Competitive Photography, What Makes The Grade?

Competitive photography, like any other kind of photography, is a way to record a single picture using different methods and light. Recently, photo contests have gained a great deal of attention among the community of photographers. No doubt that it’s a positive phenomenon because rivalry extends the scope of photographers’ activity, motivating them to develop their skills.

Upon selecting available material, one should conduct an extensive analysis of taken photos to isolate the best ones according to, needless to say, the jury’s subjective sense. When it comes to competitive photography, the personal interpretation of the elements presented in the picture plays the most vital role. However, there’s a lot more to the raised elements that judges look for.

Today hundreds of articles online delve into competitive photography, however, in my opinion, the authors have only concentrated on a few key aspects of competitive photography, such as the rule of thirds, composition, and lighting, which are all excellent and well, but there’s a lot more to making that grade regarding competitive camerawork. Taking great pictures is one thing; however, maintaining a consistent level of photography mastery is another.



Setup and planning are essential if you’re considering submitting your images to a competition before a panel of experienced judges. If your idea has too much noise, blown highlights, your subject is out of focus, or you’ve not cleaned the sensor before shooting, you’ll lose points. Furthermore, it’s crucial always to read the competition rules and the organisation’s terms and conditions.

It’s, therefore wise to consider the following before you even think about pressing that shutter button:

  1. Clean your sensor. Dust particles and smears are visible on all images. Full frame and DSLR camera sensors need cleaning or blowing before and after every project.
  2. Use a tripod. Use a decent tripod to shoot landscapes, portraits, macro, etc. Tripods keep your camera study and reduce motion blur, allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds. Tripods aid with smooth panning, sharp shots at long exposure, and help to shoot subjects in low light.
  3. Filters. You will need a neutral density filter if you’re shooting long exposure and require a shutter speed longer than 10 seconds. I carry a 3, 6, 7, 10, and 15 ND filter as a guide. In addition, I carry a 0.3 hard graduated filter, 0.6 soft density filter, and 0.45 hard graduated filter to reduce sun flare, dampen the hard light on my subjects, or shade or expose certain parts of my photo. Furthermore, I also use the CPL (circular polarising filter) to reduce reflection and glare and capture vividness and contrast in a photo.
  4. Lights. I use on-camera and off-camera flash, strobes, spotlights, and continuous soft-box diffused light for indoor photography in lowlight. Without these essentials, your images will appear out of focus, grainy, and underexposed.
  5. Lenses. Probably the most expensive piece of kit in the photographer’s arsenal; however, without the correct lenses, your images will look dull and lack dynamic focus, sharpness, colour, flare, the field of view, and composition. Landscape photography requires a wide-angle telephoto lens to capture wide-angle shots. Portraiture photography requires a moderate telephoto lens, macro requires a short-range 1:1 lens, and wildlife photography requires a prime telephoto zoom or micro lens. However, I have shot numerous images using cheap lenses and have still been awarded regional, national, and international awards. At the end of the day, it’s how you use your kit that counts.
  6. Read the rules. It is paramount always to read the rules before you start shooting competitive photography. In recent years photographers have been disqualified from their competition for violating the rules such as the code of ethics, copyright theft, removing or altering EXIF or META data, submitting images from a training or educational workshop, adding frames, adding watermarks or trademarks, submitting images into the wrong category, and violating civil aviation laws, etc. Therefore, it’s critically important to read the rules and obey them.
  7. Ethics. As mentioned above, your image will likely be disqualified if it’s found you have endangered, disturbed, or killed fauna or flora. The subject’s welfare must always come first. The image comes second. Most photography organisations prohibit bird baiting, tanking, bird playback, or cruel methods to manipulate a living animal, such as chilling, gluing, freezing, or chemical manipulation. In addition to this, images will also be disqualified if it has been found you have attended a photography game farm.


Composition is the arrangement of elements in your photo, which is key to making your image stand out. Good composition is the most robust way of seeing. A good rule of thumb to remember regarding composition is to keep it simple, don’t confuse or clutter the image. For example, if you’re photographing a cyclist cycling up a ramp with a handrail, use the handrail as a leading line from one corner of the image, and shoot the cyclist as they are exiting at the top. Why not try shooting this image in black and white, in a stairwell with a chrome railing.

