How to Win a Photo Contest
Every year, the Royal Geographical Society in the United Kingdom hosts a photo contest: TPOTY, the Travel Photographer of the Year. This is a somewhat well-known contest by a large Society, and it draws a large number of entries from around the world. The first time I entered this contest, the portfolio I submitted was a finalist in the under-18 category.
In addition to TPOTY, I also achieved finalist status in OPOTY, Outdoor Photographer of the Year. This time, two of my individual photos were finalists rather than a portfolio: "Dawn in Yosemite" and "Rain Falls." "Rain Falls" was chosen as a commended entry.
I found out recently that I was also a finalist in The International Society for Optics and Photonics "Year of Light" contest. This was again a single-image competition, where my photo "Cathedral at Amiens" will be voted upon in January and February.
I don't want this to be a self-inflating article. I achieved a finalist nomination in these competitions, not (at the time of this writing) a first-place win. Still, it shows something important: someone like me, who doesn't spend my life traveling and doesn't have the most expensive gear, can make images that are competitive in a juried competition.
Granted, I spend a lot of time working on my photography, and I only keep the few images that I love the most. So I guess you can say that I'm picky. I do have some good photos, too, which certainly helps. I'm sure that most people reading this are similar.
The key to winning a photo contest, or being a finalist, is simple: know your limits, and know your strengths. Then match your strengths to the contests you find, and you have the best possible shot at winning.
How does this work? I'll give you an example. My strengths: I have several solid images, and my monochrome images are among my best. My weaknesses: I have no single photo which stand heads-and-shoulders above the rest of mine, and I have very few color photos that are amazing.
This means that, at the time I write this, my photos are not good for most huge, single-image contests. Those contests tend to have dozens or hundreds of people submit once-in-a-lifetime, crazy amazing shots. In contrast, many of my best photos would be very easy for me to repeat, since they don't depend on spur-of-the-moment action or conditions.
I also would not enter my photos in most paid competitions, again because I have no single photo that I place all my confidence in. People who make back their money in paid competitions have to be totally confident in their portfolio. By contrast, my best images range from "very good" to "contest winner" simply depending upon whoever looks at them.
However, there are some contests which are perfect for my strengths. Portfolio competitions are ideal for me, since many of my photos can be grouped by genre (macro photography) or tone (monochromatic images). None of the photos are once-in-a-lifetime shots, but the ones I enter are still very strong images. Together, they are stronger. This is how I was a finalist in TPOTY: I entered a portfolio of four monochromatic images from France.
Another type of contest which works well for me are those in which I can enter several of my photos. OPOTY is a good example; the contest let me enter ten photos, and two of mine were finalists. This is because all ten photos I submitted were solid images, but some images clearly resonated with the judges more than the others. In a similar contest, I wouldn't have been surprised if two of my other photos were chosen, or none at all. Because I have a number of solid photos, I like contests that let me enter several photos at once.
Lastly, going by the theme of the contest is the single most important way to improve your odds. If you read a contest theme and none of your photos jumps out immediately, then you're probably forcing a connection where there is none. My "Cathedral at Amiens" image was a finalist in the Year of Light competition in part because light itself is the subject of the photo.
The photos you have are good enough to win a photo competition. It may not be the competition that you want to win at this point, but if you put the effort into finding this page then I'm sure you are highly dedicated to photography. In that case, try to find some smaller competitions to enter. I won $100 in the PicHit.me Messages photo competition because mine was one of few photos to even fit the theme. Aside from that, only enter the competitions that you think you could win. Submitting photos takes time, and it's more productive to be out shooting than to be inside entering a competition you can't win.