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Contest Tips Collection

By Lauren Ragland on April 03, 2010


This selection from our popular Contest Tip series includes the following suggestions to help you succeed in any photo contest you choose to enter:

Locating Contests

Every month we supply our faithful readers with new and upcoming contests that offer rewards of prestige and money. But there are many contests out there, some of which go undetected. Does that mean that the all of the contests we don't note are not worthy? Of course not! Does that mean that some of the contests that don't make the headlines at NYIP aren't worthy? Of course! It's simply a matter of discerning which contests are good and which are bad. Sounds easy enough, right?

The first place many photographers will look for contests is the World Wide Web. So, we'll start there. The good thing about the Internet is that by searching it, you'll discover a wealth of contests. This means that even if you want to enter your photo of a five-year-old fishing in Vermont, you'll may find a contest with just that as the subject.

But there are concerns with the Internet that you must be aware of. Because today almost anyone can throw together a Web site asking people to submit money with their photo entries, you need to be more careful of which contests you enter. While they may have nothing to lose, you on the other hand could lose money or time if the contest is a hoax. As a result, the Web can create a healthy dose of skepticism.

Now, how do you separate the fraudulent contests from the legitimate ones? First, stay away from anything that asks for an exorbitant amount of money just so you can enter. Next, bypass any contests, in which everyone is a winner. In the end, the contest promoters compile everyone's photographs into a book, and they ask that you purchase the book. Basically, it's simply a way for them to get rich. Finally, totally disregard any Web sites that are covered in advertisement banners. The serious contests don't want you to make a lot of unrelated purchases. They just want you to enter their contest!

There are other ways to simplify the search process. First, know that there are probably as many contests on the Web as there are NYIP students...well, maybe not that many. Regardless, accept that the Internet is packed with the rules, awards, entry forms for many contests that are not just going on right now but also were active five years ago. How could anyone possibly have the time to search through all of these? We'll presume that you don't have the next five years free to do nothing but surf the Net. Instead, we suggest that you reverse the procedure. Before you type in your search, find the best photos that you've taken recently, and then begin your search.

If the photo that you hope will be awarded a winner is of a golden retriever, go to your favorite search engine (Google is a great one) and type in "dog photo contest." Then go from there. If you want to narrow your results, add "golden retriever" to your search. The point is to not waste hours wadding through the muck.

Along the way, remember the simple things that alert us if a contest is credible or not. For one, any contest should not take a chunk out of your paycheck just to allow you to submit your entry. It seems hard to believe that some contests ask for as much as a $50.00 entry fee with your photograph. But it's true! Then there are ones, which have a handful of "winners" chosen every day. Over a period of time, the entries continue to be voted on until there is only one winner left. If they were serious about choosing a winner, the judges would have done so from the get go!

Good luck in finding the contest that's right for you, and believe us, there is one that's right for you!

Your Blue Ribbon May Be at the State Fair

In many regions of the world, there are multiple fairs happening every weekend throughout the spring and the autumn. From North to South, East to West, annual fairs bring people together to delight in the defining characteristics of their hometown. There are rows of booths for arts and crafts, decadent or homegrown foods, animal exhibits, and oftentimes a contest that gets every photographer reaching for their camera. Yes, many fairs have photography contests! It only takes a little bit of research to discover which ones your region offers, but you can also set outside of your hometown to take part in a contest far away. All of these contests are a great way to build up both your prize money and your ribbon-display board.

Most state or regional fairs post everything that you would need to know on the Internet. So if your local fair is hosting a contest, then the information, entry forms, and sometimes last year's winners will be available via your Internet connection. Simply, do a search for "[your region] fair" and "photography" and "contest." You'll discover some contests, in which the entry requirements are broad and others, in which your picture must fall into a very narrow theme. For instance, South Dakota's "Barn Again" contest is looking for, you guessed it, photographs of barns. While this contest may not be for you because there are no barns in a 500-mile radius from your home, don't despair yet. There are many other contests, and many of them do not have rural themes.

The rules for photography contests sponsored by state fairs vary greatly. The rules are as different as the states are to one another. And there are little to no connections between the many different contests. There's no reason you cannot enter a handful of different ones from many different regions. Just because you live in Wisconsin, doesn't mean that you cannot enter the contest in Florida that is accepting entries of orange trees. If your picture fits the guidelines, enter it!

