How To Win a Photo Competition

From following the rules to creating a plan, learn how to win a photo competition by following these tips and wowing the judges.

How To Win a Photo Competition

How To Win A Photo Competition

The Top 10 Do’s and Dont’s

Good news, we launched a photo competition. It's called There There®. There is $60K in cash and gear on the line along with free travel for 16 winners. You can enter here if you want to put these tips to the test. Best of luck! 

Winning a photo contest is a dream for many amateur and professional photographers. And although it can take years of developing your craft, awe-inspiring photographs and aimlessly publishing your work just isn't enough. That's why taking part in a photo competition is worth your time — winning one can change everything.

If you've ever tried your hand at competing your work in photography competitions, however, then you know how ridiculously direction-less the process may seem. To prepare for this epic inaugural contest, I'm here to share the judge's must-know tips for winning — and totally owning — a photo competition. From following the rules to crafting an interesting photograph, here’s what I suggest to make your entries as successful as possible.

Me winning a photo comp that never happened.

How stoked do I look?

Start With The Rules

It's boring and dumb but start with the rules. In order to make a contest fair they create specific rules for when, how, and where you can enter. Unfortunately you can disqualify yourself just by missing something small so read carefully. The parts I recommend really focusing in on are...

+ Understanding the age restrictions and nationwide participation regulations.

+ How many photos are you allowed to enter? All categories or just one?

+ What is the process on how to enter? Social media? A form? Read the directions carefully.

+ Any rules or captions as to WHAT you're supposed to photograph?

So read what you’re supposed to do CAREFULLY and don’t cut corners, make your time worthwhile and follow suit.

Taylor prepping for her shot.

Caleb and his beloved van.

The dense PNW forest.

Research The Competition

Last but not least, research the competition you’re submitting to. This doesn’t just mean you have to follow the rules — you should consider the competition as a way to one-up last year’s winners. While it’s clear you shouldn’t copy them, it will give you hints as to the types of photos the judges are looking for. Additionally, if you’re able to research the judges and see what types of content they are most attracted to, follow suit with their familiarized taste. What style of work do they do, what images do they appreciate?

Setting up the shot.

1 frame, 2 photographers.

Film vs. digital vs. phone.

Create a Mood Board

Let’s face it — we have to feel inspired to thrive in our creative flow. It’s important that we feel the need to create art and it takes even greater courage to create functional, respectable art. In order to do this, pre-plan your production value and create a mood board. Cut out images that inspire you and paste them together either electronically or physically. Look on Pinterest and create a private board specifically towards the vibe you wish to create.

Remember that Photography and filmmaking are a real-life depictions of a particular moment captured within a distilled frame. Creators’ work that reaches out to me the most are the ones that travel the world, catch controversial issues, and stay relevant to modern times. So, go out and grab those stomach twisting memories you’ve been waiting for; your travels, relationships, joys, hardships, work schedules, likes, dislikes, and the little moments sprinkled in your everyday. 

Pre-planning your work will take your image far. It will show the judges you've done something more than snap-happy away.

10/10 level stokeness.

Plan Your Shot Ahead of Time

You’d be amazed as to what you can do with your photography if you do some pre-production and planning before you start shooting. Research the place you’re going to, dive deep into the local culture abroad, and gain additional insight into your inspiration and story behind the photo. Learn how to shoot and capture the experience, yet not let the camera distract from the moment or the people you’re with. A camera is a tool, but it can just as easily be a hindrance or obstruction. Genuine images only come from genuine experiences.

Through the looking glass.

The PNW ferry.

Shoot Something Different — Make A GREAT Image

Photo contests get hundreds if not thousands of submissions. Being a judge means sifting through a multitude of different styles, stories, and subject matter. In order to really catch the judges' eye, you'll need to create a mesmerizing photo that stands out against the grain.

This is where it gets fun.

An interesting photo comes from the eye of the beholder. Utilizing unique composition, strong color palettes, an interesting subject matter, and exciting lighting techniques will no doubt throw your image over the edge. Really think about what it’s like to live outside the box — or better yet, throw out the box all together!

Interesting Composition

Composition is one of the important tools to use when perfecting a successful photo. It’s so important, in fact, that when not utilized your image will look off and unbalanced. By using the rule of thirds, symmetry, balance, depth, and leading lines — you’ll be able to make anything look good. Read more on composition here.

Work With Light To Scale An Image

In the attempt to compose photographs with an emphasis on scale, one thing that is often overlooked is lighting—a mistake that must be corrected, for light and scale are inextricably linked to one another. Even on overcast days, whether illuminating an object in the foreground or in the distance, the ways in which light interacts with a scene brings greater depth. See what’s behind Griffin Lamb’s brain as to what makes a great photo when working with dramatic scenes.

Use Color To Create a Distinctive Style

Whether you’re trying to get your tiles dialed on Instagram or are looking to elevate your photography, you've got to have a distinctive style. There are many ways to create a ‘look’ that’s all your own (don’t worry, we’ll explore all of them in the coming months), and color is one of the biggest components. Some photographers build a color palette and stick with it no matter what, while others learn how to apply color in a way that suits the mood of the shoot to create a consistent photo set. Cook up some inspiration while reading John’s piece on color and how it effects your image style.

