Gurushot Series: Part III

Gurushots Survival Guide — Part III

How I use Gurushots, and Tipps & Tricks

Welcome to part III of this Gurushots article series. In the first part, I covered all the basics but sprinkled in some tips & tricks as well. If you don’t know what Gurushots is and how it works, then I would recommend spending a bit of time reading the first part or dive into the game, then read the second part to learn more about the pitfalls. The third part (this article here) is about how I use Gurushots, and there is also a section about some strategies I found useful.

How I use Gurushots

I use Gurushots

  • to improve the quality of my photography. So how does that work? The main factor is the constant encouragement to enter images into challenges. Some challenges remind you of photography techniques you might have neglected or never explored. E.g. recently there was a challenge ‘looking down’. And I noticed that I don’t have many images where I am on an elevated viewpoint, looking down on a subject. So I made a mental note to explore that technique next time I am on a field trip.
    I also remember that I shot a number of images specifically for a Gurushots challenge, e.g. ‘Umbrella’. I put an umbrella in the driveway, used the garden hose to ‘let it rain’, and converted the image to black & white.

That image went into the Gurushots challenge, but I also used it in a club competition. I practiced staging/arranging subjects, and macro photography, and using the Nik Efex Pro plug-in for the B&W conversion.

  • to get some exposure by entering (paid) exhibitions.
    I talked about that in part II already, it is not a major thing I do with Gurushots (probably because it costs money), but every now and then I like participating in an exhibition. I don’t believe it will actually give me ‘reach’ or much ‘exposure’, but it is a nice feeling that your image is seen by people going into an exhibition and have an interest in photography.
  • as a portfolio site to hold a good collection of my current images. I don’t have an Instagram portfolio or anything which displays a wide range of my images, so I use Gurushots to pass on the URL to family members and friends if they want to see what kind of photography I do. I do have a website where I also put images online, but it is more curated and doesn’t have that much variety.
  • to get ideas about photography projects. Similar to what I said further up, I think it improves your photography if you get ideas about new projects you can then follow up on. Get to a car race. Visit the local airport to take some images of starting/landing airplanes. Visit a balloon festival. Do some street photography. Shoot only B&W for a day. Capture smiles on faces. Take images of patterns and textures. The list is endless.
  • to look at beautiful images, be inspired by them, and learn from the very good photographers on the platform (you just have to skip the awful amount of not-so-good images). I like to use the voting sessions to also collect really good and inspiring images I come across by ‘liking’ them. Over time, the ‘likes’ section of your profile will then have a lot of images you found great at one time. Take some time to review and study them, you can learn a lot by trying to find out what attracted you to these images. Some have EXIF data exposed, you can review the settings and learn from that as well.
  • as a playground to test images for their ‘wow’ factor. To do A/B testing in preparation for other photography contests. Remember, I am a photography club member and we regularly participate in photography competitions with educated and competent judges to critique the images. These competitions have a different ruleset and environment, but the images still need to have a wow-factor to impress the judges, as they also might only have a very short amount of time to let your image advance or fail. So images in Gurushots competitions that do not do well might lack that wow-factor. It is just an indication, but it is something to think about.
  • as a socializing platform to communicate with fellow photographers. The new ‘Team’ feature lets you chat with teammates and discuss strategies or exchange photo location opportunities or just have some small talk. If you are not in a local photo club, it can be a good place to just talk to other photographers. Some teams are restricted to a local area, so you might actually meet team members in real life (as I did).

Strategy Section

This is what some people were waiting for, the “getting rich quick” section.

Hold your horses! There is no quick and surefire way to get to “Guru” status if that is why you are reading this. Sorry.

But I can list a couple of things I found useful to do to increase votes and to avoid time- and money-wasting. Here we go.

This section is only about trying to win a challenge. It is about game strategy (remember, Gurushots is a game). It is not about how to get better at photography. If you don’t have enough decent-quality images to put into challenges, then you need more luck to get to the top rank. Having lots of great quality images definitely helps.

Disclaimer: I am like a blind talking about color. I haven’t won a challenge yet. But I was close (#4 place once), and I have 71 Guru Picks under my belt. So what I present to you are pieces in a puzzle that constantly changes the image you want to assemble as Gurushots changes the software and algorithms.

