Paul Coghlin
Paul Coghlin

If you've never entered a photographic competition before, you may be wondering where to start. Which contest to submit to? Which, out of all the images you have, do you enter? Even when you do chose a particular shot, how can you be reasonably sure it will stands-up well against the other competitors' pictures?

Portrait of an Elephant var II by Paul Coghlin

There are no promises with any competition. Even if you enter a picture which appears to tick all the right boxes, it still might not achieve the result you're hoping for. We can only give it our best shot, literally. Of course, on the other hand, sometimes you can achieve results way beyond anything you had ever imagined possible.

To give you some ides on how to approach and submit to photographic competitions, I've put together a few pointers, based on my own first-hand experience, which I hope are of help.

Reasons to Enter

Entering competitions should be enjoyable, if a little nail-biting when it comes to the results day, and doing well in one proves that you've "made the grade", at least when compared to the quality of the other entrants' work. From a professional point of view, winning an award can bring you to the attention of creative businesses. Plus, it can give you increased confidence in your particular photographic style and approach.

Defining your level

There is a huge number of competitions in the UK and worldwide every year, across a large range of subjects and styles: in newspapers, magazines, via the internet, through professional bodies and so on. How do you decide on which one to enter? To get an idea of where you stand photographically, you'll need to evaluate your own images against your opponents' pictures, often by looking at the previous year's entries.

It can be quite reasonably assumed that photographic competitions in, say, the local newspaper will tend to attract entries from people who only occasionally use a camera for quick snaps. Images to the same contest from someone who regularly uses a camera creatively are likely to be more prominent, and so have a greater chance of gaining an award. However, that photographer is hardly testing him or herself and not exactly going up against others of a similar ability.

Sentinel by Paul Coghlin

For the keen amateur, submissions to printed or online photographic magazines are likely to be a better test of their talents, so being compared against their peers. Going further still, full-time photographers will submit images to competitions run by professional organisations, such as the British Institute of Professional Photography, again to be judged against their peers.

There are also so-called "open competitions", such as the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, where anybody of any level can enter work, but the judging in these will still be tough, irrespective of the photographer's ability level.

Read the Rules!

This cannot be said enough: read the competition rules! This needs to be done very, very thoroughly and submit images only in the format that the rules specify. You must be completely sure that you've complied with the requirements. Photographs not abiding by the rules will not even be looked at; they will have failed already.

Also once you've posted, emailed or uploaded your pictures, you don't then want to be mulling over in your mind the thought that you might not have submitted them correctly; once you've sent them in, it's too late to change your mind. The photographs will have been committed to the judging process.

Also, be very aware of the deadline and the time needed for the pictures to be delivered to the competition address or online location. It's preferable to send in the submission well in advance, so there's no last-minute rush.

Be a ruthless editor

To have a chance of being short-listed and possibly even a finalist, your images have to stand out from the crowd. Once you've chosen a particular contest, you'll need to select and prepare the photographs, based upon the requirements of that contest and the category you're interested in. This means editing your pictures ruthlessly and only putting in the ones that you think have a good chance. "Mediocre pictures need not apply", as it were.

Pink Tulip IV by Paul Coghlin

In addition to composition, the final quality of the images, whether a print or digital file, has to be very good too – contrast, clarity of detail, colour balance, black and white tones and so on. If you have the feeling an image probably doesn’t make the grade, don't include it.

Submit and Forget

Once you're happy with the single image or selection of pictures and have been through the rules' tick boxes, you'll be ready to submit them. If you're posting them, I'd suggest that you have the envelope sent using a service which allows it to be signed for at the recipient's end. It would be a shame if all your hard work went "walkabout" and missed the deadline due to a postal problem. Online, digital images are usually uploaded, ie you send the pictures in a specific format via the internet, usually through the competition organiser's website. Again the rules will indicate what the digital format is and again you must adhere to this. Normally you will receive an email to confirm the digital delivery.

Once the submission has been completed, it may be an idea to try to push it to the back of your mind. Basically try to forget about it - other than having put a small note on the calendar for the results day.

Image Editing by Paul Coghlin

Learn from the results

Eventually the results are published. If it was a postal submission, finalists will usually be told via a letter, although the overall winner may receive a personal phone call from the competition organisers. Online submissions will normally result in emails being sent.

If you do hear that you're a finalist, or even a winner, then you'd better warn everyone in your household to keep off the phone and computer email, as you're likely to want to tell everyone! If you're so inclined, this could include letting the local paper know, especially if you have a photography business, and also via a blog, and social media, if you feel promoting it may be beneficial. If you're a professional photographer, updating your CV, website, etc is probably a good idea, as are Press Releases and possibly informing your clients of the news.

Depending on the specific competition rules, those who don't get short-listed often don't receive a notification. So if the results date arrives and nothing comes though up to a few days after, it's likely the pictures weren't short-listed. If you find that this is the case, you can follow this up by looking at the finalists' and winners' pictures to see how yours compare. You can evaluate your photographic techniques, to learn where you could improve, and then enter another competition, as next time you might be a finalist or possibly even awarded that sought-after winner's trophy.

BIPP award for Paul Coghlin

© Paul Coghlin. Paul is a professional photographer and winner of numerous awards, including 2011 Federation of European Photographers for Fine Art Photograph and the BIPP 2010 National Photographic awards.