How To Win a Photo Contest (including a sneaky bonus tip)

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Recently I was asked to judge a photo contest for a small camera club. The skill levels of the participants ranged from beginner to advanced, and after viewing the wide variety of entries, I began to think about simple ways to increase anyone’s chance of winning. Follow some or all of the tips below to maximize your chances of your photos rising to the top of the heap. I’ve sprinkled in some photos that I’ve entered in previous photo contests.

Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA
Barrel cactus is just starting to bloom in the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA

Follow the theme

Got an absolutely amazing photo of the setting sun over the ocean? If the contest theme is fall colors, then its probably best to save that great shot for a more appropriate contest. Good judges will disqualify even stunning photographs if they don’t suit the theme of the contest. Along the same lines, make sure you pay attention to all the criteria. You don’t want to waste your time or the judge’s by submitting photos that will be technically disqualified.

The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

Tell a story

Some contests provide an opportunity to fill in information about the photograph. If there is a description field, use it! But don’t just describe what the photo already shows visually. Rather, tell the story of how you captured the photo and what you were thinking when you clicked the shutter. This is your opportunity to “sell” the photograph to the judge, so use the space wisely. Any details you can provide about motivation, technique, or even processing can help cement the image in the judge’s mind so that it is remembered later.

A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass
A male ring-necked pheasant cranes his neck in between bits of grass

Get independent opinions

It is always a good idea to ask your peers what they think about the photos you are considering for a contest. Gather a selection and ask your photo friends to act as judge. You might be surprised by their choices. In the past, I’ve gravitated toward photographs that I’ve spent a lot of effort taking and processing, and that has influenced too much what I thought of it, regardless of whether it was actually a good photograph or not. Asking for others’ opinions can help prevent your personal skewing of a photograph’s merit based on the effort it took to produce it.

Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA
Silken water reflects the gold colors of fall, South Fork Bishop Creek, Inyo National Forest, CA

Point your subject into your frame (not out of it)

Whether your photograph is of a person, animal, or even mountain, it is always more aesthetically pleasing to have the subject face into the frame. That means there is more space in front of the head than behind it. The same is true for direction of motion – if an animal is walking or running, put more space in front of it than behind. So what about the mountain? Most mountains (or trees, or clouds, or …) seem to point in one direction or another. Put more space in front of the direction it is pointing than behind it. Of course, many rules are made to be broken, and sometime going counter to the rule can add a lot of tension to the photograph. But make sure that the judge will recognize and receive that tension well.

The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park
The sun just lights the top of the Tetons as it rises behind a grove of aspen in their fall colors, Grand Teton National Park

Avoid converging lines

Find plenty of separation between your photograph’s main elements and avoid converging lines. Space between major subjects helps the photo breath, and convergence can create unintended tension points and generally looks sloppy. Usually converging lines can be solved in the field by moving your camera forward, backward, side to side, or up or down. Try to find the right perspective that when flattened into a two dimensional photograph, leads the viewer easily through the frame.

Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park
Sunlight moves down the mountains to the west of Salt Creek, now a dried salt flat, Death Valley National Park

And now for the sneaky bonus tip….

Get to know your judges

If possible, try to find out who is judging the contest. Some contests will publish this information outright; others you might have to dig around a bit. Spend a little bit of internet time finding out more about the judges and what style of photography they gravitate toward. Have they judged a contest before? Which images did they choose previously? Chances are they will judge the current contest based on similar criteria. If the contest is judged by a panel, try to contribute at least one photo that matches each judge’s personal style and tastes. This may seem like cheating, but any leg you can get up on the competition is a worthy pursuit.

Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills
Dawn begins to light Lone Pine Peak and the wild rock formations of the Alabama Hills

Hopefully these tips get you thinking about photo selection and photo taking for the next contest that you consider entering. This can help you maximize you time, effort, and money!

Palo Alto Baylands

While I usually don’t make location specific posts about birding, I did want to call out Palo Alto Baylands as one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s great birding spots. Located in Palo Alto right along the bay, it provides the birder with a variety of species, from water birds to song birds to raptors – there is always something interesting to see here. It even holds one of the best viewing areas for the elusive (and endangered) clapper rail. Here are a few photos of what I found there on a recent morning.

A song sparrow perches on wild fennel in the morning sun
A song sparrow perches on wild fennel in the morning sun

Song sparrows are one of three most common sparrow (along with white and golden-crowned) species seen at Baylands. The ubiquity of the house sparrow in the suburbs gives way to the song sparrow this close to the water. With common birds such as this, I try to create photos that go beyond just showing the bird, but also show some behavior or interesting background. In this photo, I liked the way the sparrow is tilting downward (he was eating from the wild fennel) – it creates more of an action pose.

A white-tail kite perches on a large branch
A white-tail kite perches on a large branch

Baylands has the occasional visit from a bird of prey. Kites are seen anywhere from the water up into the foothills, hunting large, open spaces. Other birds of prey I’ve seen include fly-overs by osprey, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, and norther harriers.

A female yellow warbler pauses briefly on wild fennel in the morning sun
A female yellow warbler pauses briefly on wild fennel in the morning sun

The smaller passerines get me excited because they are much harder to photograph than water birds or sparrows. The are small, fast, and rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds. The most common warbler here is the yellow-rumped, but orange-crowned and yellow warblers are not uncommon. There are many many others, from chestnut-backed chickadees to bushtits – all of them equally hard to photograph. I loved the tonality of this image – the yellow on yellow really works here, blending the bird into her background.

