Contest Guidelines: How to Win a Photography Contest

The following is intended to help budding photographers understand why some photos win photography contests and others don't. These guidelines consist of a brief introduction into the judging criteria that we use here for the photography contest at They are by no means comprehensive. But they should give you a start in the right direction.

September 2001 Photo Contest Grand Prize Winner - Curious
© Colleen Walsh

Our judging process is composed of multiple stages and calls upon the evaluations of a panel of skilled photographers and judges. So many excellent entries are submitted to the contest each month, we have to be brutal. The voting process unfortunately eliminates many good images.

The winning photographs you see posted on the site feature a strong combination of the assets we seek in an image. These include: thoughtful attention to lighting, eye-catching color; balanced composition; sharpness; correct exposure; and a host of other elements. An explanation of our judging criteria - used as a guideline during the voting process - follows.

Know the Ropes

October 2001 Photo Contest Second Place Winner - Colourful Glas
© Danny Verhasselt
First and foremost, read the Terms and Conditions, paying especially close attention to the "Additional Contest Rules" section. These rules reveal much to the discerning contestant. For example, our brief and simple terms state that only one image can be entered into the contest per day.

Therefore, if you enter many images consecutively, only the first is judged in the contest. We regretfully pass over many great images each month because the contestant obviously had not read this part of the rules.

Look Sharp

September 2001 Photo Contest Second Place Winner - The Dome
© Lisa Young
Secondly, we evaluate the image against traditional standards of sharpness. The picture, above all, needs to be in focus (or, if the picture features some blurriness, it has to be a clearly intentional, artistic use of blur by the photographer). Photos that suffer from camera shake or other focus mistakes are often eliminated very early in the judging process.

We generally notice two levels of blur in the images submitted:

  1. Some photos are obviously, and unintentionally, blurry. If the blurriness is detrimental to the photo, the image is usually eliminated early on.
  2. There are many other photos which are just slightly out of focus, or soft. When this appears to be unintentional and dissatisfying, the picture receives a lower score. Only when other elements of the photo - such as its uniqueness - are remarkably strong do we continue to leave it in the running.

August 2000 Photo Contest Second Place Winner - Spirit Eagle
© W.J. Shattil
Remember: sometimes softness is an attribute and not a problem. A perusal of the winning images will show you that some photos can excel with a careful use of blur.

Picture Perfect Exposure

We understand at BetterPhoto that images look different from one computer to another. What may be dark on a PC may appear extremely light on a Macintosh, for example. Therefore, judging exposure takes a back seat to judging sharpness. But it is still important.

Is it underexposed? Is the snow blue instead of white? Is the image faint and hard to see? Does it look like it may have been a nice image before it was poorly scanned?

Does the photo show pleasing colors with clarity and correct exposure? Can you make out the details in the shadows. Clarity and resolution of the photo - being able to enjoy the details of an image - mean a lot to the judges. They look at how well exposed the image is and, unless the photo is black and white, how well color is captured.

Get Digital, If Need Be

November 2000 Photo Contest Grand Prize Winner - Lone Wolf in Aspen
© Darwin Wiggett
At times, a photo looks blurry after being captured with a digital camera or scanned. That is one reason why, whether you are a traditional film photographer or a digital photographer, knowing your way around a simple software program such as Adobe Photoshop will likely help you win.

Learn how to do a slight amount of digital sharpening after you scan, with a image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop; investigate the "Unsharp Mask" or "Smart Sharpen" functions in your software.

You should especially be careful to not overly compress a JPEG file when saving. We recommend uploading images with the least amount of compression as your connectivity can allow - if you are on slow connection, you may not be able to wait for a big file to upload. In any case, settings above 8 (or 80% or the equivalent in your software) are generally safe.

November 2000 Photo Contest First Place Winner - Wood Carving
© Guy Biechele
If you shoot film, learning the art of scanning is essential. The image must look excellent on the Web. Dust, scratches, hair, and any other distracting elements need to be eliminated. If your software features a Rubber Stamp (or Cloning) tool, learn how to use it. You will also benefit by learning how to keep contrast from increasing too much during the scanning process. If the lights get too light while the darks get too dark, you have a problem and need to take steps to increase color range (Hint: you may be able to salvage many photos using the Curves, Levels or similar functions of your software.)

Also, make sure that you scan the area of your image and not its surrounding borders. Try to not be overly concerned about getting every single square millimeter of your picture, to the point where you actually end up including white or dark lines around the photo. If you do, crop them before submitting the photo.

Get Creative / Be Artistic

When the judges vote, a few questions they ask include:

This is all about the art of seeing - of being able to creatively notice the right moment - as well as artistic treatment. A high voting score here represents an artist who is aware of the unique colors and qualities to be found in light, as well as noticing graphic elements such as lines, patterns, shapes, and forms.

Noticing and capturing the comical and humorous can also be helpful. Finding an interesting, unique and original choice of subject, and going out on a limb, will often result in some of the best pictures.

©Paolo Cardone
For example, an original use of the sepia tone effect, creative lighting, motion blur, etc., will cause a photo to score higher. Framing the subject is another effective way to treat it artistically.

Consider the overall clarity of meaning and focus of statement. When the photographer's intention is clear and the main subject obvious, this can help make the photo a winner.

Lastly, the photo should be balanced in composition (e.g. by use of the Rule of Thirds or another compositional principle). Move in closer if you need to. Make sure the horizon is level. Whenever possible, eliminate any extraneous elements - such as annoying spot of glare, an unwanted tree branch or camera strap. For more hints on what makes a good photo, review our Top Ten Tips.

Name and Describe Your Photos

Sometimes it can be very difficult to figure out what to call a photo or what to write in the description field when you upload. Although these words are nowhere near as important as the image itself, we thought we would offer you a few tips on titling and describing your images.

Don't Distract the Viewer

If you have read this far, you deserve a reward. Here are two things most people don't know:

1) The judges have generally learned to dislike borders. Borders are all too often placed around mediocre photos in an attempt to "dress them up". If you are considering a border, do what the judges do: examine the photo itself, critically and exclusively. Hold up your hands and use your fingers to temporarily hide the borders. If the photo does not stand on its own - without borders, then don't add a border.

2) We certainly support putting your own copyright symbol on your photos. However, if you are going to do this, try to keep the signature and copyright symbol from becoming too distracting. One trick is to color your font so that it works harmoniously with the other colors in your photo. Help your viewer keep his eye on your main subject.

Please, No "Advertising"

Photos that show logos, brandnames, or trademarks are not allowed.

Study the Winners and Keep Your Chin Up

If you are still uncertain about what makes a winning contest photo, carefully review the winners again and again. Ask yourself, why was this photo selected? What are the top qualities about it?

Remember that you have a lot going for you at the BetterPhoto contest. Our judges are dedicated to three things:

That means that we do not judge a picture poorly just because some photographers would consider it a "less professional" subject (i.e. your cat, your kid). At the same time, we do not punish good photographers for working hard to becoming great (no handicaps, no separating the pros from the amateurs). We also do not hold it against you if you artistically and skillfully employ digital tools.

Overall, we are looking for beautiful, truthful, and creative images.

Thank you for your interest and enjoy the Photo Contests.