How to Pick One Photo out of Several Thousand: An Inside Look at How We Judge Photo Contests

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We here at the Phoblographer often do photo contests with our readers as a fun, interactive activity involving a prize. But as we’ve grown in size, we’ve also gained larger numbers of followers and participants. Thousands of images are often entered and it’s really tough to go through submission after submission to find the single diamond in the rough. We did the same thing at the EyeEm awards a while back. The process of whittling down thousands of images into two or so excellent ones is a task that doesn’t have any sort of short cut–but instead it requires the editor to more or less just do it the old fashioned way: by looking at every single image.

As Zack Arias wrote in a blog post, it’s tough and every single photo editor has different tastes. You know that landscape photography contest that we did with Fujifilm? We kind of gave you a hint at how to impress us.

So how do you get through thousands of images within a short period of time while managing a website, answering emails, and dealing with people clamoring for blood because you haven’t delivered the winning result yet?

The Great Alaskan Mountain Range. The winning image in our Fujifilm contest

The Great Alaskan Mountain Range. The winning image in our Fujifilm contest. This image garnered no votes, but is an incredible scene

You stay cool, drink a lot of coffee, load up on lots of advil, and keep your glasses clean.

This is a great deal of work for many reasons. Besides sifting through all the images ourselves, what we do is ask for people to vote for images. Some images are more popular than others, which causes some folks to become intimidated and not wanting to enter because they think that it is a popularity contest.

None of the most popular images in our contests have ever won, but many have surely deserved it. Because a person has a larger social following than you perhaps means that they’re doing something right and when they submit an image like this, people will vote for it due to the fact that it truly probably deserves the win. Many, no, ALL of the images that we have seen as the most popular and most voted on in our contests have been incredible and finding these images with lots of votes makes our job much easier. I typically pick our favorites from amongst these photos. But then, I go through the rest of the images and find the diamonds in the rough–which is very, very tough.

In every single contest, I have always wanted to give the prize to the most popular image for the sole reason that they’ve probably organically garnered that many votes because the photo is really that great. But at times, judging a contest is about showing face. If I had picked the most popular image in our street photography contest with Leica which indeed was absolutely incredible, we would have faced a bunch of angry photographers trolling one another, us, and potentially the winner. As it stands, we had folks that emailed us saying that certain photos should be disqualified because “they aren’t street photography images.”

These people tend to not make judging contests fun–and the street photography community generally can sometimes feel like a place filled with photographers who hate one another and just want to be all about themselves.

The winning image of our street photography contest

The winning image of our street photography contest. It had almost no votes but is still an incredible image.

To avoid problems like this, we often go for the image that is the diamond in the rough with very few votes and that everyone usually says is a solid pick. In fact, it sometimes shocks me to see folks who say that the image that we picked was better than theirs. It shows signs of maturity which we didn’t have amongst many of our other contests or some of the ones that we do in Instagram.

Imagine scrolling past each and every single image to find the awesome ones. Once these are found, they’re opened up in another tab. When all of the photos have been looked at, I move on to my selections and weed out the weakest images. I used to judge the contests solo, but in recent times I’ve brought Managing Editor Julius Motal on to help. With the Phottix portrait contest, we looked at the final batch together and made a decision. In fact, he picked the winning image and I supported his decision.

In general, what happens is I scroll past images and find the ones that stand out at me. When images are that small as you see in the lead image of this article, something needs to be truly uncanny to stick out. Typically, we find around 20 or so uncanny images.

So when your image is that small, how do you make it stick out? Some of the answers have to do with colors, balance of dark and light, simplicity, concept, composition, and the idea. Depending on the content of the contest, this can be very tough or simple. It can be tougher for landscapes because compositions can often be monotonous–but those that stand out truly deserve praise. Portraits are a bit different because everyone has different ideas and chances are that contestants won’t photograph the same subject. Street photography involves strong self-curation and lots of work put into finding amazing moments.

One of the most disheartening and frustrating parts of judging contests has to do with having to be extremely brutal on each image. Saying “no” to image after image is tough and the main thing that I often need to keep in mind is that I need to pay full attention to each image. What makes this tougher is my astigmatism–which often makes me need to take breaks and not look at the computer screen at times.

Skills like these came to me from having to cull my own images from portrait shoots, product photography shoots, weddings, events, and even photos posted in our reviews and tutorials. It requires you to keep a goal in mind and to find the images that satisfy those goals. It’s a skill that Julius has now mastered and that many of our staffers come to possess. So when these images are viewed, we need to apply those same skills. It requires you to be brutal on your own work in order to pick only the best, and then apply that brutality to someone else’s images.

In fact, that is just how photo editing works overall. When we say photo editing, we talk about the job that a photo editor at a publication does. They’re in charge of making minor edits and choosing the best imagery for stories.

At the end of the day, the best images win. But the best images are the ones that we feel are best. In other photo contests, it’s all about appealing to the judge’s particular tastes as photography is something that is so incredibly subjective.