Photo contests should be a lot of fun, but sometimes they are a real drag. I think this is because there is a disconnect between what photographers want out of a contest, and what those who are holding the contest are trying to accomplish.
My purpose in writing this article is to provide ideas for photo contests that will interest photographers. Before I jump into the 15 ideas, I want to talk about a few things that photographers don't like to see in contests, and how to fix them.
- Having to pay to enter: The best thing you can do is make it free. If this is not possible, have a reasonable entrance fee that will be given to a charitable cause.
- No Photoshop allowed: To single out a tool is strange, and shows a lack of knowledge of digital photography on the part of the contest holder. Be clear about your rules in terms of the following: compositing multiple images, digitally manipulating the composition of a single image by moving elements, color correction, and basic adjustments to exposure and contrast. The more you limit these things, the fewer people will enter. If your contest is primarily artistic in nature, you should not ban compositing. The only reason to limit these is if you are trying to highlight a particular technique or set of techniques.
- We can use your images for free, forever. Or, even worse, we now own your image and you can't use it for anything else: So you're telling me that I paid $25 to enter your contest, and you now have a perpetual license to my image? A lot of organizations run contests to get some photography to use for promotional material, but if the organization is for-profit, there should be a time limit on this before they need to purchase the image or pay royalties. Do not ever hold a contest that requires photographers to grant exclusive use of the photo without any compensation.
- The contest winner is determined by likes, comments, shares, or website traffic: This is a popularity contest, where he who has the most friends wins. Have the competition juried by people who know what they're talking about, so that your competition has some artistic integrity.
And now, 15 theme ideas for photo contests!
I realize that I'm starting a list of photo contest ideas with what is essentially a video contest, but I still think it's a good idea. Timelapse photography is exciting and engaging. It is a way for photographers to really show off a place in a way that goes beyond the still image, while still practicing the still image technique that they have honed. Since fewer photographers participate in timelapse photography than in general photography, this contest would draw the most serious photographers. This means that the contest would probably get a lot of great submissions. It would be a lot of fun, and would piggy back on something that is popular in photography right now, but has good roots and is not a mere fad.
I love my hometown, and I jump at any chance I have to show it off or talk about it. This idea of a hometown pride themed contest could go a number of different ways. If your community is known for a product, like corn, or a manufactured product like a car, think about having people feature that product. If you have a historical landmark or even many historical landmarks, consider a contest that would highlight those places. If you feel your community stands for particular values or attitudes about life, feature those. The great thing about this contest is that it will drive people to communicate about things that they already love and to which they feel connected. It will also draw the attention of non-photographers who love their community.
If you are running a portrait-centric contest, consider one that features generations. Have photographers capture their take on a multi-generational photograph. This can be more interesting than a standard group portrait; what if the picture was grandma literally handing down a recipe through instruction, or a father teaching his son a valuable life skill? The passing of knowledge from one generation to another and the way that each generation will take the place of the previous generation in time is an essential part of the human experience. To run a contest capturing these moments will draw attention because for most it is highly relatable.
To take the generations idea one step further, you could be looser in concept and not specify that it has to be people. This could produce photos showing generations of cars, or of kitchen appliances, or all kinds of iterative items. This would also make for a fun contest.
Running a contest featuring abstract photography could be a challenge, but if you have a large enough pool for submissions it can be done. If it were me designing the contest, I would be specific in the goal for the submissions. I would suggest themes such as “light and darkness,” “contrasting colors,” “long exposure,” or “abstract reflections.” It's not about being abstract for the sake of being abstract; an abstract contest exists to show something in the world that is more clearly seen when it is shown in abstraction.
Make sure this contest is well juried by people who know their stuff when it comes to abstract photography. It may be a good idea to have a non-photographic visual artist on the jury, such as a painter or illustrator.
I love photo contests that capture the seasons, especially fall. We experience the places we live as they change throughout the year, and it makes sense to capture and highlight these seasonal changes. If you are wanting to play on the seasonal theme but be more specific, you could run contests that feature seasonal activities, such as going to the cider mill, going to the beach, or skiing. A longer form contest could involve photographers submitting a photo from a place in every season, or a composited photo featuring all seasons in one photo. Another idea would be to use the seasons to focus on life; for instance showing the death of winter or the rebirth of spring.
Mood or Emotion
Capturing moods or emotions opens up a lot of possibilities. Trying to capture a mood or an emotion is a good exercise for photographers to do all the time, and the best ones do it very well. This is a type of contest that can really show off a photographers skill not just as a technician but as an artist. My advice on this one is to be specific. The assignment is not to go capture emotion, but to capture an emotion, such as happiness, pride, or anger. This can be portrait or landscape work, and will yield good entries from strong photographers.
