How to Succeed in Smartphone Photography Competitions

How to Succeed in Smartphone Photography Competitions

An Interview with Brendan Ó Sé

The Mobile Photography Awards are currently receiving submissions for their 7th annual competition. The iPhone Photography Awards have a call for entries through March of 2018 and the Mira Mobile Prize winner was recently awarded for 2017. These are just a few of the photography competitions available for smartphone photographers throughout the world. When other contests are added, locally and globally, then photo enthusiasts shooting with smartphones have numerous opportunities to submit their creative work for an opportunity to rise to the top.

In the past few years I’ve submitted my own work to these and other contests, on a local and global scale. I’ve experienced the rush of having pieces selected as winners and honorable mentions and the disappointment of rejection. I wondered, as I prepared my entries for yet another contest, if I could gain some insight from someone who has experienced these competitions from two different perspectives. Brendan Ó Sé immediately came to mind, so I caught up with him to see if he would offer a couple of thoughts. An interview ensued which I’m gladly passing on to you.

A word about Brendan before we begin. He is a highly recognized photographer throughout the world with top photos in all of the aforementioned competitions and many more. Brendan was part of the original Apple World Gallery of images shot on the iPhone 6 in 2015. His photography was showcased on billboards and posters in major cities around the world. He has also served on the juror panel of the Mobile Photo Awards and will enjoy that role yet again this year. For readers to gain a greater understanding of his talents I will be including a link to his website and social media connections at the conclusion of this interview.

Apple World Gallery – Brendan Ó Sé

Brendan, I want to thank you for this opportunity. Will you briefly describe your involvement in mobile photography contests?

I’ve been a judge on a number of them now over the past few years. It’s great to be on the other side of things after previously being an entrant. I guess having been fortunate enough to have won in the major mobile photography competitions (MPAs, iPhone Photography Awards and Mira Mobile Prize), the organizers invited me to judge in these competitions. It’s been a great experience, and also one that comes with responsibility to ensure the best images get the recognition they deserve.

Brendan Ó Sé

Would there be any advantage to try to guess what a certain juror is looking for and submit photos according to his/her tastes?

From my own experience I know how hard it is to put together a series of images to enter a competition. The selecting part is easy. The hard part is deselecting. The thing about the MPAs is that Dan Berman (founder) assigns categories randomly to judges. So, it is very unlikely that I would get the Street Photography category. Also, speaking personally – though I am sure it is the same for most judges – I would be hesitant to select an image which people might feel was very similar to my own style of photography, unless it was a stellar shot that could not be ignored.

I probably will repeat myself in this interview, but I really believe you’ve got to go with your instinct on these things and not be guided by what you think judges might like. I know I have entered competitions thinking a particular judge likes a particular style, and entering accordingly. It never works out.

Brendan Ó Sé

How important is the storytelling aspect of submitted photos in contests?

Photos are springboards for stories. Strong images will connect in a way that the viewer can enter the image and allow his or her imagination to build on what is presented.

How does composition figure into selecting a photo for submission?

Hugely. A technically perfect photograph cannot compensate for a poor composition, but conversely a dynamic and engaging composition can overcome technical flaws. For me, photography is always about composition, story and the moment.

Brendan Ó Sé

How daring should a photographer be when it comes to originality? Should all caution be thrown to the wind or is it good to exercise discipline according to the “rules” of photography?

I am not really one for rules. Rules can stymie creativity. Again it comes back to trusting yourself. If you are an experimental photographer and entering the MPAs, there are categories there just for you, like Digital Art/Photo Illustration, Visual Effects and The Darkness.

I think it is a good idea to check the winning shots in the different categories from previous years to get an idea of the types of images that can fit.

Brendan Ó Sé

What do you find are the most common mistakes people make when entering smartphone photography competitions?

Well, the biggest mistake, one which surprisingly does happen, is to enter an image that is not shot and edited on a smartphone.

Other mistakes would be when you have three killer shots of the same person or the same location, but they are all in essence just variations of the same. Don’t enter the three. You are diluting your chances, as all three will not be selected.

Take some time to check previous winning shots in the different categories to see if your shot is a match in type. Often entrants will post photos that just do not fit the category. In saying that, I must commend Dan for ensuring high-quality images entered in the wrong category do not get looked over.

Brendan Ó Sé

Do you believe it is helpful to get second opinions about what to enter?

Definitely, but ultimately you’ve got to trust yourself.  

Brendan Ó Sé

So let’s say I go to someone for confirmation about my photo selection. Who would you recommend I seek out?

