Tips on Winning Photo Competitions

This article originally appeared in Scuba Diver Australasia magazine

Photo Competition Tips Whaleshark and Fishing NetEveryone loves a competition. Many sports lend themselves well to competition, such as tennis, golf, football etc, the list goes on and on. However, in diving there are relatively few things we can compete against others at. Who has buoyancy or finning contests? Luckily for competition junkies there is one area in diving where the competitive fire burns: Underwater Photography.

With the surge in popularity of digital cameras, a parallel surge in underwater photography shootouts and photo competitions has arisen. In years past, on location photo shootouts were few and far between and mostly based in the Caribbean. Now there are international events in countries around the world and accessible to most everyone. On the other side of the competition landscape are the international photo competitions where everyone can send in photos via mail or the internet. These competitions are a serious business with a lot of prestige and huge prizes available. Although entering these can be rewarding, there is nothing personal about these events, it simply involves sending in your photos anonymously and hoping for a congratulatory email after the judging is done.

Photo Competition WinnersOn the other hand are Photo Shootouts. Typically these attract fun and outgoing divers who are pretty serious about their photography and are definitely interested in the added attraction of winning a prize. Another bonus of photo shootouts is the participation of photo pros on hand to act as judges and give informative and entertaining seminars. I have had the pleasure of participating in several of these events as both a competitor and judge. Each event I have attended has been great fun and I would encourage anyone to join, as it’s a chance to meet new people, do some diving, learn a few new tricks, and hopefully win some cool prizes!

For those who are planning to attend a shootout in the future, here are a few tips on what judges’ look for in an image and what to keep in mind when planning that winning image.

Personality- It’s not enough to enter an identification photo of an animal; the viewer needs to know what the animal is thinking! The portrait shot of a fish or other organism needs a little something to make it pop. This is best captured by observing your subject and watching its behaviour rather than jumping in immediately and capturing a quick image. Take your time and you will be rewarded.

How to Win a photo competitionColour- Nothing jumps off the page (or screen) better than an image with bright and complementary colours. Certain subjects such as soft coral, crinoids, and sea fans are naturally endowed with vibrant pinks and reds, but they are not the only subjects under the sea that can provide a colourful image. Fish, nudibranches, and reef scenes all provide ample opportunity to fill a frame with saturated colours.

Action- This is one of the hardest things to capture with a still camera, but a successful action photo really stands out from the crowd. A pair of mating turtles, a shark cruising through a school of fish, or a frog fish pouncing on its prey; these are the photos that can win most competitions. However, they require a lot of luck and a certain amount of being in the right place at the right time. To gain an edge when looking for action opportunities, education is the key. A little research into the time of day or month when animals are likely to exhibit hunting or mating will go a long way in capturing a stunning composition.

Behaviour- Closely related to action photos are behaviour shots. By moving slowly and carefully, and not rushing straight up to your subject, it’s possible to observe them exhibiting unique types of behaviour and capturing it on the camera. One of the best examples of this is the humble cleaner wrasse or shrimp. When large fish are being cleaned by these miniature vacuum cleaners they exhibit interesting tendencies such as opening their mouths or gill slots wide open. This is the perfect opportunity to capture an iconic image that will grab the judges’ eye.

Manta Rays Behaviour - How to Win Photo CompetitionAdvanced Planning- One thing that will always stand out to a judges’ eye is the photo that took a lot of advanced planning and forethought to achieve. To a trained eye the small details of a well planned photo are obvious. By having an idea in mind, following up on it underwater, and spending the time to get it right, a truly classic image can be created. This dedication to an image will certainly stand out far above a passing snap shot photo of the average critter on the reef.


These days we tend to judge photo shootouts in a pretty democratic fashion. My favourite way to do so is to scroll through the photos on a TV and assign numbers up to 15. The scores are tallied and then added with the other judges’ scores and the winners are declared. Personal preferences of the judges can be a consideration when choosing an image to submit. If you are undecided about what image to enter in a competition it can serve you well to do a bit of research about what sort of photo the judges enjoy shooting.

How to Win Photo Competitions JellyfishMany years ago I was given a great piece of advice from the legendary Jim Church. He told me that when he was judging photo contests with several different judges each of them would have several images they favoured and that these were often not the same. This favouritism would often lead to a stalemate amongst them. When this happened, they had an interesting way of solving it; they would simply put the final few photos on the light table and then turn their backs on it. Upon turning to have a look, they would choose the photo that stood out the most as the grand prize winner! The motto of this story is that it’s best to shoot bright, colourful photos that stand out from the crowd with a mere glance.

If you don’t think you have any stunning behaviour or action photos from the shootout, it’s not a bad idea to enter one of the “classics” such as a sea fan and diver silhouette. Although this shot might not get 5 stars from the judges, a nicely composed image of this sort will garner high marks and may place in the top three, it’s worth a shot.

So get your thinking hat on and don’t just plan a trip to a local or exotic photo shootout, get planning those winning shots in advance as well. But, don’t get carried away with the competitive nature of a photo competition either. The typical shootout is a fun affair with many interesting people and a great chance to socialize. Be outgoing and take advantage of having other competitors and judges on hand to share information and ideas with. It’s not just the potential prizes that make shootouts enticing, it’s the camaraderie as well!


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