In the same vein, the prizes also vary greatly from ribbons to a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. State fair photo contests are a wonderful way to get in at the ground level. Build a name for yourself either through your own community or the communities of others and then move on to bigger things.

By diving in and entering as many contests as you can, you'll gain a different perspective of your photography and others. And of course, winning them is an excellent way to uplift your confidence and improve your work.

Good luck!

A Pulitzer Prize Photo Is Closer To You Than You Think

Sometimes luck is just not on your side. Unfortunately, no matter how good your entry is, it may still get lost in the mail and never reach the judges' hands. We're putting those unpleasant thoughts behind us and looking more closely at other ways to improve your chances of taking a prize-worthy photograph. Because when all is said and done, the advantages of entering contests far out weigh the disadvantages. Whether or not the judges even see your entry, the skills you learn from your hard work will be your greatest reward! What more could you ask for?

Sure, receiving confirmation from others commending your artistic achievement is great. And it may give you warm fuzzies all over. But it's important that your vision is not clouded by the prospect of warm fuzzies. Right! By repeatedly entering contests and perfecting your skills, not only will your photography greatly improve but also the awards will come your way. It's a double whammy!

Now, discovering all the ways in the world to develop and then sharpen your skills is best done with help from the experts. And though we're great for encouragement, we're excellent at helping the amateur photographer get that double whammy! With that said, an easy way to learn what makes a winning photo entry is to study the results from one of the most nationally recognized photography contests - the Pulitzer Prize. It's not likely that the thought to do so has ever crossed your mind. It would seem that the results are locked up in the studios and libraries of these celebrated photojournalists. Fortunately, that is not true. Access to the Internet is all you need - and if you're reading this article, you've got that - so there's no excuse for you not to check out the past winners.

Studying Pulitzer Prize winning photos will remind you of the awesome moments captured by these professionals, and it will inspire your own photographic aspirations. Simply visit Go to "Spot News Photography" or "Feature Photography," the two photographic categories, and then click on "Works." This site chronicles all of the photography winners since 1942, the first year the prize was awarded. But only the photos from last six years are available to view online. Still, there are enough pictures for hours of fascination and observation.

Choose a few pictures that you particularly like. Then take notes on what you specifically admire about them. For example, in Martha Rial's 1998 photo "Trek of Tears," a young Rwandan boy smiles with delight at the camera. You may note the clash between the subject's emotions and his devastated environment. Look for themes in the pictures and observe how the photographer was able to illuminate these themes. The next step is to try to capture these qualities in your own photography.

Through the Internet, you have access to many photographic gems, which will help your own work shine!

Entering Slides

Slides are hard to view. Many contests don't even permit them. Of those that do, sometimes the judges will give slides full consideration, but other times, particularly if they've already seen a lot of great prints, some judges are apt to give slides short shrift.

We here at NYIP know of one very big, international contest during which the five judges got into a dispute over viewing the slides. The judges had been flown to an Asian capital from various points around the world. They were tired. They had jet lag. They had seen hundreds of great prints. Some didn't want to be bothered even looking at the slides that the staff had selected.

If you have a great slide, go to the trouble of having a great print made from the slide. Whether you use a traditional process such as Ilfochrome (which most people still call Cibachrome) or use digital services to convert the slide to either a negative or a digital print of some sort, submit your image as a print.

How big should you make those prints, you wonder?

We suggest that you make the prints the largest size – or close to the largest size – permitted under the contest rules.

Here's an instance where bigger is better. Judges are human. And they're going to look at a lot of photographs, so don't make it hard for them to see your work. Many contests permit a maximum size of 8" x 10". Do your best to find a great lab that can make good enlargements, then keep after the lab staff until you get an enlargement that does justice to your photo.

How Many Photos Should You Submit?

It is essential that you carefully read the rules to each and every contest that you're considering entering. Usually there are a number of requirements, and among them you will find the contest's rules about the size and number of photos that you can submit. It is essential that you follow those instructions. Sometimes a contest will allow just one photo; sometimes the number is unlimited. There are some contests- principally those that are out to take money- that charge an entry fee and may base that fee on the number of photos that you enter.

We tend to shy away from contests with big entry fees regardless of the rules or provisions.