I have a couple of people who I would trust. My wife is probably the best judge. A simple nod or shake of the head does it for me with her. I would say to reach out to a photographer friend who will be honest with you, but ultimately go with your guts and enter what you feel are your best shots.

Brendan Ó Sé

Brendan, you’ve been extremely helpful. To finish up, if there is one most important tip you could give someone entering a smartphone photography contest, what would it be?

Prepare for disappointment. You probably are not going to win. I know that sounds harsh, but it is the truth.

But here’s the thing. If you enter a competition, you want to win. You want all others to come after you. There is no other motivation. When you don’t win, you can feel despondent. You examine your work. You hold it up to that of the winners. You cast an overly-critical eye on it and wonder where the hell you are going in your photographic journey. But, this feeling passes. And it passes because the endeavour, the hobby, the passion you have for it cannot be diminished by the choices of a judge or judges. No, the passion, the desire to show what you see and to show how you see it surfaces and you get out and you shoot again. And you enjoy it. You get back to looking at others’ photos and they inspire you and the whole things kicks off again. You want to learn. You want to sharpen and sensitise that eye to see better. And you begin to dream that next time will be your time. You’ll win.

I guess what I am saying is competitions are great if you do well, but they sure do suck if you don’t. Photography should not be a competitive pursuit.

My advice to anyone entering a competition, be it photography or not, is to always get back to why you do it. You will find that the answer is because it’s fun. If it’s not, then give up. Find another hobby.

Brendan, I want to thank you for giving us all a better idea of how we can remain passionate about our smartphone photography and remain focused on what is important at the same time. I know I’ve certainly learned so much from you in this interview and I’m sure many others have as well.

Learn more about Brendan through his website and following his social media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Tommy Wallace is a smartphone photographer based in central Arkansas with life experiences branching as far as the Pacific Island of Guam. Locally he photographs the people and places of Arkansas and participates in photo competitions close to home as well as internationally. Follow his insights on smartphone photography through his SmartPhotos Blog where this interview first appeared.

The Storytellers: Special Edition

The Storytellers: Special Edition

In GRRYO’s Instagram account  we feature a photo prompt each Monday and ask our audience to share their stories to accompany the image. You can join us each Monday to stretch your storytelling skills and enjoy stories being told around the world. We have a special digest to give you on Leap Year Day that reveals what happened in the month of January as we invited Marina to share a series of her street photography so that we could piece together a running story for that month. Read on to unfold the magic that was conjured in an Italian café.


Story portion by @grandreopening

Antoine’s mother had always said magic was real.  He had thought she was a just a dumb hippy, that her version of magic was some Jerry Garcia unicorn pipe dream but despite a lifetime of crystals that had adorned her neck she had always insisted that sometimes things did go bump in the night.

Now Antoine believed.

The witches had been coming to his café, his very table, for two weeks. At first they seemed like normal women but a good server notices things. The sweet smell of dead flesh had hooked Antoine’s nose while reaching to deliver a basket of fresh baked croissants; in a glance he had witnessed their subtly forked tongues, tongues that twitched and tracked him like copperheads.  In a blink they were normal tongues again and he was left staring and feeling rude. The way the witches had looked at him while he looked at them; wet, obsidian eyes and the synchronized tapping of long, pointed, putty gray nails on the table had made his skin crawl.

There had been more clues since, enough that he drank wine each morning to ease the shaking of his hands.  The cafe’s china cups clattered on their saucers without it.

He told himself the spike of missing children post bills he had suddenly started to notice in his neighborhood were just his imagination.  They had always been there he told himself, Chianti in hand.


Story portion by Cally

Today is the day. Lobelia glanced at her sisters, a slight nod echoed among them. This is the one, they had all agreed. For the past couple weeks, the three had driven down into the valley to the café, just to be sure. And they were. His name is Antoine, and sure enough, he has the sign. At each visit, Lobelia sensed his increasing anxiety at their passive observation. He knows, she thought. That’s good. Most men know nothing until it’s too late. Antoine was different. Maybe this time would be different.


Story portion by @theliebox

By the end of the third week Antoine could see nothing but the gap-toothed smiles and pink pom-pom stocking hats; the wild eyed grins of children once happy but now lost.  New posters seemed to appear daily on light poles, taped to mailboxes and bulletin boards. Where were the police Antoine wondered, didn’t everyone notice?

Just this morning outside his neighborhood wine shop he had paused to note  a lovely girl, no more than five, with a corona of flaming red hair clutching a doll.  The photo was stuck with glue under the shakily written words MISSING, PLEASE HELP. The doll had hair that perfectly matched the girls.  Clearly handmade, the creator had teased the ends of the yarn until the exact quotient of frizzy had been reached.

