Full Disclosure: I believe that MANY photography competitions SUCK! These competitions are harmful to your development as a photographer and a total waste of time unless you are a person who truly enjoys competing, in which case there are also some excellent photography competitions that, if entered for the right reasons, can be very rewarding.
My goal in writing this article is to help new and developing photographers avoid the pitfalls of creativity-killing competitions and the camera club organizations that promote them. As the title suggests, I will share the pros and cons behind entering them and do my best to empower you with information to help you navigate the good from the bad.
I have never met a photographer, amateur or professional, who purchased their first camera and then fell in love with the art of photography because they wanted to participate in a photography competition.
I have, however, met and spoken with thousands of photographers over the years who fell in love with photography, and then, to build their skills and find some like-minded people, they joined a camera club or photography organization only to find themselves being bullied into participating in print or digital image competitions.
Photography, as both art and science, is an avenue for self-expression and communication that transcends language barriers. For photographers, from the novices with their smartphones to the professionals with top-tier gear, the journey of capturing life through a lens is as rewarding as it is challenging.
A stepping stone or a pitfall in this journey could be the decision to enter photography competitions. Let’s dig into the advantages and drawbacks of participating in these contests and explore whether they bolster the spirit of photography or serve as a detriment to a photographer’s development.
Potential Pros of Photography Competitions
Motivation and Challenge
The spirit of competition can be a strong motivator for some. Selecting and submitting your best work forces you to critically evaluate your portfolio. If taken seriously, it also pushes photographers to venture out of their comfort zones, try new techniques, and approach their subjects from innovative angles. Unfortunately, many people “dumpster dive” through old files that may match a theme so they can enter a contest. This is a phenomenon that is common in camera club competitions.
Recognition and Exposure
One of the most cited benefits of photography competitions is vanity, the recognition that winners and even nominees can receive. We all appreciate the recognition from our peers for the quality of our work. Indeed, receiving recognition in the form of points or a ribbon or award can provide inspiration to go out and shoot more.
Having your work showcased on such platforms can lead to more followers on social media, increased traffic to your website, and open doors to gallery showings or even professional assignments if your work is of a high enough caliber and you have a solid body of work beyond the contest entry.
Feedback and Growth
Competitions often provide participants with feedback from a panel of experienced judges. These critiques can range from nothing more than a pompous judge’s opinion to considerate insights into technical skills, compositional elements, and artistic expression that the photographer may not have considered before. Before entering, research into the judging/feedback mechanisms of a contest is required.
Keep in mind that judges don’t always agree. One may love a photo, while the next doesn’t, so you shouldn’t let the feedback of one judge determine your appreciation of your work. Only you can do that.
Potential Prizes and Career Advancement
Tangible rewards, from gear to cash prizes, can be a motivator, especially for amateurs who are looking to upgrade their equipment. Winning a prestigious competition can also be a significant accolade on a professional photographer’s résumé.
The Cons of Photography Competitions
Subjectivity and Bias
Art is subjective, and so is judging it. This isn’t sports with a stopwatch or goal line. A judge is not and never should be the ultimate arbiter of the quality of your work, especially since they know very little about you, your experience level, or why you made the image.
Over-relying on external validation can erode a photographer’s confidence and self-belief. Please understand that a panel’s rejection or acceptance isn’t the ultimate validation of one’s work.
The criteria and rules of photography competitions can vary wildly, often favoring certain styles or themes over others. This subjectivity can make competitions feel like a gamble more than an accurate measure of a photographer’s ability.
Costs and Commercialization
Many contests have entry fees that can be prohibitive, especially for prolific entrants or those from lower-income backgrounds.
One possible advantage is that there are likely fewer people that enter, but if you don’t win, you have wasted your money. A lottery scratch-off may be more profitable.
The commercial aspect of some competitions, where the organizing bodies seem more focused on profit than artistry, raises questions about the contest’s integrity. Carefully crafted marketing makes it sound as though you are being afforded the honor of participating in a competition – provided that you can afford the entry fee.
It is also crucial to thoroughly read the fine print as many competitions claim rights to your images (“rights-grab”) that can cost you your copyright or lost revenue. These fine print rules* may apply to only the winner, or they could apply to all images entered. As they say, “The devil is in the details,” read the fine print thoroughly.
*I don’t consider any contest with fishy language in the fine print or anything that sounds like I am giving up control of my work.
Also, keep in mind the time and cost of printing if the contest requires prints to enter or to display for a show. Contests requiring a specific print size or ratio can make it challenging to find images that fit those formats.
Creativity Confined / Creativity Killed
There’s a trend where photographers might start tailoring their work to what they believe will win competitions, often leading to formulaic images that lack personal artistic vision. This herd mentality can stifle creativity and originality.
Competitions come in two general formats. Those with open categories where the images are evaluated at face value and, depending on the judge’s taste and mood, may receive an award. In these competitions, rules are generally limited to when the image was made and how it is formatted or displayed.
The second category, which is very popular among camera clubs, is a format outlined by PSA – The Photography Society of America; it generally has two categories, a Nature and Pictorial Category, and a lengthy set of rules and requirements that images must comply with to receive points.
Homogenization of Art
These contests often come with themes or rather extreme guidelines.
Ex: Tranquility, Peace, Calm, Contemplative, Quiet. While this can sometimes push photographers to explore unfamiliar territories, more often, it can shackle creativity by pushing photographers to produce images they believe the judges want to see.
When a specific style or trend gets rewarded repeatedly, it can lead to a deluge of similar work. This diminishes the rich tapestry of diverse styles that photography can offer and creates an endless loop of the same ol’ same ol’.
