Are Photography Contests Worthwhile or Worthless?

Are Photography Contests Worthwhile or Worthless?

Are photography contests worthless? Like most arguments, there are two sides:

Yes, photography contests, on the whole, are generally worthless – they are a time and money suck, and the organizers are looking to make money or disguise them as a rights grab.

No, they provide value, in that it forces photographers to curate their best work and ultimately push themselves to compete with “the best”. Plus, reading that so-and-so won this-and-that photo contest is kind of like being named Best Smile in the yearbook – many of us tend to pay attention to those awards, even if we’re not sure why.

But before the opining begins, keep in mind that every contest is geared toward a different level of photographer (student vs. amateur vs. pro), genre of photography (documentary, commercial, fine art, etc.), and different buyers are checking out different contests (magazine editors vs. ad agencies, for example).

Below we rate several major photo contests, with a brief overview of each contests’ entry fees, prizes, promised exposure, and feedback from past winners. Our verdict is given on an A-F scale, with “A” being worthwhile and “F” being worthless. Let the grading begin:

Photography Masters Cup

Entry fees: $35 for professionals; $30 for amateur (determined by whether your income is made as a photographer).

Prizes: “Masters Cup Award” title.

Promised exposure: Published in The PHOTO Paper Magazine; showcased in the online Winners Gallery; “international press and exposure.”

What the winners say: Daisy Gilardini, winner in the Nature category for the 5th annual awards, says: “Entering a photo contest is a time consuming task. I enter only a few of the most prestigious photo contest worldwide a year. The benefits are not immediate: I don’t enter a contest for the prizes – I consider this engagement as part of my marketing business plan. It’s a great way to have your name out there and build up a reputation.”

Photo by Daisy Gilardini

When asked if he would recommend other photographers to enter, Sucheta Das (winner in the Sports category) says: “Yes, definitely. I would ask all professional and young photographers to come forward and enter and show your talent to the world.”

Photo by Sucheta Das

Verdict: D You pay $30-some dollars, and get back zero. Beyond getting to put “Masters Cup Award” in your bio and having your work seen by maybe a few prominent judges, it doesn’t appear that the exposure foots the bill. Not many are talking about this contest (at least online), most buyers haven’t heard of it, and while the copyright remains with the photographer, the organization and “third-party newspapers and magazines” can use your image for “promotional purposes.”

International Photography Awards (IPA)

Entry fees: $35 for professionals’ singe image; $25 for non-professionals; $15 for students.

Prizes: Cash prize of $10,000 for the International Photographer of the Year Award; $5,000 for Discovery of the Year Award; $5,000 for Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year Award; $2,500 for New! Moving Image Photographer of the Year Award.

Promised exposure: Winners attend the Lucie Awards in NYC – of those, 45 images are selected for a exhibition leading up to the awards show; published in Annual International Photography Awards Book; press release and newsletter sent to 50,000+ IPA members.

What the winners say: Finalists across IPA’s eight main categories in 2011 had mixed reviews. Marsel van Oosten, Nature Pro winner, says: “I consider it to be the Oscars of photography”. Conversely, Editorial Pro winner Jacopo Quaranta says that he didn’t see any direct benefit in the form of new assignments as a result of winning, but “the exposure given by the contest is huge, which is really good because your pictures are seen by a larger number of people and more people may discover you.”

Photo by Marsel van Oosten

Quaranta also adds that the benefits of entering depend on your genre of photography. “I think IPA is more oriented toward fine art photography,” he says. “If you see the names of people who won every year, there are not many photojournalists.”

Photo by Jacopo Quaranta

That being said, Fine Art Pro winner Chad Holder warns: “We need to be careful not to enter the lame contests that are solely out to make money. Stick to respectable ones, the ones your clients will notice and care about.”

Photo by Chad Holder

Verdict: B. $10,000 is pretty sweet bait for entering the IPA, and winners’ images have been previously published on websites like BuzzFeed and EYEMAZING. Plus, the exhibition and press release provide a chance to get a good number of eyeballs on your work. But as one past winner notes, be sure that your genre of photography fits the competition.

Smithsonian Photo Contest

Entry fees: n/a

Prizes: Grand prize of $5,000; 5 category winners receive $500; Readers’ Choice winner receives $500.

Promised exposure: Published on Smithsonian website.

What the winners say: Radim Schreiber, who won first prize in the Nature category in the 8th annual contest, says that he considers the win was a milestone in his photography career. “It motivates me to pursue photography further,” he says.