Many photographers are always after access to be able to photograph sporting events, so this kind of a competition could draw a lot of participants. Figure out what kind of space you have for photographers, so that if you need to limit submissions you can do so. Be sure to give clear instructions to the photographers on where to get their credentials, where they can and cannot go, and what the rules are regarding model release of the athletes. The sporting event photo contests I've participated in have been generic sports/action shots, which has been fun, but consider narrowing the theme to something like struggle, victory, or toughness.
Night photography can be a true test of technique for a lot of photographers. This could be a contest centered around astrophotography. Your submissions could be shots of the milky way, or of star trails. A meteor shower would be an excellent occasion for a contest like this.
Another interesting night photography contest could be portrait or cityscape. This one would be good if you are in a more populated area without access to dark sky. Because of the low light, nighttime limits distractions and allows a photographer to make lots of creative decisions about highlight and shadow. This can make for dynamic portrait or cityscape submissions.
A competition centered around lighting would be a great one for the local camera club to run. A contest that forced people to shoot in midday light would push a lot of photographers to grow in their ability to mitigate the effect of harsh sunlight. A studio contest using only strobes, or even a particular lighting setup such as Rembrandt or clamshell could bring a lot of attention to particular techniques. Another fun contest, and in some sense the most fundamental photo contest, would be simply to capture interesting light, and just leave it broad like that. Photography in it's most fundamental form is the capturing of light, so having photographers spend time doing so will give good results.
Dealing with motion is another great test of a photographer's technique. You could define this contest fairly broadly, just leaving it at “capture motion,” or you could focus on specific technique such as freezing or blurring motion. To be even more specific, the assignment could be to capture water droplets or a moving train (from a safe distance). Drilling on a technique like this is really good for photographers, and motion makes for a compelling subject.
It seems to me that the internet is completely dominated by pictures of peoples cats and dogs. A pet photography contest, when done properly, could be really nice. First, I would make sure that you have clear ground rules around the ethics of the contest. It is not ok to cause discomfort to the animals just to get a good photo. They need to be treated with respect and you should spell that out. Second, you'll want to push this out in a way that targets photographers. Everyone loves to take cell phone images of their pets, but if you want this to be a photography contest, you'll want to make it clear that some evaluation of a photographic aesthetic will be happening; in other words, its going to take more than slapping an Instagram filter on a cell phone shot of a nice looking cat or dog to win the competition.
I think this kind of competition would be good to run if you are involved with an animal shelter of some type. My wife and I once photographed kittens at an animal foster (not as part of a competition), and then people bid money to be able to name those kittens. You might consider something similar; select a few qualified photographers from your area and have them compete with shots of the animals that need adopting, and do it in a way that raises money, or at least gets some of those animals out for adoption.
Nostaliga or History Today
So much of our focus is on the latest and greatest, the new and improved. This contest would focus on things of old that are still with us today. Whether it's historical buildings, artisans working with traditional tools, or other remembrances of the past, this contest will draw attention. A contest centered around photographing old camera equipment would be a fun one in this genre. When I teach my photography basics class, I have some older film cameras that I use as props for people to photograph, and they seem to draw more attention than the other props.
Concert or Event
If you are hosting a concert or event, consider running a photo contest. If you use a platform like Instagram, advertise a hashtag for people to use when they post their photos, and then show the photos live during the event. This can be a great way to get people submitting photos, and for people work to be shown. This is another case where you can give specific directions for the contest, such as showing surprise or enthusiasm.
Then & Now
I'm thinking about running a contest like this in my hometown next year. Go to your local historical archive, library, or the internet and find some old pictures of your town. See if you can find roads, buildings, or other structures that still exist today. Then have people submit shots of those things today. If you want to feature technical skill, require them to try to match the shot as best they can. If you want the contest to be more artistic in nature, you could ask for them to capture the spirit of the place today just as the old photo captured the spirit of the place back then. This would be fun to post the original photo and then everyone's submission of that place today.
Have photographers submit photos based on a poem, a story, or even a line from a story. The goal is not to make a scene from literature, but to capture the essence of that poem, story, or line in a photograph. I'd love to see a photo contest based on Edgar Allen Poe's the Raven, or that line from the end of Hamlet, “the rest is silence.” Artists through history have drawn inspiration from literature, and a photo contest that runs this way could pull people out of a documentary rut and into a more fantastical mindset.