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The Tuts+ Guide to Applying to Photography Contests

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Why Submit to Photography Competitions?

Applying to photography competitions can seem like something only "other people" do. To both new photographers and seasoned veterans, submitting your work for judging can be a daunting, if not downright frightening, process. However, if you have ambitions for your work, entering competitions should certainly be high on your priority list. This guide will help you with the dos and dont’s on the road to entering the right competitions for the right reasons.

There is a huge selection of competitions out there for photographers at all stages. The main goal of entering is the same for everyone: you want your work to be seen by people with influence. The appeal is very strong particularly with the higher end photography competitions where the juries are made up of notable gallerists, editors, agency reps or curators. The promise is always that, through exposure, you’ll start to build an audience for your work. Not everyone will take to it, but by having your work seen you’re more likely to be granted opportunities for your pictures included in exhibits, magazines, and beyond.

Which Contests Should You Enter?

Deciding which competitions to enter can be tricky, and entering can be a time consuming process, particularly the first time around. There is often a cost involved, so it’s important to consider all the elements before committing. There are a vast array of aspects to think about but we’ll address the main ones here for you to consider, principally the hosts, judges, themes, prizes and exposure on offer.

Evaluate The Hosts

Look at who is presenting the competition. Are they well known and well respected enough to command positive responses from an audience? They may well be affiliated with a print or online publication, host special events (like photo festivals), stage exhibits, or contribute to a website visited by an important audience. Think about whether your work fits with the ethos and output of those institutions and whether winning would grant you meaningful exposure in the right places. If they have run competitions in the past, take a look online to see what the response was like and research past winners to see how their careers fared having won the prize. 

Not all contests are well run, and not all big contests are actually worth it. When considering a contest, think about whether your work really stands a chance of being seen. After looking at a couple hundred pictures even the most respected reviewers will get fatigued. If the contest seems like a money-grab it probably is.

Evaluate The Jury

Knowing about the jury is vital! Before entering any competition, take some time to research the panel. Are they recognised in their field to a national or international level? Are they connected to festivals, galleries and publications? If so, will these people be able to get your work seen in new areas, perhaps help you get published and featured in magazines or gain commercial commissions. Someone who is well connected and likes your work can be pivotal in granting you new oppourtunities, so if you think they’ll like your work, then do what you can to get it in front of them!

Smaller specialized or regional contests are usually a better bet for people starting out. The people on lesser-known juries are more likely to be like you: getting going. They're also likely to be reviewing less work, and so have more time to actually look at your pictures with some consideration.

Editors, curators, and collectors pride themselves on their ability to find new talent. Like everyone, they also like to work with people that they know. If you find someone who resonates with your work, get keep in touch: there is a good chance you'll grow together throughout your careers even if you don't win the contest.

Does Your Work Fit the Theme?

As most competitions are run by a genre-specific publication or website there are often themes set in order to celebrate a certain type of photography. It’s important to find competitions that fit your speciality as it gives you a far better shot of being successful and having your work seen by the right audience.

It sounds obvious, but I'll reiterate: stick to the theme. It's remarkable how many people do not. If you do stick to the there your work stands a much better chance. Also, the pool of people who act as reviewers for photography contests is relatively small: best to avoid wasting anyone's time.

Keep an Eye on Eligibilty

This is getting down to the nitty gritty of it all, but it’s worth taking time to read the entry requirements and small print. All competitions have entry criteria that you need to abide by. It could be that you need to be a certain age, from a specific location, work to a set standard, or there may be a restriction on images that have been entered into other competitions. Before you spend precious time working towards your submission, make sure you can actually enter!

Beware the Entry Fee

Many competitions now carry an entry fee, mostly to make it possible for them to be run in the first place. Just because it costs you to enter doesn’t mean it’s a high level contest, though. Do your research about the hosts and judges before you commit. It’s also worth considering whether it’s a good investment for your career. There will undoubtedly be other costs involved such as printing, postage, and maybe travel as well, so look at the whole picture before splashing your hard earned money.

If you are entering paid competitions, it's a good idea to set yourself a budget for the year. This strategy has two benefits: one, it forces you to think about whether a contest is really worth entering, and two, it means more time spent looking for free competitions.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but free contests are often a better bet. Many people ignore them because they lack the glitzy prizes. For your work, though, they can have much better returns: the meeting with a new editor, the show at the local artist-run centre, publication in the regional art magazine or newspaper.