Paul Durhman, a finalist in this year’s Travel category, says: “I have received the benefit of more exposure for my work as well as a definite boost in confidence! Not only are you viewing others’ work – you’re putting your work up against it, which in turn helps you improve.”

Photo by Paula Durhman

Verdict: D. There’s not a lot stopping you from entering Smithsonian’s photo contest with a $0 entry fee, and the grand prize is a nice chunk of cash, but beware of the usage rights you’re handing over: “By entering the contest, entrants grant the Smithsonian Institution a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, non-exclusive license to display, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works of the entries…The Smithsonian Institution will not be required to pay any additional consideration or seek any additional approval in connection with such uses.” Also, most entries are pretty amateur.

National Geographic Photo Contest

Entry fees: $15 per entry.

Prizes: Grand Prize winner receives $7,500 cash prize and a 3-day trip to Washington D.C. for the National Geographic Photography Seminar; category winners receive $2,500.

Promised exposure: Printed in the magazine.

What the winners say: Izabelle Nordfjell won the People category in 2011 and says, “I got a lot of attention in the Swedish media and even some internationally. It resulted in a boost for my brand as a young, up-and-coming photojournalist.”

2011 Grand Prize winner Shikhei Goh simply says: “I surely recommend others to enter the contest.”

Photo by Shikhei Goh

Verdict: B. It’s many nature photographers’ dream to be published in National Geographic, and the online gallery gets roughly 600,000 pageviews per month. Not to mention that publications like The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, ABC News and more publish the winners (all online). Know why? “By entering the Contest, all entrants grant an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide non-exclusive license to Authorized Parties, to reproduce, distribute, display and create derivative works of the entries.” If this sort of “free” exposure doesn’t bother you, then the contest might be for you.

PDN Photo Annual 

Entry fees: $45 for a single entry; $55 per series; special student rate of $25 per entry.

Prizes: There are six different awards given at the PDN Photo Annual:

  • The Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture
  • Adobe’s Breakthrough Photography Award of $1,000 cash prize and Adobe® Creative Suite® 5.5 Master Collection
  • The Marty Forscher Fellowship Fund cash award to one professional and one student winner
  • The Sony Emerging Photographer Award who receives a Sony camera and a $1,000 cash prize
  • Ten winners receive a Nielsen Photo Group membership
  • PDN Editor’s Choice Award receivse a full-page self promotion ad in an upcoming issue of PDN

Promised exposure: Winning images published in PDN’s Photo Annual issue (sent to 5,000+ creatives) and pdnonline.com‘s gallery archive; “work seen by top photo industry judges.”

What the winners say: Jason Larkin won The Arnold Newman Prize and received a four-month solo exhibition as a result. “Winning the award was a great boost on keeping me focused on my own projects in between shooting my assignment work,” he says. “PDN is a very respectable organization and the annual is a very competitive arena to get your work show in. Though the submission is a lot of money and I think it’s a personal decision on entering or not.”

Photo by Jason Larkin

Verdict: B+. PDN Photo Annual is very well respected in the photography community, and many photo buyers have told us that this is one of the photo contests that they actually pay attention to. The judges who you will likely see your work (editors in the past have been from Newsweek, Sports IllustratorThe New York Times, for example) might be worth the hefty $45-55 entry fee – though the prizes could be a bit more generous for the submission cost.

World Press Photo

Entry fees: n/a

Prizes: Photo of the Year Award receives €10,000 and a sponsored trip to the Awards Ceremony in Amsterdam; 2nd and 3rd prize winners, and honorable mentions, receive an award and diploma.

Promised exposure: All prize-winning photos are assembled into an exhibition that travels to 45 countries and published in a yearbook distributed worldwide.

What the winners say: World Press Photo of the Year 2011 winner Samuel Aranda says: “Receiving the award really helped me to find new clients and ways to do my next projects. Also that the issues in Yemen got exposure as a result of the award.”

Donald Weber, who won first prize in the Portraits category, says: “I am a believer in the awards system, but I also think it can get overdone…there are an awful lot of paid awards these days, which I don’t necessarily denigrate, but I think you have to be wise and careful and prudent about what you enter and why. Is this an important milestone in your career, is this an important step for the life of the work?”

“What a WPP does is offer recognition from your peers,” Donald adds. “I think we as photographers are an insecure species as a whole, an award lightens our egos and tells us we’re on our way somewhere.”

