So what’s the story with photo contests? If my mail is any indication, contests are something that a lot of people—especially students—want to know about.
Contests can be fun, inspiring, rewarding, even remunerative, and I’m not against them. Even so, your initial attitude toward any contest should be skepticism.
Most contests aren’t run for the benefit of the participants. In many cases, when companies stage a photo contest, they’re up to something. Maybe they want your name and address for a mailing list. Or maybe they really want your pictures. Many contests stipulate that, by the act of submitting your work, you’re signing away all your rights to your own pictures for any purpose and in perpetuity. In some cases this is merely done for convenience: the organizers don’t want to be bothered to negotiate rights for incidental uses like publicizing the winners or advertising the contest. In some cases the motives are a good deal less savory. I recall a photo contest a number of years ago held by a maker of children’s clothing. The prizes looked generous and there were loads of entries. But the "fine print" handed over ownership of the pictures to the company, and winners were made to sign a form to that effect in order to claim their prizes. The company then proceeded to use some of the pictures in its advertising campaigns! It was simply using the device of a "contest" to gather a private supply of stock photography specific to its own product from which it could draw. The "winners" were bought off with some valuable trinkets for pictures that would have been worth many thousands of dollars under ordinary customs of commerce. When the arrangement was challenged in court, it appeared that the photographers' rights might have survived the initial fine-print handover of rights, but it didn’t survive the agreements signed by the winners—who were, in that case, losers.
Or consider the "raffle" type of contest. Let's say you have a contest with $1,000 in prizes, but each entry costs $25. You don’t have to be a whiz at arithmetic to realize that if the organizers can get more than 40 entries, they’re turning a profit. A thousand entries, and an innocent "just for fun" contest can be quite lucrative—probably not for you, however!
So the first rule of contest for photographers is to fully consider rights and fees. You really must read all the "fine print" carefully, or you might deserve what you get! Any contest that asks for rights to your picture beyond ordinary and understandable usages related directly to the contest itself is probably suspect. Second, an entry fee might be understandable for many reasons—it filters out spurious entries, and it pays for handling and administration costs, which can be considerable with large contests—but it ought to be commensurate with the seriousness of the organizing body and appropriately scaled to the worth of the prizes. If not, stay away.
On the good side of the ledger, some contests really do give you access to publicity you wouldn’t have access to otherwise, or offer genuinely valuable prizes, or can be a real feather in your cap if you win. A resumé item can be of real value to you.
And here’s the good news, which I know from experience judging actual contests: the competition probably isn’t as strong as you might think. If you enter a contest that drew 2,000 entrants, you’re probably not competing with all 2,000—chances are good that only the top 10% or 20% of all entrants are good enough to stand any realistic chance of winning. So if you’ve got some fine prints and you’re convinced a contest is on the up-and-up, go ahead and give it a go.
Be sure you don’t forget about the other kind of "fine print," though.
Copyright 2008 Michael C. Johnston
Originally published in Black & White Photography magazine (U.K.)