Create award-winning photo prints for ultimate success

Print competitions can make you a better photographer. Give yourself the best shot at winning with advice from two experts.
The Aurora Borealis over mountains and water, captured on a Canon EOS R by landscape photographer Paul Reiffer and turned into an award-winning photo print.

Paul Reiffer's shot of the Aurora Borealis over Iceland, Aura, was a BIPP Photography Print Competition winner. "Printing draws out detail and understanding of an image and the creator in a way viewing on screen doesn't," says photographer and awards judge Paul Wilkinson. "There is an intention and a craft to printing – another layer of skill – that the photographer will need to master, from preparing the file to choosing the paper and mounting the print." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 15 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 1250. © Paul Reiffer

The very process of creating prints has the potential to vastly improve your photography, and selecting work for a print competition requires an extra level of perfection. We spoke to two experts who know exactly what it takes.

Paul Wilkinson is the Head of Qualifications and Awards at the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) as well as a judge for the Master Photographers Association and the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP). He's also a professional photographer and has had many successes in numerous print competitions.

Also offering advice is wedding and portrait photographer and Canon Ambassador Sanjay Jogia. He knows the importance of print quality to generate award-winners as he's won more than 100 printing contests, including those run by SWPP and Wedding & Portrait Photographers International (WPPI). He has also been a judge and chair for some of the largest photography competitions.

Together, Paul and Sanjay share their top tips for creating award-winning prints.

Three men in shorts and a woman in a dress lie on top of rocks and pebbles, captured on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Siren is another BIPP Photography Print Competition winner, this time by fashion and portrait photographer Soulla Petrou. "Judges are excited about viewing a beautiful print," says Paul. "A sublime print can raise an image into everything it can be, while a dull, lifeless reproduction can suck the life out of it." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO 400. © Soulla Petrou

1. Understand what the judges are looking for

"Every print competition has its criteria for the judges," says Paul. "These are set out in advance. For example, the requirements might be the following:

     • Visual impact
     • Vision, style and creativity
     • Image production
     • Layout and graphic design
     • Photographic technique
     • Colour balance and tonal range
     • Lighting quality
     • Story and subject matter
     • Print and presentation

"Judges will be asked to be logical in their assessment, and they will also be required to reference these critical areas in any discussion or critique," Paul continues. "Working like this helps judges organise their thoughts, but it is not a ranked order of priority. For most competitions, the judges would give additional weight to Visual impact and Vision, style and creativity. All that said, without a great print, the judges cannot honestly evaluate the photographer's skill."

An award-winning image of an elaborately dressed couple standing together in side profile below a painting of figures on a balcony. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 by photographer Sanjay Jogia.

Sanjay's image, The Royal Muse, won the Fashion category at the 2022 SWPP awards. "For print competitions, it doesn't matter how good the image is or how good the narrative is; poor printing will always count against the image because you can't unsee it," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 3200. © Sanjay Jogia

A woman in a veil and a long, ornate dress stands in side profile with her hands raised in prayer. The shadow of a man in a similar stance, holding a curved sword, can be seen on the wall behind her. Taken by photographer Sanjay Jogia.

My Constant Shadow, by Sanjay, won the In-Camera Artistry: Weddings category at the 2022 WPPI awards. "Ultimately, it is always the photographer's creativity and vision, but the print is the vehicle for conveying that message to the viewer," says Paul. "Prints elevate the enjoyment of a photograph far beyond anything displayed on a screen, revealing detail that you cannot appreciate in pixels." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 88mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO 1600. © Sanjay Jogia

2. Shoot for print

"In many cases, you might realise that there are certain things you didn't consider while you were shooting because you weren't shooting for print," says Sanjay. "When you print an image, you'll see all the flaws, defects and anything you got wrong.

"When you're shooting for print, think about how you could minimise distractions. Think about framing and composition. For example, things like fire exit signs – can you mask them by changing the camera angle so that the subject is actually covering the sign so you're not wasting time retouching later?

