Now You Know Videos

Zack Arias: What Makes A Really Good, Contest-Winning Photograph?

The Internet (Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) is awash with beautiful and dramatic photos and videos. People love it, click ‘Thumbs Up’ and send them up into the viral stratosphere. They are viewed by millions, some even redistributed on TV news channel on a slow news day, their authors cashing in on $$$. Then, many decide, “I can do that!” and soon we have millions more of copycat photos and videos all following the same trends assaulting our eyeballs. After a while, they all look the same. What once looked dramatic now look artificial, over processed and ordinary.

Photo editors have seen it all. When it comes to choosing a contest-winning photograph (and we are not talking here of photography contests judged by non photographers or amateur photographers, but of high-caliber photo contests), certain ingredients have to be present. Over dramatic post processing is not one of them. If it can be easily taught and copied, then everyone else can shoot that photograph, right? Then, how are you, the photographer, any better than everyone else? What makes your photo different, unique, one of a kind, “If you blinked, you missed that one opportunity, perhaps forever” kind of unexpected photo? The one that tells the story in one unforgettable, poignant image.

In the following video, Zack Arias shares his experience of 20 years of being behind the scenes at contests and print competitions to tell us why most images lose — and which ones win. Here are his “5 reasons Why You Aren’t Winning Photo Contests” :

Here’s what I took out of this video on why your photos don’t win contests:

  1. You entered it into the wrong category. If a category has already been judged and then your photo shows up in the wrong category, it will probably be tossed.
  2. Clients are not photography judges. You may make a great living selling pleasing and dramatic photos to your clients, and the judges may even agree you are one fine photographer, but your submitted photo won’t necessarily win this photography contest.
  3. You’re following trends. You’re analyzing past winning photographs to find out what judges like. If they’ve seen it before, your photos won’t cut it.
  4. You’re shooting specifically for contests. Judges value the way you see the world, not fabricate a scene to match all the criteria of a particular contest or what you think the judges are going to like. And, while you may be right that last year’s judges would have liked your photo, this year’s judges are all different people and, having seen it before, may toss it out.
  5. Your emotional connection to the photograph is not coming through to the judges. Even though you may feel that you have broken through a barrier and have achieved mastery of some skillset, that may still not be high enough than where other photographers may have arrived. And though that photo may be emotionally very important to you, it may not necessarily generate the same level of emotional connection with the judges. That is probably the most important reason why a photo wins: It somehow emotionally connects with the judges.
  1. Bonus: Someone (one of the judges) is a better negotiator. When there is not a very clear winner photograph, it all boils down to who can convince who. And that can be unfortunate for your photo which, though it may have placed in the top 3 at first, may eventually end up a Honorable Mention — or even be tossed out altogether.

The takeaway: Know your photo, stand by it, don’t get discouraged or cynical (hey, we all do, especially when viewing the winner photograph and wondering what the heck the judges were thinking), strive higher and better, especially in improving the emotional connection aspect in your photos. In the final analysis, take pictures that you like. Who knows, perhaps so will the judges.