Entering a Photo Contest with a Winner's Mindset

Entering a Photo Contest with a Winner's Mindset

By Matt Jacobs

All photos © 2024 Matt Jacobs

The greatest honour that someone can bestow upon me is to pay me for my art. That an individual appreciates it that much they will part with their hard earned money to hang on their walls, publish it in one of their magazines or to commission me to make a film is a privilege that allows me to feed myself. These are the judges of my work that matter to me.

As a professional photographer and film maker I rarely enter competitions any more. I’ve won my fair share of awards over the years but I still enter one or two each year for one simple reason. It’s fun. And that’s what it should only ever be.

Dolphins in the Red Sea Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

Family: Egyptian Red Sea. LUMIX GH4 and Olympus 8mm 1.8 fish eye. Shortlisted 2019

One competition that I always enter is The British Photography Awards (BPA), a yearly event that culminates in black tie gala in central London. This year the event was held at the sumptuous ballroom at the Dorchester hotel in Park Lane.

Every year I tell myself I won’t enter. Every year I say I’m too busy for this. Every year I tell myself I simply cant be bothered to sift through some of my latest images and submit them. But the competition rolls around, and there I am, I get pulled in and start going through the images I’ve shot this year. Why? Because it’s fun.


Im sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick airport heading to Egypt. I’d been shortlisted for the BPA three times now (I didn’t enter last year because I literally WAS too busy) and now I’m getting the email that tells me I’ve been shortlisted for the fourth time.

The painfully slow airport internet drip feeds me the notification that this year I have three images shortlisted. One in the Waterlife category and two in Fashion.

Dolphins in the Red Sea Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

Dolphin Dusk: Egyptian Red Sea. LUMIX GH5 and Olympus 8mm 1.8 fish eye. Shortlisted 2020

My flight is showing as delayed for two hours. I order another beer and wait as the photos download with the speed of an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping. The ones selected I don’t think are my strongest ones I entered but this never bothers me. It’s someone else’s taste, it’s a good feeling just be shortlisted. A far more important matter enters my mind. My tuxedo will need to be pressed when I get back...

Awards Night.

My tuxedo is pressed and I pick up Jess, the beautiful model I’ve invited to the gala. She’s pulled out all the stops with her outfit and looks fabulous so we decide to walk through Soho to make the most of it and take some shots on the way.

Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

I get James Bond comments every few steps and at one point a guy holding his girlfriends hand wolf whistles.

“Was that for you or me?” Jess says.

“I’ve no idea but I don’t think his girlfriend was happy” This is why I enter the BPA.

We arrive at the Dorchester and I meet with friends and make new ones as from the corner of me eye I spot my images on some of the huge displays around the ballroom.

Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

It’s a free bar and I tell Jess to go easy. She shoots me a look that said its not her that needs to be told.

The presentations begin, images are shown and awards are handed out to gleeful recipients. But none to me. Close but no cigar. Some people are visibly upset that they have not won but they really shouldn’t be. By now Jess and I decide to move it on to piano bar where they have a better selection of cocktails...

How to Approach Competitions with the Right Mindset

Don’t seek validation for your work though competitions. This is not the same as constructive criticism. The latter is helpful and can help you grow as a photographer. The former is destructive and never ending. If you perpetually seek validation from others it will never be enough. You will be on a treadmill of seeking approval.

Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

Yara Egyptian Red Sea. LUMIX GH5 and Olympus 8mm 1.8 fish eye. Shortlisted 2021

Approach all photo competitions first and foremost as fun. That’s all they are. The winning photos are only someone’s opinion of what is and what is not a winner. I’ve seen some truly dreadful winners selected in competitions and recently there was the case of an AI image being selected as a winner so the judges are not infallible.

Remember, it’s your PHOTOS that are being judged, not YOU. If you don’t win, you yourself have not failed. It’s only your photo that wasn’t a winner. Dont take it personally.

Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

Stay Very Still: South Africa. LUMIX GH6 and Olympus 8mm 1.8 fish eye. Shortlisted 2023

When selecting photos, put your very best ones on a screen and be brutal with your selection. Only your very best.

Rule out any with technical errors. Missed focus, blown highlights, etc. as these will be instantly rejected.

Avoid duplicate shots. If you have several great images of one subject, be selective and choose only one. That way you wont dilute the impact it has when it appears across the judges desk.

Copyright Matt Jacobs Ikelite Underwater Housing

Choose YOUR favourite ones. Ones that speak to you and that you know are your best. By all means ask others opinions if you’re unsure what ones to submit but don’t ask too many people. You will only end up more confused as end you up with all sorts of opinions.

Don’t try and second guess the judges. You’ll never know they love pygmy seahorses when you submit your blue whale so dont try and guess. It’s all opinion and subjective.

Above all, treat all competitions as the fun they are and enjoy the process!



Additional Reading

Photo Contest Tips From a 100x Winner

Tips on Entering a Photo Contest

Under Pressure | The Art of Underwater Filming with Matt Jacobs [VIDEO]

Dolphins and Rays in the Red Sea with the Panasonic GH5 and Trim Weight System

The Hypnotic Sea | Bursting with Life in the Post-COVID Red Sea [VIDEO]

British Photography Awards 2020 Shortlist



Matt Jacobs ContributorAmbassador Matt Jacobs learned to dive in the Philippines while he was traveling around the world extensively as a photographer in the late 90's. It was only natural to combine his passion for photography with his love of the water. Egypt is now his spiritual home with a special fondness for the Red Sea. Matt is a Panasonic LUMIX Ambassador and his work has been published and sold as fine art internationally. In 2021 Matt became a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for his black and white underwater images.  Read more...


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