Antoine had nursed wine from the bottle as he finished his walk to work pondering on what pure love it had taken to make such detail and how much love the little girl had squeezed into that doll when she’d first been given the gift.

Hours later, Antoine with his clattering hands and crimson stained lips had forgotten the doll as he served the witches.  He had thought of nothing but the looming arrival of those tallow skin faces.  His eyes downcast as he delivered biscotti he saw in the open bag at the feet of Lobelia the witch the curly haired doll, now dirty and stained the color of rust.

Antoine gasped audibly and in inadvertent panic looked directly at the witch.  She smiled a coy smile marvelously pleased with herself. “She’s done it on purpose!” Antoine thought to himself, “she wanted me to see it!”


Story portion by Joe

As cunning as the “Terrible Trio” (as they delightfully called themselves) were, they were also forgetful. A dull black notebook was left in the restroom just minutes before Antoine stumbled upon it. Knowing this was planned to be his last living day, he scurried to the kitchen turning pages frantically and found a page titled, “A recipe for Antoine.”

He followed the directions which included “scraped human heel skin,” which Antoine quietly obliged. He poured his new spice mix named after him into the wine bottle and collected himself before going to serve the witches one more time.

As the ladies gleefully sipped their wine waiting for their opportunity to trick Antoine into drinking his customized glass of death, they unknowingly drank their own concoction that would end their lives just moments later. Antoine took off his apron, and walked outside reading the black notebook once more for handwritten directions the witches left behind to find the little girl.


We hope you’ve enjoyed the creativity of our photo artist, Marina, and the storytellers who gave words to her images. Please share this series with others by using the social media share buttons at the top of the page beneath the first image. Of course you’re always invited to drop into our Storytellers Circle each Monday to spread your imagination wings with the rest of the world.

The Storytellers Vol. 13

The Storytellers Vol. 13

In GRRYO’s Instagram account  we feature a photo prompt each Monday and ask our audience to share their stories to accompany the image. We would love for you to join us and share what each photo says to you. In December we focused on the theme of “Giving.” So come and browse through this digest warming yourselves with the tender images of giving and the stories that flow from them.

1449506774256Photo Credit: Luis
Story Credit: Joe

The elderly street artist stared at the little girl as the little girl stared back at the woman’s weathered face. The little girl smiled and handed the woman a hand-drawn picture. The street artist smiled as she realized that she was the subject of the little girl’s artistic expression.


Photo Credit: Tania
Story Credit: Nancy

Going through an old family album I can still feel my Dad’s hairy arms around me . . . encouraging me toward success! I can even remember his shaving lotion smell (Old Spice of course)!


Photo Credit: Mohsen
Story Credit: Tommy

Jackson decided this year’s Christmas would be different from the past two. Those had been hard years and this one just as difficult but back then he had wallowed in his loss and misery looking for whatever handouts he could get. Although his need was still great, he had decided he would be the one to give this Christmas in spite of his hardship. So here he sat with a gift of fine chocolate he had found in a dumpster on 5th street a year ago and saved for something special. Today he would find someone who needed a blessing and demonstrate the generosity and change he was feeling in his heart.


Photo Credit: Valeria
Story Credit: Ariana

She told me that through the tunnel at the end of the street was her childhood, all the memories and laughter, the secrets and games, the tree climbing and fort building . . . all of it, the little things that make you who you are. That was before things changed – she took my hand and said Peter Pan had it got it right and that on this trip we were going to adventure and find magic – that it exists to those who can see it . . .

Thanks to our wonderful photographers and creative storytellers for this digest. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read we invite you to share this article through any of the social media links you find beneath the banner photo at the top of this page.

The Storytellers Vol. 12

The Storytellers Vol. 12

In GRRYO’s Instagram account  we feature a photo prompt each Monday and ask our audience to share their stories to accompany the image. We would love for you to join us and share what each photo says to you. November found us putting ourselves in the place of the subject of each week’s photo and offering stories from a first person perspective. You will be pleased not only by the images provided by our fantastic Grryo photographers but also by the stories that accompany them. So come and browse through this digest, savoring the delicacies of street life and a clown. We look forward to seeing you next Monday on Instagram to participate in our present theme.

Photo Credit: Sheldon
Story Credit: David

I was in shock and awe, completely dumbfounded at the revelation of the news from my mum. Iggy Pop was my Dad! I knew I was from great lineage and now my chance at stardom was finally upon me.


