How to Take Better Pictures and Win Photography Contests

Want to Win Photo Contests? 10 Ways to Impress the Judges

Image of a Photographer Taking an Contest-Winning Picture
•••  Image (c) Jeremy Woodhouse / Blend Images / Getty Images

Have you ever tried using your photography skills to win cash, trips, and other amazing prizes? If not, this is a good time to give it a shot.

Photography contests are a great way to have fun while improving your picture-taking skills, and to win prizes while you're at it.

Best of all, you don't have to use expensive equipment or be a professional to win. Here are some tips to impress the judges and boost your chances of becoming a winner.

1. Read the Rules Carefully

If you're inspired to enter photo contests, you might be tempted to just dive in and start shooting. Hang on just a second, though. If you want to win, it's worth the time to read the rules carefully. Why?

Many contests have special requirements that limit the types of photographs they'll accept. For example, they might not accept entries that contain any brand names or logos other than their own. That means that the wrong t-shirt or a logo in the background of your shot could disqualify you. You'd never know if you didn't read the rules.

You might also want to check whether other people can be in your shots, whether you need to use the sponsor's products in your photographs, and if there are any other relevant restrictions or requirements. It won't matter how great your photos are if you accidentally disqualify yourself.

2. Check How Winners Will Be Chosen

Before you start shooting, check how the contest's winners will be chosen.

Most photo contests outline the criteria that the judges will use to pick the winner. Is technical prowess the most important quality of a winning shot? Or maybe the contest is looking for a photo that's funny, touching, or extremely creative?

Once you know what the judging criteria are, you can tailor your photographs to ensure that you are giving the judges exactly what they need.

3. Use the Sponsor’s Products in the Shot

If it's appropriate and matches the theme of the contest, using the sponsor's products in your photographs may give your entry an edge.

For example, if a fabric softener company is sponsoring a baby photo contest, try laying your child on top of your dryer (safely!), wrapped in a soft yellow blanket with a bottle of their fabric softener in the background.

In most cases, sponsors are more likely to select winners whose photos help their advertising efforts.

4. Improve Your Technique

You don't need to be a pro to win photo contests, but there are some simple ways to improve your photography techniques (and following them will oftentimes improve the score your photos get from judges).

To become a better photographer, take some time to learn about the basics of a great shot. For example:

For more photography basics, check out these essential photography techniques for beginners from BorrowLenses.com.

5. Watch Your Background

Have you ever taken a photo that you thought would be amazing, only to realize that something in the background makes the shot unusable?

If you want to win photo contests, don't get so carried away with your subject that you ignore a background that's messy, ugly, or inappropriate. Before you click that shutter button, make sure that everything in the frame looks right. 

6. Experiment with Distance

A common beginner’s mistake is to take a picture from too far away; including too much background that dilutes the impact of your subject.

Many times, coming in close and letting your subject fill the shot will give you a more moving photograph. If your original shot is too distant, cropping the photo could achieve the same result.

On the other hand, some stunning photos feature an impressive background with the subject showing up as a small part of a broader shot.

Experimenting with distance gives you more options; it's a great way to come up with something unique.

7. Pay Attention to Your Relative Height

Are you taking pictures of children, pets, or other things shorter than you are? Get on the level of your subject. For example, a closer, more intimate look, even if that means crouching or lying on the ground.

Shots taken from above often make your subject look small and distorted. While in some cases, this might be exactly what you want, most of the time you'll do better if you watch your angle.
On the other hand, many adults look best if they are looking up at the camera. There's a reason why people look up when they take selfies!

Experiment to see which angle gives you the most visually interesting shots.

8. Watch Your Lighting

The proper lighting can make the difference between winning and losing a photography contest. Shadows or the glare from overly bright lights can destroy an otherwise perfect picture. Try taking pictures early in the morning, just before sunset, or on a cloudy day. Use the flash on bright days to fill in shadows on faces or irregular surfaces. Popular Photography has some tips on how to use interesting lighting in photographs.

9. Tell a Story with Your Picture

Most contests have some kind of theme. It may be a one-word theme like "gold" or something more philosophical like "the meaning of life." Make your entry stand out by not just sticking to the theme, but actually telling a story with your shot.

You can do this by using props, looking for an interesting juxtaposition like a flower growing in a junkyard or an oasis of calm in a busy city, or by connecting with your subject's true emotions, not just a plastered-on smile.

PetaPixel.com offers some more advice on telling stories with your photos.

If you can submit a title and/or a caption along with your story, you can use these can to reinforce your story.

10. Take Lots of Photographs

No matter how confident you feel, don’t settle for a single shot. Take dozens of pictures. Move around a little bit. Try photographing the same subject from different angles, in different lighting, and at different times of the day.

You want to submit a picture that stands out from the rest, so look for shots with eye-catching colors, unusual composition, and great expressions. Remember that unintended blurriness is the kiss of death of competition entries.

Digital photography makes it easy and inexpensive to take tons of pictures, so take full advantage of it to boost your odds of winning photography contests.