Expectations Upon Entering a Photo Contest

by Jim Zuckerman

I have many friends who are amateur photographers who happen to be quite skilled at taking pictures. They are constantly entering photo contests, including the monthly one at Betterphoto.com, and when they don't win they get really upset. Sometimes they are even angry. They were so sure that their contest entries were outstanding that they just couldn't imagine the possibility that they wouldn't win.

I am writing this article for my friends as well as for those of you who feel similarly about not winning a photo competition. As someone who has judged many contests, I wanted to explain what you can expect – and what you should not expect – when you enter a photo contest.

There are many great photographers out there who consistently take awesome pictures, and there are many people who are at an intermediate level who produce great images once in a while. The sheer number of images that are entered in most contests is enormous.

For example, in the BetterPhoto contest, the number varies on a monthly basis but entries number into the many thousands. If just one percent of the entries are truly fantastic shots (and trust me, it's a much higher percent than that), that narrows the number of incredible images down to just a few. Yes, many contests have categories, and that helps because more than one picture can win in the various categories, but there's still a limited number of winning shots.

How is the winning photo chosen? There is only one possibly way, and that is the personal taste of the judges. It is totally a subjective call. This is not a math competition where there is only one right answer or a race where we can determine who runs the fastest. It's a subjective view of art, composition, color, visual impact, subject matter, and even emotional content. I know that every photographer who submits pictures to a contest compares his or her images to the winning shots, and much of the time they just can't believe the judges liked the other contestant's pictures better than theirs.

Which one of the following emotional reactions (this is a multiple choice quiz) do you think the angry losers in the photo contest feel?

    1. They've been cheated.

    2. The judges are clueless as to what good photography really is.

    3. Life is unfair.

    4. They are never going to enter a stupid photo contest again!
The answer is usually all of the above. The frustration and disappointment get the best of them, and that's that. They are ticked off at the judges, the unfairness of it all is too much to handle, and they think it's pointless to even try.

Macaw -- First Place in NWF Contest
Macaw -- First Place in NWF Contest
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
Let me say that I have entered two photo contests in my life. The first one was in 1970 when I had owned a camera for about 6 months, and I won second prize. The photo was terrible, an amateurish snapshot as I now know, but that only means that most of the other entries were worse.

The second one was just a few years ago when I won first place in one of the categories of the National Wildlife Federation's annual contest. I only entered it because they sent me an email soliciting entries, and I thought, what the heck? There's nothing to lose. Even though I have just finished writing my 13th book on photography and I've been published thousands of times over the course of almost four decades, you should know that I had absolutely no expectation of winning, or even placing, in that contest. I just got lucky that their judges liked my photo more than other sensational images they received in the same category.

Let me reiterate that: I got lucky. The NWF standards of wildlife photography are extremely high, and I know how many great nature shooters submit to them. As I've explained, the odds of winning are extremely small even if your pictures are great. The odds are better than winning the lottery or being struck by lightning, but it's still a long shot.

When you enter a photo contest, don't expect to win. Instead, expect to be judged against outstanding imagery from other photographers and know that while your work may be as good or even better – according to some people – there is a good chance that it won't win because of the collective tastes of a group of people chosen by other people to do the judging. It doesn't matter, really, if they are seasoned pros or not. The odds are still the same – they are stacked against you.

I'm sure you have seen many photos that you didn't like at all including many that you've taken, but others have loved them. The reverse is true as well. Some shots you think are awesome that to other people are ho-hum. Remember this when you submit your work to a photo contest. Judges are just like that.

Enter a contest with the expectation that you will be inspired and visually stimulated, that seeing the wonderful winning pictures will make you go out and take more photographs yourself. That's the real benefit of participating in a contest: Sharing, inspiration, and a celebration of the love of photography

White Horses of the Camargue
White Horses of the Camargue
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

A few more thoughts ...

While I’ve never entered this photo ("White Horses of the Camargue") in a contest, my story is very much related. I had high hopes for this image … I thought it was one of my all-time best! So you can imagine my surprise - and dismay - when my main stock agency, Corbis, turned it down. However, the second agency I sent it to couldn't believe Corbis didn't take it, and they've sold it a number of times! For editors, like contest judges, it’s a subjective call.

For photographers, it pays to hang in there, not give up, keep shooting, and keep submitting.

Article by Jim Zuckerman. To learn more about photography, explore the many online photography and Photoshop classes offered here at BetterPhoto.com.