How to Win a Landscape Photography Competition

award-winning landscape photo

There are many a landscape photography competition to be entered today – Landscape Photographer of the Year, the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, our very own Nature TTL Photographer of the Year; the list goes on.

win landscape photography competition

Photography competitions are an opportunity to get your images critiqued by experienced professionals who will provide an objective opinion.

Aside from the kudos of winning, there are other rewards to doing well in a photo comp – including prizes, publicity, and the opportunity to network.

But photography competitions are fickle things – there is a fine line between success and failure, and truthfully, there is no secret formula.

Let’s get something perfectly straight from the onset – reading this article will not guarantee you success in landscape photography competitions.

Photo competitions are hugely subjective and often controversial – you can’t categorically say one photo is better than another. And however well-respected the judging panel might be, there is nothing to say that their verdict is the correct one.

Some competitions attract thousands of entries from all around the world, but there are only ever a handful of awards. Therefore, it goes without saying that many more entrants than not will be disappointed and frustrated.

how to win a photography competition

You need thick skin if you decide to enter.

However, competitions can allow photographers to showcase their best images and act as a platform to encourage and reward creativity and innovation. They can be inspiring and even provide a springboard into the profession.

As someone who has been lucky enough to both win and judge renowned nature photography competitions, I hope my experience might be helpful. Read on for advice on how to create award-winning landscape images.

So, just how do you win a landscape photography competition?

1. Be original – standout from the crowd

There is no exact science, I’m afraid, but often the key is to enter images with the ‘wow’ factor that will stand out from the crowd.

Landscape photography is a saturated industry – access to digital cameras is easier than ever, and travelling for photography is a common pastime.

Your best shot at being awarded in the competition is to submit something that will ‘jump out’ at the judges.

This doesn’t necessarily have to mean bright, bold colours or the most incredible waterfall you’ve ever seen. It may mean a perfectly balanced and intriguing composition or a new angle and perspective on a common landscape feature.

award-winning landscape photo

Landscape photographs can ‘jump out’ at viewers for a variety of reasons. Here are some things to potentially keep in mind:

Mood and Drama: You’ve captured something particularly dramatic, unusual, and eye-catching; the light and conditions might be ‘epic,’ for example. Weather can really play a part in adding intrigue to an image.

You can compose incredible images, but if the conditions are ‘flat,’ you may not be able to create a truly knockout scene – the kind that will get you noticed in a competition.

Try to look for those unusual, incredible, fleeting moments of light that can transform your images into the extraordinary (after the rain, the first light in the morning, etc.)

You can use weather apps to help with this, but nature, of course, is unpredictable, and the best thing you can do is to be out shooting as much as possible – you might just happen to be there for one of those truly epic moments!

Your image tells a story about a time or place: This is an important factor to consider. Many competitions now will ask for a caption to accompany the image – you want to have something meaningful to say about this particular place and moment!

Think about how the image might relate to the wider world or about the particular qualities that make it such a special moment or environment. You may even want to delve into your own relationship with the place.

landscape storytelling image

When sitting down to choose what images to enter into a landscape photography competition, it’s important to remember that the judges of these competitions will pore through thousands of images, and they often have to make an instant decision on whether a photograph should progress to the next stage or not.

Therefore, you need to capture and enter photographs that will grab the judge’s attention from the very first second.

Originality and innovation are often keys to producing prize-winning photographs – show the judges something they haven’t seen before.

Try to avoid entering photographs of so-called ‘honeypot locations’ that have been photographed a million times before, unless it’s a truly great one, captured from a fresh perspective or in standout conditions.

But don’t feel pressure to only choose the best-known landscape photography locations.

You may be more likely to capture something more interesting, and indeed original, in your home territory – and you’ll have the added benefit of more regular access, which will give you a greater chance of capturing some of those truly epic, rare conditions!

Read more: How to Develop a Photographic Style

2. Get creative

Creative techniques, like ICM and multiple exposures, can help photographers produce more painterly or abstract results that may appeal to judges who are always on the lookout for something a bit different.

That said, I should underline that you should always stay true to your photographic principles – don’t compromise or adapt your normal shooting style to win a photography competition.

Take photographs you enjoy – and if they are not what the judges want, then so be it. There are so many competitions out there that you can enter; if you aren’t successful in one, you may be successful in another.

Read more: How to Capture Movement in Landscapes 

3. Trust your instincts

Mood and atmosphere are important ingredients for any award-worthy landscape image – great light, drama, and a sense of flow and movement will normally appeal to judges in a landscape photography category.

But all judges are different and are looking for alternative things – for example, some will favour minimalism, while another might have a soft spot for black and white. One judge might love long exposures – the next might despise them.

landscape photography tips for award-winning images

While you could look at the list of judges and study their work and style to try and seek an advantage, I don’t think this necessarily works. When entering a competition, you just have to accept that not everyone will like your photographs – art is very subjective.

