I’ve been wondering lately about the value of entering photography contests. Like most photographers, professional and amateur alike, I’ve entered a few contests. And, when the results get announced, I see two things amongst the winners: some stunning photos, and some photos that make me wonder what the judges were thinking. So, I started weighing the pros and cons of entering contests. I’ll start with the cons.
The first con is that judging photography, as with any art, is inherently subjective. Granted, some photographers will enter mediocre photos, and their work will get eliminated. But, some amazing photos will get eliminated simply on the basis of the judges’ tastes. Maybe they don’t like the subject matter. Or, they don’t understand the perspective the photographer conveyed in the image. Some will dislike images that are too conventional, or too unconventional for that matter. Just as one might look at a Picasso and a Van Gogh, and prefer one over the other based on purely subjective value, knowing the greatness of both painters, a photography judge will look at two equally good photos, and prefer one over the other based simply on personal stylistic preferences.
The second con is inherent bias, which interrelates with subjectivity. Any judge, or contest, has a bias built into its judging. The organization that runs a contest might not realize the bias exists, but, in almost every case, the bias colors the results. For example, I’ve entered an annual contest run by the local chapter of a well-known conservation group. The judges pick 250 “Highly Commended” images. Of those 250 images, ten are awarded cash prizes – one Grand Prize, four First Place, and five Second Place winners. Not placing in the top 250 in either year, even though I entered several photos each year which I selected as my best wildlife photos of the previous year, I began to analyze the common denominator in the winning photos and the commended photos. I found a bias towards exotic subjects, specifically those not found in the continental United States. I don’t know how many photos got entered into the contest, or the breakdown of subjects. But, I could look at the winners. For the last two years, seven out of the top ten came from outside the U.S. And, for the most recent year, a little over 41% of the top 250 came from abroad, and over 7% came from Alaska (which I consider a semi-exotic location for most of us). So, the contest appears to be biased towards those with the resources to take photo safari trips to foreign lands. Without a little data analysis, I wouldn’t have found the bias in contest.
The third con is expense. Contests require entry fees in order to fund the prizes. But, organizations also use contests to raise funds for their own work. This means that most entrants will put money into the contest, and get none out, similar to a lottery. A few photographers and the organization running the contest benefit at the expense of most of the entrants.
The first pro of photography contest is that it gets us out photographing the world. And, as with anything else, the more we do something, the better we get at it.
Secondly in the pro column is that contests make us better self-editors. One of the biggest challenges in photography is culling the best of our own work from the good and mediocre images that we create. In order to enter contests, we need to develop the skill of really examining our own work, and getting an eye for what works best in our images.
Ultimately, we must all decide for ourselves whether contests are worth entering, based on how much experience we gain from entering them.