To photography competition entrants

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“…we who are about to die, salute you!”

Whoops, wrong scene, wrong side of the dock.

I’ve been on the judging panel for a few competitions this year – and on discussion with fellow judges, found we were encountering the same things across not only different competitions, but different geographies. Today’s post is intended to be a little behind the scenes guidance on what makes an image stand out to a jury, and hopefully win you a prize. It is of course impossible to turn this into a formula: the very nature of competition means that the benchmarks shift every year, and so does the whole idea of ‘different’. There’s so little QC these days it’s almost easier to judge competitions by people who don’t mess up than those who excel; that said, there are fortunately still a few who manage to surprise us. Read on for the breakdown.

Be on trend, but not cliche
We tend to notice as lot of work goes in cycles – whilst what’s hot or recent or new gets attention, it doesn’t stand out from everything else that’s using the same style or filters or lighting setup. It demonstrates zero originality on the part of the photographer, too. You can still be on trend stylistically if you don’t use all of the elements set by the archetype (usually some major campaign or photographer whose work has been circulated widely) and add your own personality to it; this demonstrates a) adaptability; b) awareness of client and industry demands and c) originality. All art is derivative to some degree – art itself is the result of the environment and our experiences influencing our subconscious – but it doesn’t have to be a photocopier. A good example: that river delta in Iceland has now been photographed to death; there were at least eight people submitting nearly the same thing in one competition. Competitions are actually a very good barometer of popular psychology because they are a rather wide window into how a cross section of people interprets a theme at any given time; I’m sure there’s probably some data to be mined here by an enterprising market research firm.

Be original
Though this apparently conflicts with the previous point, I cannot emphasise enough that you cannot stand out from the other entrants if you look the same – no matter how well executed. Work submitted by one photographer should be distinctive enough that you can pick out their work from a big pile (in some cases, tens of thousands of entries in the same category) – and that said work is self-consistent. My personal litmus test is that if work isn’t memorable for some reason or other, then it’s likely not just to be overlooked, but worse, forgotten amongst a much larger pile of images.

Pros: don’t be too safe
Whilst adaptability and the ability to replicate images is a strength in professional work if you have to adopt the preset corporate style of a particular client, it doesn’t really help in establishing your own brand or visual identity. The paradox of pro work is that one almost always has to push the line between what the client wants (usually safe) and what you envision (usually unsafe) even though what you were hired for is the work you presented in your portfolio (hopefully unsafe and representative of what you want to be hired for, not necessarily what you have done in the past). The real risk – and I started feeling this myself after a while – is that you become very good at acting, and not very good at being yourself; creativity and originality must be nurtured, or you lose it.

Amateurs: pay attention to fit and finish
Consistency is perhaps a better word, or shot hygiene. Things like uniform post processing, or avoiding hotspots with lighting, or tidy edges of composition, backgrounds etc – are what differentiates somebody good from somebody mediocre (notice I don’t use pro or amateur here; I’ve seen good and bad out of both). Similarly, submitting studio shots with focus misses and motion blur is not acceptable since all conditions are under your control. We should not notice anything you don’t want us to notice, and judges have far more critical eyes than most. Think of it this way: deliberate vs accidental.

Go easy on the post processing, compositing and DI
You’re entering a photography competition, not a rendering or art one. If post processing is what we see first – before the photographic elements – that’s almost certainly a rejection, especially for a more experienced jury. On top of that, anything to be taken as documentary must not have content altered.

Curate, curate some more, and then curate again
I can’t stress this one enough: there are so many entries – especially in competitions where groups or sets are required – that are let down by one or two images that stick out like sore thumbs for the wrong reasons. They break the flow of the other images in the set and draw attention unnecessarily. Better to submit fewer, but better, and more consistent images, rather than more just to make up numbers. The order matters, too – so pay attention to the way the submission systems work, or the presentation method so judges can read images in the right sequence. Lastly – there’s always a question of whether one should do standalones or a sequence; if the submission requirements are small, I’d suggest a group to show consistency; if large, then standalones might work if it’s clear there’s a unifying style behind all images. Lastly, remember scale: the images have to have sufficient macro structure to stand out at small sizes when viewed in a big group, and also work when viewed individually and larger.

Understand the theme or topic
Many submit good images. Many submit on-topic images. Not so many submit images that are both. Most frustrating is when competition has many categories and you see the same images in every one…clearly blanket submitted by somebody who didn’t read the fine print. At that point, if the same name keeps popping up – it will likely be ignored, because that photographer has demonstrated that they clearly do not understand one of the basics of photography: know your subject.

