1. You have to be in it to win it: Competitions are great forums to push your photography to the next level. But you'll never know where you fare unless you enter. Your friends and family will always be your biggest fans and will tell you that your work is fantastic. Competing against your peers is a great way of pushing yourself to always do better. There are many local, international and online competitions with deadlines pretty much every month throughout the year.
2. Enter images in the right categories: Very often images that may have otherwise done well in competition in the proper category are entered into the wrong categories. With little exception, organizers and judges don't have the time to re-categorize images. Maximize your chances of placing by entering into the right categories in the first place. For example, each macro or wide angle shot of animal behavior would require a subjective decision on your part on whether the behavior category or macro/wide angle categories would be best. Ask yourself what the overriding feel of the image conveys, is it the behavior or the subject? In addition, if you're still working on honing your skills don't be embarrassed to enter novice categories if they are available for you to compete in.
3. Lighting: Proper lighting makes or breaks images. Think twice about entering over or under exposed images. Exposure does not need to be absolutely perfect if the image is still striking for example an image of a very unique or rare subject or behavior. But if the subject is less than unique, the lighting better be damn near perfect.
4. Composition: With so many underwater images being created every year, there are a lot of great images out there. Good composition is the key to a pleasing image. Think about image flow following the basic rule of thirds will be a good starting point. Often a diagonal flow creates a pleasing composition. A good use of negative space always helps as well. Ensure that you are not cutting out fins or tails unless that is part of the composition that you are going for. Additionally, make sure that there is good contrast between the foreground subject and the background, very often this is the biggest mistake of underwater photographers.
5. The eyes have it: Sharp focus on the eyes of the primary subjects is paramount. A lack of sharpness on the eyes of a subject will normally result in lower rankings in any competition.
6. Check out the judges: What makes a winning image is very subjective and each judge will have a different thought process depending on who they are. Professional photographers will be more critical of the finer technical details, while non-photographers, even magazine editors are simply looking for striking images regardless of the technical aspects of the shot. Knowing ahead of time who the judges are can help you refine your selection of images to enter.
7. Look at the winning images from previous years: Ironically, photo subjects can be as trendy as fashion or popular music. Styles come and go over the years, and choices in photo subjects are no different. The last few years we have seen many winning shots of clownfish, pygmy seahorses, and coral groupers being cleaned by wrasse for example. Knowing these facts can help you avoid entering images that are too similar or of the same subjects of previous winners, which like lightning, have less of a chance of striking twice in the same competition. Find unique subjects or find a new way to shoot common subjects.
8. Resist the urge to over manipulate: Remember these are photography competitions not photoshop competitions. Images should look natural. An over photoshopped image is obvious to competition judges, many of whom are photographers themselves. Minor adjustments in color balance, saturation and sharpening are acceptable, but usually cropping, clone stamping and generally over tweaking your image editing will result in disqualification. Following these guidelines will also force you to become a better photographer. Photoshop can be used to make a good image better, not to make a bad image good.
9. Follow the rules and guidelines: Of course, every competition has different rules and submission guidelines, so make sure to follow them closely. Many competitions will discard your submission if the guidelines are not followed. Read these rules and guidelines carefully. Also of note pay close attention to the image usage rights you are giving up by entering or winning each competition. While most competitions are above board and only use winning images to announce winners and promote future competitions, others assume the right to use every image entered for any purpose with no compensation to the photographer. Caveat emptor!
10. Have fun! Remember, the joy of underwater photography is not about competing, but rather enjoying every moment that we are privileged to interact with the underwater world. Remember to be respectful of the environment. Images that captured as a result of harassing wildlife are pretty easy to spot, and this will result in both disqualification and really bad karma! Our images are some of the only glimpses that non divers will ever have of the mysteries of the ocean. As you hone your photography skills never lose sight of the reason why you're diving and shooting in the first place! Get out there and have fun!
For a complete list of all the underwater photo & video competitions around the world, check out DivePhotoGuide's competitions calendars!