10 things to do before you enter a photo competition

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My image that was a finalist for the 2017 Travel Photographer of the Year competition

Whether it's your local camera club's monthly competition, or Landscape Photographer of the Year, there are a few things you can do before you enter, to increase your chances of success.

I've had 3 competition successes in my career - TPOTY in 2017 (above), IGPOTY in 2016 and, in 1984, the Hampshire County Libraries inaugural archival black and white competition (more of that below). I have also had countless competition not-successes. Countless. I may not be the world's leading expert on how to win a competition, but I am happy to share with you what I think made the difference between the times I was successful and the times I wasn't.

(Get used to the POTY bit. It means Photographer of the Year. LPOTY = Landscape. IGPOTY = International Garden.)

1. Research previous entries

If you only do one thing, do this. All competitions have their own style. The style may change gradually over the years, but it never makes a drastic pivot year-to-year. Look at the last 5 years critically. Write down the words that come to mind when you look at the winning entries. There is no point in entering your glossy, saturated floral still life into IGPOTY if they are still giving all the prizes to soft flower portraits overlaid with textures in Photoshop. Don't fight it. If you don't like the style of previous winners, don't enter that competition.

2. Stand out

I have judged a few competitions in my time, and the only way to catch the judges eye is to be different. Shoot in broadly the style they want, but be different. I know it's difficult advice and there's no tangible way to explain it, but when you're looking through 200 images, it's not the technical excellence that stands out, it's the first impression. 

You may enter a gorgeous macro shot of the inside of a poppy. But if 10 other people have done the same, none will stand out. There's nothing wrong with your poppy image, but there's no way to pick between 11 broadly similar images, so usually none make the first cut. 

3. Shoot for the competition

When you take a shot that is better than your others, it's tempting to try and shoehorn it into one of the competitions. I've done this. "That's a great shot, now which category could I possibly squeeze it in to?" 

But I've never had success this way. My 2 big competition successes were both shot with that particular category of that particular competition in mind. I strongly recommend that you get to know the competition you want to enter, do your research, and then shoot for that competition.

Shortlisted in the International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, and shot specifically for that competition

Shortlisted in the International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, and shot specifically for that competition

4. Only your best shots

This is the hard part. You have to be super-critical and completely objective about your images. It might be a cute picture of your dog with a funny expression, but would anyone else care, who didn't know your dog? You might have taken a lucky shot of a rainbow, but you know what - you won't be the only one. What makes your rainbow shot epic? 

Epic is the benchmark for competition success. Get someone who doesn't know you to help you pick your final entries if you can. We all attach a lot of emotional significance to our own images, and can overplay their epicness. 

5. It's all about the light

Look at the winning shots from any competition and they will all have something in common, whatever the genre. Light.

Photography means "drawing with light", and that's what will take your image from a decent photo to an epic image. You have to find a way to capture the light as it moves around your subject, and preserve that moment in 2 dimensions. It's hard work.

Take a look at some of these to see what I mean:

Landscape Photographer of the Year

Travel Photographer of the Year

Black and White Photographer of the Year

Sports Photographer of the Year

(Once you've got the light, then you need to tell a story. Capture a moment. Evoke an emotion. Connect with the viewer.) 

6. Follow the instructions

The small print is small, and it's lengthy. Hidden in the terms and conditions will be all the information you need, that will disqualify you if you get it wrong.

- are you allowed to edit?

- what size do you need to submit your images?

- do they need to be JPEGs? 

- do they need to be a particular colour space?

- will you need to print shortlisted images, and if so, what size?

- what are the deadlines? (Don't save uploading until the final day - the servers get overloaded)

- do you need a blurb to go with each image?

- do you need any model releases or permissions?

The most important thing to check is this: who keeps the copyright? Do not under any circumstances enter a competition where you sign over copyright to your images to the organisers. If you do that, the image is no longer your own. They can do anything they want with it, including sell it. A competition that does this is not above board.

(Licensing is different, and normal. You will usually need to agree to licence your image to the organisers to give them permission to print it in their book, in promotional material and to put it on their website. But you still keep the copyright.)

7. Find a niche competition

My first competition win was in 1984. I was 14 and Hampshire County Libraries ran a competition to boost their archives - we had to take typical Hampshire scenes. I was runner up with my portfolio of images taken at the junior school I went to. In those days I just asked the headteacher if I could come in for an afternoon and take photos, and he said yes. 

Local competitions are fun, and easy to enter. Your local paper or county magazine probably runs competitions - Surrey Life runs an annual calendar competition which I've been entering for years with no success, but there's always next year. Your village fete or County fair probably has a photo competition. 

Instagram and Facebook are full of competitions. Brands want images of their product. Photography magazines run competitions online to boost sales. 

Are you a knitter or a twitcher? A gardener or a hiker? Whatever you do in your spare time will have a magazine or an online group. And they will almost certainly run photography competitions. 

All the main genres of photography have their international competitions - landscape, travel, portrait, news, sports. But you can find some interesting, more niche competitions too. A couple I came across last year were Historic Photographer of the Year, and Weather Photographer of the Year.

8. You have to be in it to win it

If you keep putting it off, you stand no chance at all. What's the worst that can happen? You don't get shortlisted, but no one will know. And the best that can happen? You get placed. What have you got to lose?

In the early days of A Year With My Camera, one of the homework tasks was designed to overcome this inertia we all have, of just never getting round to sending that entry off. Students had to simply enter a competition. One student, Jill Orme, did just that, and lo and behold, had a Commended image in the Monochrome category of IGPOTY.

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9. Who's the judge?

The only time this really matters is if the competition is judged or shortlisted by popular vote. These style of competitions are run in Facebook groups and on Instagram, and the winner is chosen by the number of Likes each photo gets. They are easy to manipulate and I avoid them. 

10. Look at the winners' shots, even when you don't win: and don't give up

You may think your unsuccessful image was just as good as the winner's. But the skill comes in being objective and critical - why did the judges pick this winner? They really did have a good reason. And if you can step back and analyse why they picked the image they did, and identify what your image lacked, you are well on your way to being more successful next time. (Although it's not worked for me yet in the Surrey Life calendar competition. But I'm not giving up.)

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