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Dive Photo Guide

Entering Competitions

By DPG editorial staff featuring Cal Mero
For most, underwater photography is a fairly expensive hobby and not a profession. However, that does not mean that your images have to sit on a hard drive limited to the eyes of friends and family.  A great way to get more involved in underwater photography is to enter competitions.
Many underwater photo contests and competitions offer categories for different experience levels, so even beginners can enter.  Entering contests is a great way to challenge yourself to constantly improve. Do it for the fun of it, knowing that there are no “best” images, a winning image is a winning image, not the “best” image. It’s all very subjective.
Our competition guide will help you develop your approach to shooting for competitions, and for choosing the right images to enter.

You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

The first step to winning is entering. While this guide will provide some tips in what images are best suited for contests, at the end of the day, competitions are subject to the individual tastes of a panel of several judges.  It’s not unheard of to see an entry be awarded runner up for macro in one competition and then best of show in another competition.  The point is that you never know. If you have an image you really like, it could also be a favorite of the judges.
Various competitions are running throughout the year for photographers at every level.  Prizes range from bragging rights to live aboard trips in exotic locations around the world. Competing against your peers is a great way of pushing yourself to always do better.

Bumphead Parrotfish Underwater Photograph by Matt Weiss
If you are a beginner, some contests offer Novice Categories so you can still enter (Matt Weiss- 1st Place Wide Angle Novice NCUPS SEA Contest 2008)

Follow the Rules

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. When reading the rules pay very close attention to the image usage rights you are agreeing to 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.

Enter The Right Categories

Try to tailor your entries for a particular category and bare in mind that some categories are far more competitive than others.

The vast majority of competitions have popular categories such as macro and wide angle. However, there are usually a few other categories that seem to receive far fewer entries, like environment / conservation, freshwater or coldwater. If you have images that are appropriate for these categories, you often have a better chance of placing.
Ensure that your image is appropriate for the category you enter. Most competitions will not take the time to move a misplaced image into the appropriate category for you, so be careful.

Creating Technically Sound Images

While there is no real way to detect a sure thing winner, there are some dead giveaways for sure-thing losers. Unfortunately, for most images, when something is wrong it stands out much more than when something is right. At the bare minimum, an image must be technically sound.

Proper Exposure

Proper lighting is a key element in any photograph. If an image is over or under exposed it has a very small chance of winning.  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 near perfect.

underwater photograph competition winner by cal mero
A simple, but perfectly exposed image of a captivating subject can be a winner.(Cal Mero-The David Doubilet Award for Excellency in Underwater Photography:Best of Show Beneath the Sea 2009)

Sharp Focus

Even if the subject is really unique, if it is out of focus it’s not really going to wow a judge. Sharp focus on the eyes of the primary subjects is paramount. A lack of sharpness on your subject’s eyes will normally result in images being eliminated.

Sharp eyes on a shrimp in winning competition photograph
Ensuring the eyes are super sharp is essential in winning contests (Christian Loader -2st place winner of DivePhotoGuide's September Monthly Photo Contest)


There are some rules of composition that work for most images.  Following these basic rules, like not cutting off fins and flippers, the rule of thirds, and good contrast between the foreground and background is most likely going to help the image not get the axed in the early stages of judging. For more details on composition read our Composition Guide.
  • Over / unders incorporating sunsets
  • Animals living on familiar rubbish subjects i.e. fish in a coke bottle
  • Kids snorkeling on the reef

Image Editing

An over-manipulated image is also usually a losing image. Remember these are photography competitions not Photoshop competitions. Images should look natural. An over-edited image is obvious to competition judges, many of whom are photographers themselves. Minor to moderate adjustments in color balance, saturation and sharpening are always acceptable, but cropping or clone stamping is sometimes not allowed. Generally, having a heavy hand during image editing will result in disqualification. Following these guidelines will also force you to become a better photographer. Photo editing can make a good image better, but cannot make a bad image good. Aim to create the best image you can in-camera.