For this discussion, let's consider the contest that allows each entrant some leeway. For example: "You may submit up to three photographs..." or "Each entrant may submit no more than five photographs."

Suppose the contest is for photographs of horses, and you have lots of those in your collection. How many should you submit?

The answer depends on one key question-how many really good photographs do you have? We feel strongly that you should only send your best work. Almost every photo contest is flooded with entries, and the people who screen the incoming submissions are always looking for reasons to "toss out" an entry. To avoid that danger, we think you should only submit really strong photographs. If you can submit five photos but you don't photograph horses that often, but you happen to have one really great photo of a horse, we suggest you submit just that one photo.

If you try to pad your entry with four other "OK" photos, there is a danger that your entire submission may not get the attention that the one great photo merits.

If, on the other hand, you've been photographing nothing but horses for years, and you've got hundreds of really strong photos of different kinds of horses in different settings and different lighting, then by all means, submit five of your strongest.

Good luck!

Paying Attention to the Small Print

It's important to pay attention to the contest rules and regulations. In addition to giving you valuable information on the subject matter and size requirements of the entries, the small print is usually where the organization running the contest puts the information that they don't want you to notice.

What do we mean by this? Basically, there are two issues that may appear in the rules of a photo contest that you need to be concerned with - who owns the rights to the images you enter and whether the entry fee is a tip-off to the legitimacy of the contest.

Almost every photo contest will reserve the right to use your image in some manner and the small print will indicate exactly how they plan on doing so. Almost certainly the company running the contest will reserve the right to use the image when they announce the prizes. After all, if you win, you'll want the whole world to see the photo that won the contest. However, sometimes the rules will indicate that the company will use the image wherever they want - in advertisements, in printed materials, on products, online etc. They may or may not provide a photographer's credit. They may be very specific about usage or they may simply state that entries are theirs to use however they see fit. You may not have a problem with this but you do need to be aware of it before you submit your photos. You also need to be very careful about contests that reserve all rights to the images that you enter in their contests. If you give up all rights to your image, you no longer own it; the company whose photo contest you entered now owns the picture and they can use it or sell it as they please. You won't be able to sell, use or print your image for any reason again. Fortunately, the number of contests that have this policy are small, but they are out there. For this reason, read the rules of every photo contest, no matter how boring, confusing, or long they may be.

Entry Fees

Some photo contests charge money for each entry that you submit. Sometimes, non-profit organizations sponsor a photo contest and the entry fee serves as a way to gain memberships to the organization. There is nothing really wrong with this, but make sure that it is a group whose ideals match your own before you find yourself a card-toting member without even knowing it. Sometimes the entry fee can be a way for the company running the contest to offset expenses. (Believe it or not, running a photo contest takes quite a bit of manpower and time.) If the entry fee is small that's fine. But beware of large entry fees. They can signify a company that makes money solely from photo contests. It's a gimmick where everybody is a winner. Next month, we'll discuss how to tell if the contest you're entering isn't really a contest.

Follow the Rules, but Don't Follow the Norm

Optimism says that the most recent annual Ritz Camera Capture Your World Contest attracted some of the very best photography. Pessimism says, well, the opposite of optimism. Then on the outskirts of those two extremes lie the blunders and the oversights of people without the vantage point of having studied over 5,000 photographs (as we at NYIP, as the judges, did for the Ritz contest). Now, I shall bestow onto you some guidelines as to how to fulfill your optimism when entering a contest. We did, after all, award $40,000 in prize money to the lucky winners.

It sounds simple enough-follow the rules. Still, it always happens that these rules are overlooked, and consequently, your prize-worthy photo is disqualified. For instance, when there are a handful of different categories, of which your photograph must fit into only one, make sure your picture of the family dog, Albert, is entered into the pet category, and your spirited two-year old on the swing is not entered into the pet category (it actually happens). The photographer should always write on the back of the picture the appropriate category-be sure to look at your picture and know which category you're entering into.

For the Ritz Contest, the applicants' photos had to be in color, must have measured 4 X 6 or larger, and couldn't, obviously, have been taken by a professional photographer. The barrels of over 5,000 pictures were divided into five categories. There was the "Digital" category, which attracted applicants who used their digital camera to take the picture and photographers who digitally manipulated their images and/or the colors. The "Pets & Wildlife" category attracted a wide range of animals, from the family dog to lions to lizards, to name a few. There were bundles of photographs of children in the "People" category. Every type of boat you can imagine was entered in the "Boats & Water" category. Then in the "Scenic" category, there were breathtaking pictures of familiar and distant lands. Altogether, with these five, broad categories the participating photographers were likely to find subjects that appealed to them.

