What Makes an Award-Winning Photographic Portrait?

February 15, 2023 The Portrait Masters

Portrait photography competitions help photographers grow creatively, and awards can also be great marketing tools. But in many competitions, 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 

Portrait of Portrait Masters Judge Richard Wood
Portrait Masters Director & Judge, Richard Wood

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.  

Three Keys to Award-Winning Photographic Portraits 

  1. Craft: You need to have this nailed first before you can go further. 
  2. Storytelling: When there is connection, there’s emotion, which brings about narrative. 
  3. Originality: Creativity and innovation – show the judges something they’ve never seen before. 

Below is an edited transcript of Wood’s explanation of craft, storytelling and originality. 


“I can give you a list of things that are keys to making an award-winning portrait or a strong portrait. And those things clearly could be craft. And there’s a whole lot of subjects under that. You’ve got innovation. You’ve got originality. You’ve got creativity. You’ve got connection. You’ve got emotion. You’ve got storytelling. You’ve got narrative.  

Kathy Wierda, Family & Group Portrait


And that all seems like so much to take in, and so much to think about. But here’s the key: Storytelling, narrative, emotion, connection are all part of the same box. That’s all the same thing. So, 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. And there’s a reason for it. And in that, it’s storytelling; it’s narrative. So, they will slot into the same group.  

If you’ve nailed your craft, and you’re wanting to step up, you want to level up, it’s connection. Connection within that subgroup involves storytelling, narrative, and emotion. 

Emily Pearl, Movement


The third thing – I feel like there’s normally only three – is originality. Now, we can speak about originality. We can speak about innovation. We can speak about creativity. But, if you look at all those three things in a dictionary, you’ll find that they all mean the same thing.  

So, creativity is the ability to create something new. Innovation is the ability to create something new. Originality is creating something new. They all mean the same thing. They’re just different words for the same thing.  

So as judges, we want to see beautiful craft. We want that picture to take us on a journey, whether it be through connection or emotion. They normally come together. Same with storytelling, narrative. They’re on that same set, and we want to see something for those higher awards. We want to see something that we have not seen before. 

Taylor Griffiths, Creative Portrait


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