An email drops into my inbox, from a company that used to run a photography competition, to tell me about the exciting new competition they're now launching! To be honest, my heart sinks. It just feels cynical at this point. The addition of each new competition slowly degrades the prestige of those already in existence, in a race to the bottom. And lets face it, half the photographers on social media now feature the words "award winning" in their bio. So what are all these competitions for, and who should be entering them?
NOTE: I realise I'm opinionated, but you don't need to agree with anything I say here. The key point is that I think a wider conversation about photography competitions would be a good thing. And for people who enter these comps, to do so with their eyes open.
Firstly, when I talk about competitions here, I'm primarily talking about the large photography competitions (with thousands of entries), which position themselves as credible entities, within the photography industry. As opposed to the local council's annual calendar competition, for example.
I also want to make it clear that I'm not against photo competitions in principle. I've entered a few comps over the years, and likely will continue to, on and off, in the future.
For my part, the most prestigious competition I've been 'awarded' in was Landscape Photographer of the Year, where I had an image commended in 2015. I went to the posh awards night, and saw my photo in the book. I've also had photos in the awards book for Bird Photographer of the Year, and been shortlisted in the British Photography Awards, British Wildlife Photography Awards, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, Nature Photographer of the Year, and most proudly, the GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
But none of this is a brag, and I'm sure no one's impressed, so let's move on...
Why Enter a Photography Competition?
We know that the idea of judging something as subjective as art or imagery is somewhat futile. Do people really believe that winning a competition means that their photo was the best? I doubt that. So what are our motives? In no particular order, I've tried to summarise the main reasons that we as photographers and artists, enter competitions...
1. Perceived Credibility*
For many, the main benefit of a competition win is the boost to their status via approval from a respected authority, such as a prestigious competition. The fact of the matter is that competition success can look good on a website or CV, and it can imply a certain standing or reputation to newcomers, so it has it's place. If I had a marketing budget, that's where I'd source my entry fees from. There's also the coveted crown of XYZ 'Photographer of the Year'. I doubt many nature photographers rank this very highly, but I'm sure it must be important to some.
* Note: Actual credibility remains unaffected.
2. Peer Recognition
A pat on the back from your fellows in the industry. There's no doubt that a good result can put a spring in your step, and encourage you to believe you're on the right path. And that has value to it. I think we all want a bit of appreciation from people we respect.
3. To Find Our Level
Where do I sit compared to other photographers? Another spin-off of this is To Reach A Certain Level.
4. The Spotlight
We all want a little more attention on our work from the wider world. As an introvert myself, I struggle to put eyeballs on my photos, so competitions can offer an opportunity for exposure.
High-profile competitions offer cash prizes to the value of thousands of pounds, and even the smaller ones sometimes offer some fantastic prizes. I never would have been able to experience the week photographing bears in Finland without my Marwell success.
Did I miss anything? Have a quick think about what your motives are for entering competitions, and how you rank those as priorities. Then with these in mind, we'll be better able to consider the points raised below.
Who Are Competitions For?
I think there's a greater need for photographers to consider why competitions exist. And the answer is generally not for their benefit. We can benefit from them, but that's more of a side-effect. It's also a statistical anomaly, considering the number of entrants who enter and get nothing back.
In it's simplest form, a competition is like any other transaction: One party offering something to others, in exchange for something back.
When Amazon sells stuff to people for money, they will emphasise the value that customers get from the exchange, but their motive is clearly profit. To them, the fact that people get stuff is merely a by-product. We're all familiar with this, but when it comes to competitions people seem to willingly turn a blind eye, choosing to believe there's something more to it.
Typically competitions offer the five benefits listed above, in exchange for a profit. Sometimes the competitions are 'not-for-profit'. In these cases, the motive is generally publicity (for the company or cause) or occasionally to raise money for charity. The one thing all competition models have in common is that the photographers are essentially there just as a mechanism for the company to achieve it's aims. Again, it's not immoral or anything, but photographers should be aware of this.
And with so many available now, competitions are transitioning into essentially an open marketplace. There are competitions of all shapes and sizes, for every type of photographer to find the one that suits them. But the one thing competitions have over a standard Amazon transaction? They're able to offer extremely tempting prizes for relatively little investment. And they do that with the oldest trick in the book. By dangling big prizes which are only given to very few participants. It's gambling.
