How to judge & how to enter rural photography awards & competitions

Photography competitions can be incredibly useful in rural and regional areas. The multiple potential benefits range from encouraging existing talent to inspiring new photographers, to educating re agricultural industries and promoting the uptake of new methods and best-practice, improved environmental management, heritage protection plus tourism and event attendance.

I enjoy judging photography competitions as much now as when first invited to determine award recipients, more than 20 years ago. Since then I’ve judged a large range – from local NFP photography competitions up to international awards with entries from more than 30 countries.  For more than two decades I’ve also helped photography competition organisers work out better entry terms and conditions.

When judging – my personal preference is to find and reward the most skilled photographer.  Because this can really help the bush by fostering confidence in a valuable long-term role model that others emulate. I love to see talent and effort rewarded while simultaneously promoting regional areas and rural industries.  Winning an award can make a big difference to someone who is genuinely dedicated to photography – it has done this for me. So, I put a lot of thought into weighing up whose work will receive the awards. Organisers need to understand that for entrants, it’s not just about the money.

If promoting rural photography is the main aim, the ideal way to find the most skilled photographer is for organisers to require 3 images from each entrant and ask the judge/s to amalgamate the scores for each. Or simpler still, award an extra prize if one person has won more than one category. This helps iron out minor judging discrepancies and eliminates the once-in-a-lifetime get lucky shot or rare subject, captured by a casual photographer for whom winning the award will not have a lasting impact. Finding and awarding fabulous role models is an important point to consider if one of the main organiser aims is to foster great photography standards in their area or industry, long-term; which is often a primary objective of photography awards run in regional Australia.

When photography award & competition organisers don’t supply judging criteria, I use my own:

General photography award/competition judging criteria:

  1. Technical excellence: appropriate sharpness, suitable lighting, ideal composition (level horizon, no extraneous detail, best angle for impact). Have these technical aspects been done competently enough for the image to do what the photographer intended it to do?  A degree of technical expertise is required to produce consistently top-drawer images. Ironically, technical standards are falling at a time when there is the least excuse; given the ease of camera use now plus instant digital image viewing and no-cost production. That said, it is vital to note my inclusion of ‘competently enough’. Content will always be king. An obsession with technicalities does not produce great images. Quite the reverse; the world is full of technically perfect images that are worthless.
  2. Degree of difficulty – action. It might be a ‘nice’ image, but did capture require significant skill & effort?
  3. Originality/creativity – thought. Is it a unique image (as distinct from being just a unique subject)?  EG is it a brand new take on an old subject? This wins over an ordinary pic of a new subject; as the former shows a lot more skill & effort than the latter.

2 & 3 above relate to the wow factor – without which the potential audience will ignore images – thus making them pointless wallpaper.

PLUS – addressing the theme and aims of the photography competition/organisers:

  1. Do the entered images fit the theme and meet all the organiser’s stated specifications? This is the most common fail I see – entrants have simply rifled through their favourite images & entered what they think is best overall, while ignoring the underlying aim of the award. Anyone who has disregarded the specs does not get judged as it’s not fair on those who have. I can tell if you just picked the best out of your bottom drawer! Pay attention to the organiser aims and exactly what they’ve asked for, and if the judge/s do a good job, you will be in with a much better chance of success.  Analysing your own work to suit a purpose is the kind of discipline that makes your photography better.
  2. Style – what style is most appropriate – graphic design (a large amount of digital manipulation), or photojournalism (no more than very basic tweaks; IE no digital manipulation)? This relates to the aims of the organisers.  Most of the competitions I’m asked to judge are centred around photo documentary themes as they’re centred around promoting agriculture or regional areas, so believability is vital.  It may be appropriate for organisers to run two separate categories or just concentrate on one style.

And my extra criteria:


Did the photographer set out to tell a story – and did they succeed?

The world is drowning under the weight of images that are technically good and aesthetically pleasing – but meaningless. Images with purpose are what stop people walking around an exhibition and prompt them to think. Thoughtful images start conversations and are remembered for a long time. Images that tell a story can make the world a better place.  Beautiful photographs do not, and it’s why Instagram-style photographers with great skills, producing spectacular images, are known to give up overnight. Their work lacks purpose and they run out of energy simply because their heart isn’t in it.

