My Guide To Photography Contests

- - Contests

I’m pretty sure it’s not just my in-box that’s crammed with photography contest notices these days. Mine are of the “will you share this incredible opportunity with your community” ilk and I’ve stopped even checking to see if it really is “an incredible opportunity” or actually a way to either a.) Make some money off contest fees or b.) Get some usage rights and/or collect images that they’re too lazy to go find themselves.

Now that we’ve entered the dog days of summer and many people are thinking marketing strategy for the fall I thought I’d put a few thoughts about photography contests on the blog.

Avoid contests with 1st, 2nd and 3rd places. Having been on the judging end of a few contests I can say that when forced to all agree on something or put it to a vote the results are, well, average. In a contest like this a better approach would be one judge. The contests like PDN’s Photography Annual and American Photography’s book where there is no ranking simply inclusion are a better format for photography, because it allows for a wider variety of work to be included in the “winners.”

Know your rights. First stop should be http://www.pro-imaging.org an organization thats produced a bill of rights for photography contest organizers. Contests that do not appear on their site need to be carefully researched. Any contest that takes excessive rights to the images submitted is geared towards amateurs and you should steer clear of it.

Entry fees should pay for something. The fees are an important barrier to entry for a contest, because as a contest organizer you want people to limit their entries and to consider them carefully. I cannot imagine wading through all the dreck a free contest will attract. I’ve experienced the fatigue of looking at hundreds and hundreds of images and I can tell you first hand it’s not long before you begin to doubt your choices. So, yes, photographers should want contests to have an entry fee associated with them, but there should be something that fee is going towards and preferably it’s printed and collected or given out to jurors/industry professionals.

Ignore the jury. The chance that someone on the jury will see your image and give you a job is virtually nil. I made a tremendous effort once to write down all the names of the photographers whose work I liked while sifting through entries then tacked that list to my cork board back at the office and that still wasn’t enough to get me to pull the trigger on some amazing people. Expects other jurors to do less. There is an exception. I find that seeing the same photographer and image winning multiple contests is an effective way to sear them into my brain. If you’re got something truly remarkable you may want to “shoot the moon.”

If you win, don’t just stand there. You should enter contests with the sole purpose of using a win to start a conversation with someone you want to work with. I suppose validation is another reason photographers enter, but I think it’s more important to have a marketing goal in mind. I entered contests with my magazine work solely for a section on my resumé for awards.

Contest organizers who want to run a legitimate contest that truly represents an “incredible opportunity” should do the following:
1. Create a pool of winners or use a single judge.
2. Adopt the bill of rights.
3. Make it transparent where the money is going.
4. If you have top tier judges create something they can refer to when hiring.

There Are 35 Comments On This Article.

  1. You know, this list cuts out pretty much all the professional, well-respected photography contests available today. I hope that this was geared towards amateurs and keeping them from falling prey to the nasty ones out there.

  2. Or, take that same money and do something that actually has a 100% chance of being seen. Take pdn for example, they have maybe 100 winners out of 100,000 submissions. The odds of getting in aren’t much greater than winning the lottery. Why not take that $750(10 entries) and do something that will actually be seen or advance your career?

  3. I look at contests the same way I look at portfolio reviews. Could be great, but most likely a waste of money. On one hand, if you are selected as a winner, the exposure is potentially great if you win more than one award a year. On the other hand, one must be highly selective on which contest to enter and pretty much write the money spent off as a big gamble. IF all were to adopt the “bill of rights” and follow your guidelines it would help, but most don’t and there are really only a couple worth ‘the chance’ (Communication Arts for example).

  4. Finding something concrete to get out of a contest is important.
    There seems to be a constant assumption/acceptance that content creators should work for “their portfolio” or the possibility someone might notice and you may get future work (probably for your portfolio) but of course those selling the content would never accept any of those things as payment.

  5. Robert, your blog is one of my bibles in these challenging times. Thank your sharing these guidelines. They are a big help for a lot of us.