Most people would say that photography competitions aren't gambling, because the entries are judged, and considered, rather than flipping a coin to decide. I would argue there's a substantial amount of luck involved. Whatever the pros and cons of judging visual arts, success ultimately comes down to what resonates with the judges, what appeals to them aesthetically, what feels fresh, along with many other factors - any of which might vary from one day to the next. It's all very subjective and importantly; impossible to predict. People enter the same photos into different competitions, with differing results. There are even examples of people who've entered the same photo into the same competition in different years, and achieved a result second time around.
I'm fascinated by game theory, and I particularly like the game of poker. I love the blend of skill and luck, which combine in perfect balance. But poker can become 'more random' or 'less random', depending on who's playing. One poker pro playing with me and my mates is going to clean up almost every time. That's not luck, that's someone with such a level of skill compared to their opposition, that they overcome the element of chance. But when professional poker players meet, their edge is diminished, and it becomes more and more random who comes out on top. So the more diverse the skill level of the entrants, the less random the results of the poker tournament. And the more similarly-skilled the entrants, the more random the results. I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.
Once the judges of a photography competition have weeded out the weaker entries, what they're left with is a lot of very good photos. At that point it really could be any of those that the judges take a particular shine to. This is not to say it's down to luck in the conventional sense. A judge will hopefully know why they choose one photo over another. But from the outside, it's a decision that's unpredictable and inconsistent, and liable to vary from judge to judge, and even mood by mood.
I think it's impossible to deny that luck plays a significant role in photography competitions, certainly in the latter stages when all the remaining entries are of a high standard. But it's something to which people seem willing to turn a blind eye. After all, it diminishes the achievement of winning, and discourages the idea that success is in your own hands. Unfortunately like so many things in life, denial isn't a replacement for disproof, and the reality is what it is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I think it's healthier to acknowledge it.
Judging Photography Competitions
I certainly don't envy the competition judges. It's an impossible task. Organisers rarely want to address the elephant in the room; To what extent can you judge art anyway? And to be honest, I don't really want to get into that here either, as it's a whole topic on its own. But I certainly recognise the problem, and I accept that it comes down to a whole combination of factors, many of which can't easily be expressed or quantified.
Lets start by agreeing that all photography competitions should be judged anonymously; meaning that there's no way for the judge to know who took any given photo. Of course there will be occasions where a judge recognises a photo they've seen before, or sometimes the distinctive style of a photographer they know. I think this is fairly unavoidable, and at that point you're reliant on the professionalism of the judge. As far as I know, the major competitions are strict about anonymity, and that's a good thing. I think any competition which isn't judged anonymously has a massive problem with credibility, and leaves itself open to accusations of corruption; where judges vote for friends or for photographers whose profile will help the competition.
The first stage of judging is typically 'shortlisting', or filtering out the weaker entries. This is generally performed by a wider team than will judge the final selection of images. And that comes down to the volume of entries, the time required, and the lower 'expertise' involved. However this stage is fraught with pitfalls, and plenty of photographers have experience of photos they love not getting through, in favour of those which they considered 'also-rans'. To some extent this comes down to our emotional ties to our favourite photos, which sometimes don't translate to a stranger, with no context. But the way in which this shortlisting is executed (which will vary from competition to competition) can sometimes seem to produce baffling results to an outsider. It all adds to the feeling that it's quite a random process. Friend and fellow nature photographer Elliot Hook wrote a good blog post about competitions a few years a go, and it's one I've re-read several times since as it communicates well the frustrations and shortcomings of this stage of the judging, and the practicalities of judging so many photos in a limited amount of time. Judges opinion of a particular photo will inevitably be skewed by the quality and subject matter of the photos around it at this stage, as well as the progress of any quotas the judge needs to hit in terms of entries to filter out/in. I'm sure I've also heard a judge of a major photography competition refer to reviewing multiple photos on-screen at the same time in the shortlisting stage, such is the volume of entries to get through. At this stage it just has to be accepted that some good photos (potential-winners, even) will get overlooked, due to the quantity of images to assess and the flaws in the process. That doesn't really matter to the competition, as they'll still get their winner either way, and the competition itself will succeed. But to the entrants involved it can be pretty demoralising.
