Maybank Photo Awards 2013: a few tips for competition entrants…


Come to think of it, this post should really be titled “Tips for entering photography competitions”. As a judge, I’ve frequently been asked what we look for when assessing images; beyond that, how can you increase your chances of winning? Today’s post will talk a bit about both the mechanics behind the scenes, as well as a little strategy.

One very important thing to remember is that there are usually thousands of entries, if not more; the judges have to look at all of them. And that means we can’t spend much time on any particular entry; the reality is that your image must both stand out from the pile to merit further examination, and continue to hold our attention upon closer inspection. Though this might seem a bit brutal, it’s the way professional photographers operate with our own images: we go through thousands on a regular basis – sometimes from a single shoot alone – and must very quickly cull those down to a working set, which get culled further. (This is the very important process of editing.) Anything that stands out as being bad gets discarded; anything that stands out gets put aside for consideration in the second round.

But what does standing out mean? Simply, the image has to break pattern. If I’m looking through a pile of 200 B&W 6×4″ prints, the one that’s in color will pop. And vice versa. If it’s a mixture of colors, then the one that uses a harmonious palette dominant in one color will make itself felt. Our eyes are hardwired to look for breaks in pattern: anything that is a different color, texture, contrast etc.; it’s the finely-honed evolution of the human brain’s self-defence mechanism from a time when that was our way of spotting predators and dangers in the wild. In fact, the reasons an individual image stands out in a group are mostly the same as those for why a subject stands out within a photograph – light, color, (depth of field), texture or motion.

Once that one image has been pulled out of the pile, then it has to have enough of visual interest to make it into the next round – here, the merits of the individual composition start to come into play. Does it fit the theme? Is it technically sound? Is the light interesting? Do I know what the subject is, and is there a story in the image? Does it speak to the audience on an emotional or personal level? From a photographic standpoint, my articles on what makes an outstanding image should be on your reading list. As for the rest of the considerations, we’ll go into a bit more detail now.

Read the rules carefully.
You’d be surprised by how many people don’t. The important things to look out for are how many entries, deadlines, limitations for when images must have been shot, and the most important: image use rights and conditions. You don’t want to enter a competition where you land up losing rights to your images or having to grant free use in perpetuity; sadly the majority of competitions are like this, and discourage entrants as a result: why would you want to give away your best images for free? And why bother entering second-rate images at all? Fortunately the rules of this (MPA 2013) competition were written by a photographer – me – and allow all image rights to be retained by the photographer, but with an exception for the sponsor to be able to use them in relation to the competition if you win. That’s about as fair as it gets, I think.

Make sure you images fit the theme!
Similar observations to the previous point: a lot of the submissions we receive don’t fit the theme. In fact, last year, some were quite excellent and capable of making the finals in other competitions; the reason they didn’t pass was simply because the subject matter was completely unrelated to the rules – you can’t really enter semi-nudes into the photojournalism section of a contest that specifically states ‘no nudity or offensive material’ in the T&C… My suggestion here is thus: think about what the theme means to you. Look for ideas – perhaps visual, perhaps non-visual – then either search your archives, or go out and shoot fresh. At least have an idea of what subject elements you’re looking for before you assess any images; if the theme is ‘Inspiring Asia’ it’s a safe bet to have some local cultural elements in the image, for instance.

Get a second, third, fourth and maybe even fifth opinion before submitting anything
There are going to be many judges looking at an image before it’s shortlisted, let alone makes the finals or wins – thus, it has to appeal to a wide audience. To some extent, you can simulate this process by letting other people give you feedback before you enter – if it’s a popular image, you definitely have a better chance than with one that doesn’t work for most viewers. You can try friends, family, fellow photographers, social media e.g. Facebook or Flickr; having the popular vote help you in the editing process might well save you wasting an entry slot on a weak image.

