Winning Strategies for Underwater Photo Competitions

Kate Jonker Honorable Mention Proteus Awards

If you’re passionate about underwater photography and dream of seeing your work recognized on a larger stage, entering underwater photo competitions is a fantastic way to achieve that. In this article, we’ll explore how to shoot for underwater photo competitions, important factors to consider when selecting winning photos, and how to choose a great photo for these contests.

I’ve served on numerous top international underwater photography competitions, including DEEP Indonesia, Scuba Diving Magazine’s 2023 Underwater Photo Contest and the 19th CMAS Photo World Championship (see winners below) this year, as well as the MacroMode and the I Love Nudis Egg Ribbon photo contests, so sharing a judge’s viewpoint could help you submit your best photos for the job!

And before we go any further, if you’re about to enter your photos in a competition and need constructive advice, I invite you to book a pre-competition consultation with me! I will help you decide what to enter, and help you determine which is the right category for your images.  Unfortunately, I can’t do this for competitions I am judging in, but I would love to help you maximise your chances in any other competition. Please email me for more details.

Underwater photo contest logos
Master Your Gear

This is vital, and even more important if you are going to be entering the “shoot out” type competition where you shoot over the course of a few days and submit your photos at the location. Most times your photos are not allowed to be edited. This is a great test of your photography skills!  However, before diving into competitions, ensure you are proficient with your underwater photography equipment. Your camera, housing, and lighting gear should be second nature to you. Familiarity will help you capture those fleeting moments effectively.

Perfect Buoyancy Control

To capture clear and crisp images, master your buoyancy control. Good buoyancy allows you to get closer to your subjects without harming them or damaging the reef – and helps to prevent backscatter if you are diving in locations such as the Philippines or Lembeh, where many critters are close to the sand.

Dive at the Right Time and Place

It is harder to stand out in underwater photography competitions these days, and oftentimes the judges look for unique subjects. Think of the winning frogspawn, mating frog photos from a few years ago. These photos did well as nobody had really done it before.  If you are in the fortunate position to capture something unique, embrace it.

Sadly, not all of us can afford to photograph the Sardine Run, Orcas or Leopard seals.  However, if you do want to photograph something unique, don’t be hasty – do your research first. Timing is crucial. Research the best seasons and locations for your unique subjects. Plan your dives accordingly for optimal visibility and marine life activity.

On the other hand, If you can’t travel, try to photograph something closer to home in a unique way and make it different.

Scuba Diving Magazine Contest winners 2023.1

Develop a Unique Style

Distinguish yourself by developing a unique photographic style. Whether it’s macro, wide-angle, or a particular color palette, snooting, or shallow depth of field. Having a unique style will make your entries stand out. Don’t copy everyone else. There are still so many “blingy” background and “magic tube” photos still doing the rounds. Look at what techniques are currently being placed in competitions, take them to the next level and try to do something unique and different.

That brings me back to a social media comment someone made on one of my very shallow depth of field photos that I was particularly proud of. They told me “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. It might not have applied to my photo (which I still love!), but there is a fine line between overdoing it on the special effects. Focus on getting one effect brilliant instead of throwing every single special effect into one photo. Too much can just become a confusing mess and not pleasing to the eye.

Attention to Detail

For macro shots, focus on the tiniest details. Use a good macro lens and appropriate lighting to reveal the intricate beauty of small marine life. Make sure your subject is tack sharp. Especially the eyes. If the eyes or rhinophores are out of focus, your photo will not progress to the final rounds.

Scuba Diving Magazine Contest winners 2023

Wide-Angle Wonders

When shooting wide-angle, create images with a captivating foreground, a stunning mid-ground, and an interesting background. This three-dimensional composition is often a winner.

Make sure your lighting is spot-on and that your subject is evenly lit.  Take care with vertical composition to avoid any unnatural bottom/upward lighting where the bottom strobe (if shooting with strobes at 12 and 6 o’clock on the vertical) is brighter than the top strobe, causing an unnatural lighting effect.

If you are including a diver in your photo, either use them as a silhouette, or light them properly so that their skin tones are perfect. Make sure you light their faces inside their masks evenly. They’ll need to be very close to you and your subject to achieve this. Use them to direct the viewer’s eye to the main subject, don’t make them the subject…

Technical skill

The first thing I do when first see a batch of entries, is scan through them in full-screen mode.  Chances are some will jump right out at me. Those tend to be the “emotional” ones. I then move over to another category and do the same, until I have been through all the categories.  After that I go back through each category and score the photos on various aspects.  These include sharpness, exposure, lighting, and composition.  Always ensure your entries are sharp, well-exposed, and properly composed. Remember, judges may view your photos on various devices. I use a big screen which is very unforgiving with regards to editing and photos that don’t have spot-on focusing. This way I can give every photo the attention it deserves. I also check to see if the photographer has fulfilled the criteria of the category, how much effort was put into making the photo, and how much creativity or uniqueness was used.