By good storytelling I don’t mean ranty crusades or political lectures. Every day domestic scenes can tell a fabulous story that anyone on the planet can relate to.  But there must be details included that lift it above unremarkable.  If you really care about what you are photographing and work on improving, it’s usually visible in the results.


Details are what elevate the mundane to sublime. You can take a photograph of a historic building at dawn, but it’s the shadow of a person walking a dog on the edge of the frame that turns a good image into brilliant.

Is it an agriculture-related photography award? If yes, here’s the extra judging criteria:

  1. Clear relevance to agriculture/ag journalism. Do the images tell an agricultural story on their own or do a good job of illustrating the agricultural story or caption they were published with?
  2. Do the images inform or prompt thought amongst the general public?  Or inform those within the industry?  Did the organisers specify who the main target was? Or are they just pretty pictures, that would be better entered into one of the many general photography competitions, rather than a specifically agricultural one?
  3. Are the images constructive, from an ag industry/rural resident point of view? This knocks out technically perfect, creative images which reinforce negative stereotypes or actively undermine agricultural industries and life for regional residents. Ancient machinery, falling down sheds, empty shops, deserted country towns and ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’ type portraits – favoured by photographers only interested in creating cliches rather than helping the bush – are thus disqualified. I’ve never seen this stipulated by agricultural photography competitions however it’s obvious that the effect of these kinds of images would be the opposite to what was intended by organisers. The reason why the photography award or competition exists, must never be forgotten.

The three main mistakes photography competition organisers commonly make:

  • Demanding that all entrants agree to hand over their entries for purposes in addition to award promotion & news (irrespective of whether they won any money or not). The commonly used term for this is ‘rights grab’. If the organiser or the sponsors wish to use any entries for commercial purposes then the entrants should of course be paid for image use. An exception to this is if they’ve received a cash prize that equates to what they would otherwise have been paid for usage; in which case this should be spelt out in the T & C.  Yes, many photographers do know when they’re being taken advantage of and not only will they not enter, it tarnishes the image of those involved in organising and sponsoring.
  • Popularity contests – unfortunately more often than not these boil down to who has the most relatives and friends prepared to vote, or which entrant is the most shameless in pestering others to vote for them.  I’ve seen more of these than I could shake a stick at and it’s very disheartening to see the best photographers ignored. They are often the least likely to think their work is perfect enough to win an award, so less likely to go vote-scrounging! Hold popular vote contests if you must, but at least leave the prize money for awards that have been independently judged & just certificates for popular votes.  If you don’t have faith in the judges to choose the most talented photographers & best images – then get new judges.
  • Too many categories, or unclear titles! Too much division splits prize money too much and creates confusion. Ideally there’s just a clear theme (which may or may not change annually).  If more categories are required then it’s common to divide entries up into these subjects: people, native flora & fauna, history and farming/livestock – making the judge’s task of comparing apples with apples far easier.  Age divisions aren’t necessary now camera equipment is so foolproof & photographic printing skills are not being tested. Secondary school students are perfectly capable of creating images that win open competitions. If there must be an age division, under 14 or even less is the best age level.

Ideally, photography awards:

  • Are judged anonymously.
  • If titles & captions are provided to the judge, with the images, then effectively they’re part of the judging process. So if organisers ask entrants to provide titles and captions it must be made clear to entrants whether this is just for online, catalogue, exhibition or media announcement purposes – or whether the provided text will be included in the judging. (Unfortunately, whether image titles or captions are included in the judging process is rarely explained.)
  • No more than 3 images per category entered, and each image can only be entered into 1 category. (The discipline of choosing the best 3 images to enter, is useful for the entrants – and this makes the judging process much better.)


