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How to achieve success in nature photo competitions

As a conservationist and communicator, Sophie Stafford has judged nature photography competitions all over the world, from World Press Photo in Amsterdam and Por el Planeta in Mexico to Russia’s Golden Turtles and GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. As Editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, she judged and co-managed arguably the most prestigious contest of all, Wildlife Photographer of the Year, for nearly 10 years, in partnership with London’s Natural History Museum.

So no one is better placed to help you understand how photo judging works and what goes on behind the scenes to improve your chances of success. Here are Sophie’s top 15 tips…

1. Identify the way a competition is judged

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition receives 40,000–50,000 images each year, and this is rising all the time. There are more and more competitions, and more and more photographers entering them. So it can be hard to make sure your image stands out in the crowd.

To decide which of your images stands the best chance of success, you first need to identify how the competition judging works.

Today, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition – still the one to win for most people in our industry – has one jury of about six judges, including a chairperson. The judges review the images at home and then together, as a group, at the Museum.

Most photo competitions are judged remotely – either wholly or during the early stages –and so the jury may never actually get together to discuss the images. Judges may be sent more than 15,000 images to review and score at home, usually using a points system. Often, every category is judged by at least two judges, and their scores are combined. The images with the highest overall scores tend to be the winners.

On some competitions, the top-scoring images may be assigned their final positions in the competition by the head judge or chair, who may look for a good overall balance of images to make a great exhibition or book.

These two different selection processes result in some very different images rising to the top. See tip xx.

2. Make an impression – fast!

For World Press Photo, a jury of experts from around the world convenes in Amsterdam. So many images are entered in this prestigious competition that, when judging the nature categories, each photo is displayed for only a few seconds. So your image has to work hard to make an impression in a fleeting moment.

Even when judges are working remotely, it takes days of work to review 15,000+ images. Of necessity, judges have to work fast and images must leap out or risk getting passed by.

It’s only in the later stages of judging a competition that there’s more time to dwell on each image, to discuss its merits and consider if it has grown on you or if its impact has actually waned over the course of the judging. Some images that are hot favourites from the beginning may have lost their magic by the final day of judging. While others that may not have leaped out at the start may have lingered in the judges’ thoughts until they become an unstoppable contender for the final line up.

Of course, it’s important to remember that judges are used to assessing hundreds and hundreds of images quickly. So they have a trained eye for a good picture, and can pick them out of the crowd at a glance.

3. Read the rules

Before you start choosing which images to enter in a competition, make sure you’ve read the rules carefully and know exactly what is and isn't allowed.

In recent years, competition rules have become both looser and tighter. New techniques such a photo stacking are now often allowed, while RAW files are intently scrutinised for elements that have been removed or changed in contravention of the rules.

Technical reports produced for competition judges can be extremely thorough and several pages long. It’s really not worth getting a great image thrown out simply because you removed a distraction that, though not ideal, didn’t actually ruin the image. Look to deal with it in a way that is allowed within the rules.

4. Identify the categories with fewer entries

In any competition, there are always categories that everyone enters – these are the hardest to achieve success in. For example, in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the bird and mammal portrait and behaviour categories are always popular – and the standard is always high. Today, there’s more chance to surprise the judges in the PhotoJournalist or newly introduced categories (there are a bunch this year).

So when considering where to enter your shots, read the category descriptions carefully and don’t always go for the easy or most obvious category, as there may be more entries in those.

In some competitions, images may be moved from one category which is stuffed full of potential winners to other equally suitable categories that have fewer potential winners. This is at the jury’s discretion and only for images that have a genuine chance of winning. It does not happen in every competition however, so you cannot rely on the jury doing your work for you – it’s best to choose your own categories carefully.

5. Study past winners – but don’t copy them

One mistake many people make is attempting to copy previous competition winners. The year after an image wins a contest, there’s always a rash of lookalike images entered. But you’re unlikely to make it through to the finals this way. The impact of your images is reduced and it simply increases the chances that the jury will feel they’ve ‘seen it all before’.

By all means, look at past winners for inspiration. Most professional wildlife photographers delight in analysing other people’s pictures in competitions, magazines and on Instagram.

