Photography competitions are everywhere, from magazines and manufacturers to galleries, local governments, and major national and international awards. These competitions can have far more value than just the prizes.
As students we are often advised to enter photography competitions. Indeed, for those whose photography education started in camera clubs, competitions were a monthly feature. But some photographers enter competitions for the wrong reasons or fail to realise what all of the benefits can be. Let's look more closely.
Let us start by eliminating some of the wrong ideas about competitions. First and foremost, they are not a universal validation or condemnation of your photography. Competitions are judged by people. People have their own tastes. They are a product of their own life experiences. So a win or loss only means that your work did or did not appeal to that particular judge or set of judges. Secondly, winning a competition will not make you a professional photographer or guarantee financial success if you already are one. It will not make difficult members of your family like you any more and it will not cure cancer. A competition should not be viewed as an end point.
Use the Process to Improve Your Work
Competitions are a process. The process begins with deciding which competitions to enter, choosing which images to enter, preparing your work for submission, and submitting it according to each set of contest guidelines.
Before deciding which contests and images to enter, research the previous winners of each competition and think carefully about how your own images compare. See if you can tell what make the winning images stand out.
This careful consideration of your own body of work, in relation to meeting a set of needs, can be hugely valuable in terms of helping develop your photography. In fact, in the long term, it is more important than winning. But the process continues beyond this.
If the competition includes an opportunity for the public to vote in something such as a people's choice award, then you should motivate your contacts, family and friends to vote for you (and encourage their friends to vote for you, too!). This not only may help you pickup an award, but it works your social network, gets them looking at your work anew and you do not know what sort of opportunities this may create.
If you fail to win an award, then the process involves looking carefully at the work that did win the award. What did the winning images have that yours did not? Was there something you overlooked in yours that others had not? You get the idea. You can think of it as the post-game analysis. Sometimes, you might conclude that the judge must not have been thinking clearly that day. But mostly you can learn something useful.
If you did win an award, you still need to do the post-competition analysis. If you won the top award then what did you do right? If you weren’t on top, what can you learn from those that scored higher?
Publicize Your Win
Apart from these analyses, you then need to milk the award for as much publicity as possible. If you are a professional photographer, you can always find a way to make your award-winning work relevant to the work you do for clients. Even clients you hire you for wedding or portrait photography will be pleased to hear you have won an award for your fine-art photography. Being recognized for your art can set you apart from other portrait photographers.
If you are an amateur, you may also want to promote the fact that you have won an award. Many amateurs are earning some extra income by selling some of their images online. Being able to promote yourself as an “award-winning” photographer is always a plus.
Many major competitions provide badge files that you can include on your website, Facebook, window displays, brochures and catalogues and in your CV. Even if the contest organizer doesn’t provide a badge file, you should boldly show the tagline (“Winner of the 2011 XYZ Photography Competition” or whatever) everywhere possible. Get a t-shirt made, along with a coffee mug and bumper sticker. Send press releases to all relevant outlets, including local papers, local government newsletters, alumni magazines and so forth. From that point forward, any communication with the public or press should include mention of your win(s).
Enter Multiple Competitions
Selecting the right images to enter in a competition requires some detachment from your work. You must examine each image with a fresh eye, almost as if you hadn’t been the one who created it. Study the work of the photographers or editors who will be judging the competition, and try to imagine that you’re looking at the work through their eyes.
This takes practice. And the best way to practice is by doing. Enter all sorts of competitions. Most camera magazines have them and a trip to the library, a magazine shop, or their website will tell you what the current competition is. Keep an eye on the manufacturers' websites and signup for their mailing lists. Your local government may have photography competitions, as do state and federal governments and their agencies, like tourism boards. Your local community may have them. Check for ones run by any photography bodies, from camera clubs to the national professional photography associations. Some websites post listings of all of the current photography competitions, their entry requirements, and deadlines.
Learn How to Win
If want to get a better handle on how entering photography competitions can improve your photography, I recommend reading the e-book "How to Win Photo Competitions" by Peter Eastway. Peter is a friend of mine who has exhaustive experience with judging photography competitions at all levels (and he has won quite a few himself). The e-book provides a detailed look at not only how to win, but also how to shoot winning images. It’s well worth a read. You can read a detailed review on my Digital ImageMaker website.
So get moving on entering competitions. View it as a process, not just as an end result, and be prepared to fully benefit from the process, whether you win or lose.
One contest you may want to consider is the Magnum Expression Award sponsored by HP. The deadline for entering the 2011 competition is August 31. On the HP website, you can see a video in which Bieke Depoorter talks about how winning the 2009 Magnum Expression Award helped kickstart her career.