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"In terms of camera settings, maximise for the best print," Sanjay continues. "Depth of field doesn't matter so much because that's a stylistic thing, but you must ensure if there are eyes in a picture, they are in focus. It's the first thing that will be looked at, and it's not something you can unsee if it's not sharp. With ISO, set it as high as you can without introducing lots of unnecessary noise in the image as that can translate into print very badly. With modern cameras, such as the Canon EOS R5, I'm happy to shoot at ISO 3200 or ISO 4000 and it's clean enough to actually look like film grain."

3. View your work under calibrated light

"It's a tip that often gets overlooked," says Paul. "At a print judging, each print is assessed in a viewing booth. They are very bright, and the light source is accurate to a selected reference, such as daylight. The background is a neutral tone – ideally grey – so no colour is reflected from the surroundings and the lighting is even across the surface of the print.

"This means the judges will see every detail in your image, including defects. You don't need your own booth, but you can invest in some high-quality lighting, some neutral grey artboard, and a light meter to set the power of the light to be the same as the judging. Most print competitions will state what this is in the guidelines."

A small white showroom, with a comfortable black armchair in the middle, a large photo print on the wall behind and a framed photo print on an easel to the side.

Canon printers provide very accurate, very precise printing, particularly on high-quality paper where the tonal reproduction is so precise, even within deep shadows" says Sanjay, who primarily uses Canon papers, alongside Canson® Infinity papers for more specialist applications. © Sanjay Jogia

4. Consider the mount

"A print competition will have its own rules about size of the image and the size of any surrounding mount, which you must comply with," says Paul. "The proportions of the print to the mount should also be pleasing to the eye. Don't try and make your print too big to 'show it off'. Instead, lay out the print and the mount as you would for a client.

"Too often judges observe that the paper doesn't work with the mount colour. It should serve a purpose – to remove clutter from the field of view and draw the observer into the image. Keylines, embellishments and bold mount colours can all work but design the layout of your image and mount as part of the same artwork, not an afterthought."

Sanjay adds, "Judges will see white mounts 95% of the time, maybe the odd black one, so if they see a red mount, for instance, they'll sit up and think. It's easy for judges to go into a sort of autopilot mode, so it'll wake them up."

A leafless tree silhouetted against the starry night sky, shot in black and white on a Canon EOS R5 by Mauro Tronto.

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5. Think carefully about paper and soft proofing

"Glossy paper tends to make colours pop, but it shows fingerprints quickly and the surface can make image viewing tricky," says Sanjay. "Matte paper is the go-to for fine art images, but it has a lower D-max (how black the blacks can be) and without care, blacks can get rendered as dark grey. Semi-matte or pearl papers are somewhere between the two. You get a wide dynamic range, great colours and fewer reflections, but the choice can feel a little safe."

Whatever you choose, soft proofing ensures colours are accurate. "The biggest mistake people make is that they don't soft proof," warns Sanjay. "Find the profile for the paper, install it on your computer, then tell your image editing software to show the image with that profile applied. You'll see a simulation of how it will look. This way, expectations are managed, and paper is saved."

A large framed print of a wedding photo, showing a bride and groom next to a cream convertible car in front of a grand building, sits on an easel. A stack of albums and another framed print sit next to the easel in a red-painted room.

"Printing is like therapy, it really is," says Sanjay. "It's wonderful watching all these images coming out. There's a finality to print, which is why there's a reverence when you hand someone a print." © Sanjay Jogia

6. Synchronise your workflow

For Sanjay, printing your own work is always preferable for overall control, as is making sure everything is consistently calibrated. He uses the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and the imagePROGRAF PRO-4100 printers.

"I control colour from camera-stage onwards by creating camera profiles," he says. "I use good monitors and I shoot in Adobe RGB. My monitors are set to the same and I edit everything in that profile too. A lack of understanding of colour is where people often go wrong. A lot of people shoot in sRGB, but the monitor is set to Adobe RGB, and their image editing software might be set to something else. When they print, they don't use a paper profile and they let the printer manage the colours. You've got five steps of translation, so it's no wonder what comes out is not what's expected."

Paying close and careful attention to your prints is the best way to ensure success in print competitions, and, in doing so, you can hugely improve your photography too.

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