Emotions are also vital to shooting a strongly composed image too. Your composition should complement your subject. If you’re photographing an intense, apocalyptic storm cloud overhead, feel free to arrange a low, apocalyptic piece! Get their emotions on the same page.

Your composition also determines the path of a viewer’s eye through the photo. Even though you can’t know the exact path a viewer’s eye will take, you can nudge things one way or another.

Do you want your viewer to pay more attention to the mountains in the background of an image? Look for lines in the foreground or sky that point toward them. Or, wait until the light at sunset shines on the mountain peaks with brilliant colour. Do what you can to make the mountains a destination for your viewer’s attention.

Photographers tend to forget that they have tremendous control over the size and placement of the different objects in an image. The image seen here is an excellent example of composition structure. The main focal point is the large mountains in the background, the smaller green trees in the midground, and the road leading into the hills in the foreground. The image is vibrant, tells a story, and is skillfully composed using the different elements to add structure and contrasting colours.


Most photography judges prefer to see something unusual rather than the norm. For example, take a windmill in the midground of a landscape image with the sun setting in the background. Next, perform a Google search of all windmills with the sun setting in the environment. You will find thousands of images just like that. And while these images make for excellent landscape photography, they come across as boring after a while. In addition, why does every landscape image have to be of the sun setting?

Instead of the norm, why don’t you photograph the windmill on a windy day with people heading towards it on the horizon? Alternatively, you may want to shoot that sun-setting image, but what about including a romantic couple holding hands on the veranda of the windmill, looking at the sun slowly setting. Not only have you added mood but now a story.

Wedding photography tells so many stories. However, they all mean the same, a happy bride and groom. Instead of shooting a happy bride or groom, why not submit an image of a wedding you’ve attended where the bride and groom were unsatisfied or the bride was let down. Remember, this is competitive photography, and judges like to see something different; however, you may also want to obtain permission from both parties in this scenario.

Regarding newborn photography, a quick Google search will reveal identical images from thousands of photographers, such as sleeping babies, babies wrapped in burrito wraps, cosy baskets and crates. However, suppose you want to include a story. In that case, you may want to photograph your first newborn birth, depicting the mother and father in tears holding their baby, the mum giving birth or angrily shouting at her partner, or the baby letting out its first cry.

Regarding the open category, I tend to look for stories in the press and media and work from there. You can include almost anything and everything in the open category class if you don’t break the rules. Take a wildfire, for example, the sun setting or rising in the distance with firefighters tending to the flames from the ground and the air. You could also include wildlife such as deer running from the fire.

Everybody loves a well-told story because stories are the best way to evoke emotions. They can make us excited, laugh, cry or feel empathy for someone else. But perhaps the best thing about stories is relatively simple: stories about other people help us better understand ourselves. And this is the reason why visual storytelling has such an important role in photography.

That said, storytelling is not always required in competitive photography, for example, still life, minimalist and abstract photography. With regards to these three categories, the main objective is to maintain good lighting, composition, placement and colour, etc.


To create a successful image, lighting is essential. The tone, mood, and atmosphere are all determined by the lighting. It is necessary to control and manipulate light to get the best results. Too much light will expose your subject with burnt-out highlights and whites. However, insufficient light will dull your subject, leaving you with noise and a lack of sharpness, clarity and texture.

The source of your light dramatically impacts how it falls on your subject. Light originating from behind the camera, and pointing directly onwards, gives very flat lighting. It will also cause shadows to fall in the background of the image. Side lighting produces a far more interesting light, showing the subject’s shape much more and casting it in partial shadow, giving it a more dramatic look. Rembrandt lighting is a typical practical example of this lighting type. Lighting sourced from the back of your subject gives an alternative effect. This time, most of the light hits the subject’s side, making it brighter and creating a more distinctive and dramatic photo. 

Credit: Adorama

Adding a diffuser to your light source can reduce glare and harsh shadows and diminish blemishes on your subject. It gives your artificial light a softer, more natural-looking result. You can diffuse light in numerous ways. Softboxes, umbrellas, and sheer heatproof material work well to achieve this result. 