Some contests that charge a fee offer incentives in return. These are a great way to get a little value even if you don't win. Magazines, foundations, professional associations, artists-run centres, and schools sometimes give subscriptions or memberships in return for your entry fee. These institutions are usually pretty good photography resources, so you can consider your fee a donation to support the community.

Copyright Concerns

It is crucial that you own the copyright to the work you submit, if you’re signed up to a stock or commercial agency, ensure you know where you stand with ownership of the images. Also be sure to check the rights that you’re granting the competition hosts in submitting your work, don’t give away the copyright and ensure that you retail control of the images after submission. 

Weighing the Potential Benefits

It’s also important for your to weigh up what the potential benefits of entering a competition are, I talked earlier about looking to gain greater exposure for your work. This can be done in multiple ways, for which different competitions will offer varying opportunities, so take a read and hopefully you’ll be able to establish what your priorities  are.

If Your Interest is Exhibition

One of the prizes could be having your work exhibited. Look at when and where this will happen. Is it a personal exhibit or a shared exhibit? Research the sort of work the gallery usually exhibits.  Will your work be a good fit? Hopefully so. Make it easy for the people reviewing pictures to choose yours. An exhibit is a great chance to invite press and industry to see your work. 

If Your Interest is Publication

Having your work published will certainly get your pictures sees by a wide audience. A book or magazine is also permanent. Whereas an exhibit happen in one spot at one time, the publication can travel far and wide, be collected, and be revisited many times over. As with competitions offering an exhibit, think about whether the publications involved in the competition are a good fit for your work.

Getting Exposure Online

Winning an award will certainly grow your online following. The resulting web-based promotion will allow your work to reach thousands of people across the world within the photographic community. Again, consider the caliber of the competition's associated parties. Are they active online, have you noticed their website or social media pages? The web accounts for many overnight success stories, and while I’m not saying it’ll necessarily happen to you, it's worth being prepared for people to connect with your work and for your website to receive a lot of traffic all at once. 

Cash Prizes

We all need more cash right? Well, winning money can be very beneficial. It may allow you to invest in gear, fund a new project, or make a book. However, the promotion and contacts gained from a competition maybe well be far more useful and beneficial for your career in the long term.  Don’t enter a competition just because you want the prize money!


How To Submit Your Work

Once you’ve decided which competitions are for you, it’s time to consider submitting your work. Give yourself lots of lead time. Putting together your application at the last minute is a sure way to make a mistake, and a large percentage of entries are disqualified because they simply don't meet the requirements or respect the rules.

Pick your best work. I can’t emphasise that enough. You need to edit your work tightly. Don’t let your best work be let down by choosing pictures that aren’t to the same standard. Editing your work for competition is a delicate process, and less is more. Again, give yourself lots of time for the editing process. 

When reviewing your entry, ask yourself some critical questions. Is your work out of line with the competition's theme? Does any of your work simply imitate other photographers? If so, don’t include it. Focus: restrict your submission to one theme or process. Does the set of images you've chosen clearly illustrate the story or your vision? 

Think carefully about the sequencing of the images. The first one should intrigue the viewer, then develop your ideas carefully. Be sure to caption your work clearly and stick to just the facts.

It is very much worth finding someone who you trust to show the work to and give you honest advice before submitting; perhaps a fellow photographer, tutor or industry professional. You might also ask this person to help edit your submission materials.

Finally, it is worth taking the time to double-check that your images are correctly arranged, labelled, captioned, have metadata etc., and so on. Make the life of those judging as easy as possible.

Conclusion

If you don’t win, try again! Winning is nice, but in some ways beside the point. When you don't win, consider instead the benefits of getting your work seen by the judges. Savour the times you do win as moments of good fortune. Pick competitions that will advance your career goals. Don't overlook the less glamorous, but more rewarding, small, specialized, and local contests. Use competitions to keep the energy flowing in your career. You’ll learn an awful lot through the process of entering and choosing the images to submit. And hey, if you don’t try, you’ll never know!

Tuts+ sister site Envato Market is currently holding a photo contest: Wanted Home Town Photos. The contest is free to enter, open to all, and the 10 best home-town photos will win $500 each. The contest closes November 21st.

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