How to Win a Wildlife Photography Competition

For many, wildlife photography competitions provide a great goal to focus on. There are a handful of highly prestigious annual competitions which are revered by the wildlife photography community. Being awarded in one of these competitions is a dream for many – myself included – and provides something to strive towards.

Nowadays I am a videographer, and so taking still images is something I do less of now. However, as I stills photographer since 2007, I have entered many competitions over the years. Sometimes achieving success, and often not.

But how do you win a wildlife photography competition?

As of 2020, I find myself at the reins of not only the Nature TTL Photographer of the Year contest, but also the incredible Bird Photographer of the Year competition. These are two separate and very different competitions, but running things behind the scenes has given me a unique perspective into how to win a wildlife photography competition.

Lead photo: Levi Fitze / Bird Photographer of the Year

How to win a wildlife photo contest

Of course, there is no exact science to it. But I find that the approach to competitions by photographers and judges is very different. Understanding how a judge approaches an image is important to ensuring that you maximise your chances of success.

Standing out from the crowd

It is no secret that these large competitions are popular. Bird Photographer of the Year, for example, received over 22,000 entries in 2021. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, at the Natural History Museum in London, sees over 30,000 images entered each year. This fact alone means that it is important to choose images that stand out from the crowd.

1. Image choice

Let’s look at the judging process for Bird POTY. It typically works across three rounds, slowly whittling down the entries to a final selection. The first round is where we remove the majority of images from the running. A judge will be given the option to pass an image through to the next round, or end its journey.

The screen a judge sees in the Bird Photographer of the Year competition. Photo: Christina Stobbs / Bird Photographer of the Year.

The above screenshot shows exactly what a judge sees when looking through entries. They see a large thumbnail of the image, which can be clicked to expand the image to full screen.

This is why it’s so important to ensure your images are going to grab attention. A photo of a bird on a bird feeder, for example, is very unlikely to progress because it does not stand out amongst the surrounding images. Some things that make an image grab attention are:

  • Interesting lighting
  • Bright or contrasting colours
  • Animal behaviour
  • Dramatic atmosphere or weather conditions
  • A striking portrait
  • A new, fresh style

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give a feeling of what kind of image stands out.

It is also important to not submit multiple frames all taken in the same moment. For example, submitting three images of the same bird all taken within a few seconds is a common occurrence. But when you do this, you are potentially diluting the vote between three images. We try to eliminate duplicates like this, but it is not always possible. Instead of relying on the judges to choose the best pose for you, you should make that decision before entry.

2. Captions

Writing a caption can be a laborious process, and many entrants write something very quick and short. It would not surprise me to see a caption of “penguin in snow” for the below image, but that would not add anything to the entry. I can see that this is a penguin in snow myself; what I want to know is the circumstances around the image.

Tell the judging panel about how this picture came to fruition, and not just a description of what we are seeing.

how to win a wildlife photography competition
Photo: Keith Kennedy / Bird Photographer of the Year

You’ll see in the screen grab earlier that judges can see your captions from the first round. So ensuring that you write something descriptive is important. It doesn’t need to be an essay, but a few lines to set the scene can make a difference.

If you are submitting a photo of a sensitive animal that might be protected, it is essential to include details of relevant permissions you gained. Some images do get rejected where no permissions are detailed to us when we are certain they would be needed – however, we often try and contact photographers and verify things if the image is due to progress.

3. Title

This is probably the least important part of the process, and some photographers choose just to go with the species name as a title. Having said that, I do like it when I see more imaginative titles. This is just personal preference, however, and has no bearing on how an image will perform in the competition.

Do you need to travel the world to win a competition?

This is the most common thing I hear about wildlife photography competitions. The necessity to be a globetrotter and submitting images of incredibly rare birds is a myth.

These competitions are international affairs, and what may be an exotic animal to you is a local bird to another. Yes, images from outside the United Kingdom often get awarded – but this is not because of the bird in question; they are just good photographs. Plenty of images are awarded taken within the UK; even those taken on mobile phones.

wildlife photography competitions
An image of two mute swans, taken in the UK, was awarded Commended in Bird Photographer of the Year 2021. Photo: Diana Schmies / Bird Photographer of the Year.

Of course, should a photographer go to extreme efforts to capture an image of a rare bird (as detailed in the caption!), then this will be taken into consideration. It is, after all, part of the craft. But whatever the subject, the image needs to stand out and display technical skill to be awarded.

The story behind a photo

If you progress, any reputable wildlife photography competition will ask you to supply a high resolution photograph alongside the original raw photo (this is why you should not delete raw files as part of a DNG workflow).

You’ll also be given the opportunity to provide an extended caption at this stage. This is where what you write really matters. In an extended caption, you must expand on the shorter caption given in the first round. Tell us how you felt in the moment, the circumstances around the image, any relevant permissions needed, and the efforts you went to to achieve the resulting photo.

Bird Photographer of the Year 2021 grand prize winner. Photo: Alejandro Prieto.

For some competitions, such as Bird Photographer of the Year, there are printed Collection books produced each year (these are great places to glean inspiration, by the way). Within these books, extended captions are printed alongside the photos. So it’s important to put some effort in here – the judges want to know the story behind the shot.

The story behind an image can definitely take a photo further – the 2021 winner by Alejandro Prieto is a perfect example of this. Perhaps you’ve captured a powerful moment in an animal’s life, or are documenting a conservation story. The story and meaning behind a shot is not overlooked, and should be detailed in the caption to draw the judges’ attention to it.

A powerful story alongside a technically excellent image makes for a really strong candidate to be awarded. Having said that, it is of course possible for a photo with a weaker story element to win. It’s all about what makes an image stand out and exceed expectations.

In conclusion

Ultimately, you’ve “got to be in it to win it.” Wildlife photography competitions aren’t about whether you are a big name in the industry or if you are racking up air miles going to far-flung corners of the world.

If you have a photo you are proud of, then why not try it out? Wildlife photography competitions are a great celebration of the natural world, and something fun and enjoyable for photographers to strive towards.

I hope to see your images in the Nature TTL Photographer of the Year and Bird Photographer of the Year competitions soon!

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