How To Add impact to competition photos.

You are a camera club photographer and you have put your best picture into the latest competition. Your latest entry gives you high hopes of an award. Judging night comes and the judges’ comments are not as expected. As a judge on the circuit, every competition generally has three categories of entry – the good, bad and indifferent.

If you have ever driven away from your club after a competition thinking “the judge tonight was a complete buffoon” then here are a few hot hints to help you improve your chances of winning. Photography is about the art and craft of communication, you are the viewer’s eyes. You have made a deliberate choice of the subject matter add the presentation to be judged. You are in control of the process from beginning to end, so “begin with the end in mind” to quote Dr Stephen Covey. What do the best pictures in the style or genre look like? Be aware of what good looks like.

“Begin with the end in mind” Dr Stephen Covey

What is the dominant subject matter of the photograph?

When I am judging a club competition or an international salon my first question is “What is the dominant subject matter of the photograph – what am I look at?”. Sometimes the question is easy to answer, other times not. If the judge is given a variety of potential elements as the main subject matter then may you have a problem. As the photographer in your mind, the subject may be perfectly obvious, as a third party the judge was not inside your head when you took the picture.

Try these 10 Hot hints 

The 10 hot hints that follow will help you to clearly and succinctly communicate what you saw and felt to the competition judge. I mentioned earlier the categories of entry the good, bad and indifferent. Those who are in the good category are getting most of the following hot hints right. Pictures with strong visual impact have a greater chance of winning a competition because the judge has much less reason to be distracted from your chosen dominant subject matter.

A – Attraction

Hot hint 1 – What is the Attraction of the subject, you are asking the judge to make comment on?

Be very clear in your own mind what you are taking a picture of and why. What are the “essential” composition elements of the picture to tell your chosen narrative? What are “must not” be included in the frame?  For good measure, what are the “nice to haves” within the same frame?

B – Background 

Hot hint 2The Background of any picture equates to at least 50%

The background is a totally equal 50% to the foreground. Do not think that the background doesn’t matter because it does it will usually be a make or break point for your picture. When you have the opportunity to take multiple shops always vary your viewpoint to include a different background. There is always more than one appropriate viewpoint for any picture, your job is to select the optimum viewpoint.

C – Composition

When composing a picture there is a lot to think about and the following hints will help you to compose your pictures with more visual impact. The Composition of a photograph requires just the same thought processes as a writer or a painter or a songwriter – what is it about? What is the style? What is appropriate to include and exclude in the act of creation?

Hot hint 3 – Fill the frame and exclude distractions

Before pressing the shutter-release look around the edges of the frame for distractions or areas of light tone or light colour that pull the eye away from your intended dominant subject matter. If you enjoy wide-angle photography your pictures will get immediate impact by filling the foreground which always means getting a lot closer to the subject than you would with a standard lens.

Hot hint 4 – Use it or lose it

Make every element of the picture work for you. Decide what is the main dominate element and what elements are working in a support role to the main subject. Use it or lose is a very good mantra as it helps you to clarify your thinking and hence compositions. Use it or lose particularly applies to skies with no interest or detail. See the example below.


Hot hint 5 – Less is more

The more experienced a photographer becomes they learn to maintain a minimal approach to composition. A minimal approach means you are extracting the significant essence (the attraction for you) from the general scene in front of you. How little an amount of information do you need to make a coherent picture?

Hot hint 6 – a Light subject matter on a darker background

Think about the use of contrast when composing a picture. From me, a light toned subject on a dark background has immediate contrast and always works very well in black-and-white. This is one of my Picture Templates. For the colour photographer, look for subjects that have contrasting colours to the background. The most basic example is a warm-toned subject in front of a cool toned background. See the black and white example below.

D – Depth of Field and Aperture Groups

The use of lens apertures can be divided into groups. There are three basic aperture groups which control the Depth of Field. Group A – large aperture, group B – medium aperture, group C – small aperture.

Hot hint 7 – Shallow Depth of Field

If you want to add impact to your competition pictures I strongly suggest that you use shallow depth of field by using the maximum aperture of the lens (big hole small number). Medium apertures between f4 and f11 have no real creative input to the picture taking process generally. Small apertures (small hole big number) provide far too much depth of field which means that the subject matter has the same sharpness and dominance as everything around it, and therefore the picture loses impact.

See the example of different aperture groups below

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E – Exposure

Hot hint 8 – Expose for the highlights and post-process for the shadows

For camera club competitions generally, most judges will expect you to have control over Exposure to produce a full range of tones with detail. Do not give the judge the ammunition to say “the highlights are burnt out or the shadows are blocked up”.

You need to understand exposing for the highlights and the post-processing for the shadows.

F – Focus

Hot hint 9 – Accurate Focus

Focus on the subject is essential if you want the judge to understand what the subject of the photograph is. Therefore, be in charge of how your camera focuses, I suggest a single active focusing point for most photographic situations. Don’t let the camera dictate to you where the sharp focus ought to be.

If you’re chosen dominant picture element is not critically sharp, it is not worth putting into a competition.



G – Gently press the shutter release

Hot hint 10 – Gently press the shutter 

Another reason for not entering a picture into a competition is if it has camera shake, the shutter speed was too slow. If your lenses or camera body has Image Stabilisation built-in, making sure it is turned on for handheld pictures and turned off when the camera is on a tripod. Gently press the shutter release when all of the following picture elements come together IN ONE FRAME.

  • Subject dominance
  • Lighting
  • Composition
  • Timing

All photographic competitions of any type require pictures that conform to competition style so by conforming to the style you will have a greater chance of success. All competitions judges are looking for pictures with the style and impact so they have something good to say.

I hope you have found my 10 hot hints for adding impact to club competition photos useful, please give them a go and let me know how you get on.

The ABC of CameraWork Manual

All the hot hints here are taken from “The ABC of CameraWork  – How to see photographically” by Andy Beel FRPS. The suggested hot hints are equally usefully to colour and mono photographers.

The feature shot right looks great when printed on Fotospeed Platinum Etching Signature 285 Paper 

Platinum Etching 285 is a new 100% acid-free, fine art paper with a velvety, textured surface.  A natural white base and state of the art ink-receiving layer delivers a high D-MAX and wide colour gamut.

Looking south from the Halfoss Waterfall in the Icelandic highlands.