Entering photo competitions

Running race

By Paul Herrmann, Redeye

It's a popular time of year for photographers to gather their work together and think about entering awards and competitions. We quite often get asked firstly whether it’s worth doing, and secondly which competitions are worth entering. The answers are yes… and read on.

Which competitions to enter?

Be strategic about this. Start by making a list of the ones that appeal to you. Search Twitter and the web, but also look at the CVs or biographies of photographers whose work you respect – they will often list the prestigious awards and competitions they won. Another approach is to look at the judges you are interested in reaching – picture editors, curators or writers perhaps – and see which competitions they judge. Who are the sponsors and organisers, and would you like to be associated or work more with them? Don't rule out new competitions – very often these have fewer entrants so your chances of winning are higher.

Secondly, check which of the competitions are ethical. There is an excellent place to do this – the website artists-bill-of-rights.org, which campaigns for fair competition rules. They list “Rights On” and “Rights Off” competitions. Cross off your shortlist any that are on the Rights Off list. If you can’t find a competition listed there, then have a closer look at its rules. Steer clear of rules requiring you to give, assign or share copyright with the organisers; those that grant exclusive use; or grant a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free licence. Also, avoid any that require you to waive your moral rights. Of course, you have to give the organisers some usage; ethical competitions only require limited usage in connection with the competition.

Thirdly, have a look at the “deal”. Every competition involves give and take. Is there a fair balance between the prizes and exposure on offer, the entry fee, the number of entrants, the usage that will be made of winning photos, and the status of the judges? This can difficult one to assess, but here are some pointers:

  • The judges: even if you don't win, it's very often worth the price of entry to have your work seen by the judges. Speaking as an occasional competition judge, I find it a great way to find out about new work or projects. I make a note of entrants whose work I like, and might get in touch even if they don't go on to win. Are the judges already on your mailing list? In which case prioritise the competitions they judge.
  • The entry fee: in this era of “match funding,” entry fees are pretty normal now, unless there is a very generous sponsor. It’s rare that an organisation makes a profit on the entry fees; they are just used to contribute to the overall costs of the competition. The entry fee ought to be an indication that your entry will be taken seriously and viewed by all the judges.
  • The prizes: only you will know how important an actual prize is to you, compared to the prestige of winning. But a good rule of thumb is that a prize should be more than an organisation would pay for using a "rights-managed" library image for the same purposes – in other words the competition organiser is not just trying to get photography on the cheap.

Size up all the above and whittle down your list to the best few. It might help if they are spread through the year, and that they don’t clash with each other – some organisations might hold off promoting their winner if they find they have simultaneously won a different award or competition. Judges might also be unlikely to select you as a winner if the same work has already won something similar.

Don’t spread yourself too thin – judges are not unknown to talk to each other and compare notes, and if the same work is seen in lots of competitions, it could be to your disadvantage.

How to enter:

Have a look at past winners of a competition, and what the organisers or judges said about the winning entries. It's a really good indication of what they are looking for. Do your own analysis of why particular images were winners.

In many cases, judges are looking very quickly at entries but they will also be looking knowledgeably and analytically. Although some compeitions "anonymise" the work before it goes to the judges, they might still recognise your style or subject matter, or remember your work, which can be beneficial. This is where your other marketing plays a part. 

Increasingly competitions are judged digitally, and work is shown only at medium resolution. In that case very fine detail will not be seen. Check the rules and see if they specify an optimum image size; if so prepare your work for that size.

Don't enter anything that you don't think is up to scratch. It just makes for more work for the judges. On the other hand, do have a go if you think you are in with a chance.

Supporting text: some judges look at both images and text before making a decision, while others won’t look at text unless they like the images. Only enter images that depend on text if the organisers make it clear that text is an important part of your entry. If you are asked for text, it's really important to get it right. In almost all cases, the text needs to add something to the pictures and be very well written. If you're not sure about it, get some help. Avoid jargon and keep it simple.

Please do read and stick to all the rules. If your entry arrives one minute past the deadline, it will be rejected. If you're told to stick to 10 pictures and you send 12, the same. Good luck (though hopefully by now you're less likely to need it)!

Photo: Running Race, c1920, from New South Wales State Records via Flickr Commons.

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