that when you’re entering a competition. Be sure you’re submitting your best work. Strive for excellence—be ruthless in your editing and quality control.
2. Embrace a fresh point of view
Originality matters. A photograph might tell a familiar story or depict a subject seen time and again, but if you’re telling it in a new way or using a unique point of view you can still grab a jury’s attention.
One example of this is Federico Borella, the 2019 Sony Photography Awards’ Photographer of the Year. Mike Trow, chairman of the jury for the Sony World Photography Awards complimented Borella’s exploration of the relationship between climate change and an increase in suicide rates among Indian farmers, saying Borella “captured a global environmental story in such a way that he pushed the boundaries of documentary photography to explore new ground.”
3. Create a connection
Images that communicate an idea or emotion in a clear and effective way tend to go far. Passion projects are great candidates for competitions because of your intrinsic devotion to the work and story. Personal projects often feature more considerate editing and curation.
4. Keep the narrative front of mind
Make sure that your editing doesn’t take away from your narrative. Identify key pieces to the story and choose the images that relate most to those. Work needs to stand out visually, yes, but the quality of content is a close second.
“It’s important that every theme is a surprise, that the narrative has a positive twist on the conventional approach. Often the smaller the set of pictures, the better. Start with fewer images and only when a piece of the puzzle is missing, add another piece,“ says Jasper Doest, winner of the 2019 Natural World & Wildlife category for the Sony World Photography Awards.
Also, it’s extremely important to research your story so you’re telling it both artistically and ethically.
5. Know the rules inside and out
This is an obvious one but one that many people forget! Always remember: read the rules and then read them again. Rules change year to year and great entries can be disqualified because they don’t adhere to the guidelines.
6. Make sure your category is right
Give some serious thought to what category you choose! Judges will not move your submission to a more appropriate category. Plus, many photo contests do not allow the same work to be entered into more than one category, so be sure to weigh all your category options before clicking that submit button.
7. Consider the output
While most contest submissions are viewed digitally on websites and social media, it’s a good idea to think about the possibility of print—for potential exhibitions, photo books and the like. Contest winning photographs need to retain power when taken off a backlit screen and images that work on other mediums can go a long way to grab a judge or jury’s attention.
Download The Photographer’s Guide to Photo Contests for more tips on creating a winning image, insights from contest judges and a list of 28 photo competitions we recommend entering. (Guide and blog post produced in partnership with the World Photography Organisation.)