How to Take Your Best Shot at the National Geographic Photo Contest

There probably isn’t a photographer in the world who hasn’t dreamed of getting published in National Geographic magazine — and each year, we get our chance. The 2010 National Geographic Photography Contest, one of the most prestigious contests in the world, begins accepting submissions Sept. 1.

You can enter images in each of three categories: people, places and nature. The first prize is $2,500 in each category, and one grand-prize winner gets an additional $7,500. Plus — the real prize — your winning photos appear in the magazine.

You can submit images until Nov. 30, so you have three months to go through your very best images or perhaps shoot some new ones.

Tips for Winning

So, how do give yourself the best chance to win a highly competitive contest like this one?

I’ve interviewed a lot of contest judges in the past few years and one of the things I hear them say most often is: “Show me something different — or from an unexpected viewpoint.” Keep that in mind, especially when you’re shooting familiar subjects.

If you’re photographing a chateau in France, for example, why not take a hot-air balloon ride and shoot it at sunset from the air? If you’re photographing deer in a nearby park, think about setting your tripod in a stream and photographing them from water level as they come to drink. Surprise and entertain and you’ll get lots of serious consideration from judges.

I had the opportunity to interview National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson for my book, Winning Digital Photo Contests, and he described his approach to judging contests this way:

I always try to do a scan and go through all of the photos pretty quickly to see if there are things that really just pop out — photos that give you a rush of recognition the instant you see them. Those pictures, whatever their technical qualities, whatever their shortcomings, you give weight. If you have a reaction to the picture, something visceral and emotional, then you have to think that there’s something going on there, even if it breaks all the rules. That’s what a picture is supposed to do, to cause a reaction, to get to us.

That process of doing a scan helps me to find some of the best pictures and eliminate others — pictures that are simply “me too” pictures. Those pictures may be done well and have perfect exposure, but you realize you’ve been seeing the same shots for 15 years. I don’t care how perfectly it’s executed; if I’m jaded to the very approach and the very presentation, it doesn’t get nearly the mark up that more inventive photos get.

I had an English composition teacher in high school that used to say that the greatest tool that a writer had was a unique viewpoint. That is so often the case in pictures. There are other pictures that take time to appreciate and their gifts aren’t delivered instantaneously, so you don’t want to use that barometer all of the time on all pictures. But as you’re sitting there doing the initial scan of images, if they can’t grab your attention in a second or two, then they probably aren’t going to grab your attention at all.

Mistakes to Avoid

Richardson also described the most common mistakes he sees in contest entries:

One of the greatest sins that you see in photo contests is the overuse of things like the saturation slider. You see that over and over again, people turning up the volume too high. And it doesn’t have to be just saturation, either. It can be sharpness, or extreme focal lengths, all kinds of things. They assume that if some saturation is good then more is better, if a wide-angle lens is interesting then a fisheye lens would be even more interesting.

They make the mistake of assuming that it’s about technique rather than vision. There’s an analogy here to the ballet. Yes, all the dancers have to be technically perfect, but the perfection of the dance won’t get to your heart. It may get to your appreciation of perfection, but it won’t stir your heart like the agony of Romeo and Juliet.

Winners of the contest will be announced in December. There is an entry fee of $15 per photo. Read the official contest rules and an FAQ for more information. And to get some inspiration and see what others have done, there are galleries of previous winning shots on the NatGeo site.

2 Responses to “How to Take Your Best Shot at the National Geographic Photo Contest”

  1. Thanks for the heads up and the great tips. I'll be digging through my catalog later tonight.

  2. Good luck Tyler! I think that just going back over your work carefully and going through the process of entering a serious contest has a great effect on the creative process. And you just never know where it might lead! jw

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