  • Would anyone judge a music competition by using judges who weren’t involved in the music industry, or a garden competition by people who weren’t involved with plants? What is it with photography competitions, that so many are assessed by people who are not photographers with a reasonable amount of experience?  It’s obnoxious.
  • Do not pick sponsors, CEOs, Cec next door who takes great sunset pics or other randoms to be photography judges. Undoubtedly great people with valuable qualities however they may not know how to discern between great and good images, let alone understand sticking to a theme and achieving the aims of the organisers. And most will be greatly relieved not to be thrown in at the deep end, having to figure out something they have zero experience in.  Instead give sponsors or organisers the PR they deserve by asking them to present the awards to the winners.
  • Do not ask journalists to judge photography competitions. While both may work in the media and it may look like the same profession to bystanders – they are in fact different careers involving different skills. Most journalists cannot take excellent images any more than most photographers can write great copy. Journalists believe the words matter far more than photographs whereas photographers believe images capture attention and have great impact.  Asking a journalist to judge photography is akin to asking someone who prefers to muster stock on a motorbike to judge campdrafting. Professional photographers have unfortunately all but vanished from newspapers because of course those at the top, running the newspaper, climbed up via the words ladder not via their skill capturing images.  In the best circumstances photographers & journalists work as an equal partnership – but this is rare.
  • Not including any photographers on the judging panel basically says: we don’t think photography involves any skill, because no level of specialist knowledge is required to determine the best image/most skilled photographer. IE it just sums up organiser disrespect for the very thing they’re ostensibly promoting: good photography.
  • Do include at at least one photographer who is a professional, and/or one with experience with the theme.  If a judge doesn’t have sound rural photography experience, don’t be surprised if the dustiest orange sunset is given first prize – the same one that will win the popularity contest.  This does zero towards supporting great local photographers and improving standards in fact it can do the reverse – dishearten those with real talent and imagination.
  • A panel of 3 photographers is the ideal. The top three in each category are judged separately via Dropbox, then the judges have a teleconference to discuss their choices and settle upon mutually agreed winners. Three heads are better than one. Obviously overkill for low key local awards but vital for statewide or national awards.
  • Don’t waste the judge’s time with spreadsheets. All judges need to do is drag & drop the finalists into a folder and number them 1st, 2nd & 3rd (& HC, if relevant). They can write a sentence or two explaining their choices and voila, job done efficiently and effectively.
  • Do provide a list of criteria to the judges, or base it on the criteria I’ve explained above.
  • Should the names of judges be publicised, beforehand? Yes. Because it gives entrants faith that some care and thought is being put into the running of the competition and encourage them to take the trouble to enter.  It’s also a nice way to show appreciation for the time & effort invested by the judge/judges.  If the judge or judges you’ve picked don’t inspire confidence in entrants, then rethink who you’ve asked to do it!
  • If you can’t find a photographer to judge your award then don’t hesitate to let me know and I should be able to ferret one out for you.  Good photographers, able to judge, are scattered all over the planet – and sometimes it can be handy to have someone who doesn’t live in the region and know the entrants.

Do not copy the terms & conditions used by another photography competition:

Because the assumption that it is equitable or will get the best results for you is fraught with peril. Even some of the highest profile awards have inequitable terms & conditions and stipulations that actively work against achieving the best results and give a bad impression of organisers. The main failures are:

  1. Rights grabs.  Requiring all entrants to sign over usage to the organisers, sponsors or both – without compensation of any kind.  The most accomplished photographers will not give away their very best images on the off chance they’ll win what’s usually a tiny prize and worse still, prevent them from entering these images in any other competitions or selling exclusive use rights to anyone (even if they didn’t win a bean).
  2. Indemnity clauses.  The above terms become even more unfair when entrants are required to sign an indemnity clause.  Fancy making yourself liable for a use that you have absolutely no control over and which has no time limit? Only crazy people agree to photography competition  indemnity clauses & the inclusion of an indemnity clause puts organisers in a very bad light. Courts would probably laugh at the potentially resulting David vs Goliath court battle but no photographer in their right mind would risk landing themselves into this situation by entering.
  3. Distinguishing between amateur & professional photographers. Ultimately – if you want the best images, allow everyone to enter. Professional photography is not a lucrative profession, many work long hours for not a lot and it’s good to support the few that are dedicated enough to set up shop in regional areas. And many professional photographers start as amateurs and gradually turn their sideline into a business so drawing a line between the two can be nigh on impossible. Sometimes organisers don’t even bother to provide an explanation of what they believe distinguishes amateur from professional, so entrants are left to guess whether it’s a matter of income, time or a business name and Facebook page.

The competitions that are the most successful are those which genuinely consider the interests of everyone, equally. Not just organisers & sponsors, but entrants as well.

I can provide advice on setting up and running professional-standard but simple photography awards and competitions, which benefit all involved.  And – set up in a way that avoids management headaches.  There are many other vital considerations. For more information visit the Corporate Services – Photography Competitions.

First written February 2019; last updated February 2020.