National Geographic’s Jim Richardson: How I Judge Photo Contests

The following is excerpted from Winning Digital Photo Contests, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.

Jim Richardson has a career that most photographers can’t help but envy.

As a freelance photographer for National Geographic magazine for more than 25 years, he has traveled the world extensively and become one of the Geographic’s most prolific shooters. Since his first essay appeared in 1984, he has photographed more than 20 essays on everything from sustainable agriculture to volcanoes of the Great Plains.

Richardson, who has a particular passion for environmental issues, comes from a newspaper journalism background and has also done extensive documentary work. One of his most ambitious projects was a 30-year photographic study of life in the small town of Cuba, Kansas (population 230). It’s no surprise that the lure of the small town would appeal to him since he grew up on a dairy farm in Kansas — which is where he first discovered cameras and photography.

“I was a kid on the farm with a lot of hobbies,” he recalls. “One of those hobbies was photography, and I did lots of experiments including photographing through a microscope and taking pictures through a pair of binoculars held in front of a twin-lens reflex camera.”

Still actively shooting assignments, Jim lives in Lindsborg, Kansas and operates Small World: A Gallery of Arts and Ideas, on the town’s Main Street. He also teaches photography at workshops around the world and has judged more than 100 photo contests. Most recently he judged the Energizer Ultimate Photo Contest, a major competition sponsored by Energizer and National Geographic.

Is judging contests an enjoyable process?

It is, because I get to see the range of photography that’s out there — the really great stuff and the not-so-great. You get to look at photos that you just wouldn’t see otherwise, pictures that are totally unexpected. It’s great fun just to be able to root through those photos and see where people are going with photography.

Do you think that digital photography has helped people to be more creative?

Yes, it certainly has; the creative floodgates have opened. Photographers are able to express what they’re after more easily because they’re not so encumbered by the trappings of the camera. But also, being able to review images on the LCD is just wonderful. You are able to learn on-the-fly what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, what’s working and what isn’t.

Also, with digital photography, each new picture is not costing you more; it’s actually spreading the initial cost out over an ever-greater number of pictures. So you feel the freedom to be experimental, to try new things that you might never have tried before.

Do you think that’s true for professionals too?

Yes, absolutely. Even at National Geographic, if you were to ask [director of photography] David Griffin, he’d tell you that we’re better photographers today then we were five years ago. We’re more experimental and we’ll take chances and go places we never dreamed we could go before.

<i>Jim Richardson has been a freelance photographer for National Geographic for more than 25 years.</i>

Jim Richardson has been a freelance photographer for National Geographic for more than 25 years.

What is it that makes a particular photo stand out during judging?

First, 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 too, then they probably aren’t going to grab your attention at all.

What mistakes do people make with photos they’re entering in contests?

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.

Do you think that trying to win a contest is a good motivator for taking better pictures?

If that motivates people to go out and take pictures, then good. But on the other hand, if having better pictures of their family motivates them, then that’s also good. One of the good things about entering a contest is that it gets your pictures out of the hard drive and in front of someone. Getting pictures in front of other people is a good thing because no matter how good your pictures are, a picture that doesn’t get seen is essentially mute.

One of the best things you can do to improve your photography is to get your pictures in front of other people where you can see their reaction. I give a lot of talks and lectures where I show my pictures and I always try to watch the reactions when they flash on the screen. There are times when I show pictures that I think are the most wonderful photographs in the world and the people just sit there. But then a certain picture comes along and you see the eyes widen and the people sit up straight. Those are the reactions that you want to see and believe.

That’s why sites like Flickr are good, because you have strangers giving you comments and reactions to your photographs. I also think that you have to absolutely discount the opinions of relatives and friends and the people who like you. They’re just not objective enough.

Do you have any tips for helping people decide which pictures are right for entering a contest?

One thing that people can do is go through National Geographic or some other magazine, cut out a lot of pictures, and spread them out on the floor with some of their own photos in the mix. Then have someone come in and tell you which pictures don’t belong — and tell them to be brutally honest.

You have to find a way to replicate what’s going to happen when someone like me, a contest judge, is looking through all of these photos. You can’t explain your photos to the judge or point them out. The picture has to do the work.

Years ago I judged a KINSA (Kodak International Snapshot Awards) contest and someone had sent in a picture of a tree. The picture was of the entire tree, but there was an arrow drawn on the photograph pointing to one leaf in the middle. The tag at the end of the arrow said “Hummingbird.” It was a pretty humorous photo but I don’t think the photographer meant it that way.

Are a lot of contest pictures too predictable?

Yes, I think so. When it comes to photographing the Grand Canyon, for instance, most people go to the south rim and stand at exactly the same place and get the same picture. It’s going to be tough for you to get one of those pictures to stand out. But if you were on the north rim at 6 a.m. after it snowed, that picture is much more unusual and judges haven’t seen it so much, so it will get attention.

This is exactly the same thing that I go through when I’m showing pictures to picture editors at National Geographic. These are people who have been looking at thousands of pictures every day for the last two or three decades. You can’t go in there, show them something they’ve seen before, and expect them to pat you on the back.

