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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Taking The Prize


How to win a photo contest


Outdoor Photographer's The American Landscape 2012 photo contest features several high-profile judges and a high-value prize package.

In a competitive world, getting your photographs to stand out from all the other entries isn't easy. What's the magic recipe? What makes a single photograph leap to the forefront over thousands of other well-composed and well-exposed images? Sadly, there's no single magic bullet or perfect formula to taking a contest-winning shot, but we can offer you some tips on how to put your best foot forward to give yourself a good chance to win every time you enter.

Look At The Rules
Always review the rules before you enter a contest. This seems obvious, but you'd be amazed at the number of people who skip this step and end up submitting inappropriate images or violate some other aspect of the rules. It's not entirely their fault. Some contest rules aren't written very clearly. As you review the rules, pay attention to the judging criteria and any information about the subject matter.

Many contest rules are a little vague about the subject matter. Often, the organizers are interested in getting as many good images as possible, and they don't wish to curtail potential submissions. If the rules seem to invite a variety of subject matter, by all means let your imagination run wild. On the other hand, if the rules are explicit about the subject matter, take care to adhere to that. If the rules state the photos should be of manatees, don't send a picture of a bald eagle. No matter how good your bald eagle image is, it's not going to win.

Choose Images That Will Catch The Eye
What exactly is an eye-catching image, and is it even a good thing? This is an interesting question. Sometimes the most thoughtful photograph isn't the most eye-catching. The tricky thing with any photo contest is that there's usually a number of judges involved and winning photographs need to appeal to all of them. Your photograph needs to capture attention. Look for graphic compositions, as well as good color and contrast. Once you have a judge's attention, a winning photograph needs to have that mysterious X factor to be a winner, but if you don't catch his or her eye, it's never even going to be in the running.

Think Before You Add A Title
Titles are subjective, and they automatically invite associations and baggage. Don't try to be too clever. In the Zone VI newsletters, Fred Picker commented on a photo in a contest that he was judging. The title was "A Photograph Minor White Might Have Taken." Picker's comment: "There's a good reason he didn't." Unless the rules specifically require a title, there's nothing wrong with "Untitled" or just including the location where the photo was taken.

Protecting Your Rights
Every once in a while, Internet forums erupt with angry warnings about some contest or another that seems to state that by entering an image, you're giving away all rights to it. There have been some extreme examples of this, but by and large, that practice has stopped. What you may see in the rules (we mentioned that it's important to read the rules, right?) is that by submitting you give the organizers and the sponsors the unlimited right to use your image in promotional material regarding the contest. This sounds much more ominous than it really is. In just about any reputable contest, you retain ownership of your photo, but you agree to let the sponsors and organizers use that photo within the narrow confines of drawing attention to or showing the winners of the contest.

Some photographers are sufficiently concerned about image piracy that they will watermark or put a signature on the image. That's usually not a great idea. Anything that obscures any part of the photo is likely to make a judge move on.

The Wildcard: The Judges' Tastes
In any visual, artistic medium, taste plays a role. Usually, a number of judges can agree on the technical proficiencies of a photo, but beyond that things get subjective. Think of a 10-point scale where 10 is the winner. Images that aren't sharp or are improperly exposed would get a score of 5 or less. Photos that are sharp and well exposed and have good composition rate in the 6 to 8 realm. A 9 is technically perfect. What makes a 10? That's where taste comes into play. Contest organizers have large judging panels to keep one individual's personal taste from overwhelming the process, but it still comes into play. So what do you do? Simply send in your very best possible image. Make it technically as good as it can be, and also as thoughtful and artistic as you can. Then it's up to the judges.

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