There are a multitude of opportunities out there for photographers and videographers to fund their work. From residencies that provide a space and stipend, allowing you to keep your mind focused on your project, to fellowships and grants that may promote work in a certain field, there is ample opportunity for any talented visual journalist. If you’re working on a personal project, these sources can either help you pay for it, or, if you’ve produced it already, bring it to light and get it published.
In this article, we’re highlighting some tips to help you apply to photography contests, one branch of the many funding options available to you.
#1. Just Do It
“For young photographers, it’s super important to do a bunch of these things early on,” says Ramin Talaie, a New York City based photographer whose clients include Getty Images, the New York Times, and Vogue. “You should compete and get involved because it helps you be a better photographer and better journalist.”
Nina Berman, a documentary photographer, two-time World Press award recipient and Columbia Journalism School professor, agrees. “Many young journalists have launched their careers by winning contests,” she says. “Young journalists who feel their work is exceptional should definitely apply.”
A common thread, however, especially among young journalists, is a feeling of inadequacy or lack of experience that makes them hesitate to enter their work. Don’t let it stop you, says Talaie.
“I think the feeling of not being good enough is a very natural feeling that holds most of us back,” he says. “All photographers, all creative people, have this. I have talked to photographers who I idolize and they go through the same exact thing.”
The important thing is to overcome this block and enter your competitions. Even if you don’t win at first, it’s good practice and will make subsequent submissions easier. Plus, you never know; most competitions have a rotating set of judges, and are based on the pool that is competing. So, says Talaie, “You might think your work is not good enough, but when you look at the entire pool you might be one of the strongest.” And especially in cases where entry into a competition is free, he says, why not give it a shot?
“The fact that you don’t feel confident about your work should not hold you back from competing.”
#2. Stay organized so you don’t miss an opportunity
Start a spreadsheet or document with all the contests you’re interested in and their deadlines, entry fees and requirements. Most contests recur annually, so even if you miss one this year, you can make a note to enter when it comes up again.
“I keep a personal list, and in recent years I’ve organized it by month,” says Talaie. “Whenever I have a project that I think is worthy of competition, or a topic I’d like to pursue, I take a look at it.”
There are many websites with lists of photography contests you can cull from, but many journalists also find them through word of mouth.
“If I’m looking at a photographer’s website, or following someone’s work that I like, and they’ve won a certain award and I haven’t heard of it, I’ll look it up,” says Talaie. He’s learned about many interesting competitions and grants this way. Social media is another way to find contests; follow magazines, university art departments, and photo publications on Twitter to get updates. Just remember to make a note in your spreadsheet whenever you come across one of interest.
#3. Choose your contests wisely
A quick search for photography competitions online will turn up thousands of amateur photo contests from various magazines and photography blogs. Identifying the ones worth applying to, however, often takes some digging.
Contests have turned into mini-businesses for some publications, which use them to generate income and interest. Magazines such as Photo District News (PDN), a photography industry magazine, hold contests nearly every month with different topics: portraits, concert pictures, wedding photos. Prizes can be monetary – a few hundred to a thousand dollars – or gear-based, in the form of a camera or B&H gift card. The winning entries are often published in the magazine. These types of contests, says Talaie, “are good if you want to make a name for yourself and aren’t really concerned about the money,” says Talaie.
Many smaller contests from lesser-known magazines or organizations may not be recognized and won’t make an impression on employers, however, so they may not be worth your time. “If you put it on your resume that you won such a thing, nobody’s going to care about it,” says Talaie. “But when there’s a World Press award on your resume, that’s important, because it shows the caliber of work that you do.”
Talaie suggests photographers take a look at the size of the contest, who enters, who the winner are, and especially who judges the competition. “If you notice they’re not well known, or people you admire, then you realize that it’s not worth doing it.”
#4. Read the Fine Print
It’s important to carefully read the rules and regulations of any contest you apply to. Submissions often have rules regarding image size, format, and number of images, and it would be a pity if, after all your efforts, a simple error in reading these were to disqualify you!
It’s also important to note what rights you are signing over by entering the contest. “Check the [submission] fees first, also the terms of service,” says Berman. “Most will ask to use your pictures — if you win — in the context of promotion of the context.”
What you should be wary of, says Berman, are “contests which demand unlimited use of your pictures.” Some competitions may include in their contract the condition that they may use or sell images with minimal or no compensation to the photographer, which can be a dealbreaker for many professionals. If the publication will be selling advertisements, printing catalogs or setting up exhibitions that include your photos, they’ll be making money from your hard work. Make sure, when reading the contract, that it’s fair and that the organizers won’t be using your images for marketing purposes if you don’t feel comfortable with that arrangement.
And if you’re ever in doubt, “write the contest administrators,” says Berman.
#5. Do your homework
Familiarize yourself with the judges, with past winners, and with the organization in general. “You always have to figure out who you’re applying to,” says Talaie. Read the judges’ bios to get a sense of the caliber of the contest; great photographers or visual journalists have a reputation to uphold, and won’t append their name to just any competition.
To learn the style the contest is looking for, says Talaie, “look at the previous winners. If they want portraits, what type of portraits do they like? If it’s reportage, what are they concentrating on?” This will help you get a sense of the types of images judges will favor, and will improve your chances of catching their eye. Berman agrees, and says to check that “the work that has won fit[s] into what you are submitting.”
Berman adds that “in photo essays, judges look for tight edits and a coherent aesthetic.” This means only go with your best images. “If the contest asks for 12 pictures maximum and you only have 10 that are good, then submit 10, don’t pad the story with weak images,” she says. Another tidbit many competitors don’t know is that in many contests, captions aren’t even read until a second round. “Don’t assume that your caption can add to your image,” she says; the photographs need to be strong enough to stand alone.
But if you are lucky enough to make it to the second rounds, “make sure that you have all your captions correctly inputted into your metadata and your files are sized correctly,” she says.
Her last important piece of advice? “Don’t go slowly into the story, as judges, especially in big competitions, get tired and so want to see great images immediately.”