    May I humbly opine that if an organization can not get on the phone and make ten phone calls to tap some industry sponsors and/or foundations to pay for a contest, then it has no business making money off the backs of rookie photogs in these tough times. Peanuts for them, *very* tough-earned bucks for us.

    Because that is what a lot of these contests feel like, money-making enterprises preying on the dreams of those of us who decided to become visual thinkers on passion and vision alone during the worse planet alignment for our industry in a century. The web has laid waste to media; technology has leveled the field against the pros; and we have the worse recession in my lifetime, to boot.

    In this scenario, those of us who believe and who can are forging ahead in noman’s land without anything in our pockets but a need to focus on the content of our vision because even the tools might not be here in the next decade or so given the advent of things like CGI and/or the thundering wave barreling our way of visual technology that we are about to imagine and manufacture that is sure to drive cameras the way of the dinosaurs. None of us know if cameras will be here in ten years.

    I rather spend my money and time figuring out how to re-connect visual thinking to real-street human beings instead of focusing on photoshop post-pro, for instance, or obssessing on a technology that is making Murphy’s Laws a thing of the past, or on contests. In this no-man’s land, Content is the focus if we want to imagine the future right now. Because at the end of the day, it is substance and content that remains king, not marketing strategies ad infinitum, or the latest half-day-web-fad, or contests.

    I pursued contests almost fanatically, albeit selectively, early on, only to discover that those who won were more often than not either well-established and/or established and on their way to being well-known, or any combination of those variables. Those thousands of us not on that VIP section were/are left out sucking rocks. Yes, of course, unknown talent is discovered at these contests, but at the same rate that pins are accidentally discovered in haystack contests.

    As rookie photog of 3 years being forced to make a living in these tough times I have come to realize that working the trenches and walking the walk with the work and knocking on doors and adapting and readapting and growing and evolving on the fly with the Teutonic changes among us helps me not just survive but thrive, and by focusing on producing work and evolving and getting better I get more mileage and doors opened than spending hundreds of dollars and weeks of my time and resources on hail-mary contests that are conspicuously and/or bias-blocked before reaching VIP-only endzones.

    Why would I want to spend a week of time best spent on working my trenches and designing my content and pay an organization a hundred dollars best spend on a workshop or lens or web-tools when I can send a professional email and/or mailer to the juror on its list to acquaint them with my work? So as to keep informed on how I get better and how my vision grows and evolves.

  6. Great advice, Rob, and thanks for the link to pro-imaging.org.

    I have a couple of questions:

    1. Is there a disconnect between “Avoid contests with 1st, 2nd and 3rd places”
    and “If you win, don’t just stand there?” If you look at contests mainly as a marketing vehicle, isn’t it better to say “I won first place” than to say “I was one of 100 photographers chosen…” I’m not trying to nitpick (you know I over-think these things), I’m just thinking about it from a business strategy perspective. You raise a great point of winning vs. validation. If the objective is to win, then doesn’t it make sense to go for a definitive win?

    2. I see your point of not expecting judges to offer you a job based on contest entries; but wouldn’t it make sense to look for contests judged by photographers who’s work you respect and has some similarity to your work?

    3. Any thoughts on the optimal range for entry fees? Clearly if the fee is too low, it’s going to draw a large number of entries. But there must be a point at which the entry fee is so high, it becomes a contest for people with more money than talent.

    4. Is there any listing of contests that people actually view as important? As you say, there are a LOT of contests and you could spend a fortune entering them. It would seem to me the best strategy would be pick one or two high visibility contests that represent a good fit for your artistic style and leave it at that.

  7. Thanks for posting this Rob. As a complete ‘unknown’ in the industry and after several years of submitting for contests, I was fortunate to have my work published in this years PDN Photo Annual & Communication Arts Photo Annual.

    I can’t say its generated me work yet, as times are sketchy. But being in these has got me doors to talking to photo editors and it rises you to a more professional level and feels good to be recognized by peers. Added bonus is more traffic to my website.

    The marketing goal is bang on – I needed recent competitions to add to my CV and this filled the spot nicely.

    Entering many contests is an expensive business, so only choose the competitions that feel right to you.

