I had the recent privilege and honor of co-judging the 38th annual International Underwater Photographic Contest conducted by the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society. I was quite impressed with the professional standards of the contest handling.

But even more impressive was the quality of the entries. There were a total of 1,244 photographic entries coming from underwater photographers
around the world. Half of the entries were near technical perfection, clear, sharp, in focus, colorful, and of interesting subjects — worthy of any publication. Competition was stiff. Choosing the winners was difficult. It came down to minor differences, sometimes just subtle variations.

Entering photo contests is an excellent way to see how you match up to other underwater photographers. To win or place, you need that extra advantage. Here is how you can give yourself the edge in a photo contest. .

Be technically perfect. Many of the photos were excellent but disqualified because of a 1/2-stop off of exposure or was ever so slightly out of focus. Leave nothing to error.

Use the right film. Unless you are going for some kind of creative effect, use the sharpest film possible. Don’t economize here. Also use a good film processor. It was sad when I saw some of the entries that had to be eliminated from the running simply because somebody did not process the film properly. In the same vein, use the best lenses possible. Excellent quality lenses will give you also give you the sharpest images with the best color.

If you’re sending slides, send originals. Few dupes cut it in terms of image quality. If the photo contest you are entering has a good, long term reputation, you’ll get your photos back okay. If you are sending in prints, get the best quality possible, professionally mounted but in a simple way.

Give your photo depth, make it three-dimensional. A foreground and/background is important. While sharp focus is important, one of the best way to convey a three-dimensional effect is with an out of focus background and/or foreground.

Use contrasting colors or textures. It is this variety within a frame that adds visual interest. It can be used to make a subject stand out, sometimes strikingly.

Watch your lighting. Lighting has to be perfect. Dark shadows should only be in your photos if intended for dramatic emphasis. By the same token, a flatly illuminated frame sometimes comes across just that way—flat. Subtle variations in lighting and exposure are arguably the most difficult variable to control in a photo but a must to gain that extra edge in a photo contest.

Use good composition. Don’t place your subject smack-dab in the middle of your frame. Use the “rule of thirds” or lines of force and other effective and creative composition techniques. Try shooting in the vertical format. Your methods need not be complicated or sophisticated but even the most basic composition techniques are better than none at all.

Put a diver or divers in your photos. A surprisingly few number of the entries had divers in the frame. A good underwater model is worth their weight in gold. Coach them, coddle them, pamper them. They will win you photo contests.

Go for categories where the competition is thin. Cold water categories are good. Print categories are also more open. Surface categories get fewer entries. Computer altered or digital is also new and open. The most crowded and competitive categories are wide angle and macro slides.

Avoid common subjects or photograph common subjects in extraordinary way. Garibaldi and clown fish are great subjects but so common and so easy to shoot that you have to get an extraordinary shot to win with subjects such as these. With common subjects, seek out special lighting, difficult angles, and excellent composition. Even then, you are fighting an uphill battle.

Shoot early and often. Enter often, but only enter your best. There are a lot of good photo contests out there with a lot of great prizes. With practice, you will improve and win, but you have got to get wet and shoot, shoot and shoot some more. And you don’t have to go to some exotic locale. Winning images have been taken as close as Catalina Island, even right off the beach.

For more information on the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, and to view the winners from the competition, visit their website at www.laups.org.