Who Should Enter a Photography Competition?
The short answer to this question: Everyone!
Are you thinking about entering your first photography competition, but you’re not sure where to start or even if you should? Read on for some valuable advice that will help you decide if it’s time to take the plunge and to understand which competitions offer the best chance of success.
If you are an aspiring photographer, but have never responded to a call for entries or submitted images to a photo competition, chances are you’re missing out on some valuable opportunities. You don’t have to be a professional, you don’t have to have expensive equipment, and making great photographs does not have to be the primary motivator in your life. In fact, these days there are competitions out there that accept only iPhone photos! All that’s required is a desire to invest in yourself so you can take your photography to the next level.
Is the Time Right for You?
Are you afraid your photographs aren’t good enough to be considered? Have you thought about entering a photo contest, but decided that you’d wait for ‘someday’ when you’re producing better images? Perhaps you’re just afraid of the possibility of rejection.
Although you may be full of doubt, the fact that you’re reading this post means chances are you’re ready to get your work out there in front of jurors. I have some suggestions, however, that will help you decide if the time is right for you.
First, do some internet research. Find a couple of photo competitions that interest you and that also have fast approaching deadlines. These ‘calls for entries’ should also fit the content and/or style of your best work (for example, if you shoot primarily landscape photos, try to find a competition with that theme). Also, try to find photo competitions that indicate that the selected or winning images will be posted online.
Note the dates when the sponsors expect to be posting these photographs, or subscribe to their newsletters so you receive email notifications when selections have been made. Once they’re posted, return to those websites and take the time to carefully peruse the galleries of selected entries.
How does your work compare? Can you imagine any of your images among the winners? If nothing else, this exercise should teach you that you can rarely predict what a juror will select and you sure won’t agree that all the selections are great (or even good) photographs.
Second, take a hard, honest look at your own work: are your photos any good? I know that it’s very hard to judge your own work, but you can get some clues by thinking about how people react to your best photos. I don’t mean just friends and family, but people that don’t feel obligated to lie to spare your feelings. How do non-photographers react to your work? How do photographers react? If you need to, get a couple of unbiased opinions. Then, if you get some positive feedback, overcome your fear of rejection and your worry that your work isn’t good enough. Take yourself seriously, give yourself a chance, and invest in yourself and your vision.
Once you have made the decision to enter a competition, remember to be realistic. Most contests are very competitive and receive hundreds, if not thousands of entries. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Don’t give up if you don’t get a photo selected the first time around. Keep trying, persevere, and be patient. Fortunately, picking the right competitions can also improve your chances of success.
What Competitions Should You Enter?
Many people mistakenly assume that all photography competitions are basically the same and your chances of getting selected by the juror(s) for inclusion in a show or for an award depend only upon the number of other entries (the odds) and the quality of the photographs you enter (your skill as a photographer).
Actually, these are just a couple of the many factors that can work for or against you in a photography competition. Your chances of success increase significantly if you know how to choose the right venues. This means identifying the competitions that afford the greatest possibility of success.
Competitions range widely from local or regional shows up to international competitions with world renowned sponsors, like the “Nature Photographer of the Year” award sponsored by National Geographic. All competitions are juried, which means one or more jurors review and judge all the entries (otherwise they wouldn’t be ‘competitions’). The juror may be tasked with deciding which entries will get included in a group exhibition and/or choosing the award winners in a show across a number of categories. How can you identify the best opportunities for you?
Local or Regional Photography Competitions
Consider starting with a local show; a smaller competition sponsored by an organization near your home where entry is limited to photographers in your region. These shows often have fewer than 200 entries across a series of categories, such as Landscape, Nature, and Still Life. The competition is also usually not quite as stiff. Another great thing about them, is it will cost you a lot less to deliver and retrieve your artwork and to attend the show’s opening reception.
However, I suggest these local shows with one caveat; local art scenes can be quite cliquish which means the judging may not be truly blind and impartial. Local jurors often know the work of local photographers entered in the show and the competition may not be organized in such a way as to deny the members of the sponsoring organization an unfair advantage.
Let me give you an example. My first show was a juried regional show sponsored by a local artist organization. There were about 120 photographs entered across a series of categories. Three local people well known to the sponsor had been selected to judge the entrants, with 1st-3rd place, honorable mentions, and prize money awarded in each category, along with one prize for Best in Show. As I drove the short distance to the opening reception, I was happy and excitedly hoping that one of my three photos might win some award that night.