Look at what other people have entered.
Even though we’re barely a third of the way into the competition, we’ve had some really excellent images submitted so far – browsing the entrant pool (available on the competition front page) will give you an idea of both the standard of the competition, as well as what other people’s interpretations of the contest theme are. Remember, your entry needs to stand out to win – images that are fairly similar are probably going to be overlooked in favor of something different that stands out from the crowd. Part of what makes a good photographer is the ability to see things differently, and then communicate that visually to your audience: this is one of the key overriding things the judges are going to be looking for.

Use up all of your available entries.
Simple math: the more of your work is in the mix, the higher the chances it has of being seen. It also lets you submit more variations – some experiments might work, some might not; but if you don’t enter an image, it can’t win.

Enter some early, enter some late.
Don’t enter them all at once, though. For the MPA 2013 at least, there’s already a feedback mechanism for you: if your entry gets shortlisted, you know you’re on the right track and you’re in with a chance. If not, then try something new. But if you submit everything at once, you’ve fired all of your bullets without knowing if you it or not! In general though, it’s good practice to leave some entries for the very end: you can always find something to enter, but you can’t retract previous entries if you happen to shoot something outstanding between your final entry and the competition closing date. Leave it as late as possible to put in your last couple of images, but not so late in case everybody decides to do the same and the internet becomes slow…

Mix it up – use your back catalog and shoot fresh.
Needless to say, you want to put your best work in to give you the highest chances of winning: some images you’ll never be able to improve on or get another chance to shoot, so they must go in; in other cases, you’ll be able to do better now shooting specifically to the theme; therefore submitting some old and some new images will maximize your chances.

Leverage social media.
One of the categories in this year’s MPA is the popular vote: the judges have no influence over this at all (other than to make sure that the image meets the competition theme and rules) – the winner is decided by public vote. So, the more friends and friends of friends you can get to vote for you, the higher your chances of winning.

Image quality and shot discipline matter.
Finally, remember that your image represents you. What face do you want to present to the world, and the judges? We do not get the opportunity to know every photographer, other than through their work. A carefully composed image with a high level of shot discipline and skill shows that the photographer has clearly put a lot of thought into their photograph; there’s pride in their work, deliberation in the composition and therefore something worthy of the audience’s time to examine further. And it’ll print well too, if it wins.

There are just under two months of the competition left to go (entries close 31 October): lots and lots and lots of time to enter – hopefully this post has been helpful for not just the MPA 2013, but any other competitions that you might happen to enter. Good luck! MT


Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.


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  1. Omar-Khaidzir says:

    Does a pure photograph (straight from camera, no tweaking) get more mark than a photoshoped one? By using Nikon’s View NX 2 software (that is included with every of its DSLR), I can alter many parameters to make my photos look better. Am I considered a ‘non-purist’ and get less chance of being shortlisted? Many new generation photographers spend more time tweaking their photos after it was taken rather than spending more time to plan for the intended image. Many of the photos already shown in the gallery seem to be modified, but somehow they are still chosen to be on the list. No,photoshoping is not a crime, but it takes the purity away. Shouldn’t there be two main categories? e.g 1) Pure and 2) Modified.

    • No, it doesn’t. We look at the finished product. If the processing overpowers the image, then it will obviously not score highly. However, if the image could have benefitted greatly from some basic processing, it will not score highly either.

  2. panadolmomo says:

    Thanks Ming Thein for the sharing, I just saw the contest and hope that I am not too late to join.

    Although I don’t have large amount of social currency to support, but I’m happy enough to get shortlisted. “Inspiring Asia” here I come!

  3. I object to any competition involving social media, simply because not everyone chooses to become friends with everyone they know. The law of averages states that the useless photographer with 2000 Facebook friends will score higher than the good photographer who has 200. That to me makes an absolute mockery of the competition.

