What Makes a Photo a Winner


Fine art wildlife photo of a great gray owlTop 100 WildArtPOTY

Photography is art! And like all art it is subjective. What one person loves one person hates. I often look at some images that have won high-profile competitions and I think, Really wow, that photo won?, and I wonder what the judge was thinking because I cannot discern the elements of the photo that made it a winner. Other times I see award-winning photos and am blown away by how outstanding they are. So what are the elements of an award-winning photo?

While there is no one formula that is going to guarantee you a winner there are certain aspects of an image that will make it stand out in a competition. First, you have to remember that judges are looking through thousands and even at times tens of thousands of thumbnails of entries. Look at your image as a thumbnail and consider what will make it stand out from all those other entries. Some instant eye-catchers are colors, especially those special light moments, such as gold light, backlit subjects against dark backgrounds, or the purples or pinks at sunset. 

 Fine art wildlife photograph of a brown bearTop 100 WildArtPOTY

What emotion does your image evoke in the viewer? Emotion is super important. You as the photographer will have an emotional attachment to your work for a variety of reasons, like how long it took you to crawl the 20 feet to get close to your subject, the long trek to a remote condition, the hours and hours you waited in the rain for the 30-second photo opportunity. But what matters is what emotion it will evoke in the viewer. Does the image pull at the viewers heartstrings, does it evoke fear or panic, or does it provide a sense of power or possibly tranquility? It has to make the viewer pause and stop and want to take a longer look. 

Fine art wildlife photograph of a brown bearDoes this image evoke an emotional response such as fear?

The technical aspects of the image have to be perfect. These include but are not limited to proper exposure, and great sharpness (if you want to test this enlarge your image to 200x or 300x and see if the eye is still super sharp, then you have a sharp image), minimal noise, and attention to how the light is impacting the subject  (ie no distracting shadows). 

Fine art wildlife photograph of a brown bearTop 100 Remembering Bears

Consider also whether your image is like a lot of images out there especially previous winners. While a bear running after a salmon (a really common image in a competition), a male lion in the setting sun, or an elephant in the haze of a dust storm make great images. the reality is judges want something they have not seen before. They do not want a winner that looks like a winner from another photo contest. More and more you are seeing rarer or more elusive animals winning contests because judges have not seen thousands of images of that species.  If you do not have the three months to spend trying to track and photograph a snow leopard in the wild or spend the tens of thousands to go to Rwanda to photograph the mountain gorillas then you need a very special interaction to make a photo of a more common species stand out. What about your photo is so unique that a fox or a moose or a duck photo is going to wow a judge and win a competition?

Fine art wildlife photograph of a skunkAlthough not a great technical photo image it is unique as there would be very few photos of a skunk carrying one of its offspring out there, which is why this image made it to the semifinals of a major International competition despite the weaker technical aspects

The reality is there are millions of great photos of a fox, a moose, an owl or an eagle out there, so you have to have more than a great photo you have to have a special photo.  Is your composition unique or different, does it have that special light found at the golden hour, does it tell a special story, does it evoke emotion in the viewer, is it technical sound, does the background enhance not distract from the subject, is it the once in a million moment you can never reproduce again.

I have photos that my viewers love such as the fox kit nuzzling its mom below. Its got a great background with the foxes popping off the dark background, it is technically strong and has great lighting, but that moment has been photographed a zillion times, there is nothing special to a judge about that interaction.

Fine art wildlife photograph of a foxNice composition, great background, technically sound but nothing unique about the moment, it's been seen a lot of times

Contrast it to the second photo, while not the nice dark background that will pop in the thumbnail like the first photo. the two cubs in almost the exact same action move this photo into something more unique making it better than the first, but the reality is it will not stand out as a thumbnail.  

Fine art wildlife photograph of a foxTwo kits in this photo make it more unique than the previous one but it is not going to stand out amongst thousands of thumbnail images

Now bump it up a notch, here is a strong composition, it situates the foxes in their element, the background enhances the subject, while there is the interaction between parent and kit, it is not the common nose to nose seen in so many photos, a pose not so often seen by the judges.

Fine art wildlife photograph of a foxA stronger contender for a competition photo

Finally, this one could be a winner, what makes it a winner, the background is dark it will stand out as a thumbnail, the overwhelming size of the logs dwarf the fox kit and makes it seem small and almost lost in a big world. It makes the viewer feel like they need to protect the fox kit, it has evoked emotion. The logs form a pattern that greatly enhances the image and further adds a natural frame to the fox, The image is technical sounds, it has all the factors that could make it a winner.

Fine art wildlife photograph of a foxA winner! 

To start being successful in photo contests you have to be open to honest critiques of your work, remove your emotional attachment to your images, work at acing the technical aspects of photography and be ready to capture that split second once in a lifetime memorable moment.  


Fine art wildlife photograph of a brown bearMy most awarded photo made the shortlist for the Top10 for Smithsonian Magazine, the Top100 in WildArtPOTY and Remembering Bears and numerous semi-finals in International competitions

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