How to win at photo contests

TO be honest the best part of the Picture Editors’ Guild awards night is the 3am unofficial Travelodge after party. With the ceremony out of the way the most talented photo people in the British press photography industry normally seek some respite from the 24 hour news cycle with the help of an all night bar.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked to judge at the PEG awards for three years in a row. Like all photography competitions it is subjective, not everyone agrees with the winning picture selections and often the top prizes categories are dominated by photographers who enjoy privileged access to restricted events.

Nevertheless it is an opportunity for us picture editors to reward and pay credit to the photographers whose skills and sacrifice are at the heart of what we do. And in these turbulent times we should all be grateful for the work of the those who reveal our world with such clarity.

Picking a favourite picture isn’t such a difficult thing to do but that is not the job of a picture editor. A successful picture editor has to make judgment calls which he or she can justify and which will be accepted by their peers. I have used different methods to achieve this outcome as a photo contest judge but there are common themes relevant for those seeking to enter many photographic contests. So if you want to win, here is my best advice.

Generally the first phases of selection are subtractive – I remove all the pictures which fail to meet the entry criteria exactly – when you need to reduce hundreds of pictures to just one this is a hard prune so make sure you follow the category rules to both their letter and their spirit. The process of reducing a selection of pictures means finding flaws and reasons to reject. Before I was a picture editor I didn’t realise how negative the job forces you to be. Rather than revelling in all the good qualities of the image you are forced to become entirely negative until you are down to a final shortlist.

At this stage I’ll also remove pictures where the technique is poor – you can’t expect to win a photo contest if you camera craft isn’t perfect. And I look hard for anyone who has used Photoshop to create something in their picture which wasn’t there when they took the image. The reality is that it isn’t possible to pick up every photo manipulation but if you’re going to use some digital assistance you’ve got to ask yourself why. The best outcome is that you cheat and win but the wider audience that brings might find you out. Even if you get away with it you’ll always know you weren’t good enough to win playing by the rules and where’s the victory in that.

In news photo competitions you often get multiple pictures from the same event. My advice here would be not to enter a picture if you know there is a similar, better image someone else took. Better is a fuzzy concept here but sharper, timing , exposure and composition are all factors.

Now I’d be down to a shortlist from which to pick the winner. Here I’m looking for a photo which is special, one which I would stake my reputation on. That could be a picture which changes the way you understand a person or topic. Perhaps it’s an image which reveals the drama of an instant in the way only photography can. It could be where a photographer has shown great dedication and determination to expose the complexity and intricacies of their subject. Either way it’s going to be picture which would look good in the promotional material for the competition – one which deserves a big statement extolling it’s virtues.

If you are thinking of entering a photo competition please do, the process of selecting a picture is a great point to take stock of what you are getting right and where you can improve. No photographer can afford not to be critical of their work – it’s the best way to evolve your talents – so give it a shot and maybe I’ll see you in the Travelodge one day.