Ultimately, trust your instincts when it comes to selecting your entries, rather than trying to second guess the judges – that has always been my approach.

Enter your favourites; the ones that speak to you, and stay true to your own gut. It can be worth asking other people for advice, but don’t let them sway you too far from your own ideals!

Read more: 9 Ways to Build Your Confidence in Nature Photography

4. Read the rules

Even if you have a prize-winning photo in your midst, if you don’t read the competition rules and abide by them, your shot won’t progress – plain and simple. The organizers set their criteria for a reason, so read the rules carefully.

You should ensure that you understand the theme and category descriptions and prepare your images as outlined, providing the caption information required and resizing files as instructed.

Fail to do this, and your photo will be rejected regardless of its quality.

how to win a landscape photo contest

One of the most common problems is photographs being entered into the wrong category. Judges typically do not have the ability (or time) to move photographs, so entries will be eliminated even if they might be good enough to succeed in a different category.

You may want to plan your images around a competition – before shooting, have a look at the criteria for the categories you would like to enter and shoot with these guidelines in mind.

Also, be mindful of what editing the rules allow you to do and not do. Some competitions (or individual categories) will allow you to do extensive post-processing but others do not.

Don’t purposefully – or mistakenly – break the rules. You do not want to fall foul at a later stage – disqualification is embarrassing and doesn’t reflect well on you or the competition.

Read more: 8 Post-Processing Tips for High Quality Images

5. Prepare files properly for entry

You wouldn’t believe how many perfectly good images get rejected due to poor processing. However good the photograph is, no allowance is made by the judges if an image is over-sharpened, poorly exposed, or there are dust spots.

You will not be asked to resubmit your image if it fails quality control – there is neither the time nor ability to do that – instead, the photo will be rejected immediately.

winning a landscape photo contest

I was recently a curator on a large environmental photography contest, and I was staggered at how many photos were badly over-sharpened, to the degree that they would have not been suitable for print for the accompanying exhibition.

Don’t allow poor or lazy processing to ruin your photo’s chances of success! And if you are really unsure about an edit, don’t be afraid to seek advice from other photographers.

Read more: Editing Your Photos – How Far Should You Go?

6. Don’t give up!

Just because an image is unsuccessful once doesn’t mean it is not competition-worthy. I speak to lots of photographers who never re-enter images because they’ve been rejected once. This is a mistake.

If there is a photo you like and you think it is competition quality, enter it again (and again if necessary) – either into a different comp or the same one the following year. On a different day, with a different set of judges, you may get a very different result.

landscape seascape photo

I once entered a photograph into the same competition and category as the year before and won, despite the photo not getting through the first round the previous year.

Remember, competitions are fickle, unpredictable things, so don’t lose faith in your favorite shots if at first they don’t succeed.

However, if a shot is consistently not progressing past the first round, there comes a point when you must accept that it just isn’t what the judges are after.

But each time you enter, you should learn a little more about what it takes to create a winning image.

Final Top Tips to Take Away

Here are my final tips to help you take award-winning landscape photographs.

Study the winners from previous years: This will help you get a feel for the quality and style required, but don’t try to replicate them – treat them as inspiration instead.

Get a second opinion: Personally, I prefer to select my competition entries without seeking a second opinion, but it can be helpful to ask trusted friends or fellow photographers for their feedback on images before you finalize your selection.

Be original when possible: This is becoming increasingly difficult in a world of saturated content. Keep trying though – look for unusual compositions, new places, and stand-out conditions.

Be selective and critical of your work: Only enter what you consider are your best shots. It costs money to enter many competitions, so you may need to budget for how many, which ones you’d like to enter, and with how many images.

Make sure your images are valid before entering: Some competitions only permit images taken within a certain time frame – typically the past five years.

Don’t over-edit your images: Not only might you break rules by doing so, but judges normally want authentic, natural-looking work that celebrates in-camera skill – even more so as we enter the age of AI.

In conclusion

Finally, I would ask you not to place too much emphasis or importance on competition success.

Photography really isn’t a competitive sport. Being successful in a competition doesn’t suddenly make you a better photographer – and, equally, being unsuccessful doesn’t make you a worse one.

Competitions are a great outlet for your best, most creative work. But whether they are successful or not shouldn’t affect your pride and affection for those shots.

Visit Ross's website

Ross Hoddinott is among the UK’s best-known landscape and natural history photographers. He is a multi-award-winning photographer and the author of several bestselling photography titles, including The Landscape Photography Workshop (with Mark Bauer). Based in Cornwall, Ross is best known for his images of the South West of England, but he travels all over the UK in search of outstanding views and atmospheric conditions. He is a Nikon Alumni, an Ambassador for Manfrotto and a Global Icon for F-Stop Gear. Ross is a popular and experienced tutor and co-runs Dawn 2 Dusk Photography, specialising in landscape photography workshops.

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