Competitions have upsides and downsides so it’s important to try for a personal balance.

I originally published the gist of this post about competitions back in March of 2017 on my old blog.

I have much more experience with competitions, now. I’ve been participating in my local camera club and their weekly competitions as well as a number of local and regional competitions. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. That’s the way it goes with competitions. I’ve had my share of award winning photographs so I can’t complain – or maybe I can and I will.

I’m revisiting my thoughts a year later I find that by and large my views have changed very little in the intervening year. So, let’s talk about some of the upsides and downsides of photography competitions.

Photo Manarola Night

Under the stars in Manarola in Cinque Terre, Italy.
Sony A7II 16mm 30sec@f16 ISO100

First, the Upsides

I’m a competing photographer, but then again my profession is music – where we “win” jobs and spend a life on stage performing – or preparing to be. Competing to me is a natural next step to creating the photograph. It’s the performance at the end of all the hard work of practicing. It’s the sharing of my art.

Whether you share my views or not, participating in competitions has some benefits:

1. Choosing photos for entry into a competition forces me to look critically at my work. I use different eyes to make decisions on which photos are the best – technically and artistically. I look at potential entries maybe with a theme in mind or through the eyes of the potential judges. Choosing the right photos to go into competition is an art in itself. Sometimes there are unwritten rules or judging preferences that may go into my choice of what to submit.

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The first grand prize I took was for this photo, Under the Clark Bridge. I chose it because the competition was focused on the Mississippi River and I chose a photo that showed light in a different way. Photography is all about light and many judges respond to a photo that uses light well.

Photo Under Clark Bridge

I love to photograph this bridge and visit often, but on this morning the sun shown perfectly on the concrete foundation – not the most attractive part of the bridge. This was the first time that I really understood how light could change something ordinary into something extraordinary.
Sony A7II 96mm 1/15@f19 ISO100.

2. Once I’ve made my selections, I consider re-editing the photos to make sure the photos are as good as I can make them. I’ve probably picked up a few new editing techniques since I first made the photo.

3. In some competitions, being accepted into the show is the first level of winning. I may or may not win a prize, but I’ve won a spot to exhibit my work to a larger audience. Printing the photos for the show makes them real in a way that digital photos are not.

4. Some competitions like the ones at my local camera club have an element of education – a critique – as part of the judging process. I wrote recently about attending Shutterfest this year and one of the most educational parts is attending the open judging sessions. There’s nothing like seeing a photo and hearing what knowledgeable photographers have to say about it. Even if it’s not my photo (maybe especially if it’s not my photo), I learn a lot. I may not always agree with the judges, but at least I’ve heard a different point of view.

5. Sharing my photos with an interested audience can be affirming. Having a discussion with a real person about a photo trumps 100 likes on social media. I enjoy attending opening night and chatting with the other artists and those who have come along to the event.

6. Winning a prize can be affirming and motivating. Both you and your photos get more attention when they are “award-winning”.

But there’s a reason I listed this reason last. Winning a prize should be the icing on the cake – even more like the little decorative iced roses on top of the icing on the cake. The cake is sweet enough and we don’t really need them, but all want a piece of cake with lots of sweet, red roses!

The P.S. to the upsides of competitions is that you never know when getting your work out there will pay off in some other way.

I submitted the following photo to a local competition held by the history museum. I didn’t get into the competition, but I was contacted a few months later by someone who was part of the historical society and had seen the submitted images. The image was published in a local magazine.

Sometimes there are unexpected upsides.

Photo Compton Water Tower at Night

One of the best places in St. Louis for a night cityscape happens once a month. Only at the full moon does the Compton Water Tower on South Grand open for night viewing. The line was long, but worth the wait. There was a party atmosphere with a band. The only thing missing were a few food trucks.

Now, for the Downsides

Competition isn’t for everyone and there’s some very good reasons why this is the case.

1. Not every photo entered into a competition will be accepted. Even the best photographers don’t get EVERY photo accepted into a competition. I can’t anticipate what the judges will like or not on any given day.

I have enough experience to know that if I submit 5 photos to a competition maybe 3 will be accepted. In some respects I’m playing the odds. But that doesn’t change the fact that my lovingly chosen photos were rejected! Somehow the two photos not accepted into the competition seem to have more weight than the 3 that were accepted – go figure. It’s actually a well-known phenomenon called “negativity bias”. I have to work hard not to focus on the rejection.

I love this image, but it doesn’t do well in competition. I know that, but I still love the image.

Photo Village by the Sea

I’m very attached to this image, but it may be because of the travel memories that are attached to this day in Cornwall..
Sony A7II 91mm 1/500@f10 ISO200.

2. Printing and framing photos for a show can be a headache and expensive. Printing is an art in itself. The frustrations I’ve encountered trying to print a photo with a specific crop, mat it and frame it in a way that fits with the competition rules has added a number of gray hairs to my already growing collection.

3. Seeing other photographers’ amazing work can be overwhelming. I remember walking into my first big show and seeing 150 photos by some of the best photographers in town. Wow – did I feel like a small fish in a very big and wonderfully colorful pond! Looking at the work of other photographers can be eye-opening and inspiring and sometimes it’s hard not to compare my work with others, but at a competition there’s no getting around it. The photos are supposed to be compared!

4. Not winning a prize can be devastating. There are all sorts of reasons that photos don’t win a prize. Judges have personal preferences and maybe they were just looking for something else that day. Maybe someone else simply entered a better photo – you just got beat. It happens to us all! Olympic athletes, even one of the elites, don’t win all of the time. But it’s hard to remember that when someone else is holding the prize.

5. Navigating the politics and agenda of a competition can be disheartening. Remember that competitions with entry fees are generally moneymaking enterprises at least to some extent. Sometimes I’ve felt a little “fleeced” at the end of the whole experience. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m signing up for, but I may have spent quite a lot of money on entry fees and printing costs. If I feel the organizers are not quite above board or getting a bit on the greedy side, I’m not likely to do that competition again.

Conclusion

I’ve decided that, on the whole, the benefits for entering competitions outweigh the negatives. This doesn’t mean that the negatives don’t get me down. I try (sometimes even successfully) to keep the whole thing in perspective. Focus on the positive and try to let go of the negative.

The quality of the photo isn’t in whether it wins a competition or not. If you like the image, if other’s like the image, that’s enough.

One thing I’ve learned from participating in weekly competitions at my local camera club is that judges don’t always agree. One judge likes a photo, another doesn’t. This teaches me that the quality of the photo can’t hinge on the result of one competition.

Photography competitions aren’t for everyone. If the cons outweigh the pros for you than simply ignore any competition that comes your way. There’s no need to feel pressure to compete. In the end, we win every time we create a photo that we love or bring joy to someone who views our images.