Frequently Asked Questions About the Photo Contest

When will the winners be announced?
The category winners, Grand Prize winner, and Readers' Choice winner will be announced on our website in spring 2017.

How about the finalists?
The 70 finalists will be announced on our website in spring 2017.

What is the Readers' Choice winner?
Readers will select one winner from the 70 finalists by an online vote at The Readers' Choice winner will be announced in spring 2017 along with the Grand Prize and category winners.

What are the prizes?

Grand Prize winner: $2,500
Category winners: $500
Readers' Choice winner: $500
Mobile Photography winner: $500
United EcoSkies Sustainable Travel Leadership Award: Two economy round-trip tickets for travel between United States, Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. For full details, see our rules.

Who selects the winners?

Judging will be conducted by the editors of Smithsonian and  The Smithsonian will select 10 finalists per category, a winner for each category and a Grand Prize winner from the 70 finalists; except that the category sponsor United Airlines will participate in the final selection of the Sustainable Travel category winner, and a Readers' Choice winner will be selected from among the 70 finalists based on public voting.

Will I be notified if I was NOT chosen as a finalist or winner?
No. Due to the large number of submissions, only the 70 finalists will be notified of their status by February 20, 2017. If you do not hear from Smithsonian by February 20, then you are neither a finalist nor a winner.

How many photos can I enter into the contest?
You may enter no more than fifteen (15) photographs in each category for a total contest submission of ninety (90) photographs.

I share an e-mail address with another person. Can we both enter under the same e-mail address?
We accept one contestant per e-mail address. You can easily obtain a free e-mail address from a number of sites, including, and

How do I submit my photograph?
You can submit your photograph, or a high-quality scan of your photograph, online at We do not accept entries submitted through the mail.

What category should I select for my photograph?
Use your best judgment, but here are the guidelines we suggest you follow when selecting the category:

  • Natural World: Animals, plants and landscapes; geological or climatological features; and scientific processes and endeavors.

  • Travel: Locales, peoples or activities in the United States and abroad that convey a sense of place.

  • People: Individuals from all walks of life.

  • The American Experience: Events, objects or activities connecting the American people to their history or their cultural heritage; photographs that tell us what it means to be an American and provide a sense of what it is like to live in this country.

  • Altered Images: Photographs manipulated for artistic purposes by applying digital and/or traditional special effects (i.e., colorizing, toning, collage, photo composites, HDR, etc.).

  • Mobile:  The Smithsonian will award a prize to the best photograph submitted in any of the other categories that was taken with a mobile device (phone or tablet). 

  • Sustainable Travel: The Sustainable Travel category, made possible through the support of United Eco-Skies, returns for its second year. The award for this category, the Eco-Skies Sustainable Travel Leadership Award, recognizes a photographer who demonstrates leadership and an active commitment to travel for environmentally responsible purposes, generating positive social, economic, or environmental outcomes in the local communities traveled to and ensuring the destination remains an attractive place to live, work and visit for future generations. Examples of sustainable travel projects include:

  • Environmental conservation and reforestation

  • Eco-construction and restoration projects

  • Local community enrichment and empowerment volunteering

  • Environmental awareness and education

  • Exemplary eco-conscious visitor behavior

Entries in this seventh category should address the question: What does a sustainable travel project look like to you? Entries also must be accompanied by a 100-word or less photo caption describing the photo’s content and story behind the photo.

Do you accept non-digital photographs?
Yes. We accept high-quality scanned images of non-digital photographs. We do not, however, accept hard copies of photographs.

Can I enter if I live outside the United States?
Yes, but photographs must be uploaded by 11:59 PM EST, Wednesday, November 30, 2016.

Can an old photo be entered?
Photographs that were taken before January 1, 2014 are not eligible.

Will negatives and slides, which will be requested of finalists, be returned?
All original negatives, slides and prints will be returned to finalists.

Do I need release forms for people in my photo?
If they are recognizable, and especially if they are children, you need a release form upon Smithsonian's request. A sample release is available here.

If you have a signed model release, please retain it in your personal files. If you are selected as a finalist, you will be asked to submit the release at that time.