When the show curator started making the awards announcements, however, it quickly became apparent that something was a little off. I couldn’t believe it when I realized that the curator was announcing himself as the winner of awards within a few of the categories, including one 1st Place award. The show curator was also the one who signed the checks from the sponsoring organization to the award winners. During the announcements, he even talked about being present while the jurors were judging the entries and listening in on their conversations about each work!
I still managed to win one 3rd Place award, although I think I probably should have done better. It turns out that about 65% of the awards went to sponsoring organization members, including the show’s curator. The lesson here? Look carefully at local calls for entries. All reputable shows should be blind juried and the prospectus should include a disclaimer indicating that employees of the sponsoring organization and their family members are barred from entry. If you don’t see this disclaimer, you can contact the sponsor to clarify, then make a decision based on the response you receive.
Themed Photography Competitions
One excellent way to increase your chances of getting a photograph selected by a juror for a group exhibition or an award, is to enter competitions with themes. Yes, open calls give you the opportunity to enter your very best individual photographs, but they are also wide open, since everyone can enter whatever they like. Under these circumstances, it’s very difficult to predict the type and style of work the juror will select.
Instead, it can be very fruitful to find competitions with themes that resonate with your chosen subjects and style of work. If you tend to shoot landscapes, seek out landscape competitions. The more specific the theme, the better, if it resonates with your work.
Brick and Mortar Galleries and Group Show Calls for Entries
Brick and mortar gallery calls for entries are typically for group shows that will be on display at the gallery for a month or more. These shows often don’t include prizes, or if they do, only a few. They may, however, include the chance of something potentially more valuable, such as a portfolio review with the gallery director. These shows also provide the opportunity to get to know gallery directors and jurors; potentially valuable contacts.
If you choose to go this route, make sure you select galleries with good reputations that engage recognized jurors to judge their group exhibitions. Research the sponsor (the type of work exhibited in the past) and the juror (his or her own work). Always give priority to competitions in which work previously displayed by the gallery and/or the juror’s own work resonate with yours.
Brick and Mortar Galleries vs Online Photography Competitions
I have already mentioned in a previous post why I prefer the brick and mortar gallery shows over online competitions, so I’ll be brief. I’m of the opinion that a photograph isn’t “finished” until it takes its final form in print (the artist’s proof). I’m usually not as interested in exclusively online competitions for that reason.
But shows sponsored by online magazines or displayed in digital galleries can provide a lot of exposure to specific crowds at relatively low cost. Popular sites can get your work in front of literally thousands of eyes, particularly those of other photographers. The same rules apply to selecting these competitions; look for resonating themes, research other work displayed at the site and research the jurors.
Be sure to choose a reputable website with an established contest. Otherwise, you may be paying a fee just to have your photograph displayed online with thousands of others at a website that only you and the other participants will visit. These “contests” simply make money for the sponsoring business.
What Resources Do You Need to Enter Photography Competitions?
Photography competitions do require investments of time, money and other resources. If you think winning awards will offset the cost of the competitions you enter, think again. Group shows typically involve no prize money, and if you do place in a show, you will likely receive very little dough. So, please don’t make the mistake of selecting a photography competition based on the prize money on offer.
Remember that many competitions are part of the business model of the sponsoring organizations; they are a reliable means of generating revenue. It stands to reason that sponsors may not tap significantly into that revenue to give away prize money.
Group exhibitions and even Best in Show awards are simply not reliable sources of income, although they may eventually lead to more sales of your work. If you’re short on funds, gradually set money aside until you have enough in your photography piggy bank to enter at least one competition. What do you need and how much will it cost?
Materials Essential for Photography Competitions
Leaving aside a camera and good photographs, there are a number of other materials you need to enter a competition. These include:
- Software you can use to prepare your entries for submission. Most competitions, apart from some local ones, require that you submit your entries electronically. This means the images must be sized according to specific requirements and saved in the correct color space and format. Many photographers use Adobe Photoshop to perform this task. If you don’t already have software, it can require a significant investment to purchase (about $150 for the software DVD or a Creative Cloud subscription at a minimum of about $20 per month).
- Group exhibitions and shows at brick and mortar galleries require exhibition quality prints of any photographs you have accepted. If you plan to offer your art work for sale during the show, you should probably have pigment based prints made on archival paper. You’ll likely have to order these in the size you want and have them shipped to you. The cost varies with vendor, size and paper, but you can expect to pay at least $25 plus shipping for one 20x30 inch print.
- In addition, if you have photographs accepted to a brick and mortar exhibition, you’ll also need framing materials. Even if you plan to do the framing yourself, you’ll still have to pay for the materials. Framing is an expensive proposition. Even prints on the smaller side can cost around $150 to frame if you have the job done at a professional framing shop.
