In part I of this article, I wrote about why I decided to enter my work in photo competitions and listed some of the better-known contests, including NANPA’s soon-to-open Showcase photo competition. In part II, I’ll share some of the things I learned as I researched different contests and read lots of rules.
What I’ve Learned About Photography Contests and Competitions
The biggest risk in submitting an image is copyright infringement. Basic copyright law states that when you take a photograph, you become the copyright owner of the image you just created. You hold the exclusive right to: reproduce, distribute, and display the image in a public space. Copyright protection covers the lifetime of the artist in addition to a period that extends to several years after death. Contests sometimes request overly broad rights that may give them ownership to reproduce, distribute, display, or perhaps make a derivative work from your image without a license, written permission, or compensation. It’s important to become familiar with the legal jargon of each contest. In a copyright infringement claim, the plaintiff has the burden of proving two elements: that they own a valid copyright (the work is original), and the defendant infringed it, such as the display of a copyrighted photograph. Also, that the defendant acted willfully or sought commercial advantage or private financial gain.
Entering a contest is time consuming.
Most contests have entry fees. While a select few donate the submission fees to a charitable cause, note that there are some that are solely out to make money. Be wary of steep entry fees and small prizes, as well as competitions that have no entry fee. Only over time will you learn which contests you think are reputable.
“Amateur” and “Professional” category definitions may vary and depend on non-professional or student status, or annual income earned from photography.
Select your competition thoughtfully. Read the prospectus and follow the competition rules. Note entry deadlines and any age, state-specific, or other specific criteria. For example: The National Audubon Society annual awards contest is open to all legal residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia, and Canada (excluding Quebec).
Curate your images thoughtfully and be critical of the images you submit. Consider images you are most passionate about, ones that you would print.
Consider how well your images fit into the proposed categories. Your image might fit into two categories, such as an abstract ice image that could be in both the art in nature category or the ocean or water landscape category, while an altered image category might be best suited for an image that has been digitally altered or manipulated for artistic purposes.
In some contests, the same image cannot be entered into more than one category, and sometimes judges reserve the right to switch images to categories that they deem more appropriate.
Size and format your images correctly per the guidelines of the competition. Some competitions want only .jpg low-resolution images to be submitted and will have their own specifications for sizing on the long edge. Some don’t allow anything to be removed, while others allow minimal or selective edits. Other competitions don’t allow any edits once an application is submitted.
Note any time restrictions. Some competitions only accept images photographed within the past two to three years. Some images selected for a jury prize in an earlier entry aren’t eligible either.
Note that some competitions don’t allow submissions of images that have already won in another competition or that have already been published (this includes posting on social media). If a previous winning image can be submitted, consider if that is in your best interest. On the other hand, if an image has been submitted to multiple competitions and has never won, perhaps it’s best to consider submitting other images.
Be sure your photo rights are respected in every contest or competition. Be sure you retain all rights to each of your images. Don’t sign over copyright. If you do, the image is no longer your own. There are organizations that want complete control over how and when they use your images (including building their own library of images or selling or licensing your image), without your permission, while denying you credit or compensation. Beware of the following problematic words/phrases: unrestricted, royalty-fee, any purpose, modify, in any media, irrevocable, reproduce, display the works (in whole or in part) without limitation, without notification, and perpetuity to name a few.
Know when the organization can use your image for “promotional purposes.” Is it solely for the purpose of an exhibition or to promote related programs, their website, social media, or their online exhibition archives?
Some competitions award multiple images submitted by one photographer, so know that it’s not always one photographer winning with one image.
To craft a compelling caption for photo contests, be succinct and informative. The jurors oftentimes want something more than what’s obvious in the photo. Anticipate judges’ questions.
Some want a blurb to accompany each image. Writing about the inspiration behind the shot, how you captured the shot, or the emotion you felt when you clicked the shutter can help a juror or judge appreciate the context around the image. When given the opportunity, write a little something rather than leave the box blank. I always enjoy reading about a winner’s “how I got the shot,” their challenges, or a summary sentence or two of images submitted.