One way to outsource the judging is a public vote, where people outside of the photography in-crowd are invited to pick a winner. Despite my sometimes snobbishness, I think public votes have their place. Personally I do want my photos to appeal to a range of people, so I have nothing against the principle. But I think public votes are best used in addition to more 'qualified judging', as is the case in WPOTY and BPA, rather than as a replacement for judges. I think without any judges, a competition lacks that peer recognition/approval factor, which is part of the attraction for many photographers. One thing I'm not keen on is when I feel like the public vote is really just an attempt to get more exposure for the competition, in order to attract more entries next time around. Last year I was shortlisted in the BPA, and was encouraged to share this with friends and family for the public vote. I did share it, and I just felt cheap; like I'd been manipulated into publicising their competition. I think in future I'd just keep quiet and let the chips fall where they may. Then there's the obvious flaw in these votes - Some of the photographers shortlisted have a social media following in the tens of thousands. It can easily become a case of who can shout the loudest, and that's a real issue for the credibility of the competition.
Lastly, let's consider the choice of overall winner. Of course it's not the best photo entered. There is no such thing. It's the most popular photo amongst a particular set of people on a particular day. We take the credit as winners when we have the opportunity, as we should do, but lets not get carried away. The construct of the 'clear winner' is purely a narrative to support the legitimacy and prestige of the competition. Try taking the top 10 images of a competition and pick a winner amongst friends. You're unlikely to get a clear winner, let alone the same one as the judges. And for most of the big competitions, the same would go for the top 100. There can't be much difference between them at that point; it must be a fairly arbitrary choice. One trait of 'overall winner' images comes up more regularly than you'd think, and it kind of bugs me. Competitions will often seem to intentionally pick winning shots that are controversial in some way, in a pretty transparent attempt to maximise publicity for the competition. I think that ultimately comes at the expense of quality, and erodes the integrity of the competition. The issue is it's always just the one winner that fits this type. None of the other category winners or runners-up are in this vein. If they wanted controversial images, then all the runners-up would be too. It's like they primarily want to reward great photos, and then choose one very different image that will get people's attention and split opinion. One high profile example of that was when Wildlife Photographer of the Year, generally considered the most respected competition around, chose an awkward rendition of blue elephants as winner in 2013, but there are plenty more examples around too.
More than anything, competitions need a more transparent judging process. How many rounds of judging are there? Who is performing each round, and how are they conducted? What's the criteria on which the images are judged? I think if I was putting together a judging panel, I'd be looking to graphic designers and conventional artists as much as photographers, as I think they'd bring a fresh approach, and would help encourage diversity of thinking amongst the photography community.
Do Competitions Fulfil Our Goals?
Based on the list of motivations for entering above, are competitions giving us what we want?
1. Perceived Credibility
I think the winners of the major competitions receive a boost to their reputation. It's essentially one authority vouching for an individual (or a handful of individuals, in the case of category winners). And the more prestige the competition holds, the more valuable its endorsement. The caveat is that the more competitions that spring up, the less prestigious they and those around them become. We also have to consider the number of entries a competition receives, and the chance of our entry actually achieving a premium result.
2. Peer Recognition
I've definitely felt encouragement from competition results in the past, and the idea that others in the same field are enjoying what you do is definitely a confidence-booster. But similarly, if you're not getting results (and I have more experience of this than of success) it can easily feel like rejection. Trying to appeal to a certain crowd, and getting nothing back is a difficult mentality to live with over time. If you think you're in this situation, it's worth taking stock and re-evaluating the importance you place on this factor. Are you putting too much importance on the approval of others?
3. To Find our Level
This is a slippery slope. To me, this is a more concerning version of number 2, and it suggests we're placing too much credence in the somewhat arbitrary results of competitions. Looking to external factors such as competitions for acceptance or validation is a shortcut to anxiety. The feedback is either too brief or non-existent, so it's hard (and problematic) to read much into any result (or lack there-of). It's then easy to get dragged into the mentality of 'shooting for the comps'. Down that road you're no longer following your own intuition, your own preferences, and it's easy to lose sight of why you took up photography in the first place.