So flick through a book of competition winners fairly quickly to see which pictures jump out – and then analyse why. Seek out pictures by the big names in wildlife photography and ask yourself what makes their work special. Then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

One thing you may notice from this technique is that the type of shot winning the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has noticeably shifted over the past 13 years, with only two being traditional long-lens shots and the majority creating a more intimate effect or showing the subject’s relationship with its environment.

6. Choose your subjects with care

Ten percent of the world’s species make up 80% of all the entries in Wildlife Photographer of the Year and I have no doubt it’s the same in other competitions.

Popular subjects, such as lions, tigers, elephants, Japanese macaques and polar bears, demand extra effort to stand out from the crowd. Anything too obvious will have been done before and probably by hordes of others.

So if you want to photograph a popular subject, you’ll need to dig deep to find a fresh and alternative approach. When it comes to the crunch, no jury is going to keep six lion shots in a final line up that may be limited to just 100 photos, so at least three of them will have to be rejected, no matter how brilliant they are.

Despite some people’s worries, pictures of common and familiar species close to home stand just as much chance of winning as images of more exotic, rare and unfamiliar ones. In fact, they have a better chance, simply because there is more opportunity to surprise the judges.

So it’s not what you photograph – it’s the way that you do it that counts.

7. Edit your work ruthlessly

Now you’ve read the rules and the categories and you’ve carefully considered what subjects will give you the best chance of success, you need to be honest with yourself and start editing your images carefully.

It’s all too easy to become emotionally attached to certain images or to special moments you remember fondly. And this is when people tend to enter ‘almost’ shots. Resist this temptation. The sad fact is that ‘nice’ or mediocre shots won’t win, no matter how much your gran loves them.

Be hard on yourself. Is the image pin-sharp or is it slightly soft? Is the light subtle and beautiful or harsh and contrasty? Have you captured a perfect moment or have you just missed it?

Try making a shortlist of images – ideally two or three times as many as you’re allowed to enter – and then invite another professional to have a look, comment and even help you make the final selection. They don’t have the emotional attachment that makes it so hard for you to separate the fun and challenging shots from the really good ones.

Your images need to be technically flawless – well exposed, perfectly sharp and pleasantly composed. So before you enter, make sure you’ve looked at them with a critical eye and identified any flaws a jury will spot at a glance.

Now you know how to win competitions, I wish you the best of luck and look forward to seeing your best images in a competition soon.

8. Be original

When you look at winning images in competitions, you no doubt say “I could do better than that!”

There are no hard and fast rules to explain why one photograph wins a competition and another doesn’t, but there is one key ingredient – originality. The judges are looking for something that stops them in their tracks, something fresh, whether revelatory, thought provoking or simply exceptionally beautiful.

Remember that the judges look at thousands upon thousands of photographs so they are desperate for something really creative and surprising to leap out from the screen. Try using the formula RUM to help you choose your best shots:

R - Relevant
U - Unique
M - Memorable
The pictures that fulfil all of these criteria are the ones with the best chance of success.

9. Don’t give up

Judging photography isn’t a precise science. If the decisive factor was merely technical perfection, it would be better judged by a computer. But it’s also about art – so it’s emotional and subjective.

So if you enter your best image and it gets thrown out in the first round, don’t lose heart. Enter it again the following year when another set of judges may feel differently about it.

Give an image three years to make an impact. Then, if it’s not won anything, it’s probably time to accept that it’s not the best work the judges are seeing. Just don’t give up too soon.

10. Pick the right photo for the right competition

Now we’ve explored the basics, it’s time to return the judging process.

You’ll remember that some competitions – often the larger ones – are judged by a jury that gets together, while other competitions are judged by individuals who work alone.

When a jury gets together, the judging is a very dynamic process. Each judge influences the others, sharing their view of an image in a compelling and convincing way. Sometimes they sway others to see the image as they do, other times the rest of the jury may be resolute and unmoved.

This is an exciting creative process, and a great opportunity for more unusual images to make their mark. A ‘wild card’ image with a keen advocate on the jury may go on to win a competition, and – love it or hate it – be a talking point for everyone who visits the exhibition.

