Demystifying the Thought Processes of a Photographic Competition Judge in 10 Steps

Demystifying the Thought Processes of a Photographic Competition Judge in 10 Steps

Photography competitions are a fantastic way for a photographer to gain exposure, build prestige, acquire credentials, or see how they compare to their peers. Tyler Lanz of Laminart Industries has 10 steps to help improve your chances during your next submission. 

Competitions are an important building block for new photographers and a pivotal mark of distinction for professionals. Not only can it help improve with critique, it can also bring a bit of credibility or even elevate your reputation withing the industry. Lanz writes "the only hazard in this process is the human element: the judges" The judges are tasked to assess the competitors on their skills, while still adhering to the rules on the competition. Judging art has also been considered subjective, so Lanz gives step by step on a judges decision process as they review images. 

Laminart Industries is a professional printing company created for photographer by photographers. Through this work, Lanz is associated with many local, national and international photographic groups where he is asked to judge competitions. He has judged over 50 competitions including styles such as boudoir, landscape, abstract, black and white, among many more.

Print Judge Tyler Lanz


The Beginning Stages

During the final phases, Lanz scans the image he is reviewing to get an initial impression which helps him in the later stages of the process. After this he goes through to remove the images that would not work to be in the final count for a winning image. His first pass will focus on which ones lack in the technical aspects of photography such as over or under-exposed, unbalanced colors, or awkward posing. This removes about 25% of the submissions he wrote. A last step in this initial stage is the removal of images that do not adhere to the competition guidelines. These could include placement in the wrong category, displayed on incorrect media, or incorrect sizing. This process removes another 50 or more images in most cases. 

Second Round of the Process 

Here Lanz will remove the images that have similar looks to other images in the competition. This reason behind this step is the lack of originality or uniqueness. "This is not limited to one style of image as there may be two or three groupings of images that have a sameness so any recurring image types are also removed" Lanz writes. This process removes on average another 100 submissions. 

His next step is to take a break. Thus is important to clear his mind since he has been scouring the images for hours. If time permits he says he will come back with fresh eyes. The step after this with a new clear mind is to focus on the question "Did the photographer hit the mark?" By this Lanz means if he was a casual onlooker on the image would he be able to guess the subject of the competition accurately. This accuracy in which the photographer can convey their ideas is an important to getting your images into the final cut. An example of this is in the portrait category. Framing the face wil be a major factor. If it is too formal, the judges feel it would be a headshot rather than portrait. 

Image with permission and courtesy of Trevor Walker Photography

Final Stages 

Step seven in the process is the see the photographers voice. "Recently there was a competition in which the theme was "Spring" (quite a broad and open topic I know). Many of the submissions consisted of flowers, fields of flowers, close-ups of flowers etc. One of the images which made it to the finals (3rd place) was of a portrait of a woman who was in the rain. Of all the submissions entered, only 2 or 3 had rain as the focus. This made each photograph of rain much more original than the flower images and instantly made an impression" Lanz explained. 

The next step is to make your image memorable which in turn puts it into the final 20-30 images. After hours and hours of viewing images, the judges will have just a few that will stick out in their minds. Examples of this would be in a landscape competition he was judging where one submission made a composite photo consisting of a few landscapes in one; desert, rainforest, and a mountain range. This image was the only one in the category to incorporate all types of landscapes. 

By now the judges are down to roughly 10 images. Selecting a winner will need to be the best of the best. It now becomes more of pitting the images against each other as opposed to removing images based on the contest and technical guidelines. Lanz will reexamine all the compositions again, looking at any microscopic Photoshop flaws, lighting and even going back over steps 1-8 one last time. 

Image with permission and courtesy of Lexi Parks

The final image can feel like Olympic athletes competing for the gold. Creating your images for competitions is similar to training for the gold Lanz writes. You need to improve in every area, sacrificing to achieve your goals putting in all the prep work and competing against the best in the industry. 

"Art is adversity, photography is adversity, judging is adversity. Judging must be for the true masochist as a judge will willingly put themselves through mental torture: whittling down images over and over and over, using many forms of concrete and abstract criteria in their decision process, and relying on their artistic experience to select a final winner" Lanz writes. Judging is not an easy task  and should not be take lightly, or cavalier. 

In summary your images should be 

  • Technically sound 
  • Adhere to all the contest rules
  • Are not predictable resulting in a potential sameness to other entries 
  • Accurate visual representation of the theme you are trying to convey
  •  Unique
  • Memorable

Ask judges for feedback after a competition if possible. This will help you understand how to either improve or refocus next time around. But, the best piece of advice a Lanz can offer is to enter competitions: at the very least, win or lose, they will help you grow and learn as a photographer.

Cover Image with permission and courtesy of Lexi Parks

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michaeljin's picture

"Photography competitions are a fantastic way for a photographer to gain exposure, build prestige, acquire credentials..."

No, they're not.

"Competitions are an important building block for new photographers and a pivotal mark of distinction for professionals."

No, they're not.

"...they will help you grow and learn as a photographer."

No, they won't.

Marcus Joyce's picture

"Award winning" cringe statements are the best!

Deleted Account's picture

I've seen you commenting for ages, and so I decided to look at your images; I went to every single one of your linked social media sites...


michaeljin's picture

LOL! There's nothing to see here. 😂

Seriously, I'm a trash-tier photographer. Maybe I should have entered some photo contests. :)

Deleted Account's picture

Fair enough, Michael :)

Timothy Gasper's picture

100% correct sir. All photographs are subject to the views, likes/dislikes and opinions of anyone viewing them. Any competition can and will never become objective because of these factors.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

article so bad not know where to begin, just laughing!

Half of the time, I really don't understand why the picked photo of a contest is the winner. In Breda, we have a photo festival every year and some pictures are great. Mostly these picture were taken by photographers./ But there is also a section with art work andd most of the time these pics are badly focussed, vague, washed out and make no sense.
They are art and I am too daft to understand this (according to an artist ex-girlfriend)

Simon Patterson's picture

No wonder actual photographs rarely win photo competitions, then. The game is heavily weighted towards strongly manipulated images and composites.

Deleted Account's picture

From a revenue standpoint, there are two tracks I've found. One is to get paid to judge photo competitions. The other is to only enter photo competitions that pay.

By limiting your photo entries to competitions that pay, if your work is good enough, you can earn money or prizes.

The real gig here is to be a photography judge, not a competitor. There's no money to be made with a blue ribbon that doesn't have a cash prize. If you are a judge, you can attend camera clubs with all your stuff and maybe sell some books, calendars, workshops and such.

Everything else is pointless.