Why my pics aren’t chosen in the photo contest

Judging photo contests, and helping photographers with image selection/editing for photo contests or exhibitions I hear this question quite regular:

Can you assess why my pics aren’t chosen for the calendar? Can I improve the images, choose different subjects or what?

This time, being approach by @joannepratt with the same question after the recent NM Calendar 2018 contest, I decide to share my wisdom on the topic. I hope my advice will help other photographers in their future contests. I will use Joanne’s contest photos in the review, just because she was brave to ask, and make it public.

First of all I’d like to give credits to everyone, who submitted photos to a photo contest.

You deserve credits simply for successfully finishing the project: you photographed, selected, prepared, and were brave to lay the result down in front of the jury!

Secondly, if you just want a short answer, here it is:

Your beautiful images were not chosen in the contest, simply because there were other good photographers in the contest, and their photos won. This is, by the way, the answer also to the question: Why didn’t I win in the casino last Friday night.

Now, let me give you more serious answers, as there is no one single answer to the question:

It is vital to meet the expectation of the jury regarding the theme of the contest. So, do not submit photos of flowers in a documentary photo contest.

In our case, the topic of the contest was: to depict the beauty and authenticity of the New Mexico state in genres: nature, cityscape, people.

Joanne did a good job selecting photos, which nicely depict the authenticity of the nature and culture of New Mexico.

Naturally art contests’ selections are subjective, as art can’t be measured with a ruler. It is a job of organizers to form the jury from people, who relate to the contest’s desired vibe and style. The rest is up to jury’s taste and preferences.

That’s why you may increase your chance to be selected, if you submit photos of different style, or with wider range of genres, or subjects if applicable.

Please do not try to suddenly “create new personal styles” to follow my advice. Go through your photos, and find those images, which convey your understanding of the main contest’s topic from a different perspective instead. Brainstorm the meaning of the topic of the contest for a chance of seeing a different way to depict the topic.

For example, in the “Water” photo contest, a straight forward understanding of the topic would be any photo, containing water: drinking, water sports, rain, ocean, etc. But you can submit photos without water in the frame, but which suggest its presence: shopping for water activities gear, shipyard, wet puppy back in a cozy house. You can also think of images, showing what life with the abundance of water is, or without water may be: lush garden fruit trees, or dry wrinkled desert soil.

Who knows what are the other meanings you will come up with… Instead your photos will stand out in their unique understanding of the main topic of the contest.

I think, Joanne’s selection has a nice spectrum in terms of genres: agriculture/urban, cultural/art, urban/nature.

It is important to understand practical goals of the contest. It will help to approach them from a different way. Here are some common options.

Selecting photos fora  contest, which results in a physical end-product (book, set of postcards, printed exhibition), think from the perspective of the final consumer of that product. What would you like to see in the product (what scenes, stories)? What scale of a photo subject would work the best in the product? How would your photo look from a six feet distance, being mounted on the wall? What are other unique specifics of the final product?

This is exactly the case of our example photo contest, which goal is a printed calendar. It means that each of 12 selected photos will represent one month. So ti would be great to select your photos through the prism of the month-related calendar spreads. I think, Joanne’s photos depict states of nature that can be assigned to certain months: bare soil and the color of sunset, green and yellow grass, snow on the top of the mountain.

Another category of photo contests is dedicated to creating a pool of editorial images for corporate use. It is common to see big brands, like producers of electronics, or mobile network providers sponsoring this type of contests. The winning images of such contests are usually showing many aspects of positive social application of the branded products. Brands with higher aesthetic standards in advertisement prefer less obvious, more natural narrative.

In photo contests, aiming to promote young talents it is important to understand your own unique voice, or style, and convey that voice, or message in the selected photos.

It is a pity, that many photographers only concentrate on their own images for the photo contest, giving little to no attention to the technical requirements for the submission. As a result, files, which exceed size (too big, or too small), or have a wrong aspect ratio, or a wrong orientation (e.g. portrait instead of the required landscape), etc., never make it through the contest’s technical filter. E.g. the jury never sees them.

In some free contests there is a limit on the number of submitted photos from a single photographer. In our example photo contest the limit was 12 photos. All the extra photos got deleted without any feedback.

All Joanne’s photos were submitted with respect to the requirements of the contest, in 11×8.5 aspect ratio.

I bet, taking any specific photo you saw all the beauty of the depicted scene, naturally you want to share it with others. It is great, but it worth remembering, that a contest is a competition, and it is very important to showcase your work in the best way. If you want to win, of course. This means:

  • You convey your message through the photo clearly. Use photo reviews events to get feedback, or at least ask your friends to “read” your visual message. There are tons of “just beautiful” photos around, but far not all of them make us holding our breath.
  • You’ve done all possible to create a strong working composition in your image. There are no major unrelated distracting objects in the frame.
  • You’ve done at least basic retouching to your photos. “Auto improve” button in your photo app will help, if nothing else. Do not post photos directly from your phone library! Unless it is a requirement of the contest. Many photos will benefit from just a simple cropping.
  • You came up with a relevant (to the photo, not just to your personalty) title, or description for each photo, if they are required by the contest. Be concise, remember that image must speak for itself. Do not describe what’s on the photo, but summarize, or suggest a point of view on the depicted scene, or a possible continuation of the story.
  • Do not repeat yourself. It is not a contest for YOUR best photo, but for the best photo among all the participating photographers. The jury won’t bother comparing one your image to another identical one. They will likely compare the collective visual image of your identical photos with images of other competitors.

Analyzing Joanne photos, I totally agree with her first submitted photo, and would like to comment on other three photos.

  1. There was no need in submitting two similar photos of wooden sculptures, especially that the second one reproduces the same sculpture, and is lacking sharpness on the sculpture’s face.
  2. Although the first sculpture image depicts three statues, the composition of the photo doesn’t tell about their relationship, or leads through the space of the photo with a clear purpose. It would still be a good vertical photo of two statues after cropping – anyway the left half of the image is empty.
  3. I like the subject of the last photo, but would suggest to put more work into the small structure to the left. Its positioning, and facing is leading us out from the image, distracting from the main plot. It would benefit from a different vantage point, or some Photoshop retouching.

Basically, as in any draw, or contest the more photos you submit, the more chance your get to be noticed. Of course – with respect to all the previous suggestions. Do not submit trash!

Joanne submitted 4 photos out of 12 possible, and I respect her choice. Sometimes less is more.

If you have too many photos to select from, you can put some time into getting information about personal visual preferences of the jury members. Just google their personal works, check their Facebook page (if open), Pinterest boards, etc. This may help you to better synchronize with their visual esthetics, while picking photos for the photo contest.

Doing that, please respect people’s personal space!

In our example contest it was easy to do some homework by simply checking out previous years winning photos of the same contest, published on Isigma Photo website. Sometimes in annual contest with a single topic we do not even need to know the jury personally, getting a lot from analysis of previous winners.

If you did your best in suggested improvements, than the rest is in the jury’s hands. Let the beauty wins!

Another example of the winning photos review from the recent contest can be found in our contest dedicated forum.

As usually, I’ll be glad to answer your questions, or provide more clarification on the topic of this article:

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