Submitting your work to competitions can feel daunting. You submit your work to scrutiny and for anyone who is emotionally invested in their photos, they make themselves vulnerable too.
However, if you can summon the courage to submit your photos to competitions, you might find that the benefits extend beyond just the possibility of bagging yourself some swag.
1. Competitions turn you into your own best critic
If you want to be in with a chance of winning a competition then you need to enter your best shot. Even if there are relaxed criteria regarding how many images you can submit to a contest, what you submit needs to be the best that you can offer. As a consequence, you learn to be objectively critical of your work. By practising such stringent evaluations of your work you will begin to identify your shortcomings and your strengths as a photographer. When you know where you are falling down, you can work to improve it.
2. Competitions foster originality
I know, it can sometimes feel as if you’re stuck in Groundhog Day when looking at one year’s incarnation of a photography competition compared to the next. (Red-haired young women in the company of animals, or Indonesian water-buffalo racing, anyone?) But more often than not it will be an original interpretation of a theme or subject that will grab the judges’ attention. Attempting to reproduce a winning image from a previous year might occasionally be successful, but overwhelmingly, it won’t be. If you want your work to be noticed by those with the awarding-powers, then focus on approaching your images from a point of originality.
Remember: for whatever reason you practise photography, it is about expressing how you see the world. Your competition entries are merely an extension of that principle.
3. Parameters are good for your development
Stipulations and limitations can be frustrating, whether that’s a photography competition where the images need to be in black and white or only knowing that it was lentils for dinner last night and lentils for dinner again tonight, but they force you practise your craft and push you beyond your comfort zone (for want of a better term). Whether you want to submit the best image that you can within the limitations of the rules or don’t want to eat the same meal twice in succession, the challenge of restriction forces you to learn something new and to be inventive.
If you could submit an image in any format or genre you wanted, you’d stick to what you know best. When there are restrictions in place, you have no option than to experiment and to refine your skills.
4. Your story-telling and interpretative skills with improve
Competition judges will be looking at your image, not the 1,000 word screed that you’re at liberty to post with it on Facebook or Flickr. If a photo lacks a strong and easily discernible story, then the judges will lose interest in it and move on to the next submission without a second glance. Furthermore, it isn’t just the photo’s story that needs to strong, but your interpretation of the competition’s theme must be clear.
All photos have to say something, and whatever you submit to a competition must speak clearly to the judges.
5. Contests can help you get noticed
I would never recommend that you enter a competition that trades your rights for exposure. These are horribly exploitative of photographers, undermining of the photography industry, and generally ethically dubious. However, there are plenty of competitions where you do have the opportunity to be exhibited or for your work to be seen online by thousands of people without having to sacrifice your rights. Even if you don’t win, you never know who might see your photos and like them.
6. There’s the possibility of feedback, for free
The chances of a competition offering feedback on every entry is wafer-thin, but plenty of them do provide a random serving of critique for entries whether they win or not. The prospect of some free criticism from respected photographers and experts in their field is a great incentive to enter a competition, and to put your best foot forward.
7. Competition is healthy
Putting your photos up against your contemporaries’ is good for you, good for them, and good for photography as a discipline. Comparison against others will help you determine where you need to improve, as well as give you the spur that you need to do it.
8. There might be prizes
I don’t think that I need to elaborate on this.
Please, though, pick your competitions wisely. Read the terms and conditions carefully and do not enter anything that expects you to surrender your rights to your images. That isn’t a competition; it’s exploitation.