Light can be manipulated to fall on your subject’s particular area of interest. This can be achieved through the use of diffusers and photography reflectors. Collapsible reflectors shape sunlight or bounce flash light with a place you’d prefer to highlight. Spotlights can also be covered in light shapers that give you more control over the direction the light will fall and how broad the light spans. 

Lighting can be the difference between a breath-taking photo and a poor one; therefore, it’s paramount that you practice with natural and artificial light. I will write a more detailed report about lighting in my next article. However, for now, the best advice I can offer is to keep track of the weather forecast if you’re shooting outdoors. Use the clouds as your filters and diffusers. When indoors, practice with one light and work your way up to three.


The foreground is the first element that draws the viewer into your image; without one, you’re likely to lose points. The foreground is part of the photography subject closer to the camera. Therefore it is important to include one in landscape, architectural, and street photography. For example, a good landscape photograph must have a foreground, middle ground, and background. These three layers attract the viewer’s eyes, guiding them into and around your photo.

Credit: Nature TTL

A great way to connect an image’s foreground, middle ground, and background is to use leading lines. Leading lines direct the viewer’s eyes through the photograph. Look for elements like stones, flowing water, and set structures (such as a row of buildings). Leading lines are anything that creates a defined direction. Use these to make a connection between the layers, which gives the composition depth.

Over the years, I’ve found that including a foreground, middle ground, and background adds more points concerning national competitive photography; however, when I’ve not included one of the elements, primarily the foreground, I’ve lost points. As a rule of thumb, the foreground should never be empty in a composed photo. A point of interest should fill the foreground. Your foreground point of interest could be a leaf, a rock, a road leading into the middle ground, or even a wooden jetty.


The rule of thirds in photography is a guideline that places the subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two-thirds more open. It divides a photo into nine parts, split by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines.

The rule of thirds is a basic yet easy principle to master. It helps you to compose exciting and balanced shots. It draws the viewer’s eyes into the composition instead of just glancing at the centre. By placing the subject off centre, you embrace more blank space. Off-centred subjects convey more of a feeling of motion than centred ones.

Credit: Tavis Leaf Glover

The rule of thirds is not a general rule but more a guide. There are plenty of situations where the rule of thirds is not the best composition choice. Often objects with striking symmetry have much more impact when placed in the centre of an image.

Other times, you might want an image to be bisected so that you can give equal weight to the top and bottom or two both sides. It’s also helpful to centre a subject when you do not want anything other than the subject to feature in the frame and don’t have any negative space to balance out.

Another great time to “break” the rule of thirds is when leading lines are the main feature in your image or when you’re using elements in the scene to provide a frame within the picture.

When implementing the rule of thirds into your photography project, try to remember these key points below:

  • Focus. Your primary subjects or (focal feature) must be in focus in the squares where you’re placing your subject
  • Lines. When positioning your subjects, don’t forget to align them correctly and distribute them evenly or roughly along the lines on your camera grid
  • Depth. There are many ways to increase the sense of depth in a photograph. By offsetting the sharply focused main subject (i.e., by following the rule of thirds!), you can achieve a sense of spaciousness and three-dimensionality throughout your image
  • Balance. The canopy of leaves creates an engaging pattern, punctuated by the dark branches of trees – the heaviest of which should be positioned toward the edges of the image. This provides an excellent depth and leads the viewer’s eye around the image and into the centre. With the help of the rule of thirds, this balance of lightness and heaviness creates an exciting and harmonious composition


The golden spiral, alternatively also called the Fibonacci spiral, can be even more beneficial than the rule of thirds, especially if you’re shooting stock photography; however, I would use it with caution concerning competitive photography because you may leave too much negative space to the right or left of your subject.

The golden spiral is a geometrically calculated spiral with an increasing growth factor from its origin by a factor of φ for every quarter turn it makes. It is pleasing to the human eye when using it to compose photographs.

Credit: Aputure

When positioning the subject using the golden spiral, the subject will move further from the centre of the frame. The golden spiral can be positioned anywhere in your photograph and works well in landscape, architectural, macro and some portraiture photography projects. As mentioned, you may want to reduce your negative space; otherwise, you could be marked down.

Whether you use the golden spiral, the rule of thirds or neither the judges want to see your subject(s), so aim to fill as much of your frame up as possible; however, its crucial to remember always to leave enough space so that your subjects don’t look crammed into the frame.