What kind of photos make you yawn?

The same old pictures. You can see the photographers who are simply following the rules of what makes a good picture. They’ve used the rule of thirds, the lighting is perfect, and they’ve sharpened it exactly. If you’re talking about photographing in a pub in Ireland, for instance, you can take a picture of a pint of Guinness sitting on an old wooden bar, and I don’t care how sharp it is or how perfectly exposed it is. If it makes me wish I was in that pub having a pint of Guinness, then that’s a winning picture.

Travel is a common category in contests. What makes a great travel photo?

Fundamentally travel photography has changed. It used to show us places that we were never going to see in person ourselves. We kind of assumed back in the 1950’s that very few people were going to actually get to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower. Now everyone travels and travel photography is about being there, what’s it like to be there? Your pictures have to provide that visceral sense of what it’s like to be in the middle of a place.

My eyes glaze over when I start to see yet another picture of a Tibetan monk in the saffron robes. I’ve seen enough of that. But if you bring me a picture that makes me feel like I can plop myself down in the middle of a place and get the feeling of what it’s really like to be there, that’s a winning photo. That’s what travel photography is all about.

Do you have any advice to photographers that want to win a contest?

I think that trying to make a picture specifically to win a contest is difficult. Almost invariably you’re going to end up with a picture that looks like a contest picture and doesn’t have at its heart something that offers real communication that would get to another human being. And it’s that “getting to me” as a person, as the judge sitting there, that’s essential.

Pictures can’t be just about pictures; pictures have to be about life. If they are really and truly about life and beauty and understanding and our souls, then they have a pretty good chance in a contest. If they are simply about photography and about the contest, then they’re probably be going to be pretty shallow and transparent. Take pictures of your passions, pursue your love of photography, and the contest prizes will soon follow.

And what is the one thing that photography does best?

It connects us. Good photographs are quantum packets of understanding; they allow ideas to leap from one person to another, almost magically. That is the connection and the link that photography creates as almost no other medium does.

9 Responses to “National Geographic’s Jim Richardson: How I Judge Photo Contests”

  1. Very good read! Thanks for the post! (Perhaps it will help me win some more contests.)

  2. Jason, if you do win a contest, email me about the win because we're going to be publishing future editions of the contest book and we'll need photos!


  3. Hi Jeff,

    I am the judging chair for the Orlando Camera Club ( We have a very active club with nearly 400 financial members. I am responsible for securing judges for our competition nights. I am going to suggest that we purchase your book for our library. Also, if you are ever in the area and would like to give a talk to our group about tips on winning digital imaging contests, let me know. We meet 2 times a month on Monday's. The first Monday is competition night but the 2nd is for programs. Also, this was a great interview. I hear some of the same points from the judges when they are giving their critiques. Finally, I'd be happy to share some of my winning images with you. And I am sure some of our club members would be interested in doing so also. Sincerely, Nancy Jo


  5. This was useful information and I respect his opinion on judging.

    However, one question I wished that was asked would be: As a long time professional photographer, how do you feel about major organizations such as National Geographic using legal terms in their contests which essentially take the rights of photographers away just from entering the contest? Reviewing the terms and conditions for many contests prevents me from entering. I'm especially disappointed when I see companies that I want to respect use the same tactics.

  6. Dear Jim,
    I am presently a board member of the Sisters Area Photography Club. We are located in an area just east of Oregon's Cascade Mountains known locally as Central Oregon. I was wondering if you have been to our beautiful section of the world. And would like to invite you to come for a visit and share with the many photographers in our area your experiences and knowledge about photography and our shared passion for environmental issues? We are one of two photo clubs in our area. Our website is . AS is true of all of Oregon we live in a incredibly beautiful area. With so many opportunities for picture taking. We too are very passionate about protecting and preserving this beauty.

    Linda Ziegenhagen

  7. Hi Jim: I am new to the field of photography having just purchased a nice camera. I joined a local camera club but am frighened to death to show them any photo's I have taken. Your comments make total sense to me. Thanks for taking the time to write this article.

  8. Jim,

    I belong to the Channel City Camera Club in Santa Barbara. Last night at a board meeting there was a lot of discussion about the fact that we need to have a "nature" judge to judge our Nature category. I presume they mean a naturalist or an ecologist when the say a "nature" judge. I disagree because by that logic you would need an architect to judge pictures of buildings, a psychologist to judge portraits, etc, etc.

    What's your opinion?

    Paul Burri, RSA

  9. I really enjoyed reading this article; it illuminated the shroud of mystery that I have encounter over the past months at the photo club and unveiled an energy source for me to follow. I’m curious to know if I should seek a “professional photographer” to assist me (reading the tea leaf) in getting to the next level and somehow making the selection group in our monthly contest. I applaud your statement about a picture having impact and showing something other than the norm but other seem to disgard that view. P.S. If you know of someone impartial that can provide a workable critic of works please let me know.

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