Two ways to win

Every normal challenge has two different modes of winning:

  • get the most public votes for one image, or for a set of images (2 or 4 image sets), or both
  • get the top “Guru Top Pick”

Your strategy for winning one or the other would be quite different, as you target different decision-makers.

Let’s have a more detailed look at the two sections and the winning conditions.

Most Public Votes

There are two sub-types here, the single-image speed challenges, and the multi-image set challenges (2 or 4 images). The single image challenges only have two winners, whereas the other challenges have three winners because there is also a winner for the most votes across all images you put into the set of 2 or 4 images.

They all have in common that you need other players to vote on your images, not the guru who created the challenge. That brings a whole new dynamic when you try to optimize your winning strategy. Basically, to maximize the votes per view you want

  • high profile player (master, guru) with high voting power (8 or 9) to vote
  • a filled exposure meter at the right time
  • a guru pick (50 votes) helps
  • more views (boosted)
  • images that appeal to the masses and are on-topic

These are the main factors you need to optimize to get a good shot at winning the public vote in a challenge. Keep in mind that the system tries to give each image in the challenge the same amount of views, regardless of when it was entered.

Let’s start with the first bullet point. How do you attract high-profile players, the “Gurus” and “Masters”, to vote for your images? Let’s take a step back and look at how a voting session in a web browser works. When you open the voting screen, the system has determined a set of 200 images to display to you. As they normally do not fit all on your screen at once, they are only loaded as you would be able to see them on your screen. So a smaller screen might fit six images, then the first six images in that 200 image batch are loaded and displayed. Is it random in which order the 200 images are presented? I believe not. That is where the exposure bonus meter comes into play. I believe the order of the images in the voting session is mostly determined by their hidden exposure meter value. So the first couple of images you see in a voting session have a high exposure meter value, whereas the last images in the 200er batch have probably a low exposure meter bonus value.

Stay with me. Going back to how the voting session works. Once you see the six images on your screen you then vote on the images you find worthy of your vote. You scroll down, the next images are loaded and you repeat the voting until you have seen all 200 images, or you have decided to end the voting session somewhere in between. You then click on ‘submit vote’, and at that point, the list of seen images is submitted back to the server, together with the list of images you have voted for.

How do you vote? Do you take your time for each image, evaluate it enlarged to full-screen view, use a color-calibrated monitor, think about if an appropriate composition has been applied, is it sharp where it should be, is the horizon straight, are sensor spots visible, is the aspect ratio fitting for the subject, where are leading lines and does it have a good story?
Or do you take a split second to make a decision on what to vote for in a rapid-fire bam-bam-bam way? To get it done as quickly as possible, as you still have 20 other open challenges to vote on?

Now think about what most high-profile players would do. Ideally, they would do the quality vote style, but realistically they do the quantity vote style. That means they tend to get finished as quickly as possible, so they vote for a lot of images at the beginning of the voting session (maybe the first 50–100 images), that is the quickest.

Does that ring a bell? You want to be in the first half of the voting screen to get voted on by gurus.

What else do the experienced players do? They vote right at the end of the challenge, minutes before it ends. I can’t really explain why that is, I can only guess. But I have seen it over and over. If you are in the lead 10 minutes before the end of the challenge, chances are you will not win the challenge, and that is especially soul-crushing. I have been there. So try again next time to be at the top a little bit later.
Having a full exposure boost meter at the end of the challenge is key in my opinion. It makes sure your image is exposed to its full potential. What do I mean by that?

It has to do with the number of players participating in a challenge growing over time. The most potential views your image can get are right at the last second because then the maximum number of players in that challenge is reached. But obviously, the voting can’t all happen in the last second, so you take the second-best option by exposing your images as late as possible, and have the boost activated, but still with enough time before the challenge ends, to give the players time to vote for your image and get all the views (and hopefully votes) it is entitled to.

So to get the most bang for your buck you want your images displayed

  • first on a voting screen
  • shortly before the challenge ends

To get both done at the same time, you want to fill your exposure meter a couple of minutes before the challenge ends. How long before is an art form I haven’t mastered yet. It depends on the type of challenge, how many votes it has, and when the challenge ends. If you do it too late, you miss potential votes. If you do it too early, you might get more not-so-high-profile-players in the voter mix and you lose a few potential views coming in at the late game.