As a general guide, I always shoot photography in RAW rather than JPEG. A RAW image contains a more comprehensive dynamic range and colour gamut than a JPEG image. When parts of an image are underexposed or overexposed, a RAW image provides far better recovery potential than JPEG for highlight and shadow recovery. However, when shooting in RAW, you must do the processing. When shooting in JPEG, your camera processes 95% of the image.

Credit: B&H Photo Editing

Before submitting your processed images for judging, the following should be considered in assessing the technical merits of the picture. Over the years, I’ve found most photographers that enter national or international photography awards stumble at this hurdle to which they lose several points.

  1. Screen calibration. Screen calibration is essential. When it comes to photography, calibrating your screen properly can ensure that the quality of your prints is high—and accurate. Most organisations will print your images in their magazine and publish them on their website. Therefore, it’s crucial to get your monitor calibrated. Failing this, you’ll lose points.
  2. Relax and set the tone. Photo processing is an art and should not be rushed. It would help if you felt comfortable when you are editing. Pick a comfy chair with a high back. Your monitor must be at eye level. Your monitor should be brighter than the ambient room lighting. Thus your vision will automatically see monitor white as ‘white’.
  3. Sharpness. When too much sharpening is used in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, it produces harsh, visible lines on edges and around objects. Over-sharpened images often look too “textured.” Using excessive sharpening can add a lot more noise to an image. However, a lack of sharpness can leave your subject slightly out of focus. As a rule of thumb, I always use the masking slider in Lightroom first before touching the noise and sharpening slider. The masking slider allows you to, in a sense, control where your sharpening is to occur. By sliding it to the right, you reduce the areas of the photograph that sharpening will occur by ignoring less important edges and only sharpening the more obvious ones.
  4. Halos. A halo is a bright line that can appear in areas of high contrast on a photo when the photo has been subjected to hefty editing, particularly HDR editing. Therefore, go easy on the editing. You’ll not need to over-edit if you’ve shot your image correctly. Over-editing will lose you points.
  5. Cropping. Many photographers end up ruining their photos just by over-cropping them. When photographers have some specific compositions in their minds, they often try to achieve them through editing. While doing so, they often make poor framing choices and plan to remove them during editing. But this is not a good strategy for a professional photographer. When you take such vague shots while leaving all the hopes on editing, the chances are that you will end up getting blurred images out of the camera. Moreover, you may end up cropping the details too much while improvising. You should keep some extra space around the focused subject to fix this issue. Experts advise using a three-point rule, or you can plan the portrait per the picture you click. The surroundings must be captured carefully to ensure the image is not blurred.
  6. Negative space. In photography, negative space refers to the area surrounding the main focus. It includes the background and foreground. The main subject and focus are known as the positive space. Negative space is used to achieve balance in a photograph. At the same time, negative space is an integral part of a photograph. Too much negative space will likely lose you points. Therefore, try to minimise the negative space, but remember always to maintain an even balance.
  7. Contrast. Contrast is responsible for adding definition to your images. But if it is too high, it may darken the dark areas of the image by a considerable level, or it may whiten the whites above the threshold. In this way, you will likely lose the precise details of the image, and they cannot be brought back. Such unappealing images have no use anymore. In addition, you risk losing all the essential details if the contrast is too low.
  8. Noise. The noise or luminance slider is used to smooth out digital noise. The further you move it to the right, the more the noise will be smoothed. Moving it too far to the right will not only remove the noise but also soften the photo and give it a blurry look. I rarely touch the noise slider when editing. As a general guide, I try to ensure my subject is well lit, I’m shooting in RAW with a large sensor, and my ISO is low at its native setting of 50, 80, or 100. Moreover, I use a tripod where possible and use the in-camera noise reduction settings. One can invest in noise reduction software. However, I wouldn’t waste my money.
  9. HRD. HDR or High Dynamic Range can assist you in adjusting the details of your image while adjusting the ratio of whites and darks. The idea is to reserve the effect of some destroyed images and highlight the details more clearly. However, when editors use too much HDR, the image is immediately ruined and looks unrealistic. The darks and whites must be evenly balanced to create a balanced image. In addition, don’t over-highlight elements in the image using the HDR effect; in doing so, you’ll lose points.
  10. Highlight clipping. Burnt highlights are normally the first element the viewer’s eye will be drawn to, and that’s not good if your subject is the main focal feature. Therefore, it is essential to use the highlight clipping tool in Adobe Lightroom. Whites, lights and exposure must be even across the entire image. Regarding portraits, it’s normally a bad idea to make the model’s eyes too bright or too sharp. The general rule of thumb here is to approach with a subtle touch.
