February 11, 2009

Winning Photo Contests

I judge many photo contests. I’ve been a paid, professional judge for several national contests. I’ve been a juror at several large galleries. I’ve judged online contests and I’ve judged at tradeshows, camera clubs and professional associations for photography.

There are a few things I’ve learned during this process that I want to pass on in the hopes that photographers will stop and think about the contest from the judge’s point of view before they enter. Why? It’s key to improving your chances of winning.

Let’s start at the beginning. . .

If you want to have a chance at winning a photo contest there are three things you MUST do and do very well. Failure to do these things almost certainly guarantees that you will NOT win.

1) Read, understand and follow the rules to the letter.
2) Read, understand and follow the rules to the letter.
3) Read, understand and follow the rules to the letter.

Okay – so that is only one thing three times – but it’s important.

When you enter a photo contest, you can assume you’ll have lots of company. The competition is fierce. After all, everyone has a camera these days. If there are 1000 photographs to look at, and 500 of them don’t conform to the rules, which ones do you think the judges will pass on first?

The judges are inundated with images. It’s very difficult to look at lots of photos and keep from getting jaded. When photographers don’t even show the basic respect of following the rules, it’s easy for most judges to toss their entry. If the photographer is too lazy to read then they probably are too lazy to work hard enough to make a good photo. Most judges realize this and don’t feel a need to look closely at images from these photographers. If the image is the wrong size or format for instance, the judge may never even see it. Some modern contest engines simply spit out the entries that don’t follow the rules.

If the image is of the wrong subject matter – i.e., you send in a picture of a cat when it’s a dog photo contest, you may get past the initial round of rejections -but no further.

Reading the rules not only gives you information on format and size, but appropriate subject matter and judging guidelines. There’s gold in there for those who read and pay attention. Take this paragraph from the Aperture Nature Photography Contest – which I am actually in the process of judging…

“We are looking for striking images of nature, or creatures on land and life beneath the water’s surface from anywhere in the world. These images may show animal behavior, portraits of wildlife in natural habitat, plant life, natural landscapes, weather or people interacting with nature. Essentially, any image that depicts nature in the opinion of the photographer is eligible.”

So a guy sends in a picture of his kid playing baseball. Hello? Anyone home? How is that interacting with nature? Another guy sent in a picture of his motorcycle. Do you think that’s in line with the above paragraph?

Judges don’t appreciate having their time wasted. Images that don’t fit the submission criteria are often CHEERFULLY removed from the pool and the rest get honest, sincere consideration.

So read the rules three times. Make sure you know what the judges are looking for.

Some final tips – things you should and should not do – if you want to win that is…

1) Don’t include a lengthy description of all the trouble you went though to make the photo. Unless the rules call for such a description, it’s a complete and utter waste of time. As a judge I may be looking at hundreds of photos a day. I don’t have time to read your harrowing story of adventure. I just want to see a picture I enjoy and that meets the image criteria.
2) Don’t be like the losers on American Idol and tell the judge how you “really need to win the contest because it’s your cousin’s birthday and your win would make them such a nice birthday gift!” It doesn’t help. It has nothing to do with photography and if I am the judge, it just pisses me off. Everybody doesn’t get a plaque – sorry – that’s real life and it’s time somebody let you in on that fact.
3) Don’t email, call or write the contest administrators asking if they received your submission. Don’t pester the judge asking if there’s anything else you need to do. This is NOT a good way to gain the judge’s affection. Follow the rules, assume that your photo got in. In most contests, the administrators don’t even have a way to check for your specific image (even if they wanted to) and none of them have time. If you flood their email inbox with requests for entry verification, they may just MAKE time to find your image so they can exclude it.
4) Don’t take ANYTHING that happens in a photo contest personally. A judge may reject your image – but it doesn’t mean that he/she is rejecting YOU as a person or that you’re not a good photographer. It means that your image wasn’t right for that competition.

To end on a more positive note (since I realize this post has been both educational but also a personal rant of sorts) I do encourage photographers to enter contests.

Be sure to read the rules – there I said it again. Be sure to follow them. I said that again too. It will make life much easier for everyone and will absolutely without a doubt, improve your chances of winning.

Good luck.