Entering Contests

California State Fair award-winning photo “The Apprentice”

There are lots of ways to get better at what you do, I happen to believe that entering contests is one of the best ways to bump-up your game. Whatever your passion, hobby, creative endeavor or profession – there is some type of competitive activity that pits your work against another.

Besides the thrill of the victory, why would you want to enter? The experience, the process, the journey, call it what you will, it’s all about what you learn between starting at one end of the track and crossing the finish line.

Reading the entry information is your first challenge with any contest. Understanding the rules immediately sets you apart from those who don’t even take the time to review them.

The submission information or “Call for Entry” outlines the who, what, when, where, why and how of the contest. Before deciding to enter a photography contest, carefully weigh the obstacles to fulfill, not only the entry process but the acceptance process as well, against your chances of being selected.

Here are some considerations.

INSTRUCTIONS – many people pay the entry fee but are immediately weeded out of the competition because they didn’t follow the directions. If the rules call for a short bio – don’t send eight pages – you run the risk of being disqualified.

DATES – look closely to see if the images must be taken during in a certain time period? Also check the entry, delivery, and pick-up deadlines for accepted work. Can you meet them? Gallery shows usually have an artists’ reception, check our calendar to make sure you’re available on that date also. The reception is where you’ll have a chance to rub elbows with their clientele (art buyers) and pick up your award check. Overnight lodging, food, transportation – if you win the big prize, rest assured you’ll figure out a way to be present.

COST – entry fee, printing, framing, shipping to and from. If your image is selected, some galleries will print and frame your photo for a fee. This service often costs much less than your expense to print, frame, and ship. Shows that are ‘online only’ are likely to have a lower entry fee because their show expenses are less than gallery shows requiring a physical space (freshly painted walls and new signage), hanging crew, staff to keep the gallery open, marketing, advertising, a reception, and the prize money.

FILE REQUIREMENT – do you know how to format a photo file? If not, you can hire someone to do it for you – just add another $10-35 to your budgeted investment. Actually add amount that in twice because if your image is selected, the gallery will need a higher resolution image for marketing, to produce the ‘show book’ which includes all selected images (and will be for sale through the gallery), and to print your image (if you decide to go that route).

THEME – do you understand what it is asking for? Some themes are straight forward like ‘Red’ and ‘Tree.’ Others are esoteric, such as ‘Before the Fall” (what does that mean? Fall as in a season, fall down, fall of the Roman Empire). To further complicate the issue, the instructions often say the theme is up to the artist’s interpretations. This is when you go through a week or more of conversations in your head trying to decide which interpretation you’ll choose, and then which photo best represents that interpretation.

JUROR – expand your knowledge of photographers by checking out the work of the judges. Don’t assume that because your work doesn’t look like their work, that you won’t be selected. One of the reasons jurors are selected is because of their prominence in the industry, which indicates they are well versed in the topic of photography. Another factor in their decision making is the number and type of entries, and putting together a cohesive show. Being a juror is not an easy task. They are responsible for selecting works that embody the theme and resonate as a related group of work.

AWARDS – In the California State Fair, I won a cash award that was accompanied by a huge ribbon and my photo hung in the art exhibit for the duration of the fair – that’s a big audience. My purpose in mentioning this is as a reminder that venues other than galleries also have art shows including museums, universities, banks, libraries, hospitals, and other facilities with public areas.

I want to be in shows with photographers of like-mind so I am very selective when determining where to invest my entry dollars.  I only submit to photo competitions with cash awards and gallery installations because I feel they are more prestigious and attract a more discerning photographer. Yes, they may be more expensive, but they offer added-value.

Bottom line, after you find a show that suits your criteria, pick your photo/s that best fit the show’s profile and turn every submission into a learning experience. You have to enter to be selected for coveted space on the gallery wall. If you’re not selected, treasure the new information you learned and apply it to your next entry.

You too can end up with a check and ribbon larger than your winning photo.