How to win a landscape photo Contest? What are the judges looking for? What sort of photos should you enter?
If I knew the answer to these questions, I’d win all the competitions, but naturally that’s not going to happen! Rather, what we have to do is work out what we want from a photography competition and go from there?
Here are ten thoughts about entering landscape photography competitions.
1. What Is Your Goal?
Experienced photographers are probably entering to win a prize, whereas newer photographers are looking to reach a standard. There is only one first, second and third, but many competitions give out a generous number of ‘acceptances’ or ‘awards’, indicating that an entry has reached a high standard. If you want to win a prize, you have to strive much harder than if you just want acknowledgement of a standard.
2. What Subject Should You Enter?
Entering a photograph of New York in an American photography competition is probably not going to get you as many marks as a photo of Easter Island. If the judges are American, or worse, if they live in New York, they are more likely to be interested in an exotic landscape than their backyard. Give the judges something unusual to look at.
3. What Camera Do I Need?
Most cameras are capable of producing an award winning image, even an iPhone. This is especially true for an online competition where entries are only 2000 or 3000 pixels in width, so don’t worry about your equipment. Much more important is how you use the camera you have and how you present the image.
4. Do I Need To Fix My Photo In Photoshop?
Whether you’re using Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One or a host of other image editing programs, chances are you can make the file from your camera look better. It is rare for a photograph to be perfect straight out of the camera. Even pressing the ‘auto enhance’ feature in your software can make a difference. The short answer is yes.
5. How Much Editing Do I Need To Do?
Landscape competitions usually have a range of different styles, from the purist landscape where everything is in sharp focus, to an impressionistic vision which might be dark, grainy and moody. There is no simple answer to this except that most of the judges will use or know how to use image editing software, and if you entry is lacking in anyway – the exposure isn’t right, there’s a bright highlight that needs to be toned down, etcetera – your entry will suffer. The judges know what can be done, you need to meet their expectations. Check out the competition rules too as these will sometimes give you an idea of how much image editing is allowed.
6. Is It Okay To Crop My Photos
Cropping landscape photographs is recommended. Just because your camera has a 3:2 ratio format, doesn’t mean you are stuck with it. Crop square or panoramic if this suits the subject. Don’t include large areas of a scene that are not relevant to the composition – but of course, don’t crop out areas of negative space that balance your composition either. Composition is a very subjective area, but cropping is certainly allowed.
7. Should I Darken Down The Sky?
Our cameras use a single exposure to record both the landscape and the sky above, so it is usual for landscape photographs to have very light skies. Some photographers solve this by using a graduated neutral density filter when they shoot (which darkens the sky), but you can also darken in post-production. Don’t make the sky so dark that it looks unnatural. And it is very difficult to darken right up to the horizon line itself – indeed it can look unnatural. You are better off feathering or graduating the darkening effect, stopping some distance above or below the horizon so the edge of the darkening effect isn’t obvious.
8. Check Your Horizon Line in Seascapes
One of the most common mistakes in landscape photography competitions are horizon lines that are not level. It’s true that it can be hard to know in some landscapes, but a horizon in a seascape is a dead giveaway. Before you enter your photograph, double check that the horizon is straight!
9. What Are Judges Looking For?
Judges don’t know what they are looking for until they see it! However, winning photographs usually have a combination of an amazing location, wonderful light, atmosphere or weather, balanced composition, correct technique and suitable post-production. If they are judging hundreds of images together, judges are looking for a photograph that brings all these elements together.
10. Any Hints To Make My Photos Stand Out?
Photographs that are soft and subtle with lots detail don’t always work as well as photographs that are bold and colourful (or strongly toned in black and white), and simple in their subject matter and composition. In a competition, a photograph needs to communicate strongly and quickly as often a judge only looks at it for a few seconds. When you look at a collection of photographs as thumbnails on your computer screen, which ones stand out the most? Often these are the ones most likely to do well in a photography competition as well.
These points are just suggestions and you can probably find examples of winning photographs that contradict many of them. However, you have to start somewhere. Don’t expect to win every competition, rather look for a series of high scores. If you persevere, chances are you will eventually reach the winners’ circle.
Peter Eastway is an award winning photographer and judge. He has won the Australian Professional Photographer of the Year Award twice, Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year three times, has served as Chairman of the AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards, and is the head judge the International Loupe Awards. He has also written an eBook called How To Win Photo Competitions. Click here for more details.