5 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make Entering a Photo Contest

Participating in photography contests is a wonderful way to refine your favorite images, shoot with a clear goal in mind, and give your practice some direction. Going a step further, winning contests can also put your portfolio in front of hundreds of people, giving you great exposure and making your name better known in the industry. Not to mention that some contests also offer generous prizes in the form of money or cameras!

Of course, winning isn’t everything – just because you didn’t make it doesn’t mean you’re a bad photographer (opens in a new tab) — but most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t enter a contest to at least do well.

Each photography contest (and there are now hundreds of them) has a different set of judges and judging criteria, so you’ll need to do some research into what the judges are looking for and what types of images generally do well in the competition.

We wanted a judge’s perspective and spoke to Rob Read, one of the founding directors of the Bird Photographer of the Year awards. Although Rob has now moved on to WildArt Photographer of the Year, he previously revealed a few ways to increase your chances of success – and his advice is still as relevant now.

Although each contest is different in its mandate and the tips here apply more to bird photography than to general contests, they should still apply to many contests. Read the rules, take specially designed images to enter the contest and you can’t go too far wrong.


Here, the photographer used a wide-angle lens and a very unusual angle to capture this striking image, winning the 2016 Best Portrait Bird Photographer of the Year award. (Image credit: Bence Mate/Bird Photographer of the Year)

What were you looking for in BPOTY attendees?

Simply put, the best and most original bird photography the world has to offer. We have a panel of experienced judges who have seen most things before, so we want the competition to break new ground. Advances in camera technology over the past 15 years have allowed photographers much more latitude in how they can approach their subjects. Being surprised by images you’ve never seen taken the same way is a joy I feel every year when I review the contest entries.

What kinds of qualities tend to attract the attention of judges?

Photography is of course subjective, and what catches the eye of one judge may be overlooked by another. Overall, judges are looking for images that have immediate impact and demonstrate originality; something that has the power to elicit an immediate emotional response. A subject photographed in a unique way the judges have never seen before guarantees more screen time, and if paired with the right lighting and solid composition, it can see you win. With advances in camera technology, there is no excuse for anything other than technical perfection in composition, focus and correct exposure. Remember, we see thousands of entries, and if you don’t grab attention right away, chances are the image will be ignored in favor of others.

What types of images are overlooked?

If an image is technically flawed, whether it’s poorly exposed, blurry, or badly composed, chances are it won’t pass a quick glance. Images that lack originality, taken in a common style seen countless times before, also don’t tend to pass the initial screening process. Any image where we believe an ethical line has been crossed, particularly if a bird is showing signs of distress or its behavior has been adversely altered to allow the image to be captured, will be removed from the process.

What can participants do to improve their chances of success?

Be your worst critic. It’s easy to solicit praise from your peers on social media and rack up hits on the “Like” button. But is this image really enough?
Does it demonstrate originality? Is it technically perfect? What could you do better? Be hard on yourself; select only your best work to enter the contest and don’t be tempted to fill your submission with “fillers” that will be confined to the judges’ “no” bin. Each image must be technically perfect, compositionally strong and original.

Take images specially designed for contest entry instead of choosing old photographs from your back catalogue. If you think you have a potential winner, keep it to yourself and don’t be tempted to share it on social media. If a judge has already seen an image make the rounds, regardless of its quality, the impact on them will be less and therefore your chances of success diminished.


This was taken specifically with a competition in mind, and a lot of preparation went into capturing it. (Image credit: Sam Hobson/Bird Photographer of the Year)


The detail of the droplets on the bird’s plumage and the tight cropping made this photo stand out (Image credit: Mario Suarez Porras/Bird Photographer of the Yea)

What are the top five mistakes participants make?

Not reading the category brief correctly
My heart sinks when I see a beautiful image that we reject because it doesn’t fit the category record, but it happens several times every year.

Enter the same image in multiple categories
No matter how strong an image, its impact is less when it appears multiple times on the judges’ screens. Choose the most appropriate category for the image and don’t be tempted to enter it into another one.

Capturing a series of similar images from the same sequence
We all suffer from this dilemma from time to time; maybe you’ve captured a great action sequence, for example, and you have a dozen or more frames to choose from. Can’t decide which one to enter? Don’t be tempted to submit more than one – if you can’t decide which is better, the judges won’t do your job for you and you’ll dilute their collective opinion and image impact .

Copied images
I can guarantee you that every year we will see dozens of images that attempt to imitate photographs that won or did well the previous year. As judges, we are looking for something new that we are passionate about; copying subjects, styles and compositions seen previously will not make any of the judges turn heads.

Not reading the rules
Competition rules exist for a reason, but they are seemingly ignored by some entrants every year. Read the rules carefully and make sure you follow them. If they are ignored, be prepared for the contest organizers to disqualify your image, no matter how good it is.

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