Getting Exposure: Are Photography Competitions Worth It?

 

There are so many articles with tips for photography competitions and some people will even tell you the secret to winning a photography competition and getting exposure. What a load of crap. Be different and stand out they say. And sure, that might help but do you know for sure if the photo you enter will stand out—and even if it stands out, will the judges like it?

Photography is such a subjective craft that it’s very difficult to predict the outcome of a competition. Of course, there seems to be a consensus of what a great photo is or should look like but still, that doesn’t that mean it will win a competition for sure.

One of my first images that made it onto the shortlist of a competition.  Democratic Republic of Congo.

One of my first images that made it onto the shortlist of a competition. Democratic Republic of Congo.

In my opinion, a factor that people tend to forget or ignore is luck. Now, I can’t say how much your chance of winning depends on luck but I think it’s significant. Do you think the photo picked as a winner out of—let’s say—100,000 is truly the absolute best one? Can’t be. I’m a hundred percent sure that if you’d show all those photos to different judges, the outcome would always be different.

The thing is, even if the photo you enter is great, it will be great together with dozens of other photos. So, in the end, it depends on the judges to pick a winner out of a bunch of photos that are equally great—even if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean your photo wasn’t good enough. Interestingly enough, you’ll never know…

Sure, you have a better chance if you pick the right photo for the right competition but most people who enter know that. Studying the judges? Maybe, but do you know what kind of photo they will pick based on their own work? Maybe they like something completely different.

Related • Your Photos Don’t Have to Be Spectacular

Mixed feelings

That's why I have mixed feelings about photography competitions and awards. Yes, they’re great for getting exposure as a photographer if you win but on the other hand, it’s a lot of hard work to enter a competition. Reading rules. Researching what kind of photos they’re looking for. Selecting one of your photos and being happy with your choice before you enter it. It’s nerve-racking and consumes precious time!

An image I recently entered in a photography competition.  Indonesia.

An image I recently entered in a photography competition. Indonesia.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enter competitions but just like Instagram and other social media, I try to make them a less important part of getting exposure. It also seems like photography competitions are becoming an industry. Some are pretty expensive to enter and I try to avoid those because it feels even more like a lottery.

I like to enter photography competitions because it makes me look at my own work differently. Getting exposure is not the most important reason. You have to force yourself to look at it with the eyes of somebody else and that way, you learn a lot about your photos. I would definitely recommend entering photography competitions but you have to know what to expect and don’t be discouraged if you enter a dozen competitions and you don’t win one. It doesn’t mean your photos are not good enough! A lot of times—if your work is good—it just meant you weren’t lucky enough to be picked by the judges.

When I come across a competition that I want to enter, I try to get it over with, fast. It shouldn’t keep you from doing more important work and after you hit ‘submit’, forget about it! Don’t keep going back to check if there’s a shortlist already or if they picked a winner. Submit and forget. You don’t need to win a photography competition to build a career—even though it does feel nice… ;-)

Related • Become the Photographer You Want to Be: My Story - Part 1

Entering a photography competition

Like I said, there are no tricks or tips to win a competition. The only thing you can do is making sure you have a better than average chance to win. Besides entering a great photo, here’s what I try to do.

Pick the right competition

Simply put, don’t enter a landscape competition if you’re a street photographer. Even if you win, it’s the wrong exposure for your photography. Obvious, right? But even if you think that a competition is right for you, it’s smart to check the winners of previous years. Would your photo fit in the shortlists? It’s time to be honest with yourself because you don’t want to put a lot of work in entering a competition you have no chance of winning.

Read the rules

And read them carefully. Last year, I wanted to enter the “National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year” competition and I went over the rules really fast. I started to select images and checked if they had a chance to win. After hours of work, when I was about to submit the images… I couldn’t select my country of residence. I went back to the long list of rules and there it was. A list of countries where you had to live to enter. Surely Belgium was there, right? NOPE! You can’t enter the “National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year” competition if you live in Belgium… Hard work down the drain.

 
A photograph from my series  ‘Grey Summer Garden’  that won a Nikon Press Photo Award in my home country, Belgium.

A photograph from my series ‘Grey Summer Garden’ that won a Nikon Press Photo Award in my home country, Belgium.

 

Get everything right, even the caption

File size, theme, what kind of editing is allowed? Don’t give the judges an opportunity to discard your photo. Also, the caption is something you should think about carefully. It might make the difference later on in the competition when they have to pick one out of dozens of great photos.

Be persistent

It’s a word I’ve used a lot when writing here but if you want something in life, you have to persistent. Losing doesn’t mean failure. And like I said, not winning doesn’t mean your photo is bad. Learn and move on. You might never win a competition but still be very successful as a photographer and get all the jobs you want…

Photography competitions I like

These are some of the photography competitions I like and enter regularly...

Sony World Photography Awards

The Sony World Photography Awards is one of the leading photography competitions and it’s big—very big. Your chance of winning will be lower than if you’d enter a smaller competition but there are a lot of different categories. You can enter three images for free! Prizes include cash, camera equipment and flights to London. It’s one of the best competitions to get exposure.

Smithsonian Photo Contest

Another free photo contest that I really like. You have to make an account on Smithsonianmag.com and then you can enter 15 free images per category (6). They also publish a ‘Photo of the Day’ on their website each day while the competition is running.

Life Framer

To enter the Life Framer competition you have to pay a fee depending on how many images you want to enter. The fun thing about this competition is that it’s monthly. Each month they have a different theme and different judges ranging from Steve McCurry to Martin Parr.

Conclusion

Photography competitions are a great way to learn about your own work and look at it differently but don’t think you need to win one to build a career. It will get you exposure but it’s not necessary. Even not winning a single photography competition doesn’t mean your photos are bad or not good enough. With thousands of people entering, it’s always a bit of a lottery so enter a competition with that in mind. It’s more about learning to judge your own work. It’s definitely worth entering a few…

 
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I can give you more detailed information about photography competitions I’ve entered (and won) if you join me on Patreon. You can also ask me questions about my photography or travels and show me your work. I post behind-the-scenes information and videos about editing, marketing and much more weekly. You can basically follow me around the world in a front row seat and join the TWAOU² community.