4. The Spotlight
I think this one is generally oversold as a benefit. I think that you really have to achieve a very significant result in a very prominent competition in order to achieve any worthwhile attention. Think about it; when was the last time you looked through the results of a competition and then went and looked at the website or social media accounts of some of the winners. It happens, sure, and I've done it myself occasionally. But really, it's pretty rare. And for people outside of photography - who might see the results in the news or the paper - what is their reaction? "Oh, nice" at best, I would imagine. Just don't expect to start getting recognised in the street any time soon :-)
Sure, buy a ticket, but be aware that it's essentially a high-class raffle with variable odds.
How to Choose a Competition to Enter
I think the competitions to enter are the ones which have either:
- A good prize which you think is achievable.
- The credibility and integrity to deliver an endorsement you value.
- The authority to boost your reputation.
It's up to us to asses the credibility and reputation of each competition, and I'm just suggesting that maybe we give it a little more thought. It's not that hard to get a handle on how reputable a competition is, and how legitimate a result would feel to us or appear to others.
Amongst nature photographers, I think WPOTY is universally considered the top honour. I'd rate the GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year close behind that as it carries its own weight of credibility, and I think GDT favour a particularly artful aesthetic, which I like. And I can't be alone in that, as the two often share the same entries amongst their winners. It's fair to say that the standard of those competitions can seem prohibitively high for many hobbyist photographers, but there are plenty more credible options that can feel more achievable. One thing to consider though, when assessing prospective competitions, is what kind of level you should be targeting. This is something that only you can decide for yourself, however I personally think it's better to enter a competition in which you'd be thrilled to achieve a result, rather than pitching yourself too low and collecting a series of so-so results that don't really mean much to you.
If you're not sure about a competition, take a look at the judges. Are they people whose opinion you respect, or whose affirmation is valuable to you? When Bird POTY launched, it had no reputation or standing, but I entered on the basis that Chris Packham (someone I respect enormously) was a judge. That has meaning to me, so a result was of some value.
This post has pretty much entirely been with 'large' competitions in mind. But there are plenty of minor competitions around too. Enough to enter something every day if you want to. There are even websites such as PhotoCrowd which exist purely for people who want to play competitions regularly. They seem a bit 'gambley' to me, but maybe there's no harm in it for most people. Some of the themed ones might encourage people try new genres and subjects they haven't tried before. Then you have things like 'the weeklies' on social media, which seem popular, and appear to sustain a community of regulars. But even those can create a feeling of isolation to those who feel overlooked by their lack of results. Personally I find the smaller, regular comps a bit pointless. They carry no clout at all, and can encourage a competitive streak which I definitely don't want in my photography. But to each his own.
The main take-home message of this post is that competitions don't generally exist for the benefit of photographers. So before you enter, just make sure you're likely to get something out of the experience, and you won't put too much stock in things if you don't. Here are some other aspects to consider...
Most of the well-renowned photography competitions require an entry fee. Managing the process and judging (with qualified, respected judges) costs time and money, and personally I'm happy to pay for this. The fee also generates the profits for the competition, if it makes a profit. A credible competition must be hard work to run, so it's only fair that whoever operates it is appropriately remunerated, like any other transaction. Most of the major high-profile competitions only cost around £1 - £2 per photo, when you pay for a batch of entries.
We also see competitions run by charities & non-profits where the entry fee goes towards a good cause. These can be a good way to support a charity through your photography, and a chance to win a prize at the same time.
Some comps are free to enter, with costs absorbed by a company that is using the competition for press/publicity. That's equally valid, but don't think that's any more credible than competitions set up for profit. It still exists principally for the benefit of the host. The Sony World Photography Awards is an example of this model, and is able to claim it's the world's most popular competition due to the number of entries it receives. Last year they had 345,000 entries, but it's safe to assume its popularity is largely due to its free entry.
At the other end of the scale you have International Landscape Photographer of the Year, which costs $25 per photo, but that higher barrier meant only 3800 entries last year, and 15% of all entries were 'winners'. Enter a handful of photos there and you're close to buying yourself a result.
