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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

What Do Judges Look For In Photography Contests?

Updated: Apr 7

What Do Judges Look For In Photography Contests

Entering photography contests can feel like going back to school and turning in your work to be graded. But unlike the dread of exams, photo contests provide valuable opportunities to get expert feedback on your work.

This process of evaluation is obviously not arbitrary, which naturally leads to the question: What exactly catches the discerning eyes of photography judges when they review contest entries?

This comprehensive guide explores the methodology judges use to separate winners from the pack and stand out in photography contests. Let’s get into it.

Criteria Judges Consider in Photography Contests

Experienced judges know what they want in a winning photograph. Here are the main criteria they keep in mind:

Technical Excellence

One of the top things judges evaluate is the image's technical excellence. Is the photo well-composed and executed from a technical perspective? Key factors include:

  • Focus - Having a sharp, crisp focus, especially on the main subject, is critically important. Out-of-focus or blurry photos are rarely placed in contests.

  • Exposure - The lighting exposure should suit the scene and mood. Areas of shadow and highlight should not be overly bright or dark.

  • Lighting - The photographer should use light effectively to highlight the subject and create the intended ambiance. Side lighting and backlighting often add visual interest.

  • Composition - Images should utilize compositional techniques like the rule of thirds and leading lines to create balanced, appealing frames.

  • Color and Contrast - Vibrant, well-balanced colors and an effective tonal range from shadows to highlights.

Originality and Creativity

Judges want to see photos that are imaginative, unique, and experimental. Images that push boundaries and offer new ways of seeing tend to catch a judge's eye.

  • Unique Perspectives - Frame objects and scenes from interesting or unexpected angles and viewpoints.

  • Creative Techniques - Utilize in-camera effects, multiple exposures, slow shutter speeds, zooming, panning, and other creative techniques.

  • Imagination - Convey original concepts and imaginative, even whimsical, interpretations of themes.

  • Style - Having a consistent style or approach can make your work stand out.

Emotional Impact and Storytelling

Winning images often evoke powerful emotions or tell compelling stories. Look for moments that convey joy, sorrow, awe, the human condition, or a thoughtful narrative.

  • Evokes Emotion - Images that create an emotional connection with the viewer tend to stand out.

  • Interesting Narrative - Conveys a story or makes a statement beyond just a pretty picture.

  • Captures a Moment - Freezes a meaningful, authentic moment that viewers can relate to.

Relevance to Theme or Category

Judges analyze how well photos fit the specified contest theme or category. Closely matching the brief gives you an advantage.

  • Category - Read category descriptions closely. A stunning portrait won't win a nature category.

  • Theme - Interpret the theme creatively but stay true to the essence.

  • Subject Matter - Choose appropriate models, props, and locations that align with the theme.

Now I’ll tell you how to improve these things to increase your chances of winning the contests.

Technical Factors Judges Look For

A photographer adjusting settings

Focus and Sharpness

Nothing dooms a photo faster than incorrect focus. Having a tack-sharp focus on your main subject is imperative. Avoid missing focus on important areas. Shallow depth of field images should have a sharp focus exactly where intended.

Judges understand focus can be intentionally soft in some situations, but key elements should be sharp.

Backgrounds are forgiven for being softly blurred, but make sure viewers' eyes go straight to the topic you want them to focus on.

Proper Exposure

Judges don't want to see muddy shadows, harsh blown-out highlights, or wonky mixed lighting. They want to see proper exposure that suits the subject and scene.

Watch your histogram to avoid clipping highlights or shadows too much. Compensate exposure based on your subject - a white cat in the sun needs slightly underexposed, for example.

Overall, aim for rich, balanced lighting throughout the tonal range. Mood and drama can be accentuated through contrast, but avoid large areas that are too bright or too dark.

Effective Use of Light

lightning effect on portrait photography

Mastering light in photography goes hand-in-hand with proper exposure. Look at the way you light your subject and scene.

Side lighting adds dimension. Backlighting creates outlines and silhouettes. Butterfly lighting sculpts facial features. Rim lighting separates the subject from the background.

Judges want to see you know how to use both natural light and artificial light to bring out textures, shapes, and details.

Compositional Techniques

No one wants an image hacked in half accidentally. Judges desire thoughtful, intentional composition using techniques like:

  • Rule of Thirds - Place key elements at intersection points of an imaginary 3x3 grid.

