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How I Became A Winner Of “The National Geographic Travel Photo Contest”

November 17, 2021

The Process

How I Became A Winner Of “The National Geographic Travel Photo Contest” was a walk in the park… Not so fast. Let me start off by saying that this experience did not happen overnight and it was not an easy process. For seven years I submitted to every photo contest that I could find and spent a good amount of money doing it. During these seven years, I did not win any competitions. That’s right, none… I started to get discouraged about not placing in any of the competitions and wanted to give up. I honestly felt as if it were a waste of time and money. As time went on, I realized that my photos needed to change. 

In 2016, I felt that shooting every wave with my Canon 14mm f2.8 wide angle lens was not doing it for me. My underwater shots were getting better and I started to get some recognition in contests but obviously I wanted to win! At the end of the winter season in 2016, I decided to purchase a 100mm f2.8 Macro Lens. I had a feeling that this would be a game changer! As I started to use that lens, it actually hurt my photography for a while! I started to capture images in the water and learned that I needed practice. It took me almost two years to learn how to get one crisp photo with my camera setup in my waterhousing. That is right, two years of non stop horrible sessions and not knowing how to use this lens. I actually put the lens away and let it collect dust at one point because I was getting impatient with the process.

Canon 14mm f2.8 lens
Danny Sepkowski’s Underwater Setup includes this Canon 14mm f2.8 Lens

The Change

In 2017, I decided to take my 100mm out to Keiki shorebreak for the first time. This session changed my life forever. I ended up capturing my number one selling print “Agape” on this day. This is when my abstract ocean photography was born. After learning how to use this lens with my lens port on my waterhousing, my seascape photography excelled. Publications of my work from National Geographic started to flood the world’s feed and my contest results started getting better. In 2017, I realized that style is everything in photography. I finally captured my style and I knew that it was going to grab momentum.

Abstract Seascapes
Abstract Seascape image of “Agape” taken during Danny’s first session with his 100mm Lens at Ke’iki Shorebreak.

I told myself that I was going to only shoot waves with my 100 mm lens for the next two years. For two years straight I basically used the same lens. Whether the waves were firing or one foot, I shot with that lens as if my life depended on it. It was a huge learning process for me because the 100mm lens is not the fastest lens out there. There is a reason why people do not use it for water photography, but that did not stop me. When the stars align with this lens, it is pure magic.

Canon 100mm f2.8 lens

The Contest

After two years of shooting with this lens, I decided to submit my work to the 2019 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest. I usually like to submit as many photos as possible for a contest, but I decided to only submit one wave photo for that contest. That photo was “Dreamcatcher” which was taken in 2018 at Sandy Beach during the sunset. Sandy Beach is known for its epic sunrises and back breaking shorebreak. Capturing a wave photo with the sunrise can be epic but crowded as well. In 2018, I made it a mission to shoot Sandy Beach with a different perspective. Little did I know that Sandy Beach has epic lighting during the sunset.

National Geographic Winner "Dreamcatcher"
Award winning photo “Dreamcatcher”

I posted “Dreamcatcher” on social media in 2018 and the engagement with my audience was unreal. I honestly did not care for the photo but other people apparently did. Before I submitted any photos to the contest, I took a step back and thought about what other people liked and not what I liked. This was an eye opening experience for my career. Style and seeing what your audience enjoys through their eyes can help bring your photography and any business to another level. After I submitted my photo to the competition, I carried on with my life and almost forgot about the contest.

Is this photo contest a scam?

I vividly remember waking up one morning to check my email messages. I had a few messages to respond to and an order to fulfill. For some reason, something told me to check my spam folder. I hardly ever check my spam folder! As I scrolled down I received an email from National Geographic stating that my work has been selected for a final review for the contest! A part of me was excited but I was skeptical that it could be a scam. I only had two more days to submit a Raw photo of “Dreamcatcher” to that email so I decided to go with it. 

One month goes by and I receive another email confirming that I was a winner of the contest! Keep in mind that I am still skeptical about this… After they gave me that announcement, I had to keep my mouth shut for another month and not tell anyone about the news. Obviously a photo contest of this calibur pays so they wanted all of my banking information, social security number, w-9, and contact information. This is when I got really sketched out.

I ended up calling the financial team to confirm everything was legit. As I made the call, a man with a foreign accent answered the phone. At this moment, I thought my dreams were crushed and everything was a hoax. As the man asked for my information, I told him that I wanted to wait until the contest news was announced to make sure everything was safe.

National Geographic Photo Contest Winner

On June 12th 2019, the announcement was made and reality hit. My email and phone were blowing up and I started to receive inquiries from people around the world to purchase “Dreamcatcher”. Next thing I know, CNN is doing a cover story on my work as well as USA Today and other news channels. It was a relief to know that the contest was not a scam. My outer state sales skyrocketed that year and opportunities started to blossom. It was an honor to be chosen as a winner out of 50,000 participants. This contest helped my career today and has taught me that patience pays off.

Do you want to know How I Became A Winner Of “The National Geographic Travel Photo Contest”? Hard work and patience are ideal to get your photography out there. I believe if you develop your style over time and listen to your audience (to a certain extent) opportunities will arise. Instead of shooting with multiple lenses, try to shoot with one lens for as long as you can. I believe photography is all about perspective. Sticking with a lens for a long period of time can teach you about composition and lighting in a different way. Always submit your work and check your spam folder:)

National Geographic Winner Danny Sepkowski CNN
Cover Story on “Dreamcatcher” by CNN
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