Photo by Donald Weber

Verdict: A. We just can’t deny the credibility of World Press Photo – they boast over two million visitors to the hundreds of venues where winners’ images travel in their winning year, and you just might get published on the front page of The New York Times (like 2011 winner Samuel Aranda). Like other contests, WPP is geared toward a specific type of photographer – so don’t expect to enter your hummingbird photo and win the grand prize.

Pictures of the Year International (POYi)

Entry fees: $50 per entry.

Prizes: Photographer of the Year receives $1,000 cash prize, Nikon camera bodies, and a Tiffany crystal trophy; 2nd place receives $500; 3rd place receives $250.

Promised exposure: Display in Washington D.C.’s Newseum for six months.

What the winners say: None of the winners we contacted replied with comments.

Verdict: B-. POYi is well respected in the photojournalism community, and winners are usually recognized on TIME’s Lightbox blog, The New York Times‘ Lens blog, and others. Unless you’re looking for a broader audience for your documentary project, this probably isn’t the contest for you.

Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition

Entry fees: n/a

Prizes: Monetary prizes can be used toward the purchase of Nikon Equipment:

  • 1st Prize $3,000
  • 2nd Prize $2,000
  • 3rd Prize$1,000
  • 4th Prize $800
  • 5th Prize $600
  • 6th Prize $400
  • 7th–10th Prizes $250
  • 11th–20th Prizes $100

Promised exposure: Small World Museum Tour throughout North American for 20 selected prize winners; calendar published with selected winners; published in online gallery.

What the winners say: 2011 2nd prize winner Dr. Donna Stolz says that she received a lot of unsolicited emails requesting to use the image for various applications. “It was great to hear how others enjoyed the images,” she says.

Photo by Donna Stolz

Verdict: A. This grade may come as a surprise, but Nikon’s competition serves its purpose beautifully – gives photographers in an extremely niche subject the chance to showcase their images and receive recognition for their work. And the hefty cash prizes don’t hurt, either.

Communication Arts Photography Competition

Entry fees: $35 for single entry; $70 for series.

Prizes: n/a

Promised exposure: Included in Communication Arts Photography Annual and on commarts.com.

What the winners say: Michael Schnabel won the Advertising category and says that he views photo contests as part of his marketing strategy. “My work gets promoted through the contest, and potentially I reach an interesting audience I wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. “And if people already know me, then they are reassured of the quality of my work.”

Photo by Michael Schnabel

Winner of the Unpublished category, Garry Hanan, says: “There is always good exposure in being able to talk about winning the award, but the target market for [Communication Arts] magazine makes a huge difference when it comes to potential exposure.”

“For me personally,” adds Gerry, “the benefits included being able to win new business with an ad agency I hadn’t worked with before, and a shift in the mind of some of my existing and potential clients. There are few things more validating than winning a competition like this, and there is always value in validation. Maybe that win keeps you going when business is tough and you feel like packing it in.”

Verdict: B. Communication Arts is widely circulated among art directors, creative directors, designers, and other buyers in the commercial/advertising industry, so if your work fits this genre then it may be a worthwhile investment. There’s the chance that one of these buys will hire you for a job, but otherwise the payoff for winning is minimal.

Now tell us

What other competitions would you like to see covered (make sure to check out Part 2 of this post!) Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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There are 29 comments for this article
  1. Ruben Vicente at 12:49 pm

    That’s a good overview, but you missed the european contests – Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Travel Photographer of the Year, for example, are great valued contests worldwide, with huge recognition to winners.

    I only enter the top ones in hopes of being recognized for my work and for the exposure. And of course, contests without harmful terms & conditions and with fair prices. $35 per image on an average contest versus $50 for 20 images on a high important contest is a no brainer to me…

  2. Shane Srogi at 1:08 pm

    An excellent list of contests! Lauren is soooo right the answer is both yes and no. I have 15 years of experience with contests and here are some of the things I’ve learned. (I wish I had Lauren’s list years ago!)

    Read the terms. If you don’t like the wording don’t enter.

    Enter Local, Regional, National and International contests. (Local contests are great for establishing yourself within your community)

    Go over past winners. If a South Western Desert scene won last years Landscape contest it’s a good bet they won’t be picking the same kind of shot again this year.

    Some contests will let you know who the judges are. Look at their work, their background. A judge with an editorial background might not gravitate toward your fine art shots.

    Enter more than once if the contest allows. Enter your safety shot. Enter a few image that demonstrate range. Enter one “out there” shot. (if everyone is playing it safe the shot that takes a few risks might draw the judges attention.)