Now let us circle back and re-iterate: The system tries to give each image in the challenge the same amount of views, regardless of when it was entered.

Imagine you enter an image at the beginning of a challenge. Your images get displayed to voters over time until they reach the same amount of views as all the other images in the challenge (that is a moving target as new images are entered by players into the challenge over time). But if you enter early, you get a lot of views from players that have only low voting power. You want to avoid being exposed to these low-power voters. Why? Easy calculation: if your image would only be displayed 500 times to a beginner player (1 vote power) and all vote for your image, you get 500 votes. If your image would only be displayed to gurus and all vote for your image, you get 500 times 9 voting power= 4500 votes. In both cases, you got 500 views. But the votes tally is drastically different (500 vs 4500).

So you definitely want as many high-power players as possible. How do you do that? The best way is to enter late in the challenge. That is probably one reason why the votes of high-profile players are accumulated towards the end of the challenge.

Another way to avoid the view ‘leaking’ during a challenge is to wait until the first flurry of votes is gone, then swap it with a placeholder image, and then swap it back in at the end of the challenge (“double-swap”). That way you do not have to use a ‘key’ to enter late, but instead, you have to use two swaps. The swapped image keeps the views it had at the point in time when it was swapped off. But as the view target rises during a challenge, a ‘view-gap’ is created for the off-the-challenge image. When you swap it back into the challenge, the system tries to close that gap and puts it in many voting sessions. It is similar to if you would put in a fresh image not used before in that challenge. If that is at the end of the challenge, you get exposed to high-profile players as mentioned above.

You still can’t force gurus to vote for your image, or prevent newbies to vote for your image. You can only try to shift the balance to what you believe is in your favor.

One note about the cost of the strategies. If you are low on resources, typically low on unlock-keys (as you only get a free key every 7 challenges you participate in), you can instead enter early with a placeholder image. Near the end of the challenge, you swap that image to the image you really want in the challenge. That way you use a swap instead of a more expensive key. Is that as effective as the double-swap strategy mentioned above? Don’t know. The single swap at the end takes probably more time as the image has to catch up more views. It might be harder to time correctly. But it only cost one swap instead of two. I think it is worth testing out.

We have talked about the exposure bonus meter a number of times, and how I believe it works. But we also have to know when to use it and when not to use it.

That is one component that needs experimenting with. For example, is it enough to only put your exposure meter to the max at the end of the challenge (and boost, if that is available)? In theory, that should give you the maximum exposure with the minimum voting time per challenge. I need to put more testing into that to verify if that is a valid assumption. Also, a lot of testing is needed to find out the best remaining time for different kinds of challenges to start voting (1, 2 or 4 image challenges, amount of votes already cast, end time relative to European prime time, exhibition challenge or not?). And then there is the boost. Do you turn that on at the same time you get your exposure meter to the max? Or wait until your potential view count is reached, and then increase it by boosting the image? Does it make a difference? I don’t know yet. I will find out, eventually.

To summarize:

To get a high public vote count,

  • enter as late as possible
  • have the exposure bonus meter filled at the end
  • wait until you know which image is your best one, then boost that, also as late as possible
  • if you want to enter early to avoid using the late entry unlock key, put in a placeholder image and replace it shortly before the challenge ends. This way you exchange the expensive unlock key for a cheaper swap. In this case, you need to give it a bit more time, as the replacement image needs some time to catch up to reach the same level of views as all the other images in the challenge.

Guru Top Pick

When you look at the “Rank” section of a challenge, you can select to see the current ranking of the two or three sections in which you can win. One would be titled the “Guru’s Top Pick”. This is a bit confusing, as the images you see there are the guru’s picks throughout the challenge (in which order?), but the winner is then selected by the guru separately after the challenge ended, as the best of the previously picked guru picks. That is then the Top Top Guru pick. Or the Winning Top Guru Pick. How would you name that? I think the section would be better named “Guru Picks”, and the winner is then the “Top Guru Pick”. Well, it was not my choice to make. Just be aware that the images you see in the “Guru’s Top Pick” section are not sorted by any rank, they are just the pool of images the guru then has to select one image from at the end of the challenge to pick the winner of the “Guru’s Top Pick” section.