  8. Picking up on that point.
    Is there any real evidence that winning a photography contest leads directly to getting work?

    I don’t see it myself and feel the time, energy and money would be better spent on making sure that the people I need to see my work actually do.

  9. Good article. Thanks Rob. One thing that always puzzled me is reading about someone saying they got ten ‘honorable mentions’ in a comp. Maybe its just me but I always think its a little bit like saying ‘i took ten shots and still missed they bullseye’.
    Makes me think about all those entry fees too – a lot of money.

    I limit myself to one fee pay comp per year now with a max budget of $100 for fees. Keeping expectations pretty low to avoid disappointment.

  10. Right on there with the paid contest. From one side having to pay to enter the contest filters greatly the photographers, but from the other side you have to make sure that it is a real contest and not created solely for profit purposes.

    Marco Aurelio, I liked your comment very much and from photos on your site I can say that you are also talented. I don’t think though that contests are complete waste of time. Maybe in your line of photography they are, but definitely not in any line. In addition, you don’t have to spend so much time with the contests. All it takes is to see if you have an image that is relevant to a certain contest and post it. Of course there are fees, but not all contests are that expensive!

  11. Excellent post Rob, and some of your respondents may be missing the message here .Contests when run well, are a viable “extra” promotional tool As they are totally subjective in my world they are an “extra” BUT that does not mean they should not be included in to your MIX of promotional efforts.
    Ck the rules of the contest you wish to enter see if they are set up in a manner as suggested here,and ck out the judges,usually they are listed and then submit your best work with NO expectations.That may sound odd to most readers but letting go of expectations allows you to free yourself from “needing” this to be a win. As with all promo efforts this one alone will not get you the assignment. It’s a combination of efforts that works over time so letting go of needing to win puts this particular effort into context. If you feel the judges, rules or fee or show visibility are not appropriate, pass,
    If you do win an award make use of it by creating visual email with the winning shot , and/or a direct mail piece and by adding it to your web site under a news or awards section. You might also track down the judges and write a personal thank you. Now there’s a great effort that will get noticed!

    • @selina maitreya,

      yes, Selina, of course, they are absolutely necessary in a marketing plan. I actually liked them quite a bit–honestly, and pursued them early on. because i love the competition, and one does learn quite a bit out of the process (how to edit, how to present one self and work, how to kill pics we fall in love with), etc. But that was when I was making 70k a year in corporate America in New York and I was begining to take baby steps in fine art photograhy, and obviously I had the budget. But when i decided to leap and live off photography three years ago and was slapped hard in the face that the market is absolutely awful for rookies (even the pros are having a tough time, as you know), then from a sheer practical point of view, in these tough times, it is just cost-prohibited for a rookie photog.

      Anddd… it is clear to me that contests best serve the photog already established, or even just established (but her/his budget is way better than a rookie’s). For those of us who are just starting out, it is not viable at all in a *very* tough market. We just dont have the money right now. I mean, i have had to shoot toilet paper and napkins to pay my rent, and stay alive while the storm passes, while doing a lot of personal work in order to build my vision and portfolio. now that alone has brought me all of my work. I shot for free for Demotix for one year, 46 stories and not a single one sold. But that experience just got me admitted to getty latam! Over the last couple of years, us rookies can not even afford a consultant (wink wink), or a contest, and by the looks of it, it might takes us a few years to get a decent economy back.

      So, i stopped worrying about the low income, focus on content and getting better, and was drastically forced to cut non-critical aspects of my budget: i.e. contests.

      Selina, down here in the trenches it is really really bad for those of us who dared dream of becoming photogs. i have had to shoot everything that felt on my lap to pay my rent, website, my *very*expensive tools, you name it. i went from being able to afford a new high-end laptop every six months to caring for my camera equipment as if it was made of china glass. isnt it ironic that the bad market is actually forcing some of us to dust off and retake the old model of photographer who shot everything that came to his desk?

