Photo Contest Tips from Past Showcase Winners, Part 1

Sunrise photo of a mountain with flowers in the foreground. Penstemon and Paintbrush Tapestry, Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington, 2018 Showcase, Judges' Choice, Scapes© Geoffrey Schmid
“Penstemon and Paintbrush Tapestry,” Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington, 2018 Showcase, Judges’ Choice, Scapes © Geoffrey Schmid

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

NANPA’s 2022 Showcase photography competition is in full swing, with entries accepted right up until 11 p.m. EDT September 20, 2021. It’s one of NANPA’s most popular offerings. Why? Because you get a chance to see how your work measures up to your peers, have your images seen by potential clients, influence people and causes, and maybe win some of the $6,000 in prize money.

Sounds good, right, but where to start? We asked several nature photographers whose images have placed in the Showcase Top 24 in multiple years what are their secrets. How do they approach Showcase? What do they look for in the images they enter? Here’s what they had to say.

Why go through the effort to enter?

Geoffrey Schmid, a three-time Judges’ Choice winner in ‘Scapes, talks about why he enters. “I originally joined NANPA because photographers I have long admired, including Art Wolfe, Pat O’Hara, and the Muenchs, were active at that time, and I absolutely loved Expressions from the first time I saw it in 2008. I really wanted to see my own images included in such an impressive format, sharing company with the amazing, high-quality photography curated there. The next year, the first year I entered, I received a Judges’ Choice Award, and I guess I was hooked. Over the years my image placement in the annual NANPA Showcase competition and Expressions has generated some attention from photo buyers and other photographers I admire. For me, peer recognition is what I enjoy most, but, again, being included in Expressions is a high honor for me. I don’t enter many competitions anymore. NANPA and a couple others that are involved in conservation are the exceptions.”

Photo of a shark swimming under a colorful sunset sky. “Lemon Shark Sunset Split, Tiger Beach, Bahamas, 2020 Showcase, First Runner-Up, Macro/Micro/All Other.  © Matthew Meier.
“Lemon Shark Sunset Split,” Tiger Beach, Bahamas, 2020 Showcase, First Runner-Up, Macro/Micro/All Other. © Matthew Meier.

How do you go about choosing images?

Matthew Meier has won First Runner-Up twice in Macro/Micro/All Other Wildlife. He rigorously evaluates his images and goes for the less popular categories. “I try to stick with images that were shot since the last Showcase submission and go through my catalog in search of images that jump off the page and grab my attention. Ideally, I do my best to ignore the mental bias of difficult to acquire images or rare species and focus on the strength of the image itself. Once I have a selection of possible submissions, I look at how well they fit into the categories and try to increase my chances of being selected by choosing less submitted categories. I tend to shoot a lot of underwater photos so those images are going to more unique by their very nature. Then it is up to the subjective judges to decide what is worthy of inclusion.”

Schmid agrees, but adds “my process, as one who has entered the Showcase every year for more than a decade, is likely going to be quite different from that of a new member with, I’m assuming, a substantial library of images that have not been shared with NANPA yet. I do run through the archives and on occasion will enter something passed over but in my experience there was usually a reason I didn’t enter it the year I captured it. Seldom do these exercises in nostalgia earn an award for me. One of a serious photographer’s best tools really is the recycle bin.”

For Schmid, the process begins at the photo’s conception, long before it’s time to enter it in a contest. “My journey for an award-winning photo starts with a lot of planning and previsualization with the goal of capturing something no one has ever seen, ideally a strange and beautiful moment, or what I would call an ‘alien landscape on earth.’ The images of mine that garner the most popular response on social media or at shows are almost never the ones that the judges, who are established professional photographers that I admire, will choose. They’ve seen it all, many times over. A pretty sunset in an iconic location alone is not going to do it for them.

“Since I shoot primarily landscapes and elements of the natural world, often iconic ones, it is challenging to find a new way of seeing, and this often comes down to doing the research and spending time getting to know and scouting locations, then looking to be there when something interesting is going on. It could be light, seasonal changes, weather, or an idea for a composition that I’ve never seen before. I will travel back to the same location many times, sometimes over many years, to chase an idea. If the image can tell a bit of a story or natural history of the subject then I feel I’ve really been successful. The ones I’m proudest of are at locations I feel a deep emotional connection with, and it is usually the way I choose to compose that make them work. Somewhat contrarily, there are, many times, serendipitous accidents that provide opportunity, and I have to be prepared not only to seize them but to throw away preconceived notions to maximize the potential. One of the great things about having seasoned pros as judges is that they see, know and appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to pull off a challenging image and will reward you for it.

“It should go without saying that paying attention to proper technique in the field should be a given. I try to imagine what a really big print with lots of detail would look like. Unless I want to isolate a subject, I like to take the viewer on a trip through the image with points of interest in the foreground, middle ground, and background without unnecessary distraction. Focus and exposure need to be spot-on. There really is no excuse nowadays for not getting the basics right unless there is a statement to be made.”

Painterly depiction of two bears fighting"Bear Altercation," Showcase 2020 Judges’ Choice, Altered Reality, © Betty Sederquist
“Bear Altercation,” Showcase 2020 Judges’ Choice, Altered Reality, © Betty Sederquist

Betty Sederquist, who twice won Judges’ Choice awards for her Altered Reality images, starts with some of the same premises, stating that the photographer has to “look for those special ‘wow’ behaviors in animals. A great photo should evoke some sort of emotion in the viewer. It goes without saying that the image must be technically perfect. And of course composition must be powerful. Several of my big winning images in recent years have involved the use of textures to enhance all of this.”

As she goes through her catalog, looking for prize-worth images, she “sifts through processed images from recent years. I feel post processing is as important as the original capture and so I look for images I’ve already spent time with. I tend to add a bit of selective saturation in important parts of the image. I also like to lighten the area around the eyes in animal photos. All of this needs to be subtle and natural looking, however. I judge a lot of photo contests and entrants tend to over saturate and over sharpen.”

Creatio ex nihilo

You really can’t create a winning image out of a bland photo. It has to be a great image to start with. As Schmid said, “post-processing is a matter of subjective taste, but I would caution against trying to enhance something that was boring to begin with. You can’t make something from nothing. Because I go out of my way to capture somewhat extreme moments it is sometimes necessary to tone down a strong color and boost the less prominent ones. I’ve definitely gone too far at times, and I don’t think judges have any tolerance for that. Sometimes you need to step away from the monitor and come back later with a fresh set of eyes.”

So, what prize-worthy images are sitting in your catalog? And what are you waiting for? You can find the Showcase rules, judges’ bios, tips, prizes, and all sorts of information at the 2022 Showcase photo competition web page.

Want even more photo contest tips? Check out NANPA’s Contest Secrets handbook.

Prize-winning photo by Karen Schuenemann plus a selection of pages from free handbook titled CONTEST SECRETS: WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU ENTER A PHOTO