Be A Winning Photographer (Even If You Lose) Photography Contests

Hurray for me.

I entered a few photo competitions this year and was a finalist in the Days Japan contest and had work selected for publication in the American Photography Book. See the winners here.

One of the images selected for the American Photography Book 33. It was particularly difficult for me to figure out which photos to enter since I shot thousands during the conventions.
One of the images selected for the American Photography Book 33. It was particularly difficult for me to figure out which photos to enter since I shot thousands during the conventions.

Contests have the power to be good for you but they can also hurt.

As a guide for entering any contest, I am always wary of ones that keep the copyright from all entries, which is really just a way for corporations to get free pictures they can use without restrictions. I would never enter such a contest and you should think twice too. Giving up your copyright is never a smart idea. Your archive can become your retirement fund. Other contests just feel like a cash grab, charging entry fees for a myriad of categories with payoffs none too grand.

In my career, contests have been a good thing. They have forced me to evaluate my work —making me take a good, long and critical look back at the photographs I was making every year and think about how I can improve.

But the day to day shooting reality is —I try every time I go out with my camera to capture that award-winning, five star image; but they are a rarity. I’ve learned it’s a numbers game to some degree and the more I’m out there shooting, the “luckier” I get.

What I have learned from searching for winning images in my archive and evaluating my work—was  to shoot more and “work it” as much as I can because my best images would often come later in the shoot.

Get Seen

For working photographers, entering contests can get work looked at by important people in the industry who can make a difference in your career. You can always leverage a winning entry in your promotions and the publicity can lead to new assignments.

But I also know that the contest rabbit hole can have negative effects if you don’t win. It can be a bummer to think your work is great but not have others feel the same way. There will always be work you think is better and other images you feel superior to. But these types of emotions will not help.

Contest are not a substitute for meaningful critique.

I don’t think you should enter for validation because contests are, by their vary nature, very subjective. Different judges; different results. There is no secret formula and a judges baggage will no doubt influence their selections. But the reality is the best work does tend to rise upwards and it’s rare that a wining image is not a good image. It may not be the best one in your opinion but that’s the beauty of art; it’s deeply personal and subjective.

Be inspired by photography you see taking prizes. Take the positive things you see and incorporate some of that magic into your own work to make it better.

Don’t try and second guess the judges or predict what they might like. Let your gut instinct help you decide which images to enter and only enter your best work. We’re in it for the long haul so don’t despair if you don’t win.

It’s always helpful to get another set of respected eyes to look at your selections and help narrow it down. But ultimately you take responsibility for the work that will represent you. Follow all rules and make each entry as strong as can be by cropping and enhancing for maximum communication power—and good luck.

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  1. says: Steve Simon

    I think that is excellent advice Rick. There’s still a higher bar for turning an image into a print vs. seeing it on a screen. It’s also a reminder of the power of a printed image. I think often we forget as we’re mostly glued to our screens when looking at images…it’s a different kind of communication that’s happening when we see a beautiful print of a powerful photograph. Also, I find like you do, that seeing a hard analog copy of photographs I have made make the editing and sequencing process easier and more effective.

  2. says: Rick Lewis

    Some excellent advice Steve. In the past, I’ve competed in PPA affiliated competitions and can say it made me a better photographer for sure. One companion piece of advice would be to print your work as well. It helps in determining what is truly good and what is not. It can also possibly help you determine which image to submit for the contest. Thanks for the great post.