Can I enter a photograph if I no longer have the negative?
If a photograph taken on film does not have a slide or negative, it cannot be entered into the contest unless you have a high-resolution digital scan.

Can photographs be cropped?
Cropped photographs are eligible in all categories.

Can photographs be manipulated or enhanced?
Only photographs entered into the Altered Images category can be digitally or traditionally manipulated or enhanced. 

What does it mean when you say photographs in five of your seven categories may not be "enhanced or altered"?
Contestants cannot construct photographs from pieces of other photographs. But minor adjustments, including spotting, dodging and burning, sharpening, contrast and slight color adjustment or the digital equivalents, are acceptable for all categories. If our judges see that the photographer has obviously altered a photo, they have the right to disqualify it or move it to the Altered Images category. Photos in the Mobile category may also be altered.

When submitting a photograph, you will have an opportunity to describe any adjustments made to the image. Please be as descriptive as possible. This information will allow the judges to decide if your photograph is best considered in Altered Images or one of the other categories.

Do you accept black-and-white photographs?
Yes. Also, color photographs changed to black and white are acceptable in all categories; however, please make sure that any additional adjustments you make to the image abide by the rules concerning enhancing or altering photographs.

May I enter the same photograph into multiple categories?
Please do not enter the same photograph into more than one category.

What size should my digital image be for uploading with the online entry form?
In order to be displayed in our online gallery without being stretched or distorted, photographs must be submitted in .jpeg, .jpg or .gif format, edited for web, at least 2,000 pixels wide and no larger than 10 MB. Photo contest images are judged on computer screens, which have a maximum resolution of 72dpi.

Please retain a high-resolution version of your photograph(s) in your personal files. You will need to have a higher-resolution image on hand, a minimum of 300 dpi and 3,000 pixels on the longest side, to be considered in the final rounds of the contest. Mobile photographs are exempt from the 300 dpi requirement, but must be submitted at their highest resolution.

What if my digital photograph does not have a resolution of 300 dpi, or more, at least 3,000 pixels on the longest side?
Without this requirement, Smithsonian editors cannot consider your photograph as a possible finalist or winner in our contest. Mobile photographs are exempt from this requirement, but must be submitted at their highest resolution.

Will you accept photos with watermarks?
We will always display a credit alongside your photo as it appears on the site. We do not accept photos with watermarks or descriptive text.

Will you change the category if you think I put my photograph into the wrong one?
Yes. If appropriate, Smithsonian judges will change the category of your submission. This will not affect your eligibility to win.

I entered my photo into another contest and it won. Can I enter it into this contest?

Photographs that have won other major photo contests, either online or in print, as determined by the Smithsonian, are not eligible for submission. If a photograph wins another major photo contest post submission, it is not eligible for a prize, but may still be recognized as an Editor's Pick or Photo of the Day. We define winning as having won a grand prize or 1st, 2nd or 3rd place overall. 

Is it OK to enter a photograph that has been on my website?
Yes, your photograph is eligible for submission.

I am a Smithsonian Institution intern. Can I enter?
No. Smithsonian Institution employees, Regents, trustees, interns, volunteers, fellows and research associates are ineligible to enter the contest.

I'm 17 years old. Can I enter the contest?
We are sorry, but you will need to be 18 as of November 30, 2016—the final day of submission—to qualify.

What rights to my photograph do I retain?
You retain your rights to your photograph; however, by entering the contest, entrants grant the Smithsonian Institution a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, non-exclusive license to display, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works of the entries, in whole or in part, in any media now existing or subsequently developed, for any educational, promotional, publicity, exhibition, archival, scholarly and all other standard Smithsonian purposes. Any photograph reproduced will include a photographer credit as feasible. The Smithsonian Institution will not be required to pay any additional consideration or seek any additional approval in connection with such uses.

Photos entered into the Sustainable Travel photo contest category also grant these rights to the category sponsor, United Airlines, Inc.

Where can I send questions and feedback?
Please e-mail further questions to or use our feedback form.

Last updated: March 21, 2016.