Photography contests aren't for everyone, that's a given. And rightfully so–not everyone wants to parade their work around in front of a bunch a strangers who have no obligation to protect your feelings or ego, nor does everyone desire to put in all the work it takes to actually make a successful entry into the ever expanding pool of photo competitions.
I used to avoid entering competitions for both those reasons–then I became a judge. This year marked my third year judging the EyeTime Photography Competition which is a really great contest that puts young and emerging talent in the spotlight. I've also judged a few other online contests, including some for the popular website, ViewBug. Since becoming a judge, I've even mustered up enough personal momentum to enter some of my own photos into competitions for the very first time in my life. So, taking my recent experiences into consideration, I'd like to share some advice with those of you who may be curious about entering their work into a contest.
In my opinion, the primary benefit of entering a competition is giving yourself the opportunity to grow from and develop your photography skills by presenting your work to a panel of judges and peers. In some instances, the feedback you get from entering a contest is in itself worth taking the time to submit. However, the benefits of entering your work into a competition are plentiful. In some instances, there are monetary rewards in way of cash prizes and product giveaways. Others benefit from the recognition to be achieved with winning work, sometimes adding prestigious titles onto their resume, helping them secure grants and commissioned work. These are all perfectly valid reasons to enter your work in a photography competition.
Entering a photography contest, and being successful in them, can be time consuming. For me, the most time consuming part seems to be finding the right competition to enter. One that both suits my work and isn't some sort of underhanded scam. A lot of effort can–and should!–go into this phase. That being said, once you've got a list of trusted competitions built up, the pain of scouring the internet for a fitting competition somewhat eases.
Now, while we're on the subject of finding the right competition, let's talk about just how much emphasis you should put on this aspect…
This Is Really Important: Be Choosey
Not all photo competitions are created equal. It's really important you take the time to do your research, and read then re-read the fine print before you submit anything. There are a lot of credible photography competitions out there, but, unfortunately, there are also a lot of scams out there, too. These come in a variety of ways, with the most common being the ever sneaky rights-grab, as Jason Row has expands on, here.
A legitimate photography contest will never ask you give them full rights to your photos. Make sure this is not a stipulation as you are reading the terms!
Some best practices for deciding on the legitimacy of a photography competition are researching past winners and evaluating whether or not the contest benefited them in a way that you feel was worthwhile. For example, did the win lead to an exhibition or perhaps sponsorship?
Another thing to take note of is the reputation of the contest–is it a well known contest, and if so, is well known for the right reasons? A simple internet search is often enough to yield some background history on specific competitions and should help you establish a feel for whether or not it's a scam.
Do Your Research & Be Realistic
I also urge photographers to be cautions of competitions that charge an entry fee. Not only is this a red flag, the organizers are possibly in it for the money and not helping the photographic community, but for a lot of people–good photographers included–it can be a total waste of money. If you come across a contest that requires an entry, take your time to look at some of the past winners' and losers' work. If the winners historically have a style that is drastically different from your own, you may want to steer clear of the competition. Instead, spend a little more time finding a competition that prefers a style closer to your own. It can save you a lot of time and money. Of course, that advice can also be said of contests that do not require an entry fee!
Lastly, it's also worthwhile to be realistic when entering competitions. Some of the larger, more prestigious competitions can attract thousands of entries and only one will be a winner. Ever if you do submit an excellent photograph, at the end of the day, all art is subjective–you have to be prepared for the fact that what you see as a perfect and inspiring image might not catch the eye of everyone else. Learning to take this in stride is part of the challenge!