An online photography 'game'

Updated: June 02, 2021

In January 2017, a friend directed me to a website called Gurushots. It was a photography site that hosted a series of mini competitions / games called 'Challenges' that focus on a particular theme. For example, the first challenge I participated in was 'Magnificent Mountains'. Other topics are 'Starting with <insert letter>' where you'd enter photos of things starting with the letter specified, or 'Leading lines' which would mean you post images using the composition technique of leading lines. You get the drift.

path to master

I was quite taken by Gurushots, as at the time, I was burned out by photography. Picking up my camera had started to weigh me down, rather than introduce a spring to my step the way it used to. Gurushots pulled me out of the rut by reminding me why I fell in love with photography in the first place. After years of working as a photographer and doing the same things over and over again, I was challenging myself with new subjects (macro, blue, small things, upside down, toys etc etc) and found myself once again thinking creatively about what I was shooting and learning new and revisiting rarely used, skills and techniques.

I hadn't done any focus stacking work for years, but because there was a 'Macro' challenge, I pulled out my old lens extenders and focusing rail, and proceeded to hone my focus stacking skill. I (re)started looking for interesting plays of light and shadow, looking at details, reading the light as I entered a room... basically I rediscovered my love for photography.

It's been quite a ride. As you play/compete you earn 'Gurushot points' and reach various achievements. As you get better and reach milestones, you raise in status from Newbie all the way up to Guru, at which stage you can host your own challenges.The statuses are Newbie > Rookie > Challenger > Advanced > Veteran > Expert > Champion > Master > Guru.

I rocketed my way to Master (a few weeks) and was certain I'd overcome the final test of actually winning a challenge, within a couple of weeks, and be one of the fastest to achieve Guru status. I'd even made a bet with a friend from Shanghai Photography Enthusiasts that I'd get there before her (I didn't), even though I was two levels below her!

[An aside: I really liked the fact that I knew someone who was on GS because that provided the opportunity to talk, discuss and learn from each other. One drawback / missing feature / gripe I had with Gurushots, was the fact that there was no way to communicate with other players. There was no chat function, no forum, nothing. One could leave comments on other people's photos, and occasionally we'd use that to send someone a message, but you felt creepy and like a stalker.]

But that win was too damned elusive.

Several times I finished in the top 10; many times I reached the #1 spot with 30 minutes to spare, and found a host of Gurus blasting past me like locomotives, in the final 5 minutes. When the dust settled, I'd be down somewhere in the 30s, nursing a bruised ego and shattered dreams. It seemed so random. No matter what I did, no matter how amazing my images were, I just couldn't win a challenge.

I should add, that there are a couple of ways to win a challenge. The first, and most obvious, is to get the most votes. The second is by having your image chosen as the Guru Top Pick. Essentially, the hosting guru also votes for the images he/she likes, but is more judicious with their choices. If they choose your image, you get a bonus 50 points to your total score, and you get an achievement badge called a 'Guru Pick'. Before the end of the challenge, the hosting Guru chooses the image he/she likes the most, and awards it the Guru's Top Pick. So at the end of a challenge, you have a couple of winners, the guy that scored the most points, and the guy that got chosen by the Guru (yes, the system can, and is, abused, but that is the exception, not the norm).

So my friend made Guru before I did – she got a (well-deserved) GTP. I kept trying. It was hard to stay positive, hard to not give up. Eventually I came to believe that it was just about luck. You could get to Master by virtue of your skill as a photographer, but you needed luck to reach that final level. I plodded on, hoping I'd eventually get lucky.


One day, when I logged into GuruShots, I saw a notice saying they were looking for beta testers, and I signed up. I was given access to the beta version of a new feature called Teams. Of course I didn't know anyone else so just looked around at the various teams already being formed. I tried making a team, but no one joined it. I joined a couple, but it seemed like everyone knew each other ("how?" I asked myself, constantly) and I felt as though I was intruding, so I'd leave and look for a new team. Eventually I stumbled into a team called Deadpool, and everyone seemed pretty friendly and chilled out. So I stayed.

With Teams, everything changed. I learned there was an unofficial Facebook page where (mostly) Gurus posted and interacted with each other. That's how they knew each other! I learned that there were people who won challenges on a regular basis. There was a handful of Gurus that had literally hundreds of wins under their belts. I kept hearing the phrase "He knows how to win challenges".

If someone knows how to, then there's a way to do it. It cannot be random. It's not luck!

Quite by chance, I had meandered my way into an incredible Team. There was so much to learn, so much to share. Suddenly, I had people I could discuss with, learn from and interact with. I understood something about the game's mechanics and how to monitor your metrics and make informed decisions about when to swap, enter and fill. I realised that it wasn't luck. Neither was it just about being the best photographer. You had to have that, you had to have the goods, but actually winning a challenge, also had to do with strategy and timing.

You could muddle your way to Master by virtue of being a decent photographer, but to win a challenge, you had to know how to play the game. You had to understand the metrics, record and process the data, make informed decisions about when to move, when to pull out, which images to use, which images to boost. It was anything but random, anything but luck.

Erik Ersson, popularly called Triple E, knows how to win challenges.

Teams changed everything

Until I was part of a team, I had no understanding of the subtleties of timing and nuances of strategy that were involved in winning a challenge. On joining the team, I began to learn, and shortly afterwards won my first challenge and reached Guru status. Two weeks later, I won another. I'm now racing that same friend, to see who reaches Guru level 3 first. This time I'll win. Teams changed everything!

My team, Deadpool, is a mix of Gurus and Masters. We are scattered all over the globe, from USA to UK and Europe, from Israel to Hong Kong, Thailand and Australia. We cover 5 decades in age and come from a myriad of backgrounds. We are one of the stronger teams, usually hovering around rank 10 on the Leaderboard. Our stated goal is to enjoy the journey, not only focus on the goal. We play for fun – our chat is full of jokes and camaraderie, and we play hard – If you beat us, we'll make you earn it, if we beat you, we'll make it by as high a margin as possible.

We regularly critique each other's images, teach and learn photography and editing techniques, and discuss strategies for upcoming challenges. We have a strong culture of individual improvement, and have extended this to the Gurushots extended community by creating an exclusive Facebook group where we mentor Masters and teach them about the game's metrics and expose them to the subtleties of how to play Gurushots. Several of our mentees have graduated, achieved Guru status and now mentor others.

In our group chat, you will find subjects that range from the suitability of an image for a challenge, to a passionate discussion on which beer is the best in the world. You will hear about game metrics interspersed with a discussion on how to care for a sick pet. We talk about photography, life, love and relationships. We talk about social isolation and how we cope with the new normal, and of course we talk about photography and Gurushots.

In this eclectic mix of strangers, in this photography game, I have not only found the things that made me love photography in the first place; I have not only found new ways to challenge myself; I have not only found skills in areas of photography that I didn't know I had; Strangely, and most pleasingly, I have found friends.