By Jim Colton

Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest picture.

Yeah, you’ve heard it before…and you’ll hear it again. But you’d be surprised at how few people actually pay heed to this statement when it comes to entering photo contests. I have judged enough of them to tell you that the single greatest crime committed is usually bad editing. And let us not forget who is going to be judging your entries…industry professionals including photo editors, art directors, curators and photographers. They will have a critical eye!


Make sure you are sending the best quality images possible within the guidelines of the contest. That begins with…is the image in focus? Is it cropped and toned to the specs you feel best interpret the image? (No neon saturation in Photoshop!) Do my stories and multiple images have the same “feel?” Do they look like they were taken by the same photographer? So often, people will send in smaller than allowed files….or images taken right off websites and when enlarged for viewing by judges, they fall apart. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s better to size down than to size up when preparing your images.

There is no entry formula

In multiple entries or portfolios, you don’t have to include 10 singles and two stories. The mix does not matter. Your work should speak for itself. If you only have six strong singles, send only six. It does not have to be a mix of spot news, features, sports and portraits -- just great images. Generally speaking, stories or multiple entry categories will give a better sense of your work. Spend more time and energy focusing on those. Ask yourself these questions: Does my story tell a story? Does the opening image have impact? The only formulaic question you should be asking is: Is there a beginning, middle and an end? Do I have a good closer? Do I get a good sense of the story after viewing them all…in order? And do not submit multiple edits! Yes, we can tell -- and it makes you look indecisive.

Captions and Title Slides

Important? Yes. Essential to selling the image? No. It’s a photography contest…not a caption contest. We are judging pictures, not words. Include AP style captions…the basics…title, followed by the who, what, where, when, why. Period. Make it concise. No novels. This will be an important element if the judges wish to hear the captions in later rounds. Some contests allow title slides, which don’t count toward the total number of images submitted. To me, they are useless. Especially if all they say are “Singles,” followed by 10 images…then “Stories,” followed by your stories. We can figure that out without the title slides, black slides, or elaborate descriptions. If it makes you happy, put them in there, but I can live without them, thank you.

Opinions...they matter…and not just your own.

Photographers make the worst photo editors…and vice versa. Most photographers are too emotionally attached to their work and will include something that only means something to them…and not the viewer. You must get an outside opinion from someone that is not associated with the work being entered. This will give you an unbiased view about the photography…and not the content….and the more the merrier. You will start to see a consensus regarding which pictures work and which don’t. Yes, photography is subjective…but the more opinions you get, the better the consensus. And if you are trying to get an opinion, regardless of contest entries, this should include laymen as well…family, friends, etc., not just other photographers and editors. Remember, outside of the contest, most people who will be viewing your work will not be the professionals in our industry. Their opinions matter as well.

Keep it tight!

Less is more. When submitting in multiple image categories, you don’t have to enter the maximum amount of images allowed. Some people get freaked out when they see they have only chosen 16 when the entry allows 20…so they go back into their takes…and more times than not, they will add superfluous images that will only bring down the entry rather than enhance it. If you’re happy with 16…send 16 (or less).