Photo contests can be a great way to get your work noticed. Once we pick up a camera and start posting images to social media, invariably people will comment that we should enter some photo contests. More often than not, a comment like that feeds our “self-attention” gene to the point that we may ignore or miss some minor, but crucial details about a photography contest rules.

The goal behind this article is to educate you, the reader, on what you might see with photo contests. There are all kinds, from the local county fair to international level contests that have very stringent rules and requirements. My experience covers that gamut to a point, and I will cover what I have seen over the years.

The County Fair

This county fair might be the most basic, most familiar photo contest, with which many of us are familiar. The only cost to contestants usually is the price of prints and the time to take those prints to the fair.

The local fair can be an excellent place to get your feet wet. Each fair’s rules may differ from the one down the road in the next county over. A volunteer or several usually run the photography division. The volunteers can be responsible for creating and refining rules, assisting people that are entering, judging or choosing the judge, and staffing the exhibit during fair week.

The division can be broken up into AMATEUR and PROFESSIONAL sections. The sections will have categories such as landscape, portrait, weddings, and others. These categories will depend on the people running the exhibit. There will also be rules regarding mounting, print size, and in some cases, post-processing.

Education at the Fair

In my mind, the county fair is an excellent place to start. When it comes to judging, it is just like photography and can be really subjective, depending on the judge. The better judges might give feedback, and you might be able to develop a sense of what they look for in an image. The thing though is the judging can be inconsistent from year to year because judges change.

I was able to do it two years in a row. Both years, I had another judge to work with, which I think is the best way to go. We could bounce thoughts off each other. Even though I worked with different people in those two years, I was on the same “sheet of music” with them.

Our criteria were simple. We looked at:

  • The basics such as composition, exposure, horizon, correct category
  • Emotional connection
  • Unethical or unsafe practices such as photography on railroad tracks

Sometimes, we would flip the first two, depending on the number of entries in the category. I have seen other judges do this also. Practices such as portrait images using railroad tracks though, both years were automatic disqualifiers, as was entering an image in the wrong category.

For me, one of my biggest things when the judging was giving feedback to the entrants. If the image were DQ’ed, I would leave a note with the image explaining why. I would also leave feedback for those images that knocked my socks off.

Barn in the country

Company Photography Contests

If you step up from entering the county fair and decide to enter a photography contest sponsored by a company, READ THE FINE PRINT!

Just like the county fair, photo contests sponsored by a company will usually have a set of rules. Depending on the company, these rules can reflect the lack of knowledge of the people in charge of it. More importantly, though, you want to read further into the contest rules.

The company photo contests will usually have in the rules-language similar to this:

“By entering Acme Communications’ annual photo contest, you agree to allow Acme Communications to utilize your image in any way we see fit, be it commercial, print, social media, etc.”

In the vast majority of these contests, the term “rights grab” can correctly describe what these are.

contest rules
Make sure you read the fine print before submitting an image. Some contests are nothing more than rights grabs, while others treat contestants with respect.

Licensing Work Through a Click

In other words, once you click the SUBMIT button and upload your image, you have just granted the entity sponsoring the company a non-exclusive license to use your submissions any way they want, be it on the cover of their magazine or in brochures advertising their new product.

Some companies will have a prize or prizes depending on who they are. One company that I am familiar with holds an annual cover contest for their phone book. In looking over their rules this year, they do not have any listed, nor is there the $100 prize for the winner like last year.

So what happens to the rest of the entries? The company usually uses the finalists’ images for their annual calendar. They pay the finalists in “exposure bucks.”

On the flip side, I entered a different company’s calendar photo contest last year and received a $250 store credit; one of my submissions was chosen to represent the month of April.

Calendar shot
ProMediaGear ran a contest that paid more in store credit for a monthly spot than some companies pay the winners of their calendar covers.

The Magazine Photo Contest

Many magazines also have annual photography contests. The three that jump to mind are Arizona Highways, New Mexico Magazine, and Cowboys and Indians.

Although the magazine title “Cowboys and Indians” might give someone certain connotations about the magazine, it is a big supporter of Western Art. Their annual photography contest draws serious talent from the photography world, and my bucket list is to place overall this particular contest. I have entered the last two years. The first year I was a finalist and had my image published in the magazine. Last year, I got skunked.

The bar is high with all three in regards to talent, and if you look at the judges’ lists, you will probably see some familiar names. Just like other contests, you are going to give the magazine a license to reproduce your images. Although I am generally anti-photography contest, for the most part, I like these particular three contests. They have talented folks for judges, and the competition is the best. Even if you do not win, but at least get recognized as a finalist, you have received some reliable feedback.

oklahoma weather
This image was selected as a finalist by Cowboys and Indians magazine a couple of years ago.

Represent Your State Proudly

One of the most egregious, ugly and outright scandalous tactics I have seen used has been the “call for images” by elected state officials.

In the very recent past, the Lt. Governor of Oklahoma held a “call for images” right after he took office this year. Described as a way for the Lt. Governor’s office to showcase the state, once I was able to look into the “call for images” a little deeper, it was nothing more than a very serious rights grab.

The call for images asked for submissions via tagging images with a specific hashtag and posting on Instagram.

It was agreed that the images sporting that hashtag would be licensed to the Lt. Governor’s office for reproduction. The language provided stated that images could also be licensed by the state tourism agency, including in their annual travel brochures.

Do You Have To Pay?

For the most part, there is a backlash against photo contests that have a price to enter. One regional tourism agency that I know of requires a $5 per entry fee. On top of that, that particular agency from time to time will solicit free images.

On the flip side, New Mexico Magazine also has a cost to enter, plus a fee per entry. They also have an excellent prize list. In my opinion, if I had any images in my portfolio, I would enter this particular contest. I am more apt to try competitions held by entities that support the arts and support photography. The one that I won the $250 store credit was conducted by a third-party photography accessory company.

Fishing For Likes on Social Media

One particular photo contest type that I am familiar with focuses on one specific photography genre. One aspect of the contest required the audience to “like” images entered into the competition. For a week, my social media feed was flooded with requests by entrants fishing for likes. The sad part is that those entrants who had large social media followings could bury those that did not.

In Closing

Do your due diligence before you enter a photo contest. Are you willing to grant an entity a license to use your work any way they want? It is up to you to decide if you’re going to enter a photography contest.

There are good contests, and there are bad contests. I believe that you can validate your work in any contest if it has a judge or judges that are professionals themselves.

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Stanley Harper


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