Photo By: tomasdunovsky. Beautiful imagery of landscapes.

Photo By: @tim.where. How gorgeous is this color palette?

Photo By: marcpalaver. Catch the sun when it's going down.

Photo By: @handheldtones. Like, how is this real?!

Tell a Story

Much like reading your favorite novel, the beginning chapters establish a beautiful setting for the story, introduce the main characters, and mold essential locations. The middle of any story gives context to the three elements mentioned above, while the final chapter provides the audience with a satisfying conclusion (unless you're Game of Thrones). Visual storytelling in photography follows these same rules. We lead the viewer on a journey as a witness to a particular moment — or moments — of that same story.

Of course, a thoroughly complex and complete story with a beginning, middle, and end requires a streamline of photographs, as only one photo conveys the moods and emotions of a particular moment.

To effectively create this story in photo form, start with some pre-planning: think of the mood you're trying to convey, introduce your characters, locations, ideas, and fully execute how the story will unfold.

Let's take, for example, a camping trip. First, photograph the group of individuals setting up their gear to head down the trail, then shoot a portrait of each of their faces. Grab those details: the shining sweat beads dancing along their foreheads, their crazy hair styles sticking beyond their hats, and the dirt mounds piling at the top of their threaded backpacks. Photograph the winding river bed and stacked red rocks like a pile of hot cakes dripping with maple syrup. Once you've established the three main elements, capture the lifestyle of what's it's like on the trail: this is the middle part — the context — of your story. Give clues to the lifestyle they're living while hiking up the mountain or canyon. Finally, conclude with a standing ovation at the summit; an ending success story waiting to be told by John Krakauer.

Moment lenses are a great tool for mobile photography. ;) So we hear...

Phones? DSLR? Use them all.

Don't mind me, casually taking a picture.

Wow The Judges By Making a “Reaction”

With hundreds upon thousands of entries to sift through and critique, you should be aiming for a “reaction” from your judge. Think about it — a person must connect with those who are viewing the image. To tell a story, you must strive for emotion and do something with a shot that evokes a peculiar sense of awe and wonder. How do you do this?

  • Make a technically perfect image. Refer back to tip #2.
  • Do something “weird”. See images below for reference.
  • Make the shot seem impossible, something far greater than just an image.
  • Tug on the heart strings by human connection. Toy with human subjects and create a personality within your image.

Photo By: yaisyusman. Make the shot seem "impossible".

Photo By: nooora. See the editing in this?! Take your time creating something unique.

Photo By: nemod96. Wow, keep your image simple yet "awe"-inspiring.

Photo By: muddyknee. A great example of excellent composition and human subject matter.

Editing Hacks 101

First off, stop using filters and call it quits. If you really want to win, you’ll need a handful of time and patience. Slapping on a preset is the bare minimum, you’ll need to focus on the colors and contrast of your image in order to maximize all results. Overpay for editing software and dive deep on your masterpiece. Remember — you only have one shot to wow the judges!

Editing Apps

Whether you shoot strictly on mobile or not, mobile apps are sure to help you step up your editing game. From VSCO, Snapseed, Priime, and Touch Retouch — each app boasts some unique capabilities and awesome designs that’ll help you achieve your vision. Make sure to download these apps if you haven’t already… ‘cause they rock.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

A minimalistic vibe allows natural colors to POP and look clean and pleasing to the eye without compromising the integrity of the original, untouched image. Everyone digs the film look, no? Try adding some natural dust / scratches to the frame to vibe it with a nostalgic feel. Editing our images to mimic film is a sure fire way to remedy any over saturation, color issue, or bulky contrast concerns. Dilute the highlights for a cleaner feel and add only a touch of contrast to punch the blacks.

Read more on our favorite ways to create the perfect image by using minimalistic editing tips.

Maintain A Unique Look

This one might seem blatantly obvious, but it's imperative to streamline your efforts on what exactly it is you want out of the creative process. Focus your energy on your long-term, artistic goals and ask yourself what you want your viewers to recognize when they look at your work. If you like bright, airy, natural images then run like the wind with that sensation. If you want your vibe to be more edgy or offbeat, then be as gritty as you can be. Have confidence in your ability to tell a story with color and saturation. You might be pleasantly surprised. Read why it’s important to have a unique and consistent editing style.

Grab all of your cameras and get to playin'.

Get a Second Opinion

As always with any creative project, it’s nice to get a second (or third or fourth) opinion. The more feedback you get on your work, the less subjective you will be when viewing your images and the more prepared you will be when the time has come to submit them. You’ll very often find external criticism helpful, as you might notice elements of your image that you haven’t before. If you’re too afraid to ask for help from fellow friends and family, then try looking into online photo communities on Facebook for growth and improvement.


Catching waves and good shots.

Ever think about submitting a polaroid?

Enter All Categories

This one is short and to the point. If you’re looking at a contest with multiple offerings (i.e.; they allow for more than one entry) then do yourself a HUGE favor by submitting to them all. It will not only get more eyes on your name and vibe, but it will increase your chance by 500%. Just trust us.

Ready for action.

All the gear.

Happy Shooting!

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