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Contest Winning Photographs

You be the judge—what makes a contest-winning photograph?
Contest Winning Photographs

Prize-Winning Pika. Back in 1994, Lepp thought this image of an American pika, taken in a high Rocky Mountain meadow, might be a winner, so he entered it in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which received more than 12,000 entries. It won a second-place prize and a nice cash award and remains one of his favorites.

I’m often asked to serve as a judge of photography competitions, and if my schedule allows it, I usually agree to take on the assignment. It’s a great opportunity to see the latest and greatest in nature photography and to work with other judges to evaluate, debate and elevate the best images to the winners’ circle.

I’ve just wrapped up another contest, and I think it might be useful to pass along some information about how photo competitions work, what makes a competitive image and what makes a winner. From working as a judge of contests from as diverse a group of organizations as Microsoft, North American Nature Photography Association, Denver Audubon, Canon USA and many others, including regional and local camera clubs, I find that the basic principles and the process are remarkably similar, although the results are gloriously different from one competition to another.

Most contests are conducted by reviewing the images in five stages: all of the entries; those that make the first cut as being qualified for the contest; those that are evaluated by the judges; those that the judges believe have special merit and should be shared with the public; and, finally, the winners. What are the judges looking for at each stage? I hope that the information that follows will assist you to be more successful as a participant in photo competitions and also help to elevate the quality of all of your images.

The adjudicators of contests include your friends at the camera club, where images are shared and critiqued; the experienced volunteers at more competitive inter-club competitions; and the (hopefully) knowledgeable professionals who serve as judges of regional, national and international competitions that offer notoriety, or even valuable prizes, to the winners. In every case, those friends and strangers who judge your images are considering the same basic criteria while attempting to distinguish the worthiness of one image from another. Here’s what they’re looking for at the various stages of the contest.

Contest Winning Photographs: The First Cut

Most of the contests I work with receive thousands of entries from all over the world, vying for just a few cash prizes and a hundred or so honorable mentions. The administrators of the contest perform a first edit to eliminate the entries that do not meet the basic requirements of the competition because they are submitted in incorrect formats, the subject matter is outside the contest’s intent or they do not demonstrate mastery of the basic tenets of good photography. Of the approximately 2000 images submitted to the contest I recently judged, more than 700 were eliminated at the first cut. If you hope to survive it, follow the rules!

Pay attention to the content guidelines. For example, if the contest is about wildlife, do not enter photographs of domestic or captive animals. Honor any rules concerning the image format, the time frame within which it was captured and the amount of post-capture modification allowed. Keep it clean: No signatures, watermarks or borders. If the contest includes a variety of categories, you’ll need to carefully choose the best arena for your entry. Does the elk in a meadow go to the wildlife section or the landscape section? And if the rules do not have a category for your enhanced or artificially created images, don’t try to slip one past the judges. They can usually tell when elements are added or taken out. It’s embarrassing to get caught, so don’t do it.

The Judging, Part One: Composition

While we might want to think that technical quality is the first criterion, that’s not the way humans work. It’s really about content that grabs our attention because it’s extremely unusual, beautiful, emotional or colorful; action that’s stopped or movement that’s emphasized; a perspective or a situation never seen before or extremely difficult to capture. And you want the viewer to immediately “read” the message of the image, especially in a contest where the judges are viewing thousands of photographs. So first and foremost, submissions will be judged on these components of composition:

Content. Every successful image contains one or more of three main elements: a strong center of interest, a compelling design or rich color. When two or more of these elements are immediately discernable in the image, it becomes a contender, even more so if the content is unique. Unfortunately, the phrase I most frequently utter on my first pass through a catalog of entries is, “Seen it before.”

Subject Placement. Place the center of interest appropriately in the frame, meaning in the location—and in juxtaposition with other elements—that expresses the message of the image most clearly. Normally, this means that the subject is neither cut off by nor centered in the frame, although there can be powerful exceptions to this rule. Balance is important. Normally, placing all the content on one side is not successful because the viewer finds nothing to look at in one half of the image, and that’s distracting. But again, there are always exceptions to the rules. Sometimes, for example, an animal subject is effectively positioned on one side of the image to convey its movement into the landscape. But an animal facing away from the viewer or moving out of the image is generally just a butt shot—not usually a contender.

The Story. It’s hard for a photo of a subject in repose to compete with one of a subject in action. A compelling portrait, especially one that conveys emotion, can be successful, but action tells a story. The image of the raptor in the process of securing its dinner, feeding its chicks or fighting off another bird will usually win over the static portrait. The female elk interacting with a calf will win over a stately portrait of the bull in repose, no matter how big that rack is. Look for the action and the story in progress.