If someone said they were going to take a whole bunch of people's photos, put them into a book, and sell that book back to the photographers, as well as the general public, you'd say they were taking the p***. Why is it tolerated in photography competitions? It's a surprisingly common practice amongst the high-profile competitions. They compile a book from the 'winning' images (most of which win nothing except the privilege of having to buy a book to see their photo in it), and make a tidy profit in the process. In fact it's worse than that as the photographers already paid just to have their photos considered. I don't mind the book sales helping to subsidise the running costs of the competition, but they could at least send the 'winners' a copy of the book so it feels like they have won something. The book should be a celebration and a reward, not an opportunity for up-selling. Amongst photographers generally, the common feeling seems to be that these books are beautiful artefacts, and it's a proud achievement to be included. To me it just feels like a cynical attempt to bleed more money out of entrants by telling them it means they're special or fortunate to feature. Perhaps the reality is somewhere in the middle, but I think it's something we should be talking about.
This is hard for competitions to achieve, as it costs time and money. But in effect, most of the entrants to a competition will win nothing, so some feedback is the one thing that they could offer to every entrant. Some competitions have experimented with crude forms of feedback, but we need more and better. It's a source of anguish to many photographers that they don't even know why their photo was/wasn't shortlisted.
Look for a competition that will provide genuine exposure for your featured images. I'm not just talking about a press release and a feature in a paper. I mean making a sincere effort to get photos out there in front of the right people in the long term. Photographers really want their work to be seen, and competitions have the platform to achieve that for them - if they recognise it as a driver for entries. LPOTY has started improving on this front, with featured blog posts, email newsletters, and social media posts showcasing one photo or photographer, to share a bit of their prominence.
Terms & Conditions Apply
Always check the T's & C's. All the most reputable high-profile competitions state that they will only use your photo in relation to publicity of the competition (plus any book, exhibition, etc, planned for the end of the competition).
Some companies run competitions which are "free" to enter, but in doing so you're giving them the rights to use your image(s) for whatever they like. This is called a 'Rights-Grab', and it occurs when an organisation uses a photography competition as a way of generating an image library for free (well, the cost of a small prize). And they'll use them for anything from marketing, to products, and even sub-licensing (selling) to a third-party. When commercial enterprises operate in this way, you often find that the better photographers will swerve those competitions (not wanting to give away their image-rights for others to profit from), so they're generally left with a pretty poor set of entries. This leaves the competition looking a bit sad, and the business is left with a pretty shoddy set of photos for their marketing, when they could have just paid for a good set from a competent photographer. So it doesn't really work for anyone.
I wouldn't go as far as saying never enter a competition like this, as there can be time and place for it - sometimes the organisation is a charity or 'good cause' that you're happy to support. But you should always check before entering, and always be sure you're happy to give away the photos you enter to that particular organisation.
For example, the Marwell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition I won was in this bracket, but since I took the photo itself at Marwell, and they appear to operate for a good cause, I felt it was fair to allow them usage of the photo in return for my entry. There are other cases where I'll consider image-use as a donation to that cause, in return for entry of a competition - but for me that would only be in the case of charities and non-profits, not cheeky commercial businesses.
And The Winner Is
OK, this is a bit out there, but do we need an overall winner? We know it's kind of an arbitrary choice, so why maintain the conceit? I think the competition would argue that it needs an overall winner to hang its hat on. It also allows them to attract more entries by offering a massive prize (I'm sure one prize of £10,000 attracts more entrants than 10 prizes of £1000 each). Personally I'm warming to the idea of a competition that is a proper celebration of fantastic imagery, and doesn't feel the need to single out one image to rule them all. Maybe one of these top comps could drop the big title, and instead reward a pool of images that make it to a certain level. 10 winners, 25 winners, whatever. If the competition has quality, authenticity, and credibility, it doesn't need the crutch of the traditional prize structure.
Well, to be fair, you deserve a prize if you've read this whole post. I hope I haven't been too outspoken and/or cynical. The point certainly wasn't to push my opinions on to you, or to scoff at the idea of competition in the arts, so I hope it hasn't come across that way. What led me to write this was the huge proliferation of competitions vying for attention, and the observation of so many photographers seemingly caught up with the whole competition mentality, which I don't think is very helpful. The rewards on offer, from titles and prizes to attention and dopamine, can be quite a potent lure, and I'm sure there will be photographers experiencing symptoms of addiction; spinning the wheel of more and more competitions in the hope of getting lucky. I think we all need to be a little more mindful about what we put our creative attention in to, and why. It's easy to lose perspective on what competitions actually are, and I think a more open discussion is probably helpful in that. Whatever you think, maybe raise it with a fellow photographer, and just have the conversation.