    Use entering the contest for your own purposes. Many contests have a social media component, like a popular vote. This is a great way to get your friends and fans involved and rallying for your work.

    Don’t take it personally. Judges are looking at hundreds if not thousands of Photographs.

    Decide what your contest budget for the year is going to be.

    Winning and Placing in contests will get your work attention and that’s a good thing.

    Cheers and good luck.

    -Shane

  3. Pam KELSO at 1:08 pm

    Lauren – great post.

    I have entered many contests. Some of them ones here and others that were not.

    The processes for that led me to create folders for 2008,9,10,11and12 that are the best of the best of what I’ve taken. I have those folders now where I go to pull submissions for contests. It was very hard to do, very hard but it was infinantly worth the time it took to do it

  4. JM at 2:47 pm

    This is a fantastic post — thank you Lauren and Photoshelter. It’s great to have a critique of some of the more popular photo contests.
    One thing i’d love to see a follow-up on is the terms / rights we as photographers need to watch out for and what they mean. In addition to the photographic rights contestants grant organizers, what do contest organizers expect from entrants as far as indemnity and releases? As an example, what happens if Kanye West decides PDN is using a photo of him taken and submitted for the Music Moments contest in a commercial manner — to advertise the PDN brand or the brands of the contests other sponsors? Reading the fine print indicates the photographer is on the hook for all of his/her, as well as PDN/brand’s attorney fees as well as damages. That sounds like a pretty raw deal to me.

  5. John McGill at 12:36 am

    Well written and very informative. I really agree with the evaluations. I think that they are pretty accurate. I would love to see more contests covered since there are some pretty popular ones out there.

    I enter contests mostly to put in my bio to add external validity to my work. If a prospective client is considering two photographers of about equal ability, perhaps they will choose me because of it.

  6. Dan Younger at 11:07 am

    My native cynicism puts me in the camp of skeptics as it pertains to these web based “contests”. Somehow I’ve gotten on the mailing list of a number of “galleries” that have been running monthly contests (Darkroom Gallery, Filter Photo, The Center for Fine Art Photography, and Midwest Center for Photography, to name those that have contacted me in the last two weeks) I wonder how much profit there is in this? With entry fees at the $40 level and higher if you wish to enter more, how much income is generated by those who did not get selected? At least these web based solicitations should post the ratio of entries to accepted images. Since this is very much like internet gambling, I wonder if the authorities should investigate. I wonder how close to the lottery these “exhibits” are?

    Dan Younger

  7. Karen Colbert at 6:44 pm

    Thank you Lauren for the incitefull blog. I will look into the B’s and batter to become more familiar with their contests. Thank you Shane Srogi for your insights as well. Lauren – may i offer two other entities that provide contests that you may find pertinent for this list – all contests offered by” B&W Magazine” and “The Spider Awards”.

    Thank you again,
    Karen Colbert

  8. John Gimenez at 5:52 pm

    Thanks for this interesting side-by-side comparison. Here at PDN, we found the feedback very helpful and have already incorporated suggestions in order to improve the upcoming PDN Photo Annual.

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  10. John Goldsmith at 12:22 pm

    Everyone should read this:

    http://statementimages.co.uk/blog/understanding-photography-competitions/

    Having been both a judge and an entrant, I will say that I now rarely enter contests. While there are some legitimate (and fair) photography competitions, most of these are more analogous to lotteries than merit based competitions that seek “the best” picture, whatever that happens to be. Because competitions now receive so many qualified photos, the cards are stacked against any one person or photograph. This is especially true when the judges are not looking at all the same pictures, particularly in the first round of selections. Since art is highly subjective, each person needs a bit of luck to advance to the next round.

    Regardless, entrants should, and really, MUST read the fine print. While I would guess that most contests offer a great benefit to the organizer, far less benefits go to the actual photographers/creatives. With rights grabs and other overreaching Terms of Service, I am extremely wary of how my images would be used. In fact, I’ve even seen one contest where photos of kids would become the property of “the organization.” Additionally, the legal-speak of contest rules will ensure that any damages from a lawsuit are the photographer’s responsibility and not the organizer. If the organizer is getting a benefit by using the pictures, they should also shoulder some of that legal responsibility. All of this adds up to unfair rules that burden the photographer in a contest where the odds of winning are more akin to being struck by lightening.