      Interestingly, I started out with fine art photography (Surfaces series) but the bad economy took me to photojournalism by explicit economic necessity (i can not overstate how dire my need was) and I loved it (even at such lousy fees, and grabbing rights contracts), and if it hadnt been for such a bad economy, it would have never crossed my mind to do photojournalism or editorial jobs, which i really love and they are feeding my fine art in ways I never imagined (Aequilibrium Est series). but i digress: the money is really low right now. that is a hard unavoidable reality. i think sometimes we all get a little carried away by the all-you-need-to-make-it-is-the-latest-marketing-plan-fad-of-the-day rosy mentality when the cold reality down here in the trenches is that there is no budget for contests right now. I dont want to work at a desk ever again, and I refuse to go work in starbucks to supplement my income, and there is no way I am going to quit because for the first time in my life i do something i love passionately. when things get better, i will be the first to budget 2-3 contests a years, and build from there – why Rob’s guidelines are now posted on my think-wall – andddd… knock on your door! :)

      • @marco aurelio, hey Marco.I hear you I truly do.I work with photogs down in the trenches daily. My clients don’t call me their photo therapist without reason:) It is tough and making choices as to how and where to spend your money is good business. AND I was not advocating for contests simply pointing how this additional or as I title it “EXTRA” effort might be benefit.

  12. Okay Rob,
    If you had to recommend three contests a year to submit to, which would they be?

  13. john mcd.

    One of the biggest contests pre-screens the entries so that the judges don’t actually even see half of them. It’s understandable given the sheer volume of entries they get(and boy they sure make a lot of money off those entry fees). So told me a friend who has been a judge. But shouldn’t they make that clear up front?

  14. The American Photography Annual has always really gotten my goat with their fees. Fees to enter, then printing fees if you win, and then you have to BUY THE FREAKING BOOK. But hey, at least you get to go to a party.

    Although it’s true that judges aren’t scribbling names of photographers down while sifting through entries, don’t you think that new work that they respond to makes an impression on them? They may not make a point of hiring that person or even recalling their name, but they’ll see the work again (probably in another contest) and it starts to become a new record in their mental image database.

    • @Jasmine DeFoore,
      The “full court press.” Contests, editorial, mailers, email… and you’re thinking, I see this photographers work everywhere.

      • Just ran across this post, a few years later! I think everything still applies. And Jasmine’s points are all still valid. Repeated exposure to a specific photo or body of work, or a photographer’s name/logo are often a necessary “evil” of getting in the right doors. I’ve judged a few contests (PDN amongst them), and it’s true what Rob says about the best intentions of saving the best work for your future reference. In my experience, after seeing not just hundreds, but THOUSANDS of images, the experience can be eye-blurring. But it’s also a wonderful exercise to recognize exemplary work. Plus, as a judge, you typically only have time to give a gut reaction to work — and there’s little time for deliberating. I think that’s a good thing, sometimes.

  15. The winning photos are usually lame anyways and done to death with no originality. Contests really are lame bragging rights.

  16. Thank you for your important and informative blog. Professional Women Photographers (PWP) 35th Anniversary International Women’s Juried Call for Entry is not just another contest. Our organization follows the Bill of Rights and offers great benefits in return for the entry fee. Over $3000 in cash prizes, a huge pool of selected images for an online exhibit, a group show in a Soho Gallery and the cover of our IMPRINTS Magazine. For details, your readers should visit http://www.pwponline.org/calls/individual.php?which=2010-06-10-1

  17. I plugged away at my first “contest” I popped a image in at PDN “faces” contest. I knew it might be a long shot but what teh hey. I suppose having been a first time entrant I didn’t expect much, the people’s choice voting got me to the 2nd or 3rd page.

    Over all it was kinda bland and unexciting- I didn’t get any updates after they closed the voting. I paid $45 for entry fee and I didn’t get a T-shirt that said “you might have been had” no subscription for back issues, and surely no industry “connections”. Like it’s said “I get, got.”

    Then about 60 days later I got an email announcing the winner. I gotta say it was a great fu*king image, so props to the winner.
    @ jack sorry no ego stroking or even a tug.