A domestic goose swims through still water reflecting fall color foliage
A domestic goose swims through still water reflecting fall color foliage

Palo Alto Baylands also has a man-made pond that attracts a wide variety of migrating ducks throughout the year. There are also quite a few year-round residents, including this domestic goose. Most of the resident ducks here are cross breeds of domestic ducks and mallards. But this pond is also a great opportunity to see migrants up close, including ruddy ducks, greater and lesser scaup, northern shovelers, american wigeons, and a variety of teals.

An american avocet stands in shallow water, catching the first rays of morning sun
An american avocet stands in shallow water, catching the first rays of morning sun

Finally there are the water birds. Habitat here includes plenty of tidal wetlands, so these species abound. All the usual suspects can be seen here, and there are good viewing angles in morning and evening. In this photo, the earliest morning light is lighting the feathers of this american avocet. In spring, there is a popular nesting area for avocets and black-necked stilts. Photographers line up to capture cute photos of hatchlings venturing for the first time out into the mud flats.

For birders there is always lots to see at Palo Alto Baylands. If you live near or are visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to put this on your list of bird spots to visit.

2014 Round-up – Top 40 Photos Of The Year

After a bit of thought, I have compiled my top 40 picks from the last 12 months. I selected from a variety of outings and types of photography, ranging from landscape, to wildlife, to pet photography. Unfortunately, 2014 was not the year I caught up on my backlog of photos waiting to be processed, so this list was not selected from all of my 2014 photographs (you’ll have to wait till next year’s round-up for those!)

This year included a fantastic fall color photo trip to the San Juan mountains in Colorado, as well as visits to the Sierra Nevada and of course many bird photographs, including some previously unpublished.

Please enjoy the gallery below. For best viewing (especially if viewing on a mobile device), please click on the following photo:

Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep
Gem lies on the floor, fast asleep

Or, just enjoy the gallery here on the page. To view larger photos in the embedded gallery below, click here to enter full screen mode.


If you are interested in compilations from previous years, please see the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 lists.

When reality is too crazy to print

Those of us who have spent a good deal of time in nature have probably witnessed a few moments of pure magic when weather, light and other natural forces converge to create unforgettable events. I have had several such experiences, some of which I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a camera ready to capture them. When I see it in person, I’m often awe struck at the magnificence before me. But many times when I get home and process the resulting photos, I realize that I’m going to have some explaining to do. Sometimes the colors and lighting are so striking and unusual, that the resulting photo looks completely fake. This is especially true in this modern world of extreme photo manipulation capabilities.

But what to do in such circumstances? I certainly don’t want to de-saturate and alter the unusual colors so that the scene looks more “natural”. That is like saying these lighting events never occurred and what I witnessed should have looked like any other day. Instead I process the image so that the result matches my memory and add some written descriptions to allow the viewer to understand what they are seeing. So without further ado, here are three “crazy” lighting events and the resulting photos.

Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park
Dramatic light bursts from behind the Tetons at sunset. Thick smoke and haze from nearby forest fires create God beams as the sun drops behind the horizon, Grand Teton National Park

We’ll start with one of the most unbelievable sunsets I have ever seen. I was with some friends on a photo trip in Grand Tetons National Park a couple of years ago to photograph wildlife and fall colors against the spectacular backdrop of this mountain range. Smoke from nearby wildfires somewhat hampered our efforts early in the trip, but it also lent a special atmospheric quality to the otherwise clear skies.

The sun set behind the notch in the mountains, and we waited. Finally, it peeked out underneath the clouds on the horizon, cutting through the lingering smoke and turning the sky into an unbelievable magenta. In post processing, I kept finding myself wanting to desaturate or change the sky color, but finally I just left it as is. That is how I saw the scene, so I have to trust the colors.

Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.
Mt Wilson and the Wilson Mesa glow a light magenta under a cloud that catches the morning light.

The next example is from a recent fall color photography trip (notice a pattern here?) that I took to Colorado. Standing just below Last Dollar Road and looking out over the Wilson Mesa, I waited for what the sunrise would bring. The morning did not disappoint, and the clouds over Mt. Wilson lit up a beautiful orange. What was strange about the scene though, was that the entire landscape was cast in a similar orange, as if the color from the clouds on the horizon was emanating out in all directions.

What I realized later was that directly above me was a similar cloud catching similar light. It acted as a giant diffuser, coloring the grass, trees, and mountains in that same orange tint. Again I found myself tempted to remove the color cast, but again, that glow was real, and that is exactly how the scene looked that morning.

Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
Clouds explode with light over the multi-colored rock at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

This sunrise was really spectacular. Given that I was shooting at a popular roadside pullout, the sky really saved the shot here and made it unique (which is why I emphasized it so much in this photo). The bright pink/magenta color continued to get more and more intense as the sun rose behind me. This was one of those moments when the heart starts beating faster and I can feel the blood pumping. I knew I had just seconds to capture the shots I wanted while this phenomenon remained. In all, within 30 seconds it was gone.

As I look back on these shots I see wild colors and unreal looking landscapes. I’m not sure if I’ll ever print any of these, because they look processed beyond reality. But looking at these photos also reminds me of some amazing moments that I’ve witnessed first hand. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.