Ethical Capture. I am heartened that the field of nature photography has progressed to the point where ethical standards are applied up front in most competitions. Usually, specific rules will promote ethical standards in field practices and prohibit entering images of captive animals, such as those housed at zoos or exhibited by game farms, in wildlife categories. If the judges are qualified, they will be able to discern that the photographer has placed the subject in harm’s way in the process of capturing the image. As an example, one entry in a recent contest beautifully depicted a threatened species of raptors at a cliff-side nest; but the image was captured with flash at close range, endangering the adult bird and the nestlings, and all of the judges agreed the image should not be included among the winners. Another dangerous practice frequently seen in recent years is the baiting of owls with pet-store mice, enticing the birds into position for flight shots and close-ups.

As nature photographers, we have impact on the natural landscape and its inhabitants, an impact that is dramatically increasing with our numbers and our access to once-wild places. Whether or not you are interested in photography competitions, I urge all nature photographers to spend some time reviewing their practices in light of current standards for ethical photography. A leader in this field is OP’s own columnist, our colleague Melissa Groo. Other excellent sources are the websites of the North American Nature Photography Association, National Audubon Society and International League of Conservation Photographers.                                 

The Judging, Part II: Technical Quality

Once the compelling story of an image has captured our attention, an assessment of the fine points of image quality will come into play. These include:

Proper Exposure. Images that are washed out, excessively dark or contain significant blown-out areas with no detail are quickly removed from contention.

Sharp Focus. Critical focus and properly placed depth of field are essential. The importance of focus increases with enlargement of the image. If the sharp detail draws the eye to the wrong aspect of the image, such as behind or in front of the subject, it works against the story. On the other hand, when image components have white outlines, it indicates over-sharpening, and the judges, or any knowledgeable viewer, will reject even a strong composition on that basis. Especially for a contest entry, I recommend doing very little sharpening and using only the “Clarity” feature in the RAW Converter to slightly sharpen just the middle-toned features.

Oversaturation. You can bring up color saturation to improve the tonal range, but don’t overdo it because over-saturation screams “phony.” Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Excessive Contrast. Lack of detail in the highlights and shadows is an indication that the photographer miscalculated the exposure. Current cameras have excellent dynamic range capabilities, allowing nearly complete control of contrast and expanding tonal range. If done correctly, in-camera or post-capture HDR (High Dynamic Range) software can solve contrast issues. But if you take it too far, the image will be rejected because of its unnatural look. And note that some contests do not allow HDR composites.

Noise. The grainy texture known as “noise” was once a common distortion in low-light photography, but today’s digital cameras are capable of capturing images with minimal noise in low-light conditions by increasing ISO settings that control the sensitivity of the sensor. Using ISO settings properly in conjunction with exposure and shutter speed are key elements to quality imaging. Judges with strong field experience will be able to assess whether image noise is excessive in particular instances.

Excessive Cropping. While today’s high-resolution sensors definitely allow some cropping, and cropping can be an effective element of composition, the judges can usually spot an excessive crop. Say you had a 100mm lens and you really needed 400mm; cropping to increase the subject size in the image is not the answer, as there will be excessive noise and lack of detail in the result. Unusual cropping ratios, such as a thin rectangle, typically serve to emphasize compositional flaws. The best practice is to take the time to thoughtfully frame your images at capture.

Backgrounds. A busy background diverts emphasis from the subject and confuses the message. It’s very important that your image reads quickly, and messy backgrounds thwart that objective nearly every time.

Cleanliness & Color Balance. In the digital realm, post-capture processing and basic optimization in imaging software are always needed. Enlarge the image to identify and eliminate all the dust spots. Correct the color balance to eliminate color anomalies that the camera may have captured, such as unnatural blue tones in shadows.

Narrowing The Field

In a typical judging process, the judges review the entries individually and assign a score on a scale of, say, 1 to 7 or 1 to 10 to each of the thousands of qualified images. By combining the scores for each entry, a “top-tier” group is identified. In most of the contests in which I’ve been involved, the judges then meet by conference call, while simultaneously viewing the images on their computers, to choose the finalists. It is usually quite easy to come to agreement, although the deliberations can be animated and represent a variety of perspectives and preferences. I always enjoy these discussions, and although my arguments do not always prevail, I’m continually impressed by the quality of the final results.

But go ahead. You be the judge. Look at the winning images, and the honorable mentions, of prominent nature photography contests. Think about the parameters of the competition, the compositional and technical quality of the photography, and the particular elements that make a winner. Then apply those same standards to your own work. And try not to be too hard on the panel of judges if you disagree with the specific results of any contest. We know we’re setting ourselves up for judgment every time we take on a contest of wildlife photographs, but, alas, we are only human.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.