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Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
A decent level of creativity and a well-executed photo are two things needed to win a contest.

This article was updated in December 2023 with contributions from Simon Bond, Dale Wilson, Charlie Moss, and Peter West Carey.

Photo contests seem to be everywhere these days, and they often come with promises of glory and popularity, not to mention plenty of eye-catching prizes. But are they worth your time? As a beginner, a hobbyist, or even a professional photographer, should you put in the time and effort needed to enter photography competitions?

In this article, we discuss the reasons photo contests can be valuable for you, your photography, and your photography career. We also explore the dark side of competitions, and we share a handful of reasons why some (or all!) photo contests aren’t worth entering.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know whether photography competitions are right for you!

Should you enter a photo contest? The benefits

As someone who has entered a fair few competitions, I can confidently say that they do indeed come with real benefits. Here are several of the biggest:

1. A photo contest gives you direction

There are times as a photographer that you’ll drift a little bit. Whether that means you photograph less, or when you do photograph there’s not too much cohesion to it depends on you as a photographer. Even those with clear ideas about their photography benefit from a clear direction to head in, and a photo contest is one great way to achieve this. Not all, but many photo contests have themes, and it’s this theme you concentrate your mind on as you look to compose the best photo.

2. A photo contest pushes you out of your comfort zone

In the same way that a themed contest can give you direction, it can also push you out of your comfort zone. Of course, if the contest is too far out of your comfort zone, you might choose not to enter for a variety of reasons. However, with enough time before the final entry date, contests provide the perfect opportunity to hone your skill in another area of photography. Contests also allow you to adapt the way you take photos to fit the theme of the contest. Do you enjoy landscape photography? A contest theme set to crystal ball photography could be the perfect chance to learn this new photographic technique while applying what you already know about landscape work.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
This photo ranked number 1 for the daily interesting contest on Flickr.

3. Photo contests help you focus on the technical details

Do you always photograph all your photos at the correct aperture? Was the ISO left too high, from the last time you photographed indoors? While you’ll almost certainly get those camera settings correct when you’re out photographing when it comes to a contest you definitely will. The smallest advantages you can gain by perfecting your technique can all stack up, and you’ll need every advantage you can get to win a contest.

4. Photo contests are a great way to gain exposure

There are several ways you can gain exposure through a photo contest. However, there is no doubt your photo needs to stand out because most contests gain thousands of entries. It’s in the interests of a contest to engage its audience though, so how can that benefit you? Those contests that run for a couple of months may well have a weekly top ten. Photos from this ten may not end up winning the prize, but it can put eyeballs on your photo if you make the ten. In addition to this, typically photo contests have a winner, as well as a raft of commended photos. Once again, this gives you a significant chance of more exposure, should your photo be commended.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
This photo won a contest in South Korea a few years ago.

5. There’s the potential to win a great prize!

The bigger the contest, the bigger the prize! Of course, it is incredibly difficult to win the grand prize of any contest, and that’s certainly the case with photography. Those that win often gain a photographic opportunity that is a once in a lifetime chance. The national geographic contests often have prizes that involve traveling to exotic locations, and the chance to learn from established photographers.

6. You can be inspired by other entries

There are plenty of places you can see other photographers’ work. More or less, any form of social media allows for this. But photo contests are the place where people submit their very best work.

Seeing how other people have interpreted a contest theme can lead to inspiration in your own work. Of course, plagiarism isn’t a good idea, but looking at style, technique and execution might lead to an adaption in the way you take photos yourself. Adapting other peoples ideas, and incorporating them into your work is a great way to improve.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
Photo contest sites like Pixoto are a great way to see how well your photography level is progressing.

7. Doing well validates you

All that exposure and a potential prize is not the only benefit you get from a photo contest. Having a winning entry, be that the overall winner or a top ten photo gives your photography validation. There is nothing that beats this when it comes to things like growing your photography business. The ability to call yourself a prize-winning photographer can go a long way. Does the size of the contest matter? From the perspective of calling yourself a prize-winning photographer, entering a smaller contest where there is a greater chance to win might be the way to go.

8. You can gain feedback on your images

If you’re lucky, you might get direct feedback from the person judging the contest. Those contests that allow comments may also lead to fellow contestants commenting on your work. Getting feedback on what you do is a great way to grow as a photographer. Contests are one platform where you may be able to receive some of this vital information.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
The really big contest to win is National Geographic’s. Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to win!

Should you enter a photo contest? The drawbacks

While there are many good reasons to enter a photo contest, there are some serious drawbacks:

1. Repeated losses can be hard

We don’t always win competitions. Of course, it would be impossible for everyone to win every competition that they entered. Not placing in shortlists time and time again can be tough on our mental health.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons
Image by Charlie Moss

You must make sure you’re entering competitions for good reasons, and not those that end up lowering your mood when you face rejection. Finding these reasons can be difficult even for seasoned photographers.

2. Fees can be hefty

The majority of photo contests are free or have a nominal entry fee. Some contests charge large entry fees, though. It’s up to you, but sometimes these contests are best avoided. There is no justification for a large entry fee. A good contest has many contestants, so they should only need to charge a nominal entry per person to cover their costs.

3. You can lose the rights to your photos

It’s always worth reading the terms and conditions of a photography contest carefully. That’s because some contests claim rights to your photo when you enter it in the contest, even if your photo is not one of the winning entries. Contests like this are essentially looking to use your work for their commercial advertising. Instead of paying for a stock image, they’ll instead run a photo contest to get their advertising material that way. This is why you’ll lose rights to your photo by entering this type of contest.

Should You Enter a Photo Contest? Pros and Cons

4. The winning images aren’t always the best

For me, this is a big issue. Is the winner picked by a single judge or a jury? Or is it an open popularity contest voted on by likes and shares?

I prefer juried and judged contests, especially when I can research those doing the picking. I pick these contests because the judges are typically photographers or someone with advanced art education and experience. I feel the playing field is more level with these contests.

On the other hand, pictures of kittens, sunsets, rainbows, and oversaturated mountains do very well with the voting internet as a whole. I shy away from popularity contests because a) I’m not ultra-popular and b) they can be rigged and often bury great work in favor of pretty work. The main reason a website will run a photo contest is to make themselves more popular and visited and that’s why these types of contests exist.

Should you enter photo competitions? Final words

Photo contests can certainly be great for you, and they can definitely be worth entering. I feel that they help me develop my practice as a photographer, allow me to experiment freely, and allow me to be judged amongst my peers. Those three things are very important to me.

Competitions can also be a great chance to meet new photographers and discover new work. Going to your local camera club, or even the exhibition from a larger competition can be both productive and exciting!

But you must take steps to understand why you want to enter competitions with your photography and if you’re entering for good reasons. When stepping into the competitive photography arena, you first of all need to take steps to protect your mental health and ensure you’re not putting yourself, your finances, or your images at risk.

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Simon Bond
Simon Bond

is a specialist in creative photography techniques and is well known for his work with a crystal ball. His work has featured magazines including National Geographic Traveler. With over 8 years of experience in lensball photography, Simon is an expert in this field. Get some great tips by downloading his free e-book!
Do you want to learn about crystal ball photography? He has a course just for you! Get 20% off: DPS20.

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