Why Would You Enter a Photo Contest?

Photo contests are often very divisive. You're happy when you win and furious when your work is snubbed. They can be so subjective yet they draw people in like moths to a flame. Why?

From the time I was a very young kid back in Australia, competitive sport was always part of my life. From the age of five, I started playing competitive soccer and that led to me taking up competitive cricket with school and other local clubs. I also played competitive rugby league until I was about 15, and on the academic side of things, I was often chosen to submit written work for local school contests.

Thus, from a very young age, I was well aware of the joys of winning and the disappointments of losing, and I understood clearly that you couldn’t always win and you had to learn how to lose graciously and respect your opponents, regardless of results. Despite these helpful life lessons, as I got into my 20s and started traveling more, my interests in competitive sport declined somewhat and I eventually found the idea of competition rather distasteful and completely lacking in any real objectivity.

Competition Can Have Such a Negative Impact

One reason I didn’t like competitive sports was because of it what it made governments and organizations do. For example, the horrific doping regime of East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s and more recently Russia, which was banned from competing as an official nation due to its doping program. They were both instances of state-sponsored cheating. Closer to home for me, in 2010 the Melbourne Storm rugby league team was found guilty of systemically cheating the salary cap in order to gain an unfair financial advantage over its rivals, which resulted in them being stripped of a number of titles they had won during those years of cheating. The club and its players of that time are still tarnished with the cheating brush.

Competition in sport also makes athletes do bad things. Fallen heroes such as Lance Armstrong and Ben Johnson are examples of individuals who stopped at nothing in order to gain an advantage and win. This resulted in lying, cheating, deception, and ultimately, disgrace. In almost every sport these days, from the amateur level to the professional level, individuals are taking matters into their own hands and cheating in order to beat their opponents and win whatever competition they are in.

Finally, competitive sports make fans and people do horrible things as well. Gambling rips families and homes apart yet it is front and center of so many sports these days and gambling companies actually sponsor many clubs and competitions. Also, fighting among fans and hooliganism is commonplace in many sports, particularly British soccer, and more recently this has spilled over to social media, where fans fight with each other and abuse each other, and even go so far as abusing players from opposition teams or teams that they support. In short, as I got older I simply didn’t like what competition engendered in all facets of society, so I distanced myself as far from competition as I could.

With all that in mind, I wonder why people enter photography contests, some incredibly often. For me, they are not objective in any way, and very often we don’t even know what criteria are being used to judge. However, many people love to enter photo contests — I also entered one recently too — so I want to examine some of the reasons why people might do so.

Masks aren't exactly photogenic when you want a good PR moment...

Validation

The first reason I think people enter photo contests is for some kind of validation. When we start our journey as beginners, we all dream of becoming skilled photographers who perhaps might one day make an actual living from our images. However, as we progress and improve our skills it’s very difficult to get a clear understanding of how much we are improving. Sure, we might ask our dear old mum or our faithful kids whether they like our photos or not, but their answers aren’t really going to help us objectively or give us the kind of constructive criticism we need. I mean, it’s highly unlikely that your loving husband or wife is going to tell us that our photos are utter tosh, right?

Feedback shown on the screens in the Art Center exhibition hall. Helpful for onlookers and entrants to know what the judges look for, like, and dislike.

Thus, one way to get some kind of idea on how far our skills have come or how our photos rank alongside our peers is to enter them in contests, where they are judged by people and industry experts we don’t know. The judges in some competitions will very often offer commentary on our images and that way we can see what we need to improve on, or where our strengths might lie. If we are lucky enough to get a prize then it can certainly add some kind of validation or confirmation that what we’re doing is on the right track.
 

Feedback on my image from one of the main judges

Of course, the flip side of that is if you don’t win a prize or get any kind of constructive feedback then you might feel invalidated and completely worthless. This is rather silly because contests are completely subjective and one person’s meat is always another person’s poison, including photo competition judges. Be that as it may, it is human nature to take failure in our endeavors rather unkindly.

Build Your C.V

Another reason people might enter photo contests is that they can help to strengthen your resume. There’s nothing that screams pro photographer more than a bunch of high-placed finishes in photo contests, especially well-known ones. Just like people with university degrees who put all kinds of letters after their name, people who do well in photo competitions love to put all their achievements in their C.V. In turn, all those great results can help photographers get work when clients look at their websites and see a long list of winning awards. In this day and age when everyone claims to be a photographer, having a body of favorable photo competition results can help photographers stand out from the crowd, enhance reputations, and result in more work opportunities.