If you are after the Top Guru pick to win a challenge, you don’t have to care about the public votes at all. It doesn’t matter if you get to “Elite” or “All-Star Level” at the end of the challenge. You just need to be on the voting screen with your images when the guru makes the picks. And you have to have an image that pleases the guru’s eyes. To put it in bullet points:

  • Have a high-quality image with impact that is
    - on topic
    - conforms to special requirements set out in the brief by the guru
    - is entered early in the challenge

Ok, that was only one bullet point, but you get the idea. Let’s have a more detailed look at it.

On topic and the challenge brief: Read the challenge brief. If it says: “no borders and no watermarks”, then you can’t expect to get a guru pick if you have a watermark or a border for your image. They are still valid for the challenge, the guru is just not keen to pick them for the Guru’s Pick. Take these pointers and follow them.

Put high-quality images in. That means they should have a minimum resolution for a proper desktop screen, probably 1920 by 1080 or better. Use a color-calibrated monitor yourself to make sure that a guru that uses a good color-calibrated monitor sees the image the same way as you do. You don’t know if a guru has a good monitor, but I think it is reasonable to suggest that the percentage of gurus with a color-calibrated monitor is higher than the average player. So make your images look good on a properly calibrated monitor.

Your images should be of high quality not only in a technical sense but especially in a photographic sense. That topic fills library walls. Here is a shortlist to give you some idea about what I am talking about:

  • clean image with an instant message or story
  • no distractions like dust spots or other technical imperfections
  • straighten a horizon, have vertical lines exactly vertical
  • is the image sharp in the spots where it matters? E.g. eyes of the subject should be in focus.
  • is there a story?
  • is the eye going to where you want it to go, and can your image hold the attention?
  • is the image properly exposed to support the message?
  • if you have a B&W conversion, is it justified, does it make the image better in B&W?
  • have you thought about the composition? Would a different angle, time of the day/year give you better lighting?
  • are you competing with lots of other similar images, or do you have the special sauce baked in? The ‘wow’ factor which makes the guru stop and look?

But what is a good photo? The guru might have a different opinion on that than you have, so look at the images the guru already picked, to get an idea about what he/she is after. It helps if the guru is a regular challenge host, then you can review past challenges and see if there is a personal preference visible. Maybe he likes people images. Or she prefers lots of negative space. Or high-contrast. Or a faded look. Or a specific color palette. Or nature images. Or abstracts. Or conceptual images. Or funny images. Try to find out if there is a preference at all.
Warning: To please a known judge might be a method to win a challenge/game, but it might not be useful to advance your photography style. Try to actively separate these, be conscious about it. Otherwise, you might end up with a type of photography you do that is not your own anymore.

To have a chance for the ‘Guru’s Top Pick’, you have to put the image into the challenge earlier on. If you enter your images 10 minutes before the challenge ends, you will never get a Guru’s Pick (but you might get a lot of public votes instead).

And then there is some luck involved as the guru will not see all challenge images. They just can’t review all of the thousands of images. If you want to know how one of the gurus conducted a picking session, here is a Youtube video worth watching:

Not sure if that is a typical session, but it seems reasonable that other gurus pick in a similar fashion.

That concludes my three-part Gurushot series. If I ever make the fourth part, it will be about how I finally got the win I need, and I probably put in an update to bring the articles in line with the current game, as it evolves over time.

I hope you learned something useful by reading the series. See you in the challenge! If you are curious, here is my profile on GuruShots:

Further Resources:

Reddit subforum: There are some knowledgeable people there, but discussions can get heated quickly. Be friendly, ask polite questions, and you get answers.

There are a free and a paid eBook from Tom Bourdon:

I got Tom’s paid ebook when it was on special. I won’t get into any detailed content here, as it is copyrighted material. I found it helpful to get some views from one of the most prominent Gurus. I would say you benefit the most from the ebook if you are

  • a beginner/intermediate photographer (as there is a good section about general photography topics in there)
  • and/or are a Gurushot player who hasn’t reviewed other sources yet (like the sub-reddit mentioned before).

Don’t expect secret strategies to win in there, but it clears up how some things work. Or worked, as the game evolves over time.



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