Be very careful with titles and cultural-specific context
An image should be augmented by, but not rely on a title for explanation and understanding; images often get separated from their titles. Moreover, if that title has something that doesn’t translate or requires local knowledge or context, the meaning won’t fully carry through. This is especially important to note in international competitions.

Misrepresentation vs visual surprises
This is a very thin line: if you deliberately misrepresent a subject or element or scene, that’s a grave and heinous offence. But if you present it in such a way that the audience is forced to take a second look to fully understand what is being shown – then that’s a bonus, because the image has held attention and forced us to think. Make of this what you will…

Avoid controversy unless necessary
If you’re going to submit images that some might find controversial, then make sure there’s a really good reason for it. Themes like violence, racial/religious implications etc. generate strong emotions; this can be positive and negative. The sole objective of the image should not be provocation, there should ideally be some message or story behind it. Remember also that competition results often have to be PG13 since images are publicly displayed, and there are almost always restrictions there – which means nudity should be limited, clearly artistic if at all, and you’re not going to win just because there’s a pair of naked breasts.

There’s relative and absolute judging
In an ideal world, we judge according to a sort of nebulous but absolute standard: winning images must tick all of those boxes compositionally and technically, and at least be a 4, if not a 5. It’s also possible that you may land up with multiple contenders that score 5+, and then it’s down to personal preferences; similarly, it’s also possible that none even make 4, and you’re then looking for the least crappy. But do yourself a favour and weed out images that don’t at least make 4 during your own curation.

Submit early
This is a strategic point: for competitions that rely on public voting, the longer your image is visible, the higher the chance you have of getting traction and being voted in. For closed competitions, results are inevitably sorted first in first out – as much as we want to maintain the same levels of objectivity and focus, by the time we’ve seen a few thousand entires, the reality is all judges are human and our attention span is much lower than it was at the start. And no, taking a break doesn’t help – each group (or category) of images is best done at one go because of the relativity considerations described in the previous point. So, if you’re at the end of the pile – your image is going to have to be that much better to stand out. I reshuffle piles and encourage fellow jury members to do so as well if we have physical prints to see, but 99% of the time, it’s impractical due to the sheer number of images – and we have to view digitally.

Don’t get disheartened
There are always going to be personal biases involved – we cannot avoid that in any creative or subjective pursuit. Double blind judging by a diverse panel is the best way to get around this, but it isn’t always possible (and then there’s the question of who appointed the panel in the first place; without reverting to the historical Venetian Doge election process there will always be residual bias). It may just be the jury doesn’t like your images – this does not mean they’re bad, or wrong. Or you might have interpreted the theme differently to the jury – this is especially common when you have something ambiguous.

Bonus point: know your judges
If it’s published, find out something about your judges: they might either like work that’s very different to their own, or work in homage (I suppose it really depends on their personality). Try to work their biases into your curation preferences. It could pay off big time.

And for some light entertainment – some of the worst (or most inappropriate) things we’ve seen:

  • Bad cameraphone selfies in the ‘fashion’ category
  • Photographs of a messy bedroom in the ‘architecture’ category
  • Self-shot pornography in the ‘reportage’ category
  • A worrying number of cat and dog pictures in parks for ‘nature’ or ‘landscape’ or ‘wildlife’
  • Instagram style food-grabs-with-cameraphone in ‘product’
  • A group of 10 images that appeared in every category of one competition, but fit none of them! MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. “Misrepresentation vs visual surprises” – can you expand on this please (with an example)? I can understand not faking a documentary thing but anything else is fair game surely?

  2. Hej Mingo. I know that you are extremely erudite and all around know every thing guy but….. Take a Kalashnikow, parade in front of IS kaliffs and say with others — Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!.
    Would be more fitting then talking about some random picts taken with 100Mp Hassies or iPhone cams. How trivial it can get?

    • I’m not sure who “Mingo” is, but:

      1. Every and any image is random if it has no connection to you.
      2. Readership here is both free and voluntary.
      3. I’m also quite happy to stop writing entirely.

  3. Well said. I’ll pass this one on. However, I think a line got dropped at the end of “Be Original” paragraph.

  4. overcomediabetes says:

    Hi MIng
    Can’t seem to find where to enter, Here’s my entry
    The Lord of Dance

  5. “My personal litmus test is that if work” …I think a word or two is missing.
    Nonetheless, very interesting insight and practical advice. Thank you!

  6. Great information from someone inside the judging process.
    Thanks a lot Ming.

  7. stephenjohndawson says:

    Hi, I’m getting a 404 error with this one..  Cheers,  Paul

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