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Competition Can Make You A Better Photographer

“Competition sparks excellence” ~ Lorne Greene

Over the years, I’ve often heard that ‘competition kills creativity’. In my personal experience, I’ve found the opposite is true.

Now, I’m not talking about competition in the marketplace. This post focuses on photography competitions.

The naysayers will naturally start rolling their eyes at this point, being vocally opposed to entering what they see as simple money grabs, subjective contests meant to award the most popular. Ok, cool. Let them think that. My experience also tells me that the vast majority of those negative Nellies hold that opinion because they’ve either entered competitions before and not done well, or haven’t entered competition for fear of losing. Either way, my opinion likely won’t mean any more to them than would a photo comp.

For the rest, this is for you…

Early Competition Images / Jay Terry Photography

I entered my first competition in 2010 (the sad puppy on the left), with all the confidence and enthusiasm one would expect from a first-timer. The results, predictably, did not live up to my over-inflated expectations and the image failed to pass muster. Initially, I felt defeated… the wind knocked out of my very inexperienced sails. However, I spoke to a few seasoned photographers I’d gotten to know and eventually took their advice to heart: “listen to what the judges had to say and learn from it“. One year later, I won my first class award (the portrait on the right). A year after that, my first photographer of the year award.

I listened, I learned and my craft improved. Qualified judges, as it turns out, know a thing or two about good photography.

Since then, I’ve been hooked. Not for the winning of awards (which, don’t get me wrong, feels great when it happens), but for the experience of having my work critiqued by industry leaders who understand the qualities of what you should be looking for in better-than-common art as found in photographic circles. They are experienced professionals, many with multi-discipline art backgrounds, who’ve been in the trenches (the real trenches, not social media) and have themselves learned how to improve their craft with an objective eye. Trust me, it’s an education you can’t easily find anywhere else.

So“, you ask, “where do I even begin? How do I know what competitions are right for me to enter?” Well, now… that’s a good question…

Investing Your Energies

Doing a little legwork up front will be a big help. Google is absolutely chalk-full of art and photography competitions, but you have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Look at how long they’ve been operating, who’s hosting them (is it a business or backed by an accredited association?), who their judges are and what kind of sponsors do they attract. In short order you will see the patterns that separate the legitimate, professional competitions from the amateur ones or, worse yet, the vanity projects hosted by the wannabe ‘rock stars’.

Look at their past years winners galleries with a critical eye. Is it the kind of work with which you want to be associated? Does it meet your standards?

Do they have different categories for different skill levels? Some open competitions are just that, open. You’ll be competing against every skill level evenly. Others have ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ classes (professional associations typically have one just for students). If you want to level the playing field somewhat, it’s good to know your options.

Most importantly, read their terms of service (ToS)! Do they claim any kind of copyright privilege over your images once you’ve entered? How will they use your images? Most will want to use them for future promotion purposes, which is fine, but some have clauses that may allow them to monetise your work for their benefit (either directly or indirectly), which is not fine. Your work is your work, not theirs.

Where’s The Benefit?

First and foremost, it’s a great way to get feedback on your work. I know there are plenty of people who simply cry “but it’s so subjective!“… and those people are flat out wrong. There’s very little that’s subjective about good art. Sure, a bit of individual taste goes into the judging process, that’s only human, but the quality of impact, light, composition, story telling, and finishing (editing) is anything BUT subjective. Centuries of quality art, the art that endures, is proof positive of that. Don’t let social media mislead you.

If you don’t do well, take a brief time to mourn the loss. That’s entirely understandable. However, when you get that out of your system, take even more time to sit with the judges’ feedback and look at your work objectively. It’s nothing personal, it’s guidance. So, let them help you help yourself and apply a little of that experience to your own work. I guarantee that you will see improvement before too long.

For those of you who are promoting your work, success in competition means good advertising opportunities. The press releases and/ or publications that come out of most competitions can be a decent boost to your marketing presence.

But, in the end, have fun with the process. There’s a thrill to competing, no denying that, but there’s also something to be said for that moment you first see your work up there beside so many pieces of art that you find interesting or beautiful. You’re a part of that show, that inspiring collection of creativity. You.

That alone is worth the price of entry.

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