Photographers today are faced with a barrage of choices as to how and when they will share their photos. To post a photo anywhere online is to risk it being stolen, but if you don't share then your work will never be seen. Photo contests are one of the most controversial areas of photo sharing, and not without good reason. Many online photo contests amount to little more than a rights grab with “exposure” as your prize. The price of entry? Free usage of your photo and sometimes the full rights to your work, meaning you don't even own it anymore!
Here are some factors to keep in mind when deciding whether to enter your photos into a competition, as well as some practical advice on which to consider and which to avoid (based on my personal experience).
Your Comfort Level
The first and most important consideration is your personal comfort level. Many experienced photographers will shake their heads and wag their fingers at the naive newbies willing to give away their photos for nothing more than a pat on the back, but you may be comfortable with it. If you are in the early stages of learning photography and are not yet thinking about making money (let alone a living from it), then you may be happy with the chance to gain some exposure and bragging rights, and that is absolutely fine. Perhaps you would be thrilled to see your pet's photo in that big pet store chain's calendar and have no intention of ever selling the photo commercially. Go ahead and enter, just be aware of what you're giving away versus what the reward will be. If you are comfortable with the risk:benefit ratio, then enter away and I wish you the best of luck! In fact, if those photos are otherwise sitting on your hard drive, not being seen by anyone, then I would argue that any usage is better than total obscurity.
Another consideration is if the photo contest is for a cause or organization you support, then that can make all the difference. I might be fine with a non-profit animal welfare organization using one of my photos for their marketing, while I would not be ok with a major pet food distributor using the same photo without compensation. Just make sure you fully understand what that usage might look like. From the archive of my personal experience, I once entered a few photos into a calendar contest for an organization that I still support. One of the photos “won” and made it into the calendar, which was fun for me as it was one of my first publications. I didn't feel so great the following year, however, when it came time for their annual photo contest again and they used two of my non-winning photos with awful looking Instagram-style filters applied to promote the contest. Lesson learned, they were actually going to USE the rights I gave them, I guess I didn't expect that, and I didn't enter again.
On the other hand, a photographer with a little more experience and a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their work will need to be diligent in reading and understanding the terms and conditions. I know, I know, it sucks and nobody reads those so why do you have to? Because some contests are literally demanding the full rights to your photo. Because entering the contest may mean that you don't even have the right to sell or license the photo in the future. Because exposure doesn't pay the bills.
Last year, I was approached by a major national media organization for permission to use this photo for credit (without pay). I weighed the fact that this isn't really one of my “hero images” that I am likely to sell frequently, against the large amount of exposure it was likely to get and my support of their intended usage (representing a song by a band that I am fond of and grew up listening to). I decided to let them use it, but I did so knowing that the benefits would be negligible. In truth, I saw a small spike in visitors to my web page for a couple of days and I gained a few facebook followers. I have not booked a single session or even gained a subscriber to my email list as a result of this usage that put my work in front of millions of viewers. In fact, I can honestly say that even I have not once clicked on a link to any of the other photographers whose work is represented in the article, so when looked at from that perspective, it's remarkable that I saw any increase in visits to my website at all. I mention this only to make the point that exposure, even pretty major exposure won't often make any great difference to you. This shouldn't necessarily stop you from allowing your photos to be used for exposure, but I hope it will make you take a moment to realistically assess what that exposure will mean for you and whether it is worth the price of entry to a photo contest. I have also won photo contests, and received even less in terms of exposure, but at least a few of those times I have won a prize that was well worth the price of entering a dozen contests that I lost.
The Value Of The Prize
Another important consideration as you begin to discern which contests to enter is the value of the prize being offered. At this point, I'd once again like to offer wisdom based on my own experience: exposure is adequate compensation only if you will never have any intention of selling the photo. Seriously, even contests that can offer you a LOT of exposure will not result in a LOT of (or any) paid work. Think of how often you view the winning entries of a contest, even a big contest like, say, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, put on by the Natural History Museum of the UK. This competition is a BIG DEAL, and yet, although I have perused the winning entries year after year, I can't honestly say I've ever followed the links to any of the winning photographers, have you? If you have, what have you purchased from them? Yeah, that's what I thought. Exposure is fun and it's worthwhile if it's for a cause you believe in, but it is rarely worth much beyond that, so don't fool yourself. (As an aside, my example of the WPY competition has significant financial rewards, not to mention exposure to an unprecedented degree that may actually result in exposure that leads to sponsorships, but it is rare in this regard).