Example: PSA (Photographic Society of America) provides its members and judges with a 23-page illustrated document that details what a Nature Photograph is and isn’t and how it should be evaluated. 😳 If you want some mind-blowing reading – here is a link to the guidelines. Needless to say I am not a fan of PSA and discourage any photographer from joining. I speak from personal experience.
Rejection is part of any competition, but frequent participation without recognition can be demoralizing. It can lead to self-doubt and even cause some to abandon photography altogether.
Competitions can transform the serene act of creating into a high-pressure race against time and peers. This rush can sap the joy out of the creative process.
Your Time is Limited
We only have so much time available to us. The number one complaint/excuse I hear from photographers, both amateur and professional, is that they need more time to do everything they want.
While it is easier and faster to enter online competitions, you must still devote time to shooting, selecting, editing, and preparing your entries. This is time that could be spent learning and improving your photography skills. You need to be honest with yourself as you weigh the chances of winning against your need to improve.
Popular Opinions on Photography Competitions
Generally speaking, the popularity of photography competitions is waning as many in the photography community view competitions as a mixed bag.
There are still some die-hard traditionalists who argue that competitions are essential for gauging where you stand among your peers and for the industry to celebrate talent.
There is an argument to be made that if approached with the right mindset, the rewards, both tangible and intangible, can be well worth the effort. These proponents often see competitions as a form of gamification that encourages continuous learning and improvement.
On the other side of the spectrum are those who, like myself, view most competitions as undermining the essence of photography, which is to create images that have personal meaning and artistic value.
The growing opinion is that photography competitions are an outdated mode of recognition in the era of social media and digital portfolios. With the ability to reach large audiences online, the need for traditional competition platforms is diminishing.
I would suggest that the time and money spent on competitions could be better invested in personal projects or marketing.
If we look at the value of competition generationally, most who enjoy and find value in photography competitions are aged 40 and over. Younger Millennials and Generation Z photographers tend to place much more priority on experiences in their lives, and they are more interested in creating images than competing with them.
This age gap also helps fuel a minority view that competitions are inherently elitist, creating a barrier for entry to the art world that favors those with the means to participate. This perspective sees competitions as perpetuating inequality within the field of photography.
Do Photography Competitions Hold Value to You?
The actual value of participating in a photography competition is a profoundly personal calculation. It depends on what you seek to achieve and how you measure success.
It Takes a Special Breed
I have a few friends and colleagues both in the United States and Europe who live for competitions. But think of it as the mechanic at your local gas station who, on the weekend, works as a member of a pit crew at a local race track.
The professional work these photographers create, while it is excellent, is different from what wins them awards. In fact, they rarely, if ever, submit their client work for competitions because it would not place well. These are people who enjoy the challenge of the contest. They enjoy the challenge of 23 pages of rules and regulations and navigating those constraints to produce the best image.
These photographers are like NASCAR drivers whose car is measured and must be within millimeters of the standards or be disqualified from the race.
In other words, they have a personality type that enjoys that challenge, and it motivates them. But do YOU have that kind of personality? Is that something that would motivate you? Is competition why you fell in love with photography?
For some, the potential of exposure, feedback, and money far outweigh the potential downsides. For others, the risk of stifling creativity and facing repeated rejection is not worth the potential rewards.
A photographer should never rely solely on competitions to validate their work; instead, they should continue to seek out varied feedback, develop their unique voice, and find fulfillment in the process of creating their own art.
My Personal Experience
I have entered and won awards from several photography competitions in my 50+ years as a photographer. As a teenager, I won several awards, including one from Highlights Magazine for Kids. In my late teens and early twenties, I won numerous awards from NPPA – the National Press Photographers Association; PPPA – the Pennsylvania Press Photographers Association; and the Keystone Press Awards. These contests were judged by peers, and the awards were given for excellence in photojournalism. I collected awards for sports, fashion, feature, and spot news images.
Fast forward to 2018, while I was an Olympus Visionary, I won a Peoples Choice award from Art Pop and had my image displayed on a 48′ wide billboard for a year.
You may be thinking – wait – he is against photography competitions, and yet he entered and won a bunch of them. I never said I am against them – I am against the bad ones, and it is the differentiation between the two that I want you to understand.
The contests that I participated in were structured differently than the contests held by many – not all – but many camera clubs today. These contests had simple categories, and the judges selected the images that they felt stood out the most and deserved the most merit.
It didn’t require pages of rules and guidelines to explain what a category is and how to judge it. The judges didn’t have to take classes to become a judge. That’s why I entered them. The competitions rewarded creativity, and the judges also offered valuable feedback and not an opinionated critique.
If you think that entering a photography competition may be fun, educational, or rewarding, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to give it a try – answer these two questions:
- Before you begin the process – make sure you remember your WHY. Why did you fall in love with photography?
- Be able to answer the “WHAT” question. What do you really want to get out of it?
Then do your research
- Make sure you research the format and rules of the competition thoroughly. Are you looking for a creativity-based competition like the one I entered, or does the idea of a NASCAR-type competition excite you, in which case a PSA or PPA competition will give you plenty of rules to follow to get points.
- Research the judges! Most competitions will tell you upfront who the judge(s) will be. Research all judges to learn as much about them as you can. Look at their style of photography and the techniques they use. Entering images that the judges are likely to connect with can give you a few extra points.
Regardless of the findings of your research, understand the better the quality of the image – the better your chances of earning points or a ribbon. There is no substitute for great photography.
As we navigate the evolving landscape of photography, I encourage you to focus on sharing, collaborating, and celebrating the myriad voices and stories this beautiful art form brings to life. Let’s embrace photographers of all ages and pursuits and focus less on judging and more on lifting each other up through sharing and education.
“Photography is NOT a competition. It is a passion to be shared.” — Joe Edelman