Tips + Techniques

What Makes an Award-Winning Portrait? 

August 9, 2023

By Abbey Pleviak

Photography competitions help photographers grow creatively, and having an award-winning portrait can also be a great marketing tool. In 2018, Sue Bryce, creator of The Portrait System created The Portrait Masters Awards & Accreditation Program to give portrait photographers in her community and beyond these useful credentials and growth opportunities. Since then, the competition has attracted thousands of submissions from around the globe for each of its three rounds – in the spring, summer, and late fall.  

The latest round of the competition closes for entries this Friday, August 10 at midnight with an expectation that submissions will keep rolling in right until the last second. Five judges will score each entry with a chance to receive Bronze, Silver, or Gold awards based on an average of their scores. The highest-scoring images in each category will receive $1,000 and a trophy, and the highest-scoring image overall will receive an additional $1,000 and another trophy. 

Additionally, The Portrait Masters tracks points for entrants as they work toward accumulating enough to earn accreditation as an Associate, Master, or Fellow. This year’s winners and accreditation earners will be announced at a special ceremony and party this September at The Portrait Masters Conference in Phoenix, Arizona.  

Belinda Richards, Creative Portrait, 4th Place © Belinda Richards

Ingredients for Success 

Competition for The Portrait Masters Awards and other photography contests can be stiff, and it can take something extra special to stand out from the crowd and win top awards. Browsing awards galleries of past winners is an excellent way to see what it takes to score at the top. You can also gain deeper insight from watching critiques from judges.   

During a recent live critique session, Portrait Masters Awards & Accreditation Director Richard Wood—who is also a winner of numerous photo competition honors—described the three keys to creating an award-winning photographic portrait.   

Portrait Masters Director & Judge, Richard Wood 

Three Keys to Award-Winning Photographic Portraits  

  1. Craft: You need to have this nailed first before you can go further.  
  1. Storytelling: When there is connection, there’s emotion, which brings about narrative.  
  1. Originality: Creativity and innovation – show the judges something they’ve never seen before.  
Marta Losiewicz, Family and Group Portrait, 12th Place © Marta Losiewicz


It might go without saying, but it bears repeating. One must absolutely have honed the mechanics and techniques of photography to be able to push the boundaries and go even further into innovating images that tell compelling stories that capture the judges’ imaginations by showing them something they have never seen before.  

If you feel like you need to brush up on your camera skills, it never hurts to visit a course like John Greengo’s Camera 101. If lighting is an area where you feel you’d like to go deeper, you can’t wrong with any of Felix Kunze’s lighting courses.

Cassandra Jones, Family and Group Portrait, 4th Place, © Cassandra Jones


According to Wood, once you’ve nailed your craft, the next level to conquer is storytelling. While this might seem elusive, the way to storytelling is quite simple.  

Wood says, “Storytelling, narrative, emotion, and connection are all part of the same box. If your subject has connection, they’re going to show emotion – connection and emotion. They come together; they’re brother and sister.   

And if you’ve got that connection, and that emotion, all of a sudden, you’ve got storytelling, because if there’s something to be emotive about, there’s a story behind it. There’ll be something that’s making you feel that way.” 

According to Wood, when your subject is engaged and connected, the emotion they express will give the photograph a story. The presence of emotion gives the viewer a sense that something deeper is going on within the portrait. 


Angela Vizcaino, Creative Portrait, 15th Place © Angela Vizcaino


Wood believes the final ingredient that makes portraits stand out in a crowd is originality. While he finds himself using words like innovation, creativity, and originality, what they all boil down to is creativity, and in particular, being able to create something that hasn’t been seen before. 

If you feel stuck and need a little inspiration to get your imagination flowing, check out Richard Wood’s Imagination Series. It comes with a toolbox for getting your creative juices flowing and for manifesting those visions. 

Gabriela Ghillanyova Hatami, Creative Portrait, 2nd Place © Gabriela Ghillanyova Hatami


To sum it all up, Richard Wood says that beyond beautiful craft, judges want to see pictures that ”take us on a journey – whether it be through connection or emotion. . . Same with storytelling and narrative. . . We want to see something that we have not seen before.” 

You can view Wood’s explanation of what makes an award-winning portrait and read the transcript here. To see more examples of images that exhibit these qualities, visit The Portrait Masters Awards Gallery.  

 Enter The Portrait Masters Awards.