  11. Clarity. Overusing the clarity button is a common mistake that will lose you points. Apply it subtly rather than with a heavy hand. Your processing technique shouldn’t draw attention to itself. Adding clarity to female portraits is normally a bad idea. Adding clarity emphasises skin texture, blemishes, and wrinkles. For this reason, applying it to portraits of women is usually a bad idea. Normally you do the opposite and apply skin smoothing (a negative clarity adjustment in Lightroom). With men, it’s different. You may want to apply clarity to emphasise skin texture and make the model’s face appear more rugged.
  12. Red-eye correction. Judges will mark you down if you’ve forgotten to remove the red eyes in your portrait images. Switch to the Develop module. Click the Red Eye Correction tool icon. Click Red Eye or Pet Eye. Starting at the centre, draw a circle over the affected eye. Adjust the available settings. Click done.
  13. Enlarging features. Don’t enlarge your model’s eyes because it results in an unnatural-looking portrait that has lost authenticity.
  14. Skin smoothing. This is a problem you see in commercial photography as well as in the work of hobbyist photographers. And while it may look good to you, it does not look authentic. Most photos of men don’t require skin smoothing. It’s conventional to apply some skin smoothing with most portraits of women, but it’s also important to retain skin texture to avoid the plastic skin look.
  15. Levels. Your horizon must always be level, and while you’ve probably set the level in-camera, it’s always best to recheck that in post-process. A skewed horizon has ruined many a good landscape image. And while this can be fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom, you might lose some details along the way – which is why I highly recommend you deal with the horizon in the camera and adjust in post-process if required.
  16. Saturation. Oversaturation is probably the biggest mistake in photography. Oversaturating an image is rarely a good solution and will lose you points; therefore, apply your saturation evenly.
  17. Colour balance. Be careful when setting the hue, saturation, and luminance of colours. The different tints have to match.
  18. Black and white. If you’re considering entering black and white photos, they must be black and white, not grey or tinged white. Take pictures in colour first, and convert to black and white later in post-production, just because there’s no real penalty for doing so. In black and white photography, the absence of colour means that the photo’s composition must guide the gaze. Rules of composition and framing are also essential in this genre. In addition, your RGB levels must be at [225, 225, 225] for black, and [0, 0, 0] for white. Grey is any [x,x,x] where all the numbers are the same. The max value of each of the colours is 255.
  19. Tidy up. No one likes a messy image, and you will lose points if a judge spots stray hairs on a dog or human model. Regarding landscape images, it’s best to be careful concerning what you’re tidying up. If people in your image are taking the viewer’s eye away from the main focal feature, removing them is a good idea. It’s also wise to remove twigs, discoloured leaves, cars, green bins, and signs. However, it is a bad idea if you begin removing parts of the landscape such as trees, bushes, paths, roads, etc. Judges will pick up on this. Moreover, some organisations prohibit the removal of anything natural to which your image could be disqualified should you remove these elements.
  20. Spot checking. Dust spots and sensor smears can be seen in all images, even more so if the judges zoom in by 100% to inspect certain elements in your image. However, you can avoid this by checking your image after processing it using the Adobe Lightroom spot-checker. Larger sensors will attract more dust. Therefore, as a general guide, I clean my camera and lenses before, during and after use. My cameras are stored in airtight bags when I’ve finished for the day. Since taking this approach, I rarely encounter more than a few dust spots per image. The fewer dust spots, the less chance you’ll make an editing mistake.
  21. Flip your image. Flipped and mirrored images often reveal striking visuals that didn’t exist in the original shot. They also help when your original image needs to be reoriented. Flipping also helps locate hard-to-find dust spots, halos, noise, and slight imperfections.
  22. Print and hang upside down. Once you’ve finished processing your image, save it, print it, and hang it level upside down at eye level. Return to the image the following morning. Check your photo for colour corrections, burnt highlights, uneven horizon, is it too dark or too light, can you see any dust spots, etc.? If the answer is yes, your image needs more work. Most photographers that shoot in RAW and spend hours looking at the computer screen suffer from CVS or Computer Vision Syndrome, aka eye strain. When our eyes are strained, we suffer from fatigue, blurry vision, dry eyes, double vision, neck pain and headaches, all of which can impair our concentration and affect our ability to focus properly on the screen. Moreover, when our eyes our strained, we cannot visualise colours properly. So, as a general guide, print your image off, hang it level upside down, and leave it for 24 hours. I practice this exercise every time I enter competitive photography and find a dozen problems ranging from burnt highlights, processing mistakes, or my images being too dark.


