5 Things To Know About Photography Competitions

I always chuckle this time of the year as “Photo Competitions” are everywhere and seem to claim a desire to showcase "the best". Aside from pulling at the ego in all of us and thrill to compete, we often fail to realize the true intentions of many of these so called "competitions".

Early in my photography career I entered some competitions and won awards, however as I matured within my photography journey, I realized many, if not most all competitions provide a photographer very little value. As a matter of fact, oftentimes rights to an image are grabbed for their purpose and ulterior motives rather than to showcase the photographer's work. Over time, an awareness set it that photography truly is, and always will be a subjective medium. At the end of the day opinions of other photographers, judges, and critics will always in the end, simply be just that... opinions and nothing more. So why the fuss surrounding Photography Competitions? Here are my thoughts:

Photography Competitions Can Be BIG BUSINESS

Photo "competitions" can oftentimes be a business strategy that puts a business in front of a new audience, motivates one to share one's work (at the expense of the participant) for someone else's business benefit (not the artist), and typically gives the organizing business an SEO boost.

Don’t Be Fooled, Oftentimes You The Artist


One can find hundreds, if not thousands of photography competitions by searching The Best Photo Competitions, Free Photo Competitions, Photography Awards, Landscape Photography Competitions, Photographer of the Year, and the never ending list goes on and on. One begs the question as to why? Well again.... it's BIG BUSINESS

A halo of light around the sun that sits behind a tree shines above and around a lone, leafless tree in the bramble covered southwest landscape.

What Does One Have to Gain by Entering?

Oftentimes.....Very Little

Oftentimes the photography competition prizes are worth little to no value except a nice pat on the back and the title of “winner." Is it really a platform to showcase you and your art....or is it entirely something else? Usually it's the latter....

While some competitions are free to enter, some cost upwards of $15 to $50 per entry. Some competitions I see boast of 10,000-20,000 entries. Profitable Business?....... Well you do the math. Where does the money go? Does value exist for those who don't "win?" It's often the business itself where the value stays. What about these "free photo contests?" Well if you win…..some say you can be included in their Calendar. Free exposure,…or is it a way the Calendar can have beautiful imagery AT NO COST and a free marketing vehicle (YOU) to market the business riding on the excitement of each contest participant eager to share share share?

Oftentimes Photo Contests ARE NOT Altruistic

Very few photo contests are run by non-profit organizations solely for promoting photography as an art form. On the contrary, they are most often meant to create a financial benefit or business marketing boost. It’s not really about sharing your work. One well known International Pano Awards "photo competition” deems 45% of the entries as a winner with their Gold, Silver, Bronze tiers…. Sounds like the everyone gets a trophy approach. Beyond that, 45% of the contest entrants boast of their winnings to the world, boosting brand recognition of the competition organizing company. While I respect the company, this marketing approach and vehicle is easy to spot.

There is no Such Thing as a BEST PHOTO

Even in a Photo Competition

Whether one likes to compete in a game or not, the question remains.....in a world of subjectivity, can there ever really be something defined as "The Best?"

Don't be fooled, there are deeper reasons behind photo “competitions.” Think twice before you let go of your edited files, raw files or photo rights and read the fine print! You may be unknowingly releasing the rights to your photos.

There’s often a reason the worlds most renowned photographers aren't entering their images in photo competitions. As I see it, a photographer's life is a journey, not a competition. Photo competitions aren't always the best forums for celebrating great art. One thing I see all to often is photographers who are too preoccupied with changing their personal styles and output to align more with what they believe the judges and critics want to see rather than maintaining a style of their own or a style they, themselves enjoy. I think this can be one of the greatest detriments to the photography and artist community. In this case, is an Artist, or photographer really becoming better, or just conforming to others standards? While it's a positive aspect of growth to become "better" so to speak, many in the pursuit of impressing others or changing styles in hopes of photo competition prestige lose their own flavor and what makes them unique. Does a panel of judges really define "best, better, and impact?" Do the outcomes of photography contests significantly propel an artist or photographer? Do juries, art reviewers, and contest judges really determine a photographer's value and worth? The answer is No.

World famous artist, Joan Miró failed to impress those of his generation and faced great ridicule. Prior to becoming one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, his first exhibition which took place over 100 years ago, was such a disaster that the crowd and critics became so unruly they all started destroying the art. Pierre-Auguste Renoir who later became a famous French national treasure was known as “Pierre who couldn’t sell a painting.” Picasso will forever be remembered in the history books as one of the world’s greatest artists and yet is one, in his time, who would have never won an award or even the respect of fellow artists and art "experts" of his day. Looking back in time, it's hilarious to read many of his critic's thoughts as we all know the end of the story. One can be relieved, and free themselves of stress to know that even Picasso wasn't immune to misguided critics, judges, and art reviewers. He faced what one could say are his era's version of trolls and haters, yet stayed true to himself and what he wanted to create. The payoff....well, that's obvious. What would have happened in the event he wished to adapt and lean towards appeasing the critics rather than finding his own style? His name would be potentially lost amidst the sea of names we don't recognize who at one time may have been regarded as "the best." As I shared in a recent presentation titled "Elements to an Artist's Vision" at an Optics Conference hosted by B&H, a best practice is to focus on what matters most, and develop the artistic vision and dream that feeds your own happiness and everything else will flow from there.

If you opt to participate in a photography competition,

consider the following:

  • Determine your goal and whether or not entering, and going through the process and/or potentially winning an award will help you towards accomplishing your goals.
  • Ask yourself, "are there other ways of accomplishing your goals such as exhibits, gallery entry, image critiques, workshops, and other forms of feedback."
  • Be sure to read the terms and conditions to make sure that you’re not giving up rights to your images.
  • Keep a record of all competitions you enter, including the contest name/URL, photos entered, date entered, judging date, notification date, etc. This record will help you keep track of your entries and allow you to easily follow up if you haven’t heard any results by the indicated date.
  • Remember, at the end of the day, the outcomes are, and will always be subjective and based on biases, opinions, and personal likes of the judges. Their opinions will simply remain their opinions.

As I see it, a photographer's life is a journey, not a competition. Again in a world of subjectivity, how could one be deemed the best? It's simply not possible. For me, the greatest reward is enjoying the craft without playing the game and seeing which fine art piece a client opts to hang on their wall.