Some thoughts on photo-contests

If you are a photographer of any kind, you are probably inundated with information on photo contests. I am often overwhelmed by all the entry information that comes via snail mail and e-mail. I personally enter very few contests. I was thinking an explanation of my reasoning might help others as they consider entering contests.

I think most photographers should spend less time dreaming about the fame and fortune they may get by winning and more time clearheadedly researching the contests. Photography contests are a business and just like any other business transaction, they should be evaluated carefully in terms of potential gains (and losses.) So what do I look for in a photo contest?

First, I look to see what the real, tangible benefit is going to be for me if I happen to win. Certificates and diplomas are generally worthless. Publication can be a benefit, if the publication where my work will be seen is considered serious. Posting images on a web site is usually pretty worthless. I can do that myself, so why enter a contest to “win what I already can get? The trick here is not to over embellish the so-called prize and make it into something it is not.

Next, I look at who the juror (or jurors) will be looking at my work. I generally have two concerns. First, is the juror someone who might be able to somehow benefit me by seeing my work? Second, have they shown interest in the past in the kind of work I am submitting? This requires research, to find out who the juror is, where they work, what kind of photography do they produce (as a photographer) or gravitate to (as an editor or curator.) If the juror is a well-known fashion photographer or an editor from an architectural magazine, I am probably wasting my time submitting documentary work.

Having been a juror (or on the jury) for a number of competitions, I can assure you that even though jurors try to be open-minded about the work they are reviewing, it is inevitable that some personal preferences creep into their “editing.” That is not necessarily a bad thing. Exhibitions that have a strong curatorial point-of-view tend to be more interesting than shows that are so all-inclusive as to be bland. If a given competition has a juror that is not likely to appreciate your work, try again next year, when the next juror is likely to be coming from a completely different aesthetic point of view.

Finally, I try to avoid contests where an entry fee is charged (or if there is an entry fee, I make sure the potential upside is worth the certain downside of paying that fee.) In case you have not noticed, photo contests have become a big business for some publications and organizations. Some of them are quite legitimate and they need to charge entry fees to make the contest viable. (I will touch on contests that are like that shortly.) Others have discovered that a few annual photo contests can generate a nice revenue stream. If you are wise, you need to be willing to spend the time to figure out which are worthwhile and which are not.

Here are a few contests that do not charge an entry fee: From the site: “The Nikon International Small World Competition is dedicated to furthering excellence in photomicrography.”

Obviously rather specialized, but the return on investment, which is publication in their calendar and recognition within that specialty make this one a good choice if your work and their interests match.

“The Nikon Photo Contest International provides an opportunity for photographers around the world to communicate and to enrich photographic culture for professionals and amateurs alike.” From the site: “We are inviting both amateur and professional photographers from all over the world to take part in the international Hahnemühle Anniversary Photo Award.” The theme of the competition is “For Originals”. We are interested in the photographer’s unique angle of capturing people, objects and moments from an original perspective.

The “catch” is to enter you have to make prints on one of their papers. They certainly are good papers, so this may or may not be a good “investment.”

“Hearst 8×10 Photography Biennial is an international competition to identify and promote new and emerging photographers.”

I entered (and won an honorable mention in) this contest. The visibility in the world of New York City photography has been helpful to me and again, there was no entry fee so why not? From the site: “In addition to landing the cover of a 2009 edition of Professional Photographer, the winner will be awarded prizes from our cover photo contest sponsors. Prizes will also be awarded to second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place winners.”

If being on the cover of their magazine will really help your career, by all means enter. If you look at previous winners and previous covers, they have a pretty narrowly defined range of what kind of work they will use. After a very serious editing session, I settled on one image that I am both proud of and will likely fit the constraints of what works on their cover, and so I recently entered. From the site: World Press Photo Contest, which brings together pictures from all parts of the globe to reflect trends and developments in photojournalism.

Another specialty area of photography, but the winners each year are very well publicized, making this a career-shaping opportunity for a few each year. I enter this every year, though I have not had any luck recently. Back in the 1990’s I had pretty good luck in the other photojournalism contest, Pictures of the Year.

So, what kind of contest will I pay to enter? The 2009 Photo Review Photography Competition is one that I would consider in the fine-art realm.

Why? First, they tell you up front who the juror will be. This year it is Lesley Martin, Publisher of the Aperture Book Program who is someone who meets my criteria, as described above. In addition, the winners will have their work reproduced in the 2009 Photo Review competition issue and on the Photo Review website. Also, the winning photographers will be chosen for an exhibition at The University of the Arts, Philadelphia. Finally, they offer prizes in the form of materials and cash.< The “College Photographer of the Year” contest for college photographers is another one that has a fee and is for a very narrow set of photographers.

Past winners have gone on to very successful careers in photojournalism so the upside for qualified entrants is pretty high. The Communication Arts Photography Annual competition is one I enter every year. Yes, there is a fee.

But I was a winner once in the 1980s and once in the 1990s and both times I was busy with calls for my portfolio for years afterwards because I was featured in “C.A.” as it is called. In the world of publication photography there is no better place to be featured than in the pages the Communication Arts Photography Annual. I have been featured in a couple other photography annuals but winning those did not generate the kind of phone calls and portfolio reviews that came with my appearance in “C.A.”

There are thousands of contests out there. A few are listed on the resource page on The Wells Point at:

I know that my list is by no means complete. In fact I welcome suggestions for other competitions to add to that list. But before you send me a link about a contest, or before you enter one yourself, ask yourself a few questions. What is the tangible upside if you do win? Who is the juror and are they likely to connect with your work. Is the obvious downside of paying an entry fee balanced out by the potential gain? Treat photography contests like the business they are. The folks on the other end know how to benefit from the contests and so should you.

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