After submitting your image, don’t be too downhearted if it’s disqualified or you didn’t win the photo of the day, week, month or year award, it happens, and its happened to me numerous times. If your image has been disqualified, contact the organisation and ask why. You may have entered your work into the wrong category, the file size may have been too small, or you may have accidentally included a border, logo, trademark or watermark.

Occasionally, images are also disqualified because the judges have found or suspected you have violated the code of ethics, violated CAA rules regarding drone photography, or included elements in your work that you have not photographed yourself. Therefore, obtaining feedback from the panel of judges is critical.

When you have won an award but not the prize you were aiming for, it is always wise to obtain feedback from the panel of judges or peers. For example, you may have left an editing mistake in your image. The highlights may be burnt. There could be too much noise or a slight colour imperfection. You may have left a few stray hairs on your model, the crop may be wrong, or the composition doesn’t sit right.

Most photography organisations offer paid feedback, while others provide feedback for free. However, I have found over the years that more than one set of eyes can spot mistakes easier. Therefore, submit your image to a photography forum and ask for constructive criticism. Once you’ve found where you have gone wrong, work on it, and try again.

In recent years I’ve witnessed numerous qualified, renowned and amateur photographers giving up photography because they didn’t make the grade or can’t get out of a particular rut they’re stuck in. Furthermore, I’ve witnessed many other photographers becoming too downhearted or depressed because they don’t think they’re good enough.

I’ve been there too; I know the feeling. However, this feeling is normal; after all, it’s a contest in which you’re up against semi-professional, professional and highly skilled hobbyist photographers. When or if you ever get to this stage in competitive photography, walk away and concentrate on your day-to-day photography job.

You’re doing fine if the general public likes your work and you sell prints. Competitive photography is extremely rival-driven, and it’s not for everyone. With that said, don’t give up. Take notes of where you’re going wrong, look into a photography qualification, or maybe beef your skills up at a workshop. You may find that a particular genre of photography doesn’t suit you. You’re using the wrong equipment, or you lack skills in processing.

On the contrary, a minority of people believe that photography contests, on the whole, are generally worthless – they are a time and money suck, and the organisers are looking to make money or disguise them as a rights grab. While some are entirely pointless, the majority aren’t.

It’s therefore wise to seek out a dedicated photography organisation that doesn’t just take your money but also hosts a community of skilled photographers with which you can share ideas and tips. In addition, seek out a photography organisation from which you can gain a qualification, such as the Guild of Photographers, Master Photographers Association or the British Institute of Professional Photography.


Photography contests are not just a way to get publicity or work; you have to win them in order to do that. They also allow you to benchmark your work with that of other photographers out there. It’s a way to know where you stand. This is not purely to compare yourself competitively but to see if your work is fresh, relevant, and at the right level to reach the industry’s creative or technical bar. If you’re not at a level with that bar, there’s a good chance you won’t get much work in the photography industry. You have to be able to produce work that is at least “as good as” the standards of the industry—and ideally, much better!

Okay, you may argue that you can get a good sense of where you stand nowadays by counting the number of likes and followers you have on social media. But while this may be an indicator, there is nothing like an excellent ol’ jury of professionals ranking your work against others. Some contests also have special mentions, category winner prizes, or other titles which don’t come with any cash prizes, but you will be able to display those titles on your website. This is essential to building your credibility as an artist over the years.

Thank you for reading.

Published by J. J. Williamson

Prints, frames, stock images and portrait services.

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