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How I Became a Guru

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

Online photo contests can be a fun, informational and fulfilling. They can be a way to improve your photography. Recently I decided to try my hand at one and chose the self-proclaimed #1 online photo contest in the world: GuruShots.

The ultimate rank in the game is Guru, a rank achievable only after entering at least 100 challenges, winning at least one of them and getting your photos picked by the Guru's of the game. No small feat.

I started with an open mind and feel that after 4 months of playing the game I have learned a few things about my photography. It has been a positive experience, one that I would recommend.

Make no mistake, this is a game that is designed to make money for its creators. But you can play the game for free and win at it. I did.

What follows are the lessons I learned about playing the games and the strategies involved in winning.

How I achieved Guru rank in 4 months.

Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t easy, and if you are looking for a magical sure-fire recipe to win you’ll be disappointed.

Having said that let me say there is a learning curve to get good at playing GuruShots, and if I had known at the beginning what I now know it would have been a little easier.

If you are an experienced player you can skip the next section. Beginners read on!

The game is straightforward. Enter photos into a challenge and wait for the other players in the game to vote for your photo. The photographer with the most votes at the end of the challenge wins.

Each challenge is run by a Guru. They set the topic and describe what they are looking for in the detail tab of the challenge. During the challenge the Guru running it will pick a few of the pictures that have been entered and give them a coveted Guru’s Pick. At the conclusion of the challenge, the Guru will select one image from among all the Guru Picks and crown it the Top Guru Pick for that challenge.

You are encouraged to vote in the challenge, and in doing so, you give a boost to the exposure your photo receives. This ‘exposure meter’ slowly empties, and you must go back and vote again to refill it and give your photo another boost. I am amused by a picture in my mind of me puffing on a feather to keep it airborne.

In general, there are two kinds of challenges, those that last 66 hours called speed challenges, and the long challenge which typically last 7 to 9 days. Others last even longer. Speed challenges permit only one photo to be entered, while the long challenge allows you to enter up to four.

You can win a challenge in one of three ways:

  1. Have the most votes for your photograph(s) at the end of the challenge – wins Best Photographer

  2. In long challenges (those with 4 images) the photo with the single most votes wins Best Photograph.

  3. The Guru running the challenge picks your image as the Top Guru Pick.

As you move up the ranks towards Guru, you will soon learn just how important and rare a win is.

The name of the game then is to win a challenge and get Gurus to pick your photos. So, your photos must appeal to two different people: The voters who are photographers just like you, and a Guru, who is often a professional photographer.

I learned I had to decide if I wanted to try and win the challenge or get a Guru Pick. The photograph(s) I entered and the strategy for the challenge depended on this.

Winning My First Challenge

Tufas at Sunset. First photo to win an online contest.

One important thing to realize is that you cannot expect to win a challenge without a great photograph. It needs to be well composed, in focus and compelling. You are competing against professionals after all, and these are the basics! Ignore them and your chances of winning are about the same as being hit by lightning.

I won my first contest 90 days after I started. The image was a good one, and I had received many compliments on it. But it failed to crack the top 100 for the first few challenges. I then decided to analyze my strategy. I finally settled on the following:

  • Wait to enter the challenge until about a third to half way through the time limit.

  • Look at the front runners and see what is popular.

  • Enter a photo that might prove just as popular. Use your best judgement and/or intuition. Having many images to choose from is very helpful. This is more art than science.

  • Don’t be afraid to swap your entry for another photo even if there are just two hours left in the contest.

  • If you enter more than one challenge at a time, don’t use the same image in more than one.

  • It should be obvious that you need to vote in the contest to raise your exposure. Almost everyone waits until the challenge is nearly over to vote one last time to fill their exposure meter to the max in the closing minutes of the contest.

This image got much more attention when I cropped it.
  • Most voting is done on the tiny screen of a phone. I soon learned that if I was entering a challenge about birds, flowers, dogs, cats, people and anything else with eyes I had a higher vote count if I cropped the image.

Getting Guru Picks

The strategies for getting a Guru Pick (GP) are different. But just like a photo entered to win a challenge, your picture must be well composed, in focus and compelling. It must also be in High Resolution. If you upload photos to your profile via Instagram stop! Most Gurus, if not all, look at the challenge photos in full screen mode. If your image is uploaded from Instagram it will be of inferior quality. Gurus will pass over it regardless of how much you love it.

Load the images to your profile directly from your computer. If you use a phone for your photography, then make sure you are shooting in the highest possible resolution and then upload them directly from the phone.

  • To improve my odds, I carefully read the details of upcoming challenges written by the Guru. I look at the Guru’s profile to see what kind of images they like. I pay close attention to the description and the example photo provided by the Guru posted in the challenge.

  • Look at any existing Guru Picks and see what is being selected. But don’t assume you should enter an image that looks like the picks already made by the Guru. Find one that is similar but stands apart. For example, if the Guru has chosen red barns, try a barn at sunset with a red sky. Zig when others zag.

  • Some Gurus make early picks in a challenge so enter it as soon as you can. Improve your exposure by voting right away.

  • Many Gurus won’t pick an image that has your signature or watermark on the photo. Take it off to better your odds.

  • Here’s a link to a YouTube video that features a Guru explaining how he picks photos during a challenge:

If you have read this far good for you! You’ve already proved to me that you have the most important skills to the game: Persistence and patience. Keep after it. Keep refining your strategy and pay attention to the details! Keep improving your photography skills and remember that regardless of whether or not you win, this game will make you a better photographer.

Good luck!


About the author:  JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."

Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.

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