In any contest, especially a large one, try to go beyond the commonplace, show the judges something extraordinary, and keep away from familiar themes. If you're entering a digital photography category, you still must remember to choose a subject, simplify the subject and the surrounding fore and background. In this category, often the entries lose sight of their subject matter and in turn produce muddled, unfocused pictures, where the subject is overwhelmed by digital wizardry. Of course, with digital photography there's room to manipulate and play with your image, but try not to obscure your subject. Create a picture, which uses the digitized tools to greatly enhance the photograph.

The opposite can occur in the `Pets & Wildlife' category. Instead, these photos often don't have much visual activity. They stick with a common subject matter and theme-Albert stretching on the grass, or Kitty looking out a window. Animals are at their best when they're in action, doing something curious, or out of the ordinary. We often see cats by a window or dogs looking lazy. Show us something that we rarely see or even haven't seen before.

The best `People' pictures show individuals entirely unaware of the camera, not posed, and in action. Portraits can be of top quality, but for a contest, you want your picture to stand above the rest in a creative sense. "Julie" looking away from the camera, appearing introspective, talking seriously with others and laughing fanatically can be fantastically telling. In this case, adults can take a lesson from children who are playing, discovering, or acting out the world around them-making for timeless photography.

So, for the next contest that you enter analyze how your picture stands up to artful, striking, or even ingenious photography. Don't forget to follow the rules and try stretching your imagination, and let your camera reflect this. It can produce wonderful, award-winning results. Good luck! I look forward to the outcome!

Money Watch

"We've told you what the warning signs are and when your red flags should go off. Specifically, when the contest sponsors have dollar signs in their eyes, you should have red flags in yours. Right! Of course it makes a difference how much cash a contest requires that you send in with your entry. Anything under ten dollars is understandable for there are processing fees. Use your common sense, and when it sounds suspicious (i.e. they ask you send in $50.00), you know not to waste your time. Unless they can guarantee that your submission will be reprinted in multiple mediums, no "explanations" could justify a large fee. Nonetheless, faithful readers of "Contest Tip" already know not to give over their life savings in order to enter or win a contest.

Though what would you say to paying for a book in which your photo was published? Many of you may say that of course you would want to own a copy of the publication that your photo is in. Now, what if the only people who bought the publication were the individuals whose pictures were in it. Then, having your photo published in the book does not sound so prestigious. Effectively, it's a clever way that publications make a lot of money. Are the photographers happy about that? Of course, that is up to the individual to decide, but the photographer, as always, should see the full picture!

The Low Down

Unnamed organizations have sprung up in the last few years. They hold photography contests for anyone who is interested. There is no fee to enter the contest, which to many may qualify the organization's intentions as genuine. There are often monetary prizes awarded to a few people, and the rest of the winners get their entries published in the book. In general, what makes a contest exciting and fun for many is that the photos are judged according to aesthetic and technical merit. That excitement and fun is eliminated when the majority of entries become winners and so no one picture stands above the rest. All of the winners are given equal value. All of the winners' pictures are published in the book. There is no way to differentiate one winner from the next. What do the winners get? They get to purchase the book. Not surprisingly, it is not given to them! They have to fork out the dough to see their picture!

Because these organizations place the majority of their entries in the "winner" category and ask that the winners pay for the book, professional photographers don't hold them in high regard. It can actually work against you if you state on a resume that your photo placed in one of these contests.

Simply, if a contest is legitimate, the winners will not have to pay for anything! If you remember that then you will know exactly which contests to invest your time in.

How to Totally Annoy the Judges

When entering photography contests there are many things that you can do to annoy the judges and make their job of judging thousands of pictures more grueling! Now, why, you may ask would you want to do this to the poor people who have enough to contend with in the way of poor composition, unclear subjects, and terrible lighting? The obvious answer is that you don't intend to trouble them; you just don't know what it is that can upset those haughty judges so.