Some competitions don’t accept images of captive animals or images where live baiting is used. NANPA’s Showcase photo competition prohibits entries where baiting was used but does allow photos of captive animals, so long as they are so labeled. See also NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.
Some competitions include photography, mixed media, etchings, drawing, color pencil, fiber art, glass art, jewelry, printmaking, sculpture, or painting. In other words, they aren’t all strictly photography.
Competitions may have blind judging, meaning the judges don’t see the names of the applicants.
Read the judges’ bios. Learn if there are specific judging criteria. Have the judges been given guidance on how they should judge or are the judges falling back on previous winners to inform their decisions? What is the structure for the decision-making process? Are there specific qualities that are going to be weighed and assigned a value or score? Is there more than one round of judging? You may be asked to submit a high-resolution image if your image moves through to the final round of judging.
Be sure to know if you need model releases or permissions if submitting to portrait competitions or contests and that any required permits have been obtained.
Consider the prize. Is it cash, camera equipment, a certificate, an interview, or having your work exhibited? Make sure the prize is worthwhile. Many times, a winner is required to pay taxes on prizes and not all competitions have an awards ceremony.
Winner exposure varies wildly. Once you’ve entered a competition, your work may be seen by a few prominent international judges. Once your image goes viral, it may bring more attention to your work. Web traffic, contact by curators or gallerists, or social media exposure that follows the announcement of winning images might be short-lived while winning images may be archived.
PPA has affiliate organizations located all over the country. An affiliate directory can be found on their website.
It’s critical to register your images with the U. S. Office of Copyright. Always be sure your name appears as creator of the image and that you are credited.
This Diamond Beach, Iceland image won Juror’s Choice Award in an international juried competition that explored the ideas of liquid and sky. I was thrilled about winning Juror’s Choice. The juror, Ellen Jantzen wrote “Liquid conforms to the shape of its container. They sky is an abstract sphere, centered on the earth. Liquid Water, Sky and the liminal space between are by definition poetic and symbolic. Yet there are infinite iterations of liquid….” This image also won Judge’s Special Recognition Award in the 2022 Colorado Environmental Film Festival Photo Contest.
Winning styles of images vary by competition and by country. I’m not aware of any fads or current photography trends favored by judges nor have I judged a competition. While I don’t know exactly what judges or jurors are looking for, what’s popular and not, or which categories are less likely to have a lot of entries, in my own study of winning images, each winning image appears to be noteworthy in several of the following components:
originality (photographed in a new and different way, beyond the ordinary);
creativity—the composition, time of day, or subject of the image is unique and not something the judges have seen hundreds of times before;
a story-telling component;
expression of theme;
uniqueness of concept or subject;
a wow factor;
a unique perspective;
no distracting elements within the frame; and
Each of the above elements has appeared to be more important than skilled or oversaturated post-processing or clichéd subject matter. Jurors or judges are chosen for experience and knowledge. Imagine the task of reviewing 1,000 entries in different genres that need to be narrowed down to 40 photographs. Or, if there are several categories, how a juror considers how many images there are in each genre to give the resulting exhibit or collection an overall sense of balance. Hard choices – start to finish.
To choose my images wisely and maximize my chances of my photography winning or being chosen to exhibit, I consider if the image is memorable, inspiring, or may evoke a viewer’s imagination.
Outside of PPA, I have never received direct or detailed feedback from a judge on my photography. That said, I wouldn’t pass up an opportunity for expert critique or a portfolio review. I’ve either won or haven’t won. Several times I’ve reached the last round of judging without making it to the finals, which motivates me to try even harder. Winning Best in Show, Curator’s Choice, Juror’s Choice, Gallery Choice, First Place, Honorable Mention, a small amount of money, or getting an image published is always a highlight.
I have never chosen to enter a social media photography contest, especially since I’m not on social media, nor have I entered a contest for which “likes” can be purchased and the winner is based on popular vote. I don’t believe that the most popular photo is always the best photo.
I started entering photo competitions to gain exposure and add “award-winning photographer” to my artist curriculum vita.
If you are entering a competition for acceptance into an art show, get to know the gallery. Do you have to print and hand-deliver and pick up on select dates and times? There is something to be said for the convenience of dropping off and picking up images on specific dates from a local gallery.
Regional, national, or international galleries, on the other hand, may have virtual or group exhibitions, which require no dropping off or shipping. Sometimes the gallery will produce an exhibition book of accepted and winning entries for purchase.
If a gallery hosts an in-person gallery exhibition, they may offer local printing services for photographers so that you don’t have to ship your art. If shipping is preferred, they will likely request a return shipping label in case your piece doesn’t sell. Note that shipping can be costly and add in insurance (highly recommended) along with tracking and your costs could exceed the value of a prize or potential sale. Something to consider. Last, when shipping a framed print, note any contest specifications for the type of glass or packaging to be used, as some galleries prefer only plexiglass, not actual glass.
The length of an art show will vary. I prefer longer art shows. I have encountered a number of issues with shorter timelines. I submitted to a local art show that was only a week long, which included drop-off and pick up if the piece hadn’t sold and submitted to an art show that started a couple of weeks from notification, which didn’t allow enough time to print, and resulted in having to ship directly from the print shop, art unseen, because of tight deadlines. It’s always best to personally view your photograph prior to sending it along.
Know what percentage of a sale in an art show goes to the gallery and what goes to you, the artist. Each gallery varies, but some galleries take up to 50% commission. Though some sales inquiries go directly to the artist. It’s important to know whether your work is insured by a gallery during an exhibition. Artists may choose to maintain an insurance policy for works consigned to galleries that do not insure art in their possession.
Final Thoughts on Photography Contests
Learn from your experiences. Evaluate your work. Reflect on what prompted you to enter a photography competition. What worked for you? At the end of each year reflect on your strengths and accomplishments. What would you do differently in the future? Is entering a competition worth the time, effort, and money spent and/or received?
I’m aware that some photographers think contests are worthless, even a waste of time and money, while others seek out exposure, recognition, or validation from friends or fellow photographers, but I feel that entering contests can challenge me and help improve my photography skills. Personally, responding to submission calls served its purpose during COVID, as I had something to look forward to and challenge me while learning from the process and experience. I enjoyed learning about the history of a competition or an exhibit and the background of curators and judges. NANPA has been a great resource in this regard. I found blogs written by NANPA members to be particularly informative, including “Contest Secrets: What to Know Before You Enter a Photo” by Bernard P. Friel, Karen Schuenemann, and Wendy Shattil and “Yet Another Calendar Rights Grab” by Frank Gallagher. NANPA’s Showcase coordinator has also produced a helpful video by Wendy Shattil: “What are the judges looking for in a photo contest.”
Organizing and keeping track of contest submissions can be tricky. Keeping an Excel spreadsheet with names of competitions, deadlines, fees, dates of submission, titles of images submitted, as well as notifications and exhibition dates, is invaluable. And, although the information isn’t always available, inquiring about the total number of submissions is always helpful to see how you’ve placed out of the total number of submissions. Early on I remember how excited I was to learn that one of my images placed in the Top 15 out of 300 entries in an Alaska travel photo contest. I didn’t win, but knowing this information was rewarding. Knowing the number of worldwide entries is also helpful, especially if your image was one of 40 accepted among a total of about 1000 global entries in a juried international competition. It’s always interesting to see how many countries participate.
Although I’ve had competition successes in my career and sold my art in both a gallery and from a call for submissions exhibition, my photos haven’t been published in the big publications, such as National Geographic, BBC Wildlife Magazine, or other world premier publications. Guess it’s time to reconfigure those goals.
Debbie McCulliss travels the globe to bear witness to and record the strength, fragility, beauty, and rhythm of wildlife and nature. Being in nature provides her the opportunity to observe and intimately connect with the world. A Colorado-based winter wildlife and nature fine art photographer and budding conservationist, McCulliss journeys to learn about the history, environmental threats, and conservation efforts of the places that she visits. She believes that showcasing her work and writing for publication helps to increase the public’s awareness of ongoing needs: respect for nature and protection of wildlife, the marine environment, and endangered species. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation, evokes action, or leaves a lasting impression.
McCulliss holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing, and non-fiction writing. She is also a certified applied poetry facilitator. See more of her work at debbiemccullissphotography.com
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