Photo Credit: Darryl
Story Credit: Ness

To all the clowns out there, please do not take offence by what I am about to say, you see, looking at you makes me sad, not happy at all. I don’t know how it happened, maybe it was your fake painted on smiles, or your oversized dirty shoes that scared me at my first circus. Or perhaps that as a child you seemed to want to come real close, gain my confidence and then do some stupid thing that scared the crap out of me. And now what I see behind the outfit are lonely guys, men who most likely once were funny, the jokers from high school now down on their luck and having to work weekends or creepy movie stereotypes. So dear clowns I am one of the ones keeping my distance, standing back from the crowd, please leave me there and don’t come over bringing me wilted flowers it’s never going to make me laugh. I know because I am one of you.


Photo Credit: Roy
Story Credit: Susan

That bitch. That FUCKING bitch! I can’t believe she’d throw that night back in my face. The entire debacle was HER FAULT and hers alone… she knows it, I know it, everyone that was there knows it! Delusional. Straight up cray cray. Bitch!


Photo Credit: Gonzalo
Story Credit: Joe

These kids think they know it all with their faces in their gizmos. They don’t know diddley squat! And what are those metal cigarettes? Smoke a real one with real tobacco. Hey, we got some things right in our day. We knew how to live!


Photo Credit: Halberstam
Story Credit: Cally

You wanna know something about me? My underwear are too tight, I passionately love macaroni and cheese, and I owe Discover Financial Services $46,500 because those years of five-figure bonuses are as rare now as the all-nighters at the brightly lit, yet sub-humanly depressing blue cubicle that birthed them. I still dream of that place some nights. Only I’m not wearing pants and I forgot my Blackberry. It’s a badly faded memory, darkened with time and overworked cortisol. It’s all over now, and that’s probably ok. I’ve got a family to hang out with instead. And I’ve got a family to provide for. That’s why I’m glad you’ve made the first move. Let me clue you in on a little secret. The secret to longevity. Look at me. I look good. Damn good. I’m 57 years old, but I look 42. Just follow me down to the end of the corridor here where we can talk in private. Ok good. Now, the first thing you need to know is…*THUNK*

The Storytellers Vol. 11

The Storytellers Vol. 11

Every Monday we feature a photo prompt and ask our audience to share their stories to accompany the image on Instagram. We would love for you to join us and share what each photo says to you. In October we walked down some paths of fear selecting photos that drew frightful stories from our followers. As always some of our fantastic Grryo photographers supplied us with inspiration for the subject. We invite you to step through this digest of photos and stories. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. Storytellers and photographers alike would love to hear your encouragement and comments!

Photo Credit: Daniel
Story Credit: Andre

They silently screamed, reaching for the last rays of light. The sun slowly faded behind the clouds. A sun whose warmth they would not feel for another season. For their planet was one in which it perpetually rained, the sun shining for but a short day each year.


Photo Credit: Mame
Story Credit: Tommy

He stood there with his hand against the cool, smooth glass. The scene that kept playing through his mind was like a background of his life. A few people gathered on the street, cars and buses flying past, and the light flashing “DON’T WALK.” Even though the room was quiet he could hear the roar of engines and the squeal of tires. Horns honked competing with the shouts of pedestrians. The most frightening sound that gripped his heart and rendered him paralyzed was the dull “thud” he remembered as his mother had stepped off the curb and into a city taxi. The street, it’s sounds and the color yellow keep him as a prisoner in his room to this day.


Photo Credit: Kai
Story Credit: Susan

“I did it!”, Lucy exclaimed, “I conquered it.” She let out the breath she’d been holding in, turned around and looked back up at the blinding sunlight. She had been terrified to walk down these dark stairs… unable to see the bottom from her starting point above. Her imagination had filled that dark place with dangers and torments unknown, but she willed herself down the long stairway anyway only to discover an empty place where fears dwell if you let them. She felt light as a bird – and looked back up to light and life, turning her back forever on that which had kept her paralyzed. As she drew in a breath to begin her ascent, something moved in the blackness behind her.


Photo Credit: Frederic
Story Credit: Rose

This image for me represents fear and the possibility of encountering bad moments. “…I don’t like the feeling of closed spaces, dark tight places, where you have to hold your breath. Anticipating the worst time, I just know that I must move faster and get through it this time, unscathed…” So, this image becomes a metaphor for moving through one’s life with as little resistance as is possible. When one makes the decision to run into a dark tunnel, accept it but move quickly, you can ponder the experience for the rest of your life.