I’ve always thought of myself as a competitive person. No, I’m not the kind of guy who turns everything into a race or gets bitter if I don’t win a board game. For me, the competition has to at least be quantifiable to have a chance at being meaningful. There has to be a well-defined metric of comparison; a measurable and obvious reason that one person wins over another. Without that, how can a real winner be determined? This is probably why I’ve been rather oblivious to the world of photo competitions. It’s not that I’ve avoided them, they’ve just never made it on my radar. The idea of pitting one photo against others in terms of “winners” and “losers” just doesn’t compute for me. So, I haven’t thought about them much until recently, as I’ve seen references to them in our photography group.
So I posed a few questions to group members and got a variety of responses. People seem to be looking to photo competitions for several reasons, including:
- Validation. Can I be recognized as a good photographer?
- Evaluation. How do I measure up to other photographers?
- Prestige. I want to prove that I’m a better photographer than most.
Each of these reasons are completely understandable. And while I see the potential benefits with the prestige factor, where displaying or publicizing an award might even boost one’s credibility or help with marketing efforts, I’m not so sure about the other two (validation and evaluation).
From what I understand, much of the judging is based not on some form of measurable technical mastery, but on content. And if it’s content we’re talking about, then we’re getting into the realm of expression, intention, and disparate subject matter. We’re talking about art which is very subjective. I feel that a panel of judges can offer little more than their combined opinions in such cases. And who’s handing out these opinions, long-time photo contest judges who’ve seen several thousand images through the “judging” lens, or perhaps guest judges, peers, art school instructors, or photo bloggers?
Keep in mind that there are legitimate competitions, and there are some shady ones. But of the recognized ones, do you feel you’d benefit from entering (and winning or losing) in any way? Some say artists shouldn’t think about competing, because it will negatively affect your process, and your state of mind. Others say it’s a great way to learn and grow.
Some responses from the group:
The winners were, to me anyway, not all that great. Nothing that just blew my mind or anything. So, I felt a bit jaded. I put myself out there to be judged and kinda felt like I failed. If the contest took the time to shoot me back a reason why my photo was not up to par, as the judges did see it, maybe that would have helped. – Nathan Bantz
Gave up on them some time back – have won a few competitions which has been a nice to have feeling! but in some cases the judges didn’t have the credibility to judge. — Daniel Venter
So, my take aways on contests: 1) If you want to win, find out about the judge, their background, and their work. That’s what they are most likely going to look for. 2) It’s art, therefore, it’s a crap shoot (see 1). 3) in a room full of photos of all levels of skill and subject, what is going to make an image jump out at someone, a technically superior exposure / compostition, or a simple image that tells a story? — Michael Thompson
When I first started participating in photo judging competitions, it was to challenge myself and to find out if others (and not just my loved ones) thought my work was good. Over the years, I have learned to step away from needing that validation and to instead, hone my skills and push myself outside of my comfort zone.
When I don’t win anything, my first reaction is to think the judges obviously don’t know what they’re doing, have favorites, or were bribed. I let a few minutes pass and then start looking at the work that actually did win; in some cases, my original response remains, but most of the time, I find at least one piece that I absolutely love and can learn from – so, I learn from it, let it inspire me, and go back out to shoot.
When I win something, I feel the judges obviously don’t know…. Nah, just kidding. Honestly, winning is bad for me because I revert to the young photographer that craves the validation. So now, I feel happiness, but I don’t let it influence my vision.
Now, these competitions help me become a better photographer by letting me decide which piece is superb and what I want to learn from it. I don’t automatically embrace the winning pieces because honestly, I do believe most judges rule subjectively; after all, judging art objectively could lead to boring results unless the competition is about and support perfect technique – rule of thirds, exposure, white balance, etc. But these things can be learned from a book. — Albertine Feurer-Young
Wow, this is a monster subject for me. I’ve entered many competitions now, both print and digital, on the regional, national and international level, and have many more short listed. I keep any wins noted on my website bio, as much to establish a chronology as for me to keep track.
Competitions have a very high value. Sure, you could say that the best reviews your work can get are repeat clients but, considering the number of photographers out there with repeat clients who are putting out work that has shown no developmental growth in the past 10 or 20 years, that’s not the best gauge.
Entering competitions (or salons) gives you a chance to see your work up against the best and the brightest, and to watch current trends (going back to what clients like or may like, but that hasn’t been offered yet in your market). They’re a great confidence booster, if you win, and a great learning tool, either way.
Listening to the judges critiques gives you an outsider’s insight into your work that you may be too close to see. Speaking about the 12 major elements of a successful image, they can help guide you towards achieving excellence. They will also teach you something about humility: losing isn’t a personal attack, it’s simply an opportunity to grow and improve.
My first competition was an abysmal failure. Absolutely destroyed. My second saw a 4th in portraiture but also a People’s Choice. While the judges didn’t care for it, the viewers (much like clients), did. That encouraged me to learn more and push harder. As a result, I’ve since won some major awards: POTY in Ontario, nominated for POTY in Canada, Loan Collections, 2 Best in Shows and dozens of others (including the Tibor Horvath Award of Excellence which is bloody hard to get and is somewhat of a big deal in Ontario).
The big concern with competitions is legitimacy. Professional associations (PPOC, BIPP, AIPP, PPA, etc) are good places to start. A quick Google search both for comps and related reviews (always important) is the best way to find some of the more reputable ones. Or, you can just ask me. — Jay Terry