The following is excerpted from Winning Digital Photo Contests, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.
A contest is a contest is a contest, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, they are all about judging photographs based on creativity, technical merit, and relevance to the contest themes. But different types of contests have different technical standards and different submission methods. It’s important that you match your images to the type of contest you’re entering.
With magazine contests, for example, your images will have to meet much higher reproduction standards — typically high-resolution image files of 300 ppi at the printed dimensions with minimal post-processing enhancements. Online contests have much lower reproduction standards and can handle more extreme enhancements (like excessive color saturation).
Also, by their very nature, some contests offer a lot more chances to win. Online picture-of-the-day contests, for instance, pick at least 365 winners a year; an annual magazine competition might only choose a handful of prize-winning photos.
Online Picture of the Day (POTD)
These contests are the simplest to enter, generally not too technically demanding (at least in terms of reproduction quality), and they offer the highest odds of winning. Entering them is very simple: typically you just upload a screen-resolution (72 ppi) image through a very basic interface, and you’re entered. Virtually all POTD contests are free, though some may require membership, either free or paid, in the host site.
Often POTD-winning photos are subsequently advanced to a higher level of competition — a picture-of-the-week or picture-of-the-month. In fact, some contests randomly choose the daily pictures out of all the submissions that day; only then are they reviewed for weekly and monthly prizes by human eyes.
Don’t let the thought that a computer is picking your winning POTD photo discourage you from entering, though, because a win is a win is a win in terms of getting your photo recognized; and it still has to compete to move up through the ranks.
With some POTD contests, it’s not at all clear how the daily images are chosen, so it’s worth reading site forums or FAQs to find out more.
Peer-Review & Voting Contests
Several websites base awards on the votes of fellow site members. Entries rise in the standings as they gather more votes; when the voting period ends, those with the highest number win.
Some competitions have rather complex voting mechanisms where votes from individual photographers are weighted by their particular standing on the site — usually based on how many contests they’ve won themselves. A good example of this type is DailyAwards.com, where all winning images are decided by member voting. The judging is a somewhat complicated procedure at first glance, so it takes a few reads to get the rules down.
One gentle warning about these voting sites is that, as a result of the cold, impersonal nature of the online world, the voting can range from warm and fluffy, to cool and distant, to downright sadistic. These sites tend to attract photographers with strong opinions, little shyness about expressing themselves, and thick skins. On the other hand, sites like these also tend to attract photographers of very high skill levels. (You’d better be pretty good yourself if you’re going to do any trash talking, right?)
If you like to have your photos critiqued by others, then voting sites might be for you. The best of these contests will inevitably make you a better photographer. In truth, because many of the contests do weight the voting in favor of photographers who have proved their photographic worth, both criticism and praise is usually genuinely and generously guided.
Basically, while your grandmother (and your cat) may love your pictures, regardless of their genuine creative quality, you can count on other photographers to point out your failings—and your successes — without inhibition or reservation. So be brave, dive in, and you may find yourself being praised for your improvements on a regular basis.
State Tourism Contests
Tourism contests exist in both the online and print world. They can be seasonal, annual, or ongoing. The great thing about travel contests is that they help you focus and narrow down your pool of potential photos. Instead of poring over the thousands of nice images in your collection, you have to restrict yourself to your Maine vacation photos, for example.
I love tourism contests because they provide a bit of mental and creative stimulus for me when I’m planning a new trip, even if I have no intent to actually enter the contests. Knowing that the state of Maine, for example, has a seasonal online competition is something I keep in mind when I’m photographing a lighthouse after a dusting of fresh snow.
How would other photographers approach this? How would my photos stand up to photographers who actually live in Maine? It’s a good mental nudge.
The important thing about taking photos for regional contests is to keep good notes on where you shot the photos (your camera’s metadata will keep track of when, in case it happens to be a seasonal contest).
It’s really helpful, for example, if you photograph a moose in a river in Maine, to be able to narrow down the location to “Moose in bog in Rangeley, Maine.” (And trust me, if you hang out in Rangeley, you will find yourself some good moose photo-ops.)
These contests, especially from legendary journals like Smithsonian and National Geographic, are at the zenith of photo competition. Often the main allure is the prize of publication in the magazine itself. And while getting published is an exciting (and sometimes life-changing) reward, most magazines contests also offer the best material prizes.
The competition, as you can well imagine, is brutal in such contests. Let’s face it; if you’re competing for publication in National Geographic and a trip to an exotic destination, you’re going to be butting elbows with some fiercely talented competitors.
From a creative perspective, that’s a good thing, because it forces you to improve your own game. And that, ultimately, is what entering contests should be about: not just showing your best work, but being pushed to a whole new level.
Here, more than in any other type of contest, it’s imperative that you follow the rules closely, review previous years’ winners, and enter images of superb technical quality. In particular, it’s important to review and meet the magazine’s print publication standards in terms of sharpness and resolution.
If you are entering a low-resolution image online but are required to submit a high-resolution image for publication, be sure that you have an exact match at 300 ppi (standard offset print resolution). And protect that image with your life; back it up at least once, preferably multiple times.
Local newspapers and community organizations are another great place to find contests. To promote community spirit, local contests often culminate in an exhibit of winning pictures.
Since most of these contests are run by local volunteers (or the editors of the local paper), you may have to submit your entries as prints, as opposed to digital files. That means your ability to make high-quality prints is important.
Some local contests are created to publicize a local park or historic site, and if you happen to live in that area, you have the advantage of being able to visit at different times of year, in lots of different weather and lighting conditions.
If you’re an aspiring professional photographer, entering local contests is a good career move since you’ll be showing off your best work to your community’s editors, business owners, and civic leaders.
I got a lot of my early photo assignments based on having my winning photos published in local newspapers — and 30 years later, some of those people are still my clients.