By comparison, competitions that are judged remotely work on a points system. With this judging format, images that impress all the judges – being technically excellent, interesting, creative and generally pleasing to all – rise to the top.

Images that may split a jury – pictures that one judge may love and another simply ‘not get’ – are less likely to succeed in this sort of jury system. So it may be better to play it safe and enter your most solid but arguably less surprising shots in these sort of competitions, and reserve any images that are more creative or challenging for competitions that are judged by a group jury.

Certain competitions are known to embrace novel views of nature more than others – and by studying the winners from past years on their websites, you can start to identify which they are. For example, GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year actively encourages its jury to look for more creative interpretations.

11. Use your full quota of entries

A well known photographer once said to me that it was always the shots he entered only to “make up the numbers” that won the prizes. So once you've entered all the shots you genuinely believe have a chance, enter some 'wild cards'. You may be surprised.

12. Do your research

If you think you've taken a unique shot, do some online research to check. A simple web search will bring up a lot of similar images and allow you to see if what you've got is sheer genius or has been done before.

13. Don’t leave entering to the last minute

Every professional photographer does this and websites often run slow when all the entries flood in in the final hour or the final day, making the process of uploading your high res time consuming and extremely stressful.

Each year, add the deadlines for the competitions you want to enter to your phone or laptop, so you don't accidentally miss them. And plan some time in your diary a week or so before the deadline to enter your shots.

Many pro photographers cherry-pick a handful of competitions to enter that they feel are the most appropriate platform for their work and offer the sort of benefits they’re after, rather than adopting a more scattergun approach and trying to enter them all.

14. Be careful – not all competitions are the same

I’m sure you’d rather be out taking photos than sitting at your desk entering competitions, so when you do, make sure you’re spending your time wisely.

Ask yourself what you want to achieve from entering competitions. Are you interested in your work being seen by thousands of people, or knowing where you rank alongside other professional photographers? Do you want a big cash prize or to highlight an issue you care about to a wider audience?

If you can answer this question, you’ll be better able to pick which competitions will best help you achieve your goal.

There are so many competitions these days and while some offer the winners international press coverage, money prizes and flights to an awards ceremony, others offer little more than a pat on the back and free book. However if that book will enable your work to be seen by more people, including commissioning editors, then this may still work for you.

Just be careful to read the rules. Some competitions operate what is known as a ‘rights grab’, which means that by entering you may be granting the organiser permission to use your image however they wish in the future, without further payment. These competitions may be rewarding in the short-term, but longer term you may wish you'd thought twice.

Generally speaking, competitions that offer winners the chance to get together with their peers and other industry professionals and network like mad are the best ones to enter as they give you the opportunity to compare notes on photo destinations with other professionals, develop collaborations, meet editors and other photo publishers and agree ways to work together. Meeting face to face is always the best way to get commissioned (but that’s for another series of tips).

You should also check the rules carefully to see if your competition of choice upholds standards of ethics that match your own and runs any checks on images.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year looks for pictures that are authentic and true to nature. This requires a process of ethical checks, which for finalists includes checking RAW or original jpeg files. This means it’s vital that you don’t alter your image beyond what could have traditionally been achieved in a dark room. This can be limiting but at least you know everyone is held to the same strict standard.

Other competitions may embrace more creative or artistic interpretations and adjustments, and you need to be confident that your image is able to compete on this basis.

Once you’ve checked all of this out, try to focus your efforts on a handful, maybe fewer than five, competitions – and make it your goal to understand the rules and how the judging works, study past winners and choose the work that stands the best chance of success.

15. Don’t be put off

Many of the world’s leading photographers will enter the world’s best nature competitions. But if you’re not a professional, don’t let that discourage you. Imagination, creativity and skill are not limited by profession or age. And in almost all serious photo competitions, images are also judged without the creators’ identities being known, so everyone is judged on the same level.

Sophie Stafford
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Sophie has compiled 15 tips on how to achieve success in nature photo competitions. To read all 15 tips please upgrade your subscription to Silver or Gold.