Photo contests are a wonderful way to challenge yourself. Nothing motivates a photographer to create beautiful images more than the thought of submitting them to a panel of judges, and the chance of winning a prize doesn’t hurt, either. Even if you don’t win, the experience will make you a better photographer. It’s not about entering to compete against other photographers, or for the trophies (even though the trophies and accolades are nice). It’s to push yourself creatively and be inspired by other photographers continually.
Sometimes the difference between being a finalist in a contest and being rejected comes down to minute differences in technique, composition and tone, and sometimes it’s much less subtle. Bad composition, poor subject selection, a misunderstanding of the rules of composition (and when to break them) and a huge array of pet snapshots comprise the majority of submissions for a contest. Selecting your strongest images for submission is no small feat. You have to seriously assess your overall body of work – a challenge that you may not have attempted previously. And while there is no formula to determine which images you should enter.
There’s a marked difference in photography between seeing and looking. Snapshots see the world. Selfies see the world. Good photographs look carefully at it. They pick out the details of a scene, they look for the contrasts, the beauty and the humor in everyday life.
Every photo submitted to a contest needs to have been from looking at the scene and crafting an image. It might take a microsecond to look and to feel a scene—this is true of the world’s best sports photographers—but it took a lifetime of trying to look in order to be able to do it in an instant.
The tips for making a winning contest entry are, of course, the same as the rules for making good pictures, in general: authenticity, simplicity, emotion and composition. That’s what people are looking for in a good photograph, whether it’s for a contest or not.