Good results in photo contests can also help you in your job. For example, in my case, I work in academia, where the mantra of "publish or perish" is standard for many universities around the world. There is an onus on us to publish regularly, but there are not many peer-reviewed journals specifically dedicated to photography. Therefore, one alternative way to show you are active and highly regarded by your peers in the world of photography is to enter photo contests. Of course, that only works if you land prizes or favorable results, but if you do so, such recognition often goes down very well when the annual review comes around.

This will keep the Dean of the college happy for a while.

Cash and Prizes

Finally, there’s the obvious reason of cash incentives or prizes. Many photo contests around the world offer handsome cash rewards as well as offers of new photography gear. We all know how expensive this passion of ours is so any opportunity to get free gear or cash cannot be sniffed at or condescendingly ignored. Who doesn’t want that fabulous new lens or that carbon fiber tripod for free? Naturally, the greater the prize, the higher number of entrants, which means winning is more difficult. But the promise of extrinsic rewards, especially money, will always attract people.

To sum up, I’m not particularly fond of competition in any form, whether it’s sport or photography. Nonetheless, competition is part of every person’s life in almost every aspect of society and many people would have it no other way. Photography contests are not something that I thrive on but I do enter them now and then because of work reasons, which I touched on above.

What about you? What do you think of photography contests and what have been your experiences if you’ve entered any? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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19 Comments
Mike Dochterman's picture

Pfft - I'm not inclined to pay 5..10..25? bucks just to have a bunch of goofballs pass judgement on my photo.

Iain Stanley's picture

I’ve met some lovely goofballs over the years.

chris bryant's picture

I quite enjoy the occasional game of goof.

David Pavlich's picture

I do it because I enjoy it, photo contests and sports. Well, the sports thing is in the past, not because I don't like it, because my body tells me it's time to do other things. We choose to look at the negative side or the positive side. The author has chosen the negative aspects. Cheaters in sports? Yep. But they are VASTLY outnumbered by those that don't cheat by a wide, wide margin.

As far as photo contests go, if you have thin skin, avoid contests. Actually, if you have thin skin, don't ask anyone to critique your photos. We are all opinionated and have our biases. Anyone can claim to be objective, but I'm a healthy skeptic when it comes to judging photo contests. But, I enter contests now and then anyway. I see it as fun. I guess others see it as a drag. Human nature....go figure.

Iain Stanley's picture

Let me qualify by saying there’s nothing inherently wrong with a competition. It’s just an event with a set of rules and a set of people/judges chosen to enforce those rules.
What I don’t like is what people do, and become as a result of competition, particularly at the highest levels. Sadly, I think it brings the worst out in people, mostly because of greed and ego.

Power, money, competition...many people (not all as you quite rightly say) transform into different versions of themselves when these things are involved.

Danny Ball's picture

I think it can bring the best out in people as well. And, in fact does more often than not. I am of course subject to correction on this point, as I have no actual data to confirm or refute either claim, but my sense is that from little league to professional sports, there are more postitive and inspiring stories than the ones to which Mr. Stanley is referring. Our perceptions are colored by experience and exposure, however, and that is his. I do think there is a distinction between a sporting event which is fairly objective in terms of who wins and loses (the scoreboard), and something that is totally subjective like a photography contest (and even some sports, like gymnastics) where the contestant is at the total mercy of a panel of judges that inevitably bring their own biases and preferences to the table. The results are, in many respects, arbitrary. My thoughts on photography contests, are that you should avoid them if you are just wanting validation (and if you need validation that is its own problem), but if you are wanting objective criticism by knowlegable people in order to improve your skill and grow as an artist, they have the potential to be quite useful.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes all your points are perfectly accurate and I don't think anyone would strongly disagree with any of them. Although, to your point about scoreboard sports being perhaps more objective, whenever there's a referee/umpire involved, that immediately eliminates a fair amount of objectivity. If we take soccer as an example, how often do we see players remonstrating with referees over decisions, and coaches blaming referees for losses, and fans screaming blue murder on social media over refereeing decisions?

Humans make mistakes, referees make mistakes. But one fan's mistake is another fan's great decision. Was it even a mistake in the first place? The theatre of sport is a wonderful thing and I would never want it to disappear. I love combatants having a red hot crack at each other - within the rules. It's when people go beyond the rules all for the sake of "winning" that I tend to turn away.

