Photographic competitions have been around nearly as long as the art itself but it seems that in the wake of the internet they are seen as less important as they once were. There are a million and one ways for our work to be seen by thousands of people very quickly now so does it really matter if we win a few comps? Who cares?
Should I be entering photographic competitions?
I think entering photo comps is a purely personal decision and I know loads of successful photographers who have never entered a photo competition in their lives and never will. Conversely I know some photographers who swear by the drive, inspiration and prestige that photo contests provide saying that they would never have been as successful if it wasn't for the comps, some of them have never even won either.
So lets look at some of pros and cons and see if they are right you:
- Lets cut to the chase here, winning comps means winning prizes and some of them are BIG prizes. A lot of them might be photo gear and photo trips but some are straight up cold hard cash. The Sony World Photography Awards was a tidy $25,000 prize amongst other little bonuses.
- Some competitions offer exposure over tangible prizes and some of these can be some serious reach too. The infamous Red Bull Illume was pushed out continually for months prior and months after and I defy anybody to of not seen at least one of the images from the 2013 entrants floating about the web. When they finally announced the winners it was a far cry from sharing it on their Facebook Page. The official quote from their site reads:
'The Top 50 Red Bull Illume finalists were unveiled at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. The 50 finalist images will travel around the world as a unique and stand-alone photo exhibition on 2 x 2m lightboxes. To showcase the illumination, the exhibitions are only open at night-time.'.
Thats some impressive coverage.
- Granted the creative ego is a sensitive beast but if it wasn't we wouldn't be creative. If your ego is inflated correctly it can be a huge confidence boost in the right direction and winning a photo contest, big or small is a big tick in the win column for sure. Yes it's fantastic that your mum loves your 'snaps' but how do they really stand up against your peers? Entering a photo competition will pit you against other artists from around the globe and it can be a great way of seeing how well your work really stands up. Winning a photo comp at the very least will reassure you that you are on the right track, losing or not getting many votes can be painful to take at first but ultimately it will be a great driver for you. Sure you can surround yourself with lovers of your work but sometimes the cold hard reality is what we really need over the saccharin pandering of your friends and family.
- Many photographers find that photo competitions actually provide inspiration and creative direction. To some artists, a blank canvas is the biggest hurdle to overcome and with most photo comps having themes and specific subjects is sometimes just what some of us need to get focused. You can find many smaller online comps where the theme changes weekly and this can be a great way to force yourself to try new ideas and techniques.
Granted many of the Pros I've just mentioned have an equal Con but lets look at some of the specifics. Firstly, many competitions now require an entry fee, the prestigious PDN Photo Annual for example charges you $55 per image submitted and although they have some nice prizes you certainly wouldn't be firing off your Flickr library to them.
Elitist back slapping can seep into every profession and I can assure you photography is no different. Some photo contests talk big but offer you absolutely nothing in return apart from a little gold star that you can put on your bio (not a joke by the way), they will even charge you to enter just for the privilege. The International Colour Awards competition took a beating online last year as they charged you $35 to enter with the Grand Prize being the “Masters Cup Award” title. Haven't heard of it? Nobody else had either. Be very wary of comps that charge you and only offer 'Titles' as awards, they rarely mean much if anything at all.
Not winning sucks. The reason why wining feels good is because you know you've earned it. Feel free to message me and I will send you a message back saying you're a 'Top Photographer', it probably won't mean much to you because you haven't earned it. Winning is great, losing isn't, so although winning can be a boon to your ego loosing over and over again can be crushing and very demotivating so be realistic of which comps you enter. So if you've just received your first camera and you're still unsure about the difference between ISO and AFS don't beat yourself up about not winning the Sony World Photography Awards. However if you're shooting commercially for National Geographic for example there's probably little point in you entering the local church nature comp. If you get a big kick out of winning and beating the local parish scout group then you and your ego need to see somebody more professional than myself I'm afraid.
Taking guidelines and direction from competition entry forms can actually be detrimental to your style. Some say you should never shoot for comps and find the right contest for your style and only enter what you've already taken. Others say that if you aren't shooting specially for that competition than you're wasting your time. I think somewhere in the middle is fine, sure enter a few shots you've already taken, there's no harm in that but if a great comp comes along and it gets you really inspired then shoot for it too.
One of the biggest Cons is obviously copyright issues. Entering a photo contest can permanently hand over the copyright of your image indefinitely win or loose. If its an old image that is just languishing in obscurity on Flickr then it might be worth a pop. If its a commercial shot that a client two years down the line wants to pay you 35K per annum for usage rights but you no longer own the copyright for, then that might sting a little.
So to wrap up a few key points about competitions then, firstly I think entering photo contests its great to get inspired and to get a bit of a gauge on where you sit with your peers. Look at previous winners and ask yourself is this competition for me. Don't take it too seriously though as loosing can be infuriating if you think your shot was better than the winners.
Any contest you enter will require a very thorough read of the terms of usage. Some of them basically own your image forever, period. Sure you get your prize money but they get to use your image wherever and whenever they want. In my opinion unless you really respect the company or cause avoid these like a corrupt compact flash card.
Another big thing to bear in mind is the exposure I mentioned earlier, a big competition win with mass exposure can set you up with far more than any prize. You will probably recall a few years ago wildlife photographer Jose Luis Rodriguez was striped of his Wildlife Photographer of the Year award after a month long investigation to see if his leaping wolf image was a 'Fake'. Now I'm sure Mr Rodriguez was devastated to loose the award and the £10000 prize but that story and his image was published in every blog, magazine and newspaper in the land. I don't know for sure but I would like to wager that Mr Rodriguez has made far, far more than £10000 from that exposure and surely had more job offers than he could handle. Any publicity is good publicity and exposure guarantees that.
Here's a few comps to get you started, good luck :)