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Are Photo Contests Bad for You?

When I started out as a photographer, I would always get extremely excited seeing a photography competition to enter. My mind would swirl thinking about prizes whether it was camera equipment or cash and in my mind I was already using that prize. What I learned over the years was that, if you don’t go into them with the right mindset, photo contests can be bad for you.

are photo contests bad for you

So, instead of getting yourself wound up and feeling like you’re a failure for not ‘winning’ or ‘placing’ or, even worse, that you’re ‘not good enough’ to enter photo contests, please consider the following:

Your value as a photographer is not determined by whether your photo wins a popularity contest.

Before the Shoot & Share group imploded from accusations of racism and sexual harassment, the group’s photo contest was a constant source of conversation. Specifically, what was everyone’s ‘heart count’.

award winning wedding photo contest
Photo by Casey Fatchett –

A photo received a ‘heart’ when a voter marks it as one of their favorites. While discussing how many hearts you’d received initially started out as a way to say at least one of your photos had made it through to the next round of the contests, it quickly became a status symbol, with members humble bragging about their count.

I’ve only got 500 hearts. Hopefully I do better next year! 🙁

Unnamed Shoot & Share contestant

Meanwhile, other commenters would bemoan the fact that they had not received any hearts or that they were glad to not have entered because their work probably wouldn’t be a “favorite” of anyone voting.

Not only is counting favorites is a horribly inaccurate way of figuring out where you place in a contest, it also sets up contestants to feel like their work is unworthy if they don’t receive enough or any hearts before even seeing the actual results of the contest.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether whoever is judging the contest has any impact on where you want to go with your photography.

Are they going to hire you if you’re a professional photographer? Chances of that happening are pretty small, for the most part.

Are they going to influence the direction of your career? Only if you let them.

Whether the contest is be judged by an expert panel, or whomever logs on to the contest website and votes for pictures, a contest is about which photos are the most popular among those voting. Speaking of which…

Photography contests always expose the implicit biases of the judges.

Whether they know it or not, judges have implicit biases. There are certain things they are inclined to prefer.

In the 5 years I entered the Shoot & Share Photo Contest, I submitted approximately 250 photos. 50 of those photos placed in the Top 30% or higher, including 5 that were finalists. Not bad, right?

award winning photo contest

How many of those photos that placed included black people? None. Seriously, I’d say 20% of the photos I submitted over the years included black, Latinx, or Asian subjects…and most of them never made it out of the first few rounds of the contest.

Why? Because the voters are predominately white. And I don’t think it is a matter of intentional prejudice. People are just implicitly likely to prefer an image that ‘looks like them.’ Which is why we all need to exam our own biases, and, wherever we can, we should require that there are more BIPOC judges for photo contests!

Biases are not always what you think!

However, biases don’t always run along lines or race or color. For example, I am a member of the Wedding Photojournalists Association (WPJA). I’ve received more than a dozen awards from the association for wedding and engagement photos over the years.

award winning engagement photo contest
Photo by Casey Fatchett –

Looking through the winning photos from their competitions, you will see a very diverse group of subjects. However, you will frequently see the same compositions and lighting techniques commonly placing among the winners.

Silhouettes with lots of colorful negative space seem to do VERY well, for example.

Why? Because everyone has certain things they like or there are styles that are ‘trendy’ and perform well in competitions. Just because your photo doesn’t win or place doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means it didn’t appeal to whomever was judging the contest.

Photography contests are, for the most part, designed to make money for the people who run the contests.

There are many ways in which photo contests are designed to make money. In the most obvious instances, there are entry fees. I remember entering the Rangefinder and PDN wedding photography contests and the rates were $50 an image.

Those publications have numerous contests throughout the year with thousands and thousands of entries. And they’re the legitimate ones.

There are so many fake contests out there. I get emails about them ALL THE TIME!

“Enter our contest of only the best wedding photographers! Just $20 per photo! Sincerely, organization you’ve never heard of before…”

But what about the photo contests that don’t charge you to enter?

Whether they’re charging you money or not, the people running photo contests are getting something from you.

They might be collecting email addresses for themselves or the sponsors of the competition. Yes, those sponsors pay for and/or donate prizes to get their names in front of all the contestants. It’s advertising!

The Shoot & Share Photo Contest, the ‘largest free photo contest in the world’ as they like to call it, lost a lot of sponsors after those allegations I mentioned earlier. You know who was left? All the companies directly related to the contest – PASS, Vivi, Agree, ShowIt, etc.

The prizes they were giving away were basically free trials of their services to get you interested in them so that eventually you might pay them for those same services.

And every photo contest uses the photos submitted as content for a variety of purposes, whether it’s advertising for the next contest, promoting their organization on social media, or to promote the sponsors who award prizes!

Winning a contest does not validate you as a photographer.

It’s not unusual to seek validation as a photographer, especially when you’re just starting out.

award winning wedding photo from wedding photography contest

It is a very important lesson to learn that no one else can give you the validation you really need. Not your clients. Not your friends. Not your family. And certainly not judges of a contest. Validation can truly come from you. Seeking it from others will only lead to problems.

Many amazing photographers never won a contest.

Entering a contest is not going to make you a better photographer or the photograph you want to be.

You rarely get any feedback on your photos.

I think one of the biggest problems with photo contests is that, in most cases, you don’t get any feedback on your pictures.

That is unless you place or win. There are many contests where judges will leave comments on photos that place near the top or win awards.

But how does that help the many photographers who entered the contest improve or figure out how to do better next time? It doesn’t.

And it’s not that judges should be giving commentary on ALL of the photos that are entered. That could potentially take an enormous amount of time. That’s not the point I am trying to make.

I’m saying don’t go into the contest expecting to get feedback.

If you want feedback on your images or branding, I’m offering up to 60% off all of my portfolio review products through the end of June. No discount codes necessary. Each of these products includes a full, written analysis for you to keep.

Want credibility? Get reviews from clients.

If you think winning or placing in a contest gives you some sort of credibility with clients, I have news for you – most of them don’t care if you win awards for your photos as long as you provide them with high quality pictures and customer service.

You know what will give you far more credibility with potential clients – great reviews from your previous clients.

In my 20 years as a photographer, I have never once had a potential client say to me, “The fact that you won such-and-such award made me want to contact you!”

But I have had hundreds of inquiries that started with “Seeing all of your great reviews, we had to reach out to you.”

You need to have the right mindset!

This is not to say that photography contests can’t be fun and rewarding. You just have to approach them with the right mindset.

Keep the things I have mentioned above in mind when you enter, and keep making your art!

What has your photo contest experience been like?

Have you ever entered a contest before? Have you ever won? What was the overall experience like? Would you do it again? Tell us in the comments or head over to our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter profiles and let us know there!

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The Nerdy Photographer
The Nerdy Photographer

With more than a quarter century as a professional photographer, The Nerdy Photographer's goal is to spread knowledge and laughter throughout the photo industry. Please follow along on social media and subscribe to the podcast.

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