Emotional Impact

A great underwater photo should evoke emotions in the viewer. Whether it’s awe, wonder, curiosity, sadness, tenderness, fear or just admiration of beauty. A powerful image leaves a lasting impression.

Post-Processing Precision

Be mindful of post-processing. Subtle enhancements are acceptable but avoid over-editing. Judges appreciate natural and well-balanced photos. When cropping, be aware of the maximum crop amount rule, which is usually no cropping of more than 25% – 30% – especially for the macro category, and many super-macro categories disallow any cropping – or your photos will be disqualified if your photo is over-cropped. 

I’ve judged in competitions where a beautifully lit, crisp, and sharp image is put before me. However, when I get to see the RAW file, it is almost completely black.  So much photo-shopping was needed to bring back the light and image. A photo competition is a contest of camera – not lightroom – skills. I stand by the saying “a good photo is made in the camera”.

Save the Raw Files

Before you enter a competition, make sure to create a folder where you copy the JPEG image submitted, as well as a copy of the RAW file. If the competition asks you for a RAW file, you don’t want to stress searching for it at the last minute!


When entering competitions where they ask for a caption, keep it as short as possible. Give the photo a name so that you know which one it is, and a short caption. Most competition organisers will contact you for a more detailed caption at the same time as requesting the RAW file for the semi finals.

Get Feedback

Before submitting your photos, seek feedback from fellow photographers. We get emotionally tied to our photos, especially if they feature something we’ve always wanted to see and finally got a photo of (YAY you!). Like the pygmy seahorse you always wanted to see and finally got a shot of… They can provide valuable insights and help you refine your entries. Chances are if you show your mum / partner / next-door neighbor, they will tell you they are all lovely. And don’t forget, I’m happy to help you select your photos. Just email me!

Kate Jonker 2nd Close Up Photographer of the Year Award 2022

Choose Your Best Shots

It’s quality over quantity. Select a small number of your very best images to submit. Don’t dilute your entry with weaker shots. Don’t submit three versions of the same photo in the same category. Only one of those photos can be awarded, so choose the one that is the sharpest, the best composed, and the best lit. If you can’t decide… ask a friend!  It is also expensive to use the “spray and pray” technique by submitting as many photos as you can, in the hopes that one might just make it.  Submit only your best!

Choose the Right Competitions

Select contests that align with your style and expertise. Some competitions focus on specific themes, so find those that match your strengths and interests. It is also quite nice to start off with smaller competitions where you stand more of a chance of being placed. It can be really disheartening to enter the “big competitions” time and time again, and never come anywhere. That being said, “you’ve got to be in it, to win it”, so select your competitions carefully to elevate your chances. Also, entering every competition can be expensive, so select three or four a year to start off with. To make your pick, check out my comprehensive list of underwater photo contests you can enter!

Kate Jonker Honorable Mention Proteus Awards

Understand the Rules

Each competition has its own set of rules, so read them carefully. Pay attention to entry requirements, file formats, and any post-processing restrictions. Remember not to include your signature on the photos as you will be instantly disqualified. Also, when you export your photos from your post-processing software, try to include the bare minimum metadata required for the competition (date taken, settings, camera and lense used) and make sure your name or copyright is not included in the EXIF data.

Which reminds me – before you go off shooting photos, check that the date in your camera is correct. Most competitions give you a time frame in which the photos should be taken, and if you set your date incorrectly, you could be disqualified for submitting photos “taken in 1923”.

Additionally, make sure that you know what each category REALLY is. For example, “Black Water” is not a photo that is snooted or taken on a normal night dive, it is a particular category of photo type, so please only enter Black Water photos if they are taken on a Black Water dive! Read and re-read the category details so that you are sure you are entering your photo in the right category. Some competitions do allow the adjudicators to move the photos to the right categories, but don’t depend on this!

Practice Patience

Understand that success may not come overnight. Entering multiple competitions and learn from your experiences will help you improve your chances of winning. I look back at my photos I submitted in competitions in 2015 and can completely understand now why they did not get placed. Keep your entries so that you can look back at your photos that you thought were great, and see how you have improved in just a few years!

Stay Inspired

Surround yourself with underwater photography resources. Follow underwater photographers, attend workshops, and immerse yourself in the underwater world to keep your creativity flowing.  Talking about workshops, be sure to check out my next underwater photography workshop – it might be just what you were looking for!

Remember that winning underwater photo competitions takes time and dedication. While the journey may have its challenges, it’s incredibly rewarding. So, continue honing your skills, shooting breathtaking images, and sharing the beauty of the underwater world with the judges and your audience. You’re well on your way to becoming a household name in underwater photography!

Good luck, and may your next competition entry be an award-winning masterpiece!

Winners of the 19th CMAS Photo World Championship: