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What makes an award-winning image?

The honorary jury of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, comprising leading photography experts from around the world, share their top tips on what they will be looking for in an award-winning photograph with D-Photo

27 November 2012

With less than two months until the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards close for entries, now is the time to select which images you will enter into the competition. But how do you choose which photograph could be a potential winner from a year’s worth of work?
The honorary jury of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, comprising leading photography experts from around the world, share their top tips on what they will be looking for in an award-winning photograph with D-Photo.

Macduff Everton, photographer:

First of all, getting to a wild and wonderful location doesn’t guarantee a good photograph. The same rule applies to moments with animals and people – it’s exciting to see a whale breach, but your documentation of it needs to work as a photograph. The caption can’t read, “Well, you should have been there”. There is a difference between snapshots and award-winning images. I’ll be looking for the narrative and emotion that a good photograph conveys.

A photograph is a two-dimensional composition. I always suggest my students visit art museums and look at paintings. Artists have been capturing light long before photography was invented, and the elements that contribute to a good painting are equally important in a photograph – the play of light, shadows, design, and composition. I had a painting teacher who lectured that the corners were as important as the centre of your painting. He was emphasising that the entire picture has to work. I find that photographers can forget their corners. Another thing is lighting. Oversaturating an image doesn’t help flat lighting. Photography is all about light, and if you can’t tell that you’ve oversaturated your photograph, you don’t know light.

If you want to photograph a well-known landmark, photograph it in a way that the viewer has never seen before. That doesn’t mean tricky or flashy angles. It means really look at it and find a way to shoot it so that it we are surprised. Work the shot, move about, find a different vantage point from where most people stand. If it is a structure, then dream about how the architect would want to see it. Use light and weather to your advantage – sunrise, sunset, fog, storms, moonlight and night time illumination – it can help add drama or mystery to an image. This also applies to landscapes, nature and wildlife. We’ve all seen an elephant. Create an image so that when we next think of an elephant, we think of your image. That is the power of a good photograph.

Tim Paton, Managing Director, Balcony Jump

I am very excited to be asked to judge at these awards, it’s a huge privilege. However I always find judging photography difficult. Like all forms of artistic expression it’s a very subjective decision. A picture that I love, the judge next to me might hate… but I do have a few personal rules that I like to stick to.

I have absolutely no interest in the technology that was used to take the picture. I don’t care what lens, filter or camera you used. I am only interested in the content of the image. I believe that being a good photographer is instinctive and a god-given gift and if you have that gift you can take great pictures whatever camera you are holding. You can teach yourself a certain amount and work hard but at the end of the day you either have it or you don’t. It’s like the X Factor.  Sometimes you see someone walk on that stage open their mouths and there it is a beautiful voice full of pain and emotion, from nowhere, they just have it.

It’s the same with photography. Sometimes it’s harder to see because people hide behind the technology, re-touching, etc. But I hope to be able to see it.

I am very lucky in my working life as people submit photography to me all the time. I get to see a lot of work. About twice a year something stops me in my tracks and I feel like I can’t believe what I am seeing. I am hoping for a few moments like this on the judging panel.

So I am looking for something new and exciting, something where you can see that the photographer has gone the extra mile and made a real effort.

Caroline Metcalf, Director of Photography, Conde Nast Traveller

For me an award-winning image must have two essential components, originality and connection.  The foremost of which is originality of vision. It is possible to shoot well-known and much photographed subject matter with a talent that shows the photographer’s personal vision, identity and creativity. It may be a new visual twist or interpretation often coupled with a very personal level of engagement with the subject.

Winning pictures must work to provide an emotional connection with the shot, an image that intrigues and fascinates, that makes the viewer linger and want to return to look at it over and over again. If the photographer’s personal vision can be coupled with this emotional connection that is what makes an image work for me, it is not technical expertise or sophisticated hardware, it is always about the individual creative eye, skill and talent.  My motto would be ‘make it memorable’.

On a more practical note my tips would be to make a thoughtful selection of your images, in particular when submitting a series, I often see entries where one of a series lets the whole portfolio down. Make each shot work as part of the story, make it hang together coherently – each as strong as the other. Read the rules, often really excellent work is excluded because the photographer hasn’t complied with specific requirements. Secondly, check your eligibility and finally observe the deadline. The competition organisers won’t wait for late entries just as a magazine or newspaper won’t tolerate late submission of commissioned work. If you are given a deadline, adhere to it.

If you are now inspired to enter the competition, don’t miss the deadline:  The Open categories, for amateurs and serious enthusiasts, close on January 4, 2013 and the Professional competition, for serious photographers, on January 9, 2013.  To find out more and to enter for free go to


  • Top: © Mitch Dobrowner, 2012 Sony World Photography Awards Photographer of the Year
  • Middle: © Rob Hornstra, winner – Arts and Culture, 2012 Sony World Photography Awards
  • Bottom: © Palmer + Pawel, winner – Sports, 2012 Sony World Photography Awards