But to return to photography, yes I totally agree. It is absolutely random and arbitrary. Indeed, the grand prize winner of the recent contest I entered got up on stage to accept his award and said how thrilled he was because he'd entered so many contests before with images he thought were wonderful only to get a big fat zilch. He said he had no idea why he won this time but at his age - about 75 I believe - he'd take it! Honest, and sadly all true.

Danny Ball's picture

Also, might I add that your photo is absolutely stunning!

Timothy Roper's picture

If you want to enter a contest, post some images on Insgtram, which is a global, on-going contest. And if you think likes from strangers are a bunch of BS, why do you think likes from other strangers on some contest platform is somehow validating? It's all the same thing.

Iain Stanley's picture

Good point. Although I might say you’d hope the judges of a photo contest are somewhat more credentialed than Instagram likers. But sure, it’s all subjective, no doubt about that

Stuart C's picture

Yet after watching a few series of that Master of Photography on Sky Arts, I think I respect the opinions of people on my Instagram feed more than the set of absolute whoppers who present that program.

Iain Stanley's picture

I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine. Again, I think that’s ego and a often a pathetically ridiculous desire to show how much better they are than others. I work in academia and go to all kinds of conferences for work, so believe me, I see plenty of these bombastic bilge deliverers.

But yeah, some “judges” are utter _____

Stuart C's picture

The work they were judging was nothing special imo either, see much better shots posted every day on here and Flickr etc. There was certainly plenty of arrogance flying around the room too which is always off putting.

Gonzague GB's picture

There is Photo Contest and Photo Contest... Quality differs a lot, but the ones in Japan are usually, sadly, a joke :( and made to cater to a small group of people. But cool for you, and nice shot!

I will also add, that the only advantage here in Japan, is recognition when you want to make business in an overcrowded flow of Japanese offerings, when you cannot get that same recognition by your work alone.
Your work alone could be 3x time better than the local offering, but not being Japanese may not help, and having a "local" contest award will help you.

So, again, really depends on what you are looking for, business and location.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes, you're absolutely right. I only enter a few a year to keep my college happy. I've never found "not being Japanese" to be a hindrance, however. Locally, or up in Tokyo, Osaka etc.

Ed Wojtaszek's picture

The Professional Photographers of America has a judging rubric that, while not perfect, seems to inform the scoring by the judges in PPA events. The problem with it is that it fails with documentary photography or any image presented with minimal editing. I also found PPA membership pricey with little benefit to me. The Photographic Society of America resolves this by identifying six divisions, each with a specific definition of subjects, editing permitted, and equipment restrictions. The PSA sanctions hundreds of exhibitions each year. A feature of PSA exhibitions is that "acceptances" are awarded to 15% to 20% of the entered images in addition to the top honors that are awarded to very few. The acceptances do give you a feeling for your place in the exhibition. Entering several of them gives some measure of consistency among the judges. I have tried both and I am currently participating in PSA exhibitions with some satisfaction, at least for the moment.

Iain Stanley's picture

Great information. Working at a college, my life is rubrics, so I know them all too well, including their restrictions. But having something to work with is better than nothing, at least in my opinion.

Douglas LeBlanc's picture

The only contest right now that stirs my blood is the Natural History Museum in the UK, Wildlife Photographer of the Year. The longest-running and most prestigious nature photography competition in the world. Alas I've not had anything yet fit to enter. One day perhaps. 😊

Teo Kefalopoulos's picture

Great article and have to say that I really agree on what you are stating here. I am solely making fine art images and have serious doubts that fine art photography contests are worth participating to. Fine art photography is very difficult to comprehend, let alone judge and give awards to the contestants. Like you stated, if jury A decides that your work is trash, jury B might think it is gold. Regarding the true attributes that make an image stand out and get awarded, this fortunate outcome really is a matter of coincidence.

Also, I am getting bored of seeing a photographer's presentation/resume that starts with "multi awarded...", yes it really is catchy, makes you want to read the rest of the interview/article or look further on the photographer's works, either to purchase a print or book a workshop. It is part of the marketing but not part of the true essence of photography or part of the quality behind a photographer's body of work. People outside of photography get amazed by these titles, they immediately grab your attention and that's why even "honorable mention" or "shortlisted" or "accepted" are considered to be awards as well. Indeed, some photographers are obsessed or even rely on these awards to make a career or even replace the questionable quality of their works with the "unquestionable" quality of awards...
*you may want to read a similar blog post of mine at: https://www.teokefalopoulos.com/post/2018/12/09/my-thesis-on-fine-art-ph...