Winning Wildlife Photos

Advice for entering wildlife photography contests
Winning Wildlife Photos

A mated pair of red-and-green Macaws sit together in a tree in Brazil’s southern Pantanal.

Photo contests are not for everyone. They require an investment of time and money. They can be daunting and discouraging. Art is subjective, after all, and what may aesthetically knock your socks off may be simply humdrum to a contest jury. Some photographers are vehemently opposed to contests for this reason, while others feel it’s essential to moving forward in their careers.

When is entering contests a fruitful use of your time? I think that for photographers who are starting out in their careers, entering contests can be an instructive exercise, giving them practice in examining, curating and processing their work. Winning can also be a solid feather in their cap. For pro photographers who are seeking to prove their aesthetic and technical chops in order to secure more clients for workshops, winning gives bragging rights.

If a contest expert is someone who places every time they enter a contest, that would not be me. I did win the Grand Prize in Audubon’s annual contest a couple years; however, most of what I have learned about contests is from the other side, the judging side. I went on to become one of the regular judges for the Audubon contest and have also served on other juries, such as that for the California Academy of Science’s BigPicture Natural World. I will try to sum up here what I think might be the most helpful tips for you, from the experience I have gained on these juries.

Winning Wildlife Photos: Curating Your Own Work

The two things you must do before selecting what photos to enter:

  • Look online at previous years’ winners. This is essential in understanding the kinds of images that are awarded.
  • Consider the judges. They are usually posted online, along with the contest rules. Because contests are so subjective, it makes sense to know who will be judging your photos. What do you know about the things those people value, the kinds of images they create if they are photographers, the styles they are drawn to?

As you look over your photos, follow some simple guidelines to help you choose. Don’t be afraid to show animals smaller in the frame, giving a sense of habitat. The tendency of entrants is to choose in-your-face shots, but these get very tiresome when a judge is looking at piles of these kinds of images. Animal-in-habitat shots give a very refreshing and needed sense of the animal’s environment.

If your image is in large part taken up by the subject, make sure you give that subject room to breathe and room to move into. Many photos feel just too cramped, with too little space under the feet or too little room in front for the bird or other animal to fly, walk, run or crawl into.

Be careful with cropping—too much may cause resolution to suffer, compromising image quality.

The eye should have critical sharpness. A less-than-sharp eye is often a deal breaker for many judges. This, of course, does not apply to artistic techniques such as slow pan blur.

Look for something unusual. Even with common birds that have been photographed millions of times, there are unique poses or moments of interesting, little-seen behavior.

Never include images of owls or predatory mammals that have been baited, which are forbidden in many contests now and highly controversial in others. For captive animals, as long as they are not from a game farm (explicitly prohibited in all reputable contests), make sure they go in the appropriate category (zoo, etc.). Avoid including any images where your wild or captive subject looks harassed or crowded by you or fearful of you. Judges are increasingly sensitive to how photographers are—or aren’t, ideally—interacting with their subjects.

Image Processing Within The Contest Rules

Editing is a crucial part of the process. Sloppy or negligent processing has proven the death knell for scores of contest entries. Here are some of the most common mistakes I see.

First, know what is allowed and what is not. This is absolutely critical. Get to know the rules forward and backward. If it says no cloning, don’t even clone out a small twig or leaf. You can have the best photo in the world, but if you have violated one of the articulated rules, your submission will be disqualified. How will the judges know? Because almost always now, a RAW image must be supplied to back up the high-resolution JPEG you submitted when entering.

Wild bobcat mother and kit, New York.

Too much of a good thing is no good. Yes, sharpening your image is often needed. There is a fine line, though, and oversharpening your photo can be deadly. People describe overly sharpened animals as looking “crispy” and hyperreal. Often a faint halo is created around the animal by the act of oversharpening. I have seen this on a lot of images. It’s always a bummer to have to discount a very fine image because it’s crossed that line. The same goes for oversaturated images. Be very careful with bumping up the colors. If it starts to look unreal, it detracts from the entire image. If I ever want to boost colors, I bring my Vibrance slider up very slightly in Lightroom. I never touch the Saturation slider. This seems to be the conventional wisdom among other pro photographers I’ve spoken with.

Watch your exposure. Another reason to shoot in RAW: It affords greater flexibility with exposure adjustment in processing. It’s so easy to blow the whites out when photographing white birds, for example. As long as you have Highlights enabled on your camera (informally referred to as “blinkies”), you should be able to adjust for this in the field. But you can also bring a lot of detail back after the fact if you have shot in RAW. Make sure your whites aren’t overexposed in your submission.

Level your horizons! This seems pretty basic but you’d be amazed at how many entries have a skewed horizon level. This is a very quick, easy fix in editing. If there isn’t a clear horizon line to go by, are there lines in the water that you can match up to? In the terrain?

Make sure your signature is not on the photo. The judging is blind in contests, and it’s very important that we as judges do not know that it’s your photo so that no personal biases can be introduced into the process.

If you feel unequal to the task because you don’t have time or don’t have the skills, keep in mind that there are professional photo editors who can be hired to get your photograph looking its best within the given editing parameters.

Submitting Your Images

Make sure you choose contests that:

  1. Value ethics and honesty. I think highly of the contests run by BigPicture Natural World, Nature’s Best, National Wildlife, North American Nature Photography Association, and National Audubon Society. I wish I could include NHM’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year on this list, but their ongoing allowance of baited predators like bears and wolves is discouraging to me and many other wildlife photographers.
  2. Allow you to keep the rights to your images and to determine extent of use. Read the fine print very, very carefully. Generally, you will find that the one thing you do have to agree to, in almost every case, is the permission for the contest organizer to use your photos in conjunction with the competition, in all media relating to the competition. Often, that includes future competitions. This is par for the course. Where there should be choice for you is whether the organizer can use your photos beyond the competition. You should be presented the option to opt out of that, if you want.

If you do decide to enter a contest, best of luck to you! It can be a real thrill.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.