Other Fees and Expenses
- Entry Fees for photographic competitions vary widely, from $0 to $100 or more to enter (typically) from one to five photographs. In my experience, a $35 entry fee to submit 5 photographs is reasonable. Generally, competitions that charge $15 or more per image submitted are on the expensive side. It could be worth the investment, however, if the competition is close to home.
- Shipping framed prints is very expensive, and if you want to take the cheapest route via US Mail, then you need to allow plenty of time. This means you have to get your framing done immediately, and remember that framing can take up to two weeks. Then there is packaging. If you have your framed print packaged by a shipper, like UPS, you can easily pay $35 or more for just this service. Finally, most galleries require that you include a return shipping label in your package, so your print can be sent back to you at the end of the show if it doesn’t sell.
- Travel to an exhibition opening reception can also be quite expensive. If the venue isn’t within driving distance, you’ll have to fork out for a flight, hotel, and maybe even a rental car, plus food and other expenses. Depending on your destination, you could easily be spending $120 or more per night on the hotel alone.
Consider these Money Savers
- Image Editing Software: There are some open source applications you can use that are free, and even a few free iPad apps available for resizing prints.
- Exhibition Quality Prints: Many galleries offer printing services to exhibition participants for a nominal fee of as little as $15. This is the cheapest route to take, as you’ll avoid shipping costs. Online shows have no printing expenses.
- Framing: If you use standard print sizes and aspect ratios, you can find some good quality frames with Plexiglas along with ready-made mats at several discount stores. With a coupon, you might get an 18x24 inch frame, a double mat, and wire hanger for $35-$40 dollars. The least expensive route is to choose shows at galleries that offer to loan frames and mats for standard size prints for the run of the show. Online shows have no framing expenses.
- Shipping: The least expensive route is to choose shows at galleries that offer to loan frames and mats. Then you can also donate the print. It may cost more to have it shipped back than it would to just replace the print, depending on its size and where you got it printed. If you do decide to ship a framed print, try to get the framer to package your item for shipping free-of-charge. This can easily save you $35 or more at UPS. Online shows have no shipping expenses.
- Travel: If you’re flying, get the best deals by booking your reservations for flight, hotel, and rental car as soon as you receive notice that your work has been accepted. These costs only increase as the date gets closer. Alternatively, make attending the opening reception a road trip and a vacation, which eliminates the costs of flying and car rental. If you take others along, you can split the hotel and gas. Or, just don’t attend the reception. Of course, online shows have no reception and no travel expenses.
The Bottom Line
So, how much money might you need? You know by now it depends a lot upon whether you are setting your sights on brick and mortar gallery or online competitions. An exclusively online show will cost you the entry fee and not much else, unless you need to buy image editing software. So, around $35 to $45 in many cases, plus software, if required.
If you want to get in a group show at a gallery that is not local to you and you want to attend the opening reception, you’ll be spending a lot more money. Assuming you don’t need software, you use the gallery printing services, and a loan of framing materials, you’ll be paying for the entry fee, a nominal fee for printing, and travel expenses. If you drive to a gallery about 7-8 hours from your home, you’ll need to stay in a hotel a minimum of two nights, so plan on about $300 just for that, plus gas and food. If these things fall into place, you’re looking at around $450-$500 for one show.
However, most galleries don’t loan framing materials, so even if you get a bargain frame ($35), packaging and shipping it in and out can easily cost you $150. Realistically, you’ll need at least $650-$700 to enter the show, prepare and ship your work, and attend the opening reception, if you take the cheapest routes available to you.
Photography Competitions: Is It Worth It?
Believe me, I realize that’s a lot of money. So, why would you ever enter a non-local, brick and mortar gallery show? If you want to get exposure to established gallery owners/directors with an eye towards getting offered your own show one day and/or getting in depth portfolio critiques, these group show competitions are really the way to go. Also, as I have stated in another post, seeing your printed and framed photograph on a gallery wall at an opening reception is a very satisfying and exciting experience.
Decide what your goals are and then choose competitions that offer the greatest return on your significant investment.
Your Call to Action
So, put your work out there in an intelligent way and see what happens! Entering contests and getting in shows will improve your work, if you take the opportunities and the process seriously. In next week’s post, I’ll be sharing all of the important ways competitions can improve your work and boost your confidence as a photographer. Be sure to sign up here to get an email notification when I publish the companion post.
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-- Angela Martin
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