  4. This look fantastic!!! I need a day there! I hope you’re feeling better, the topic is adorable and you look great! Very good advice. 🙂

  5. I love that picture where is raining. The expresions.. so good :))

  6. Thanks, Ming. I’ve always wanted to hear a judge say something about how they judge. If you look at the winners, you can usually guess. I have have a few nice photos from Asia, but I can respect the choice to limit it to those who live there. The stand out as different or new may be one of the most difficult criterion to meet, but you can usually see it in winning photographs, and then complain about not having the resources to photograph a guy petting a whale under water (real example!). The novelty criterion has its basis in mathematical information theory, where less probable/rare occurrences actually have higher quantitative information value. My standing joke on a trip is to say my goal is to take the best picture of the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu ever taken. Laughs all around. Impossible, they say, it’s already been done. Then later you actually see a new photo of one or both of them that is quite different from all the others and quite spectacular as a result (meeting all the other criteria you mention, of course). Camera is the least important element most of the time, otherwise they’re be no classic photographs. For this reason, flower photos always seem to be the most difficult ones to achieve (not take, taking is too easy), followed by butterfly photos (they just lay there, right). So, when you see really good ones (that meet your criteria), you’re always blown away. “How could they possibly do that?” Followed by, “Makes me not even want to try.” Which raises another important point. Don’t give up on your own photographs. I sent one in twice to publish (juried) because I was ticked off it was not accepted the first time. Why selected the second time? (Fortunately they didn’t notice or they allowed it twice? I had a chance to admit this to one of the editors on the phone and she said, “”Well, sometimes it’s a matter of what you had for lunch that day.” !!! Fortunately, I didn’t give up on it. Not me, the photo . . . there is a difference. So, keep supporting your own best work until someone else sees the light . . . or has something better for lunch.

    • Well said, Larry.

    • I wouldn’t say what we had for lunch affects the choice, but the photo has to make it past quite a number of jury members – the whole thing is subjective, as you know…

      • The lunch comment was actually just a funny way of saying that at some point, say several photos that meet all the other criteria but only one or two can be selected, then the decision becomes subjective. For one person. Another person’s subjective may be or rather will usually be different. What’s interesting is when several judges with different subjective perspectives agree with one another, and then say the viewers or magazine audience quickly agrees as well. But when that’s not easy or possible, you know it’s subjective when you yourself come back the next day (this happens even with one’s own photographs) and you quickly change your mind, wonder what you could have been thinking yesterday. That’s where the lunch joke comes in, even though it was really not the lunch per se. Let’s hope we’re not talking about alcohol with lunch! But this reinforces the notion that the photographer shouldn’t simply give up on their own subjective point of view which may be different — again when the minimal technical requirements have been met. Don’t give up. Someone else might eventually see it from a different perspective and change their mind. Impressionist painting obviously comes to mind. They couldn’t show or sell them at first and were ridiculed. I can think of well know photographers who went through the same thing and eventually got recognition, even though I still don’t like what they were doing myself. It’s art.

        • Ah yes, that makes sense. There’s no way photography can ever be objective, but we at least try to get consensus between the panel…

          Commercial or personal work is a lot easier in that sense: either the client likes it or they don’t, and either you like it or you don’t.

  7. I noticed (photo contests in general world-wide) that the quality is sliding down at the speed of a melted butter…the same pics winning, let’s say The Sony awards you’ll find easily winning somewhere else. Pics without a soul, clearly staged and, the most important, politically correct ones… It’s not a joy anymore or at least not so joyful affair as it was… I hope this is not your case and you choose the right pics.
    PS> Why is it for Asia only? Thanks

    • We choose the best of what’s entered. That’s all. We can’t select a better entry if there isn’t one to begin with.

      Asia only because that’s what the sponsors said.

  8. Good, advice no matter what the contest. OTOH, the links from here lead to a BLACK HOLE OF MINGSOMENESS that is eating up my entire morning 😉

    • Haha, if you keep following those links you might lose the afternoon too…and then the archive will eat up the rest of the week. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

  9. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Images that stand out. That says it all.

  10. Read the rules carefully.
    You’d be surprised by how many people don’t.

    Quite. I tried to enter this very competition. Then realized I wasn’t an ASEAN resident. In the words of Governor Rick Perry:

    Oops 🙂

  11. Oh no. That social media leverage, that on-line voting again. With hackers all around..

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