    My hope is that organizations that want to offer the best contests support their initiatives and the rights of their supporters. Please take a look at the following website which posts contest bill of rights and reviews numerous contests to ensure they their rules are fair to photographers.

    http://artists-bill-of-rights.org/

    P.S. ALWAYS read ALL of the fine print, even from otherwise reputable organizations. It’s not the photo editors that write the TOS, it’s the lawyers and they will look out for the organizations’ best interest.

  11. Dennis O'Hara at 2:48 pm

    Some good information. I am an amateur with a very el cheapo camera and find it rather daunting to enter competitions for the simple reason it is hard to compete with what appears to be ‘doctored’ – computer enhanced- photos. To me a photo is trying to capture, as best as possible, what I actually see. Doctored photos should be in their own artistic category and judged as clever works of art. To distinguish between ‘real’ photos and computer enhanced ones on a subtle level would probably be impossible in a competition. Any one else’s thoughts out there? Any ‘realistic’ photo competitions out there?

  12. Andrea at 12:44 am

    Thanks for this info … even though it seems very ‘US-based’, it is interesting for me (a non US citizen) to read. I stumbled upon this post after doing a search in google. I was keen to enter a photographic competition run by Getaway Magazine in South Africa and BBC until I read the T&Cs where they were asking for exclusivity to the photos and the right to sub-licence them without any compensation or acknowledgement to the photographer … I nearly fell over backwards when I read this. I would be interested to know what other photographers think!! As far as I know, Getaway doesn’t normally ask for these rights, so have to assume they came from the BBC side of the law. As far as I am aware, this is practically giving all the rights to the organiser and, with them holding exclusivity, you don’t even have the right to use the photo yourself, sell it or even give it away free. The prize is a great one (21 days travel through East Africa), but as John points out, with so many entries, it is more likely to get stuck by lightning that win. Would any of you enter a competition with these rights. Here is the exact wording I refer to … By uploading a photograph work to the website the Participant grants, or warrants that the rights holders of any contents, have granted Getaway and the BBC Group (and their authorised representatives) a worldwide, royalty free, perpetual, irrevocable, exclusive right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, share, translate, distribute, exploit, sub‐licence and prepare derivative works of such photographic work (in whole or in part) and / or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or hereinafter developed, without compensation, restrictions of use, acknowledgement of source, accountability or liability.

  13. Jon at 3:58 am

    Nobody ever hired me for a commission because I’d won a couple of comps. I always say to other photographers that if you cant name the winner of last year’s XYZ comp without using Google then don’t bother to enter as even if you win, the same fate will likely befall you.

    Apart from *the* industry standard comps like WPP and CommArts and rights-grabbing ones aside, I really think most are just there to pander to the vanity of photographers.

  14. Cramer Imaging at 3:32 pm

    Many photography magazines offer competitions as well. One of my photography professors highly encouraged his students every year to enter the Photographer’s Forum student contest. It has a $4-5 entry fee per image submitted. I made the finalist list the second year that I tried, which meant that I was published in a book they created, but the book was full of so many other finalists that it was hardly worth mentioning and you had to know that I was in there to find me. I would be interested to know which are the most reputable magazine contests to enter and which are just scams to grab rights.

  15. Chere Pafford at 11:01 am

    The Master’s Cup (and The Spider Awards) – very sketchy at best. I did a little research 18 months ago after entering both competitions (they are sister competitions) at that time they offered a prize; they no longer offer a prize. Their juror list was extensive but I took the time to call and verify the jurors were actually involved and almost half were not jurors. The Master’s Cup removed those names when I contacted them about this. So now they have no $$ prize and are only offering the fact that your work is seen by their jurors – who may or may not be affiliated. I posted a lengthy article on my blog but this sums it up. I had actually won 2nd place in their people category but after that discovery I declined the “award”. Their head office is a PO Box in L.A. Do your research.

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  19. Larry Johnson at 2:02 am

    Thanks for putting together this coverage. There are, for me, a couple of them which merit a much closer look. Meanwhile, the one contest I always look forward to viewing results from is conducted by Natures Best Photography magazine. To me, as a landscape photographer, winning a high placement with them has been on my fantasy bucket list for ten years. They produce a remarkable annual and exhibition at the Smithsonian every year.

  20. Lorentz Gullachsen at 2:31 am

    I have been lucky to have picked up a few gongs along the way, the one that made a great difference was the London based AoP (Association of Photographers ).
    The members are around the world and the awards book is prized by Art Directors , I am reluctant to enter many awards as cost and target audience are mixed,but the AoP Awards are the one that I believe is worth entering and getting selected or even winning a gold is a career changer.

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