How to Create the Perfect Contest Photo

Entering a photography contest is an exciting yet terrifying experience for every photographer who's trying to get a little exposure. Every photo can feel like an extension of yourself, and the idea of putting them out there to be judged can be nerve-racking. How do you narrow your many photos down to one and choose the perfect contest submission?

Visual Storytelling

An important way to create a powerful entry for a photo contest is to tell a story with your image. Creating a narrative with a photograph can be challenging since you're working with a single image rather than a sequence of images or words. The key is to suggest some sort of dynamic tension: an energy between the elements of the image that implies a relationship that has a past and a future. A photo of a smiling young girl walking through a field with her shoes in her hand and muddy feet suggests a story that the viewer's mind fills in on its own.

Creating an Image with Impact

Effectively capturing your image in terms of clarity, focus and lighting is an important part of a great photograph. Is your lighting appropriate to support the narrative of the photo? Bathing your focal point in shadow might be appropriate if you want to create a mysterious or frightening energy. A subject that is out of focus might be called for if you want to show that they are misunderstood or have been dehumanized. The way that you render the image should reflect the story that you want to tell.

Creating an Effective Composition

Study the rules of composition, including the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. Utilize the lines in the visual space to suggest the focal point. Ask yourself if evoking symmetry will support the narrative of your image, and how balancing the elements in the field can do the same. A small figure in the foreground that dominates the visual space over a large figure in the background suggests a relationship; does that relationship support your narrative? How can deepening the depth of field or zooming in change that story?

Choosing Your Subjects

There are many things to consider when you're choosing your subject. Should you choose a subject that is personally meaningful and powerful, a subject that is politically relevant, or has present culture significance? Has the contest itself established a subject in its guidelines? A great subject will touch on all three. How does the subject relate to the setting? Does the powerful juxtaposition of a technological artifact surrounded by an incredible image of nature create a contrast that supports the story you want to tell?

Following the Rules Creatively

Rules can confine us, and they can inspire us. Unfortunately, they can also get our contest entry eliminated! Look at the rules as a sandbox that your mind can play in, but don't let them rule you! A creative interpretation of the rules can be exactly what you need to contribute a photo that stands out from the rest. A good practice is to write down the first ten ideas you have that the rules inspire. Unfortunately, somebody else has probably also thought of those ideas. Throw them away and write down ten new ideas to choose from.

Gaining Proficiency With Your Equipment

In art, one of the most important essentials of coming up with creative ideas is having technical proficiency in your media. In the case of photography, that is the camera. Being thoroughly aware of how your camera works by studying the manual is fundamental. Manual mode should be a way of life. Keep a journal that details your settings and your procedures. Experimentation is critical. Experienced photographers might only take a few photos of a particular scene, but novice photographers should be taking a lot of photos and analyzing the results.

There's good reason to take photography contests seriously; they can be an incredible way to network with other artists, see new techniques and connect with potential clients. While a certain amount of stress should be expected, you can minimize it by remembering these simple guidelines. Most importantly, try to approach each contest as a chance to get valuable experience and learn. When your goal is learning instead of winning, you'll come out ahead every time!

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