How to Get Started in Photo Competitions

Peggy Farren 2014-08-29

First of all, why should you compete in a photography competition?

I see some amazing photographers in the Understand Photography training center and here on the internet. I encourage photographers to compete in photography competitions for a few reasons:

1. It keeps you going when you know an educated judge deems your photograph a winner. As creatives, we fight discouragement on a regular basis. Knowing that your work is good to people other than your mom helps!

2. You will learn a lot about composition and your own limitations by submitting photographs into competitions. Through the Professional Photographers of America, you can actually watch the judges critiquing the images online (if you are a member). Competing is a great way to improve your photography.

3. You can gain exposure if you are hoping to make a career or a part-time living out of photography. The key here is to enter the right competitions. More on this below.

4. You can win money!

So... where do you begin?

It all depends on where you are in your photography career!

1. Local camera clubs. You can get your images critiqued for free or almost free at most local camera clubs. This is a great place to get started. The judges are very kind as they know you are an amateur. You'll learn a lot about what you are doing technically right or wrong by competing at your local club.

2. Your local art association. Here is where you can get some good exposure. Many avid art collectors are members of their local art associations. Winning competitions and/or getting into a show is a sure way to have your work seen by people who may not only purchase your art, but also spread the word to their art collecting friends. The local media tends to pay attention to the art centers as well.

The nice thing about local art associations is that they will baby step you through the process of your first competition or how to enter a show. Your images have to qualify in order to be included in most shows.

3. Worldwide contests. I found a really good article on the Photoshelter blog that rates many of the photography competitions. You can win money and incredible exposure in many of the contests listed.

4. Professional level contests: I have been a member of the Professional Photographers of America for a very long time. It's a huge honor to win a national or international photo competition when competing with other pros. The Wedding and Portrait Photographers International has similar competitions. Honestly, unless you are hoping for a speaking career, I can't think of how entering these competitions can help your bottom line. However, watching the critiques (which are sometimes quite harsh) will help you learn a lot about what makes a winning image.

I encourage any portrait or wedding photographers to join the PPA. The education and support is amazing. Whether you choose to compete or not is up to you.

5. Free or super inexpensive internet contests. It can't hurt but you lose the learning aspect of competitions. You just win or lose. It's unlikely your target audience is perusing these sites.

Infrared Tree

How to get started.

1. Choose your best work. If you have been competing in the local camera clubs, choose your winning images.

Join our interactive group on Facebook. We've recruited some top professional photographers and educators to help us monitor the group. Ask for gentle critiquing:

2. Read the rules of any competition you are entering. Some will ask you to give them the rights to your images. So read carefully! You want to retain all rights to your images forever.

You also want to be sure that you follow the rules so that your image will qualify. The size of your image, the theme of the competition, the entry dates are all important. Your entry will be thrown out if you don't follow the rules. So read them carefully!

3. Be prepared to spend some money. Most competitions cost money. Not much but some. The bigger cost is in the printing and framing of your image. A cheap frame will not do. It has to look very professional. Some images will look great on a mat canvas and others will show better with a gloss coating. Bigger is usually better but again, read the competition rules before you decide on the size.

Digital contests are much less expensive to enter.

4. If you don't win, don't fret! Remember it's a competition. Sometimes you have easy competition and sometimes you don't! If you know your image is great and others tell you as well, keep entering it!

joe fitzpatrick old truck

How to win.

1. Your photo must be tack sharp!!! Let me repeat that - tack sharp! Sure you can have a blurry background or a shallow depth of field. But where it is supposed to be sharp, it must be very sharp. If not, do not bother entering it!

2. Make sure you are following composition rules. Composition is something you never stop learning about. Take as many composition classes as you can find! Yes, you can break composition rules. But if you do in a competing image, it had better be really good in every other way!

3. Impact is what really makes a winning photograph. If anyone tells you they gasped when looking at your photograph; that photo is making a big impact!

For this reason, your beautiful sunset image probably won't win any competitions. It's gorgeous - yes - but unless you come up with a new way to photograph it, it probably won't win anything. Impact is everything in a photo competition. It MUST evoke an emotion!

You can do it! It takes guts to show your work to the world. Overcome your fear and do it!!

~Peggy Farren is a professional photographer and the founder of Understand Photography Training Center. She frequently judges photo competitions for camera clubs and art associations.

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Peggy Farren is an award winning, professional photographer, instructor, writer and speaker.

With over 17 years as a full-time professional photographer, Peggy offers photography training through her training center, “Understand Photography”.

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