What You Need to Know About Photo Contests Before You Enter


Photography contests are attractive to photographers of all kinds, but especially newcomers to the discipline. It doesn't matter what niche or style of photography we practice, there will always be a contest designed for us. The reasons for participating in them can be diverse – from friends hinting that we should participate, to wanting the awards the contest can offer. Unfortunately, not everyone has a positive experience with contests, which is why we should take our time and analyze the different options available.

Image by Joanna Kosinska

 How to Analyze a Contest

The first step when deciding whether we should participate in a photography contest is to know the type of photographs the contest is looking for. We cannot participate with conceptual photography in a photojournalism contest, or with portraits in a landscape contest. There are competitions with open themes, but we must learn to evaluate them with a certain objectivity since some contests have acquired a bad reputation due to the poor practices. Often, companies unrelated to photography launch contests for the ultimate purpose of acquiring a vast inventory of images they can use in business activities, without paying for their use – known colloquially as “rights grabs.”

To effectively discern the type of contest that suits us, it is worth taking time to study the information provided by the contest. Not only will they give us clear instructions on technical requirements (such as image size and format), but also a clear understanding about usage of our images, and how our intellectual property rights will be managed. Some Terms and Conditions state clearly that photographers give partial or even total cession of patrimonial rights of the photographs that they present.

Image by Priscilla Du Preez

The simplest way I have found to discern the intentions of a contest is to see who is behind it. So, a contest promoted by a photography magazine like B&W is more likely to be true to the spirit of photography than one sponsored by a bank or an airline, for example. The latter contests are often referred to as “spec work”, and should really be avoided because the sponsoring companies usually get the assets legally, without paying anything for them (and this applies not only to photography, but to many other creative services such as graphic design, illustration, music, etc.).

Usually, serious photography contests ask for a small biographical sketch of the photographer along with a statement that justifies their photographic work. These contests are likely to ask for a title for each image and a brief description or caption. This caption should be contextual, non-technical. They ask for it because they are committed to making a more objective distinction of the image and leaving subjectivity aside.

The time between the contest’s public launch and the final date for submitting work is also very important. Well-planned contests show they are serious by planning ahead instead of improvising. Some popular annual contests are even anticipated by the public long before the official announcement.

The most important thing is to always closely read the offered Information about the contest. If we take time to read this in depth, we will have a very clear picture of what will happen with our photographs.

Benefits of Photography Contests

Image by Marcus Castro

When we decide to participate in a contest, it's usually because we are keen to gain one or more benefits beyond the grand prize. Competitions that have an important link with photography usually bring with them some benefits not only for the winners, but also for the participants. These types of benefits are mostly “Networking” and “Exposure”. The big problem is that benefits such as “Feedback” and “Learning” are rarely attained by most participants. This loose end is the main reason why I suggest investing in a review or a portfolio review rather than waiting for this kind of return from a contest. (Some do deliver feedback, but this is not the standard).

Often the participants are forgotten and don’t get to know why their work wasn't selected. The general reasons for this are many, from technicalities (that is why it is important to read the terms, to comply with the requirements of the format of the images) to the aesthetic and subjective criteria of the judges.

Do Some Research about the Contest

Image by Samuel Zeller

It is important to distrust every photography contest a little, and do a little research that will provide the right insight to help us make a better decision.

How to Successfully Participate

  • Always read the information in depth, and possibly twice.
  • Pay special attention to the rights of use for the images. I have read contests information in which they even get to burn all the material they receive, to protect the photographer's rights.
  • Make a selection that not only reflects your best work, but that is in line with the contest theme.
  • Do not trust all the contests that appear on the internet. Being skeptical can help you avoid a possible fraud.

 Paid Entry-Fee Contests

Image by Vitaly

This habit usually helps filter out candidates and provides resources to magazines or platforms to operate. We must be aware that the payment is a way to attract serious photographers who are willing to pay for this dynamic, and weed out photographers who are not (yet) as committed to the discipline.

We must be clear about what we intend with our participation. This way we will avoid frustration if the most likely thing happens, which is that we are not selected. I'm not being pessimistic; I’m only speaking in statistical terms. It is not bad to participate in photography contests. What is wrong is to use competitions to obtain assets cheaply through deception. This message, if I’m not making myself clear, is directed at all those people behind those fraudulent contests.

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *