Choosing a winning image in a photography competition is part science, part experience and part emotion. As a judge, the first thing you look for is technique. While there can be exceptions when another aspect of the photograph is just so good that you can ignore technique, for the bulk of entries, technique is important.
Technique covers everything from camera handling skills to presentation of the final image. Is the photograph in focus, is it correctly exposed, has appropriate tonality been used during post-production? People complain that you can't just enter a straight photo without post-production and win a competition, and to some extent this is correct. At the very least, post-production allows us to refine the tonality - darken down the sky, lighten up the face - and if we ignore these possibilities, the photograph may look unfinished. Mind you, it was no different in the 'old days' - successful entrants would have a 'custom print' created where these minor but important adjustments were made by a skilled darkroom technician.
To win a photo competition, you have to ensure the technique is invisible. Viewers want to look at the subject matter, not the handiwork making the image.
A lot of entrants research photographs on the internet or in books and create their own version. We all do this to some extent. There's nothing wrong with this (as long as it is not a direct copy, in which case it's plagiarism), but don't expect the judges to be awed by your brilliance if your subject is commonplace. It is very hard for a photograph of the Sydney Opera House to win a photography competition - unless it is presented in a new and unique way.
Most competitions have a number of entries that appear to be inspired by winning entries from the year before. This is good practice for photographers wishing to improve their skills, but to be a competition winner, you have to jump out ahead. You can't be following the herd, you have to lead it.
Good photography judges have a lot of experience. By experience, I mean exposure to lots and lots of images - paintings, films, photography. On the plus side, that experience means they won't hand out as many awards to 'copy images'. On the negative side, experience can mean they have particular likes and dislikes, which can flavour how they judge a competition. And that's why it's important for a competition to have three or even five judges, so you get a cross-section of flavours.
So, good technique and something that is either new or incredibly well done is a great start, and then it comes down to emotion. I don't know how to explain this but at the end of a judging process, a number of photographs will rise to the top. Anyone of those images could be the winner depending on how judges respond emotionally. And having an image which is full of emotion is a good way to influence the judges.
However, you can't tell how a judge will respond, not with certainty, and hence my advice is not to aim to win a competition, rather to be in the top twenty percent of entrants. Then, if you enter enough competitions, you're very likely to take out a major prize - eventually.
Check out our e-book on How To Win Photo Competitions on our Better Photography Education website - you can find it here.
Entries into the 2021 Better Photography Photo of the Year Awards close on 31 July 2021, so there's still time to enter - and who knows, you could be part of the $5000 prize pool too! And every entry gets a judge's comment to assist them improve. For more details or to enter, visit www.betterphotographyphotocomp.com now!