  • Leading Lines - Use lines in the scene to direct the viewer's gaze.

  • Framing - Frame the main subject with an interesting foreground or background element.

  • Patterns and Texture - Compose captivating combinations of colors, shapes, and textures.

  • Balance - Place elements balanced across the frame yet with some asymmetry.

Avoid dead empty space that doesn't enhance the image. Fill frames intentionally. Unique crops can work with the right framing.

Creative Factors Judges Look For

Shooting From Exciting Angles

Worms eye view building shot

Think outside the box when photographing your subjects. Rather than just shooting a flower head-on, try photographing it from below, above, or the side. Or catch reflections in water droplets on the petals.

Shooting birds? Lie down low and shoot up for an interesting angle. Or catch them in flight from an unexpected viewpoint.

Interior shots can utilize ceiling angles, corner vantage points, reflections in mirrors, or shooting down hallways. Play with angles.

Incorporating Creative Techniques

Go beyond basics by utilizing creative techniques and effects:

  • Slow shutter speeds - Create silky water or light trails.

  • Panning - Follow and blur a moving subject while keeping it sharp.

  • Zooming - Adjust focal length during exposure for unique effects.

  • Multiple exposures - Layer two exposures into one image.

  • In-camera effects - Use black and white, miniature, fish eye, or toy camera modes.

  • Intentional motion blur - Imply movement.

  • Creative filters - Selectively blur or tint areas of a photo.

  • Composite images - Blend multiple photos into one.

Conveying Original Ideas

Think about how you can photograph common subjects in an original way. For example, rather than just shooting a lighthouse, shoot it shrouded in fog with a faint rainbow overhead.

Or shoot macros of dew droplets on a spiderweb at dawn. Or fireworks reflected in a lake.

Come up with imaginative concepts beyond just documentary photography. Transport the viewer into another world.

How Subject Matter Plays a Role

black and white city photography

Along with technical and creative factors, judges closely evaluate your choice of subject matter and how well it fits the theme.

Matching the Contest Category

Study category descriptions to ensure you shoot the type of photos judges expect.

Shooting moving water for a wildlife category or a portrait for a landscape category will frustrate judges. Give yourself the best chance to win by closely matching the category's intent.

Interpreting the Theme Creatively

Read photo contest themes carefully. Come up with a creative, inspired interpretation that remains true to the essence but stands out from a cliche interpretation.

A theme like “joy” could be interpreted via laughing children, but also by less expected subjects like a dog leaping to catch a Frisbee.

Choosing Appropriate Subject Matter

If photographing people, carefully consider your models and styling. For a family theme, shoot lively authentic moments. Fashion themes warrant trendy chic styling.

Props and location also set the stage. A Victorian theme may use an antique desk and pocket watch as props, for example.

Make deliberate choices that reinforce the theme. Don’t include random unrelated elements.

Storytelling and Emotional Connection

Photograph of an elderly couple

As you shoot, also consider how your images can evoke emotion or tell visual stories. Look for moments that capture authentic human connections and meaningful situations.

Evoking Genuine Emotion

Look for real moments that create an emotional spark, whether that’s joy, sorrow, amusement, inspiration, or surprise. Portraits should feel candid, not posed.

Seek out moments of wonder in nature, kids at play, exhibits of perseverance, or quiet melancholy. Images with emotional resonance tend to stand out.

Conveying Interesting Narratives

Think in terms of how you can capture a poignant “slice of life” moment or tell a story through relationships between elements in the frame.

Feature people in compelling situations. Use context and juxtaposition to say something about society and the human condition.

Freezing Meaningful Moments

Great street photography stems from patience in waiting for the right instant. Make an effort to capture moments with significance versus generic snapshots.

Look for glimpses of humor, irony, and synchronicity, or make an impact by freezing pivotal moments. Stay alert to compose them artfully as they unfold.


I hope this breakdown gives you insight into what judges look for in photography contests. Strive for technical excellence, creative techniques, emotional connection, and thoughtful compositions relevant to the theme.

Remember, judges have seen thousands of photos. Yours needs to leap off the screen through exemplary lighting, storytelling, and imagination.

With practice and perseverance, you can hone your photographic eye to create images that could catch the eye of judges and win prizes. Just keep shooting!

We also arrange contests for aspiring photographers where you can get cash & exposure incentives. And we don’t only reward the top 3, but the top 25. So the odds of winning are high. Make sure to check our open contests here:

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