The fact is that the majority of people entering contests follow the rules to a fault and do nothing to drive the judges' blood pressure any higher. Nevertheless it's important to know what bothers the judges. They are the ones handling your award-worthy pictures, and they'll be crowning the winners. You should want them to have a totally unbiased perspective when reviewing your entries, or perhaps even a favorable disposition. Of course the NYIP judges never disqualify an entry based on the attitude and actions of the individual who submitted it, but we cannot speak for judges from other contests. Placing a pestering phone call or two or twenty may move your entries into the trash bin rather than the winner's circle.

It goes without saying to always be professional in all that you do. That means do not call the judges or the sponsoring institution to find out if they have received your entry. While a follow-up phone call is necessary, even helpful, when job searching, it is not so in the world of photography contests. Thousands of entries may have been submitted for the contest and so the task of locating your entry in the pile with one of those thousands would be enormous. Aside from that, calling to guarantee that your picture was received identifies you to the judges and creates a bad association with your name. To the judges, you should ideally only be a name or number attached to brilliant photograph. Similarly don't call to find out when your entry will be judged, if it has already been judged, or who are the winners. These are sure-fire questions designed to annoy and aggravate the judges.

In addition to avoiding direct contact with the judges, don't enter an award-winning picture whose subject matter does not pertain to the contest. No matter how good your picture of the baby giraffe is, if the contest calls for photos of marine-life, baby giraffe will be in the trash.

Next, never submit pictures of road kill. Though this will sound absolutely absurd to most of you, there are a few who will be surprised that we're discouraging it, because they have submitted pictures of the terrible demise of animals. Obvious, though highly rare, exceptions apply. Basically don't try to shock the judges or, as in the case of above, try to ruin their day. Try to surprise and delight them with your wonderful photographic skills.

The final way to totally aggravate the judges is to wait till the last minute to send in your entry. If the contest ends April 25th, don't wait until the 24th to send your pictures via express mail. Many people do this, bombarding the judges with heaps of entries all at once. At NYIP, we determine if a photo meets the deadline by its postmark. So save the money that you would have spent on extra postage, and send it regular mail. But most importantly, don't wait until the last minute to do so. Get going on it now!

By not irritating the judges in the above ways, you will retain your professionalism. It will not only shine through in the contests you enter, but it will also shine in your pictures and in your career as a photographer. On that note, good luck!

Sometimes You Just Won't Win!

You always have your camera dangling from your neck, one finger on the shutter release, preparing to capture amazing or unique subject matter as soon as it comes your way. You want to take an award-worthy picture and are working diligently towards that goal. Then finally, you do it. You take the picture that reveals your photographer's eye; it conveys a message, an emotion, or a time, and you want to frame it; admire it; pat yourself on the back; you've worked hard for it.

Then by pure coincidence, you come across a photo contest that your amazing picture qualifies for. It could only be fate. So you enter, and you're careful to follow the rules down to typing the destination address on the envelope to guarantee that your entry will get to the judges. Now, that the picture is out of your hands all you have to do is sit back and wait for the phone call announcing that you're the winner. Right?

Wrong! Sometimes no matter that you do everything by the rules and most importantly take a stunning photograph, things just don't work in your favor. What can you do? Unfortunately, nothing. Maybe you didn't know that an adorable Saint Bernard puppy won last year. So you're equally adorable Greater Swiss Mountain puppy will not make the cut this year. The judges feel that they need to diversify. This year they may choose a cockatoo or a Tonkinese cat as the subjects in the winning photographs. Scenarios similar to this one can occur. Though it's not because of a lack of artistic quality in your picture, the result is the same-your prized photo is not "prized" by the judges. And after all, the judges' decision is final. It can leave some disenchanted by the bureaucracy of photo contests.

But it shouldn't. These things happen, and if you are going to win a contest, it will be because you didn't give up when you couldn't take a picture you were proud of. Your photography skills will eventually be merited because you didn't quit after the first contest that you didn't place in. It is simply a matter of picking yourself up again, like all things in life. Eventually you will succeed and likely feel that the road towards success had been quite enjoyable.

So don't just enter one contest. Enter many. Always be taking pictures and do it because it makes you happy, which is most important. In the end, winning contests is not what makes a good photographer. By continuing to take pictures and enjoying yourself along the road to success, you will find your own prize-self-satisfaction!