Even a technically sound image, however, might not be enough.  A perfectly lit shot of a common subject is probably not going to take the grand prize, unless it is composed in a unique way.  The idea is to show the judges something they haven’t seen before.
One way to do this is to seek out a rare subject and nail the shot.  A beautiful unique subject with a simple black background that is properly exposed and composed nicely is enough to win many competitions.  Shooting a rare subject in a creative fashion is really what it’s all about though.  Showing the judges a subject they have rarely seen before in way they have never seen is obviously going to get their attention. That is the prize shot.
Of course finding a rare subject is easier said then done.  Luckily, finding an interesting way of shooting anything will also get the judges attention. Creativity is your best tool. Photographers will often have an idea in their head, previsualizing a shot before entering the water, and spend entire dives trying to perfect it. Check out other images you like, and then do something different.

The best way to win competition is shoot a unique subject in a creative way (Keri Wilk-Best In Show 2009 Underwater Images Competition)

Do Some Research

Before entering a competition, check and see who the judges are. Remember, what makes a winning image is very subjective and each judge will have a different thought process depending on their background and their own creative eye. 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 who the judges are ahead of time can help you refine your selection of images to enter.

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 of the same competition.

Be Your Own Worst Critic

Just because you’ve become emotionally attached to an image doesn’t mean everybody else will – let alone a judge. Sort through your potential entries with a critical eye. An easy and good way of selecting potential winners is to choose your top 20 images and ask several friends, or family members choose their favorites. Chances are, they’ll choose the photos that jump out at them, which in turn, will be the photos most likely to impress the judges. You will be surprised that the images they choose may not be the ones you would choose.

Choosing a winner means you may have to forsake your favorite images in favor of images of a more unique nature. Don’t just enter your favorite images because you overcame all challenges to capture the image, or the lighting is spot on – make sure you enter images that are memorable and impactful.  This is where critical appraisal comes into play – choose your entries carefully and try to view your entries as a judge would.  Don’t enter more than one photo of a particular composition or subject - i.e. don’t enter three photos of the same animal from the same dive.  Narrow your selection down to one, as the judges won’t appreciate having to sort through 3 variations of the same shot.

Shoot To Win

When diving, keep your eye open for those unique subjects and scenes with the mindset of creating award winning images. Find your Zen – evolve from a diver taking pictures and allow your inner underwater photographer to emerge. While this change sounds ambitious, it’s an important process. You’ll need to learn how to recognize award winning photographic opportunities when they present themselves and act upon those opportunities, even if it means “losing” your valuable dive time. For example, imagine being on a boat with 10 other underwater photographers. These photographers all descend upon the reef below and will invariably get the standard reef photos. You see some flotsam at the surface. Do you dive on the reef or investigate the flotsam? Most award winning photographers would go straight to investigating the flotsam for unique opportunities that could showcase important environmental issues and interesting marine life and behavior (i.e. juvenile fish swimming around the flotsam for shelter). It may sound cliché, but thinking outside the box will give you edgy and unique photos for competitions.  Even if you have to “waste” a dive here and there to attempt get the shot, it’s a small price to pay in the long run. The glory of winning will last forever!

Shrimp on a cigarette underwater photograph
Look for unique photo oppurtunities by exploring the unusual Cal Mero (DEEP Indonesia 2nd Place Winner in Environment)

Start Now - Go For It

Spend some time on the competition websites reviewing the subjects and types of compositions that placed over the last few years. You can find most of the contest and competitions around the world listed in our events calendars. Now turn your thinking around and try to consider what images you haven’t seen win in the competitions, and try to brainstorm some composition ideas.
So remember, while it’s impossible to say that some images will win over others, technically sound, unique compositions and/or unique subjects, will certainly have a better chance of getting through to the final rounds of judging. Create a list of ideas, challenge yourself, but don’t restrict yourself.  
Good luck!

Jeffrey De Guzman
Jan 14, 2010 1:25 AM
Jeffrey De Guzman wrote:
Very well written Master Cal Mero! Thank you for sharing your tips and suggestions.
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