Understanding Five Types of Photo Contests

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.)

Magazine Contests

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 Contests

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.

6 Responses to “Understanding Five Types of Photo Contests”

  1. Thanks for your post on contests. There is one important warning that all photographers who enter contests should heed, especially these days: Read and understand the contest terms!

    Recently contest promoters have taken to including some very onerous conditions as part of their entrant agreements. In fact, many have dubbed one of the common practices an "intellectual rights property grab." In these contests every ENTRANT (not just winners) assigns the contest organizers - and frequently their associates - an unlimited, cost-free, eternal, uncredited license to use their photography for any purpose. No, I'm not making this up - a contest that you ENTER often acquires full usage rights to all entered photographs without cost.

    It is also very important to read the liability conditions. Almost all contests assign the the entrant any and all responsibility for any legal challenge to use of the ENTERED photograph - the photograph over which the photographer now has no control. The entrant must defend against any claims at his/her own cost and must pay any damages. It isn't hard to imagine problem scenarios, especially when use is not even limited to the contest sponsors.

    Please be VERY careful out there!


  2. This is, of course, an important topic and there is a chapter in the book devoted entirely to finding reputable contests, protecting your rights and knowing what to expect in terms of rights requirements with different contests. In fact, however, of the hundred or so contests that I researched, to my knowledge not a single one was trying to do anything inappropriate with photographers' rights. In fact, most went way out of their way to let the photographers know that they were not surrendering rights.

    There is a chapter listing contests in the back of the book and none of those contests seek anything more than the right to publish the winners' photos (and perhaps use the photos for promotion for the contest in future years). If a contest seeks rights beyond that, it would be worth writing to the sponsor to have those rights clarified, no question about it.

    I did come across a few "pretty baby" type contests (as I recall most were in Great Britain for some reason) that wanted "all rights" to the winning photos, but these contests seemed to me like such an obvious scam that I think almost anyone would detect it immediately.

    I also contacted probably 100+ photographers for the book and none related any bad experiences with contest hosts or rights abuses of any kind.

    As far as liability for photos, that too is an important consideration. But that is (and should be) a photographer's responsibility from the moment they take the photo. If you don't have the necessary releases of people/property to begin, you shouldn't be trying to publish/sell/enter those photos anywhere. A huge number of the photos winning contests though are of subjects like wildlife, scenics, close-ups, underwater shots where releases aren't involved.

    It's wise to read all of the legal notices that go with entering a contest and knowing what those rights entail in a broader sense (in terms of liability, as you've said, for example). But for probably 99% of all photos and contests, it's a very safe venture and a great way to get your work shown around the world.

    If anyone *does* come across a contest that is abusing rights, please send me the info and I'll be sure to check into when it comes time to update the book.


  3. There are many, many well-known contests with such inappropriate conditions and they have been discussed pretty widely on the net.

    There is a discussion thread at Luminous Landscape that will provide a bit of info for you are one or two of them:


    I've written about several on my blog - and included links to some articles by others on this topic:


    What I have described is actually very common - more the rule than the exception, sadly. I think that it is entirely reasonable that the contest sponsors should expect a limited license to use winning images in ways directly connected with the contest. However, what is far more common are conditions that give

    a free, unlimited (and uncredited) license...

    ... to the contest sponsors...

    ... and all of their affiliates...

    ... for unrestricted use...

    ... in any form...

    ... for an unlimited term...

    ... for all ENTERED photographs - e.g not limited to winners.

    This is a fairly widely recognized problem, and photographers should a) be aware of the nature of the contest terms and b) publicize this trend widely and c) warn those who may not understand.



  4. Let me add one more important link as a gateway to a lot of excellent information on this general topic. There is an article at the Photo Attorney web site about an "Oprah" contest and its terms. Beyond that, some poking around the Photo Attorney site will reveal other information and links about this topic.

    You might want to contact that site about this subject since it is one that they are very interested in.



  5. Great post, Jeff. I have ordered a copy of Winning Digital Photo Contests and can't wait to read the entire book.

  6. In India, photography magazines and commercial large companies too have contests where they try to take all rights for all entered pictures. I have tried talking to them but they say that rules have come from their parent companies abroad. So, they end up getting free pictures for their publicity. And photographers loose one more avenue to make some money from their photography. But since there are enough photographers who participate in these contests, the downward spiral for stock photography business continues.

    jagdish agarwal/ dinodia/ india

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