Top Tips for Award Winning Travel Photos

by Sean Bagshaw

Each year more and more people enter the Travel Essentials photo contest and photography contests in general.  I attribute this to the popularity of digital cameras and the fact that they make it affordable and accessible for just about any photo enthusiast to take great photos.  What does it take to have a photo selected as a winner in a photo competition?  Art is subjective, so it is difficult to know exactly what a judge will like or dislike.  However, as a professional photographer who has entered (and sometimes won) many competitions and who also judges photo contests from time to time, there are some fundamental tips I can share that will give you a leg up in any competition.  As you prepare your submission for the Travel Essentials competition and think about the pride, glory, prestige and bragging rights that will come with a winning photograph, take the following pointers into consideration.

Tips For Taking Award Winning Photos

Sharpness – Blurry images don’t win awards (unless they are intentionally and artistically blurry. See “Get Creative” below). Focus on the subject and make sure there is enough light to have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid blurring from camera motion.  If there isn’t enough light then place the camera on a tripod or some other solid subject.

Proper Exposure – One of the most common problems with otherwise good images is when important detail is lost to underexposure or overexposure.  Learn how to look for scenes with balanced light and adjust your exposure so parts of the image aren’t lost in black shadows or blown out highlights.  Bright sky can be really tricky, causing the foreground to be too dark or the sky to be completely white.

Color, Form & Light Expression

Color, form, light and expression – If your image doesn’t have at least one of these elements going for it then it probably won’t win any contests.  Bright colors are interesting and eye catching.  Interesting forms such as curves, lines, geometric shapes and patterns can help draw the viewer into the image.  Light is what photography is all about.  The same scene photographed under different light conditions can have an entirely different impact and make the difference between plain and amazing.  Expression can be anything from facial expressions and body language to spatial relationships between objects or components of a visual story.  Images that are expressive are interesting.

A Decisive Moment

Create story in your image – There are many ways to tell a visual story, but story is always more compelling than simple images of places or things.  Here are some ways I like to tell stories through images: Wait for dramatic light. Look for doors, windows or corridors that peer out into a scene.  Only show parts of a scene, leaving the rest to the imagination. Find elements that form interesting juxtapositions which make the viewer analyze the image more closely.

Capture a decisive moment – Wait for just the right moment to push the shutter release.  Capture moments of joy, anger, confusion or concern in people’s faces.  Catch the person in mid air leaping from dock to boat.  Other decisive moments might include dancers in unison, a last ray of light striking a church tower or mountain top or a chef hand tossing pizza dough.

Get close to your subject – Don’t be afraid to fill the frame.  Get up close to the person, animal (careful here), flower or architectural feature.

Getting Upclose and Personal

Try interesting perspectives – Don’t always shoot from standing height.  Try getting down low or finding a high perch.  Photograph between legs or over heads.  Try photographing through a fence or long grass.  Remember the rule of thirds.

Interesting Perspective

Photos are usually more interesting visually if the subject is one third of the way toward any corner of the image rather than right in the center.  This also goes for horizons.  Images are more interesting when the horizon is in the top or bottom third of the image, not across the center.

Get Creative – Some of the basic rules of photography, such as sharpness, exposure and composition are very effective if they are exploited for creative purposes.  Try taking photos of moving subjects with a slow shutter speed to show motion.  Try moving your camera while you take a photo with slow shutter speed.  Underexpose back lit objects to create silhouettes.  Shoot a portrait of a back lit person so that the background becomes intentionally overexposed.  Try extreme compositions in which subjects are really close in the foreground or small specs in a vast landscape.

Tips For Preparing Your Image For The Travel Essentials Contest

Level your horizons – It is always best if you can get your horizons straight and your vertical lines vertical in the camera, but when that doesn’t work out make sure to straighten them in the computer.  It can be very visually disturbing when the ocean is tilting or trees and buildings are leaning at an angle.

Before Leveling

After Leveling

Spotting and red eye – use basic image editing software (or Photoshop if you have shelled out the cash) to remove dust spots, red eye and other distractions from your images before submitting them.

Crop for impact – Carefully evaluate the composition and edges of your image and crop it if needed.  Sometimes an image will be much more powerful if you cut out a large area of empty space or some branches or telephone lines that are protruding from the edge.

Don’t over process – Know the difference between artistic image enhancement and saturation gone wild.  Heavy image processing done with skill and artistic purpose can look great, but adding tons of saturation, contrast, sharpening or HDR glow just for the fun of it usually doesn’t translate well.

Print Submissions – If you are submitting prints to the competition make sure they are printed on quality photo paper with a photo printer or by a qualified print lab.  Print them from image files that have enough resolution and image quality.  Trying to get a 12×18 inch print from a 400 x 600 pixel image you emailed to yourself won’t look good no matter what you do.

Digital Submissions – If you are submitting digital image files it is important that they are properly sized for viewing on the screen.  A good rule of thumb for best screen viewing is to size your images to at least 900 pixels on the long side at 72 dpi and save them as high quality jpegs.


Sean is southern Oregon’s premier landscape, nature and travel fine art photographer. He has photographed throughout the western United States as well as Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Central and South America, Nepal and Tibet. Sean’s photographs have appeared in the magazines Outdoor Photographer, Photographer and Nature’s Best Photography. His “Lunar Eclipse Over Mount Shasta” was named Best Creative Digital Photograph of 2008 at the “Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards” and was displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

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