If a reputable contest is offering a prize that you covet, for an entry fee (whether this is a monetary fee or a transfer of rights) that you are comfortable with, then by all means, you should enter any photo you feel has a remote possibility of winning.
The Rules Of The Competition
So now you've determined that you're cool with the terms of the competition…but are they cool with you? Some photo contests may have rules about how much editing or manipulation is allowed, or whether animals may be in captivity, for example. To be honest, in many cases, these requirements exclude me as a competitor. How about you? I frequently engage in such frowned upon activities as exposure blending, image stacking, and outright fantasy. I'm fine with that, I'm creating art, not photojournalism, but I'm also not representing my photos dishonestly. If a photo contest requires no image blending, I don't enter a photo where I've blended images. If a photo contest specifies no cloning, I don't enter a photo where I have replaced or removed elements. There are photographers who sit in the same spot for weeks or months, waiting for the perfect composition to present itself. There are other photographers who sit for minutes or hours and then spend untold time in photoshop to achieve a similar result. The ethics are your personal choice, as long as you are not lying or misrepresenting them. It only becomes a problem that concerns others when you are dishonest about it.
Will You Receive Valuable Critique?
Some photo contests are huge online undertakings with many thousands of entrants. Others are smaller, local photo club contests that may provide valuable feedback. Don't overlook your local or even national photography organizations for a photography competition. Even if you know right out of the gate that you hold little chance of winning or even placing, any opportunity to gain legitimate feedback or constructive criticism on your photos from expert judges should be a chance you leap at. Expert photo critique can be one of the greatest driving forces in your photography education and is truly one of the most valuable features of belonging to a professional association or local camera club.
“These types of photo contests are deciding the winner with the largest social media following, not the entrant with the best photo.”
How Is The Winner Selected?
This topic follows from the last, but how is the winner of the contest to be selected? If the winner is chosen by the number of social media likes received by the photo, then I don't recommend entering the competition unless you have a large social media following that will support you. These types of photo contests are deciding the winner with the largest social media following, not the entrant with the best photo. It will not be valuable to you in terms of critique, nor will it be possible for you to win unless you may possibly possess the largest social media following out of all the entrants. Rarely is this person the best photographer in the bunch.
That being said, if the contest is to be judged by any sort of expert in the field or (better still), a panel of expert judges, then this may be an opportunity to see where you stack up amongst peers in your field. If the competition offers any sort of critique to all entrants, as many local or even national association image competitions do, then this kind of feedback alone can be worth the entry fee. Never pass up the opportunity to gain impartial and expert critique on your photos for a reasonable price.
So, When Should You Pay To Enter A Photo Contest?
Again, the answer to this question comes down to your personal comfort level, dependent on many factors from experience and skill level to financial freedom. In my opinion, you should never pay to enter a contest that doesn't offer a prize you would be thrilled to win. You should never pay to enter a contest you can't afford, assuming that you won't be the winner. Lastly, you should try to be honest with yourself as to whether you have a legitimate chance at winning. I don't mean that you should exclude yourself based on insecurity and low self-esteem, but try to take an impartial look at previous years' winners and current entries and ask yourself whether your best photo is worth the entry fee. If you have a tack sharp photo of a grizzly bear scooping up a salmon from a waterfall in Alaska, you should probably pay to enter that photo into a wildlife photography contest. If you have a blurry photo of a distant hummingbird at the birdfeeder, you should probably be honest with yourself as to whether that's worth the entry fee. Don't assume that your awesome photo won't win, but do assume that your mediocre photo, the square peg forced into the round hole, won't take first place. Learn what you can from the experience and think about how you might improve your photos for next year.
What's The Reputation of the Photo Contest?
Before entering a photo contest, especially one that charges an entry fee or insists upon rights to using your photos, you should investigate the reputation of the contest. How long have they been around? Do they have a proven track record of winners who have actually received the promised prize or a page full of negative reviews from disgruntled and disappointed participants? It is sad but true that in today's web-based world, there are plenty of scam artists looking to make a quick buck from inexperienced or unsuspicious people. Anyone can make a pretty web page or landing site these days, be skeptical and stick with large scale, well-known organizations or small, local clubs that can be easily held accountable.
Photo contests can be a great way to get valuable feedback and see how your photos rank amongst a group of your peers. Sometimes, you may even win cool prizes, just make sure you're not selling the cow for a handful of magic beans.