How I won the Sunday Times Travel Magazine photo competition – and how you could too

How to win a travel photo competition, even if you’re a total amateur

I’m just an average photographer. No particular skill, no particular talent. I use a camera that cost about £300. I usually shoot on auto.

I still won the Sunday Times Travel Magazine photo competition.

You could win a travel photo competition too.

While we’re all in lockdown, and you’re not travelling and taking new photos, it’s a good time to do something with your old photos.

We’ve already shown you how to turn your travel blog into a stunning hardback photo book. Next we’ll have a look at how to easily edit and enhance your travel photos in minutes. Today, why not dust off some of your old photos and win a travel photo competition.

There are some very prestigious travel photo competitions, and if you’re talented enough to consider entering then you don’t need me.

But even if you are a total amateur and think that there’s nothing particularly special about your photos, you can still win prizes and get your photos into print, simply by targeting the right competition and picking the right photos.

I like to achieve new things. i’m always working on the next thing I want to do. One of the things I wanted to do was to wind a travel photo competition. I didn’t think I was good enough, I thought my photos weren’t technically good or artistically good.

Didn’t stop me.

I began looking around for competitions where I might stand a chance. I’m not going to win photographer of the year, but when I see the reader photos that are getting published in travel magazines like Wanderlust or the Sunday Times Travel Magazine, I see three things:

  1. A lot of very similar photos
  2. Photos that aren’t that much better than some of mine
  3. Photos taken by regular travellers, not professional photographers

If a regular traveller with a camera can win, and the photos that win are just ordinary travel photos, and a lot of them are very similar, then how hard can it be?

The Sunday Times Travel Magazine Photo Competition

The Sunday Times Travel Magazine Photo Competition is a good one to target. It runs every month in the magazine, so you have 12 chances to win every year. The winners are published in the magazine, and seeing your photo published is almost as satisfying as actually winning a prize.

There is a prize. OK, you’re not going to be winning thousands of pounds, and you’re not going to have publications offering you paid photo assignments, but you can win something. I won a very nice carry-on suitcase worth £350. (I sold it on eBay for £300.)

Here’s my winning entry:

sunday times travel magazine photo competition
sunday times travel magazine photo competition

Here’s the original photo:

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
A monk on the upper terrace of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

It’s one of many I took when I travelled through Myanmar. By the way, if you go to Myanmar, do the balloon flight at Bagan. It’s sensational.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is actually covered in real gold. At sunset, when some monks started walking around up on the terrace at the base of the stupa, I whipped out my camera, zoomed in, and grabbed a few shots. It’s quite a dramatic setting.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar 3 monks climbing down the terraces of the stupa
Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon Myanmar 3 monks climbing down the terraces of the stupa

The photo that helped me win the Sunday Times Travel Magazine photo competition stood out from all the others because of the sea of gold looking warm in the sunset, and the solitary monk looking isolated against the background.

If I’d zoomed out just slightly, you would have seen three other monks right behind him. he wasn’t by himself at all, but by framing the monk by himself it makes the image more interesting. It’s easy to think of the life of a monk being one of individual contemplation and calm, and the picture fits that view.

The second picture, with the three monks, is still interesting because it’s an unusual scene, but it’s too busy and not nearly as striking.

I think (and I can only make assumptions) that’s why I won. The photo is different from all the usual ones.

If you look at the pages of travel magazines or travel photo competitions, you’ll see a lot of stuff that is essentially just a variation on the same old cliches. The portrait of an ethnic person with a blurry background. Some colourful fruit and veg with a blurry background. An exotic animal emerging from some mist. Some interesting architecture emerging from some mist.

How many portraits with a blurry background must photo competition editors have to look through?

How many photos of some colourful fruit on a market stall?

How many pictures of a blue lake up in a mountain?

So how do you increase your chances of winning? Stand out from the crowd.

Look through your photos and find the one that is different.

The unusual setting, the unusual colour, the unusual action, or the unusual point of view.

You’ll catch the judges eye if you stand out from the stream of cliches.

You need a photo that is in focus and reasonably sharp, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s going to be printed in a magazine, not blown up and hung in an art gallery.

Think about how it might look on a magazine page. There needs to be some colour, and a clear subject.

So, dig through your photos and look for the ones that stand out from the rest because they are different.

There are plenty of other regular magazine or newspaper or website travel photo comps. I also got published in Wanderlust. Didn’t win anything, and now I can’t find my copy of the magazine to scan the page, but it was very satisfying just to get printed.

All you have to do is hunt through your photos, find something different from all the regular stuff, submit it, and keep trying until you win.

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