Winning isn’t everything but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Entering contests can be a way to sharpen your photographic skills. It can teach you how to edit your photos and push you to become a better photographer. But what does it take to win? I’ve entered many contests and even won a few. I’ve even been a judge also, so I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

Matthew Baker of Stockton used a Nikon D7500 DSLR camera to photograph fog rising over Eight Mile Road at Honker’s Cut in Stockton. The unexpected interpretation of the fog as a cloud during sunrise made this photo a top pick in the March 2019 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Clouds.

I’ve read articles that promise foolproof ways to win but there’s no real formula for victory. And there’s the biases and inclinations of the individual judges that you can’t account for. But are a few tips to improve your chances of winning.

Carolyn Silva of Jackson used a Nikon D7500 DSLR to photograph a cow eating in a field near her home. The fog shrouded trees in the background made this photo a top pick in the March 2020 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Plants.

The first step to winning a contest is to make sure you’ve enter your photo in the right category. You could have the most beautiful image of a landscape, but if you enter it into a portrait category, it will be tossed out without a second thought. I’ve judged the San Joaquin County Fair’s photo contest a few times and there were many pictures that were simply entered in the wrong category. It’s not up to the judge or contest organizers to correct your mistake.

Teresa Mahnken of Morada used a Nikon D3200 DSLR camera to photograph a horse at Marval Stables in Lodi. The unusual placement of the horse in the frame made this photo a top pick in the October 2016 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Animals.

To win, your image must reach a certain level of technical expertise. You must show that you know your imaging device’s strengths as well as weaknesses and that you know how to exploit the former and minimize the latter. In other words, you must be able to make your camera do what you want it to do. It’s something that the best photographers, amateur or pro, know how to do.

Cynthia Barker of Stockton used an Apple iPhone 8 to photograph her favorite glass cup at her home. The unusual view of the cup and the light shining through it made this photo a top pick in the July 2020 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Glass

On top of that, your photos must attain a certain artistic level of excellence that’s above the rest. That means is has to be well composed, well lit and have an attention to detail. It also has to reach the viewer/judge on an emotional level. That comes from your approach to the subject matter. Whether it exhibits strong visual impact or a high level of intimacy, the image has to have enough appeal to viscerally move the viewer and not just you.

Mary Paulson of Valley Springs used an iPhone 5s to photograph a hot air balloon through her bathroom window in Abingdon, England. The bright colors and the unusualness of the balloon appearing inn the window made this photo a top pick in the June 2015 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Vacation.

The last thing is the most important and the hardest to achieve. Winning photos tend to have something different or special about them that the other entries lack. Atlanta-based commercial photographer Zack Arias recounts a story when he as a young photographer helping out at the National Press Photographer Association’s Pictures of the Year contest. His job was to show the slides to the judges who would say “yea” or “nay” to the pictures on the screen. Arias says that he would see some images pictures that he thought were incredible but were quickly dismissed by the judges after only a few seconds of viewing. Arias learned that the judges were looking for something more than just excellence. The were looking for something different as well. They wanted to be surprised.

Teresa Mahnken of Morada used a Samsung Galaxy 8 smartphone to photograph a mountain through the broken windshield of an abandoned car in the ghost town of Nelson, Nevada, near Las Vegas. The unusual use of a hole in the windshield of an abandoned car to frame the mountain made this photo a top pick in the November 2019 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Landscapes.

A contest like the NPPA one receives thousands of photos. If, say in the sports category, they get a hundred pictures of a player sliding into the catcher at home or a wide receiver fighting for a catch with a defender, all of equal quality, how can anyone judge one image over another? Something that’s different will catch the judges eye and give you a chance to win.

Freya Schwinn of Stockton used a Canon EOS Rebel T6 DSLR camera to photograph a side tunnel of the Stoneman Bridge in Yosemite National Park. The use of the reflection in the water to repeat the arch made this photo a top pock in the July 2018 Readers Photo Challenge assignment: Bridges.

Not winning can be discouraging but don’t give up. Keep entering and then follow up by seeing what won. This isn’t to say that the same subject matter will win again. Most likely it won’t, but look at the quality of the winners. Look for the artistic and emotional content and how the photo might have surprise the judges.

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