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Wednesday, 29 April 2009


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As with Mike, I don't much like photo contests either.

One of the main reasons is that most contests do their best to judge on objective criteria, yet the value of most photos is necessarily subjective. Many of the best photographs are blurry, overexposed, or by objective criteria, just wrong. What I care about in a photograph is emotional impact, and that is an area where most contests fall flat.

The other problem I have with typical contests is that they judge a single photo, rather than a body of work (an old college professor of mine put himself through graduate school by entering the same painting in contest after contest; it was a fine painting, but was it typical of his work, or was it an aberration?). Certainly there is a place for individual works of art, but if we're really judging an artist, I'd rather see her entire portfolio.

The devil, as always, is in the details. I've watched several kerfuffles over contest rules and social-network site terms, and people often read the rules wrong, sometimes to greatly over-state the rights claimed by the site, sometimes to miss a serious rights grab.

For many of us, the potential multi-thousand dollar use fee for our photos in their ads is just not real in any practical sense, and the ego-boost of having our photos used in a "real" ad might be something we'd like -- and something that would look good on the resume, even. I can understand why some people would submit to such contests even after they understood the rules.

I've always felt like it all boils down to the mood the judge or judges are in at the very moment they're looking at YOUR picture. I'm convinced that, if you could rerun a contest three or four times with the same pictures and the same judges (provided you had a way of erasing everyone's memory of the previous contest proceedings), you could conceivably have three or four different outcomes. Not always, but it is conceivable. (To me anyway, someone who's never won any of the handful of contests I've submitted to. So mine is a somewhat disgruntled opinion.)

"One of the main reasons is that most contests do their best to judge on objective criteria, yet the value of most photos is necessarily subjective. Many of the best photographs are blurry, overexposed, or by objective criteria, just wrong. What I care about in a photograph is emotional impact, and that is an area where most contests fall flat."

Yeah. One of my favorite examples of this was when Fred Picker had a photo contest. Fred owned a company called "Zone VI" that basically built on the teachings of Ansel Adams that FP had absorbed from taking a workshop from Ansel. He wrote a book that simplified the Zone System (Ansel, for all his greatness as a teacher, actually took a certain delight in obscurantism--his early technical books are verbose and opaque) and sold high-end specialty view camera products, always insisting on fastidious attention to fine craftsmanship. So what did he pick for the contest winner? A picture of two girls in the back of a pickup truck shot with a 35mm, a picture he said was technically not very good and which he conceded was badly composed.

But it had life. And charm, and distinctiveness. Which is of course what matters.

(If anybody has that picture--it's in one of Picker's old newsletters--could you scan it for us?)


"it all boils down to the mood the judge or judges are in at the very moment they're looking at YOUR picture."

Sorta kinda. Well, not really, actually. Every contest I've ever judged or watched being judged (I ran several at my magazine where I was in the room with the judges but I wasn't judging), they do it in several passes. Usually some employee of the sponsor will make the first cut, passing along some percentage of the entrants to the judges (in our case it was usually 30-40%, and if there was a question, the default was to pass it through to the judges and let them decide). Then the judges make a rough pass to cull out the ones they like and want to work with; usually at this stage if any judge likes a picture and wants it put through, it is. This group might be 50-100, or was in our contests which weren't very large. Then they do a second pass and get the finalists down to 10-20. That's when the arguments--and the fun--starts.

The judging for our contests usually took half a day to a full day, including a long, expensive lunch, and was typically brought to an end by the travel plans of one or the other of the judges. One thing is for sure--the judges do not make snap decisions. The winner usually survives several rounds of culling and the eventual winner and the runners up are hotly debated. In fact the only "calm" judging session I ever witness was the one I described above, where I let each judge have his own pick. In that case there was no need for all the arguing, because each guy knew he could finger his own favorite in the end.

Taste still has a lot to do with it, of course. I like social documentary and could really not give a crap about most standard scenics. Another judge I worked with admired artistic expressivity, and another was very into fine craftsmanship (and also really did not like color). Everybody comes down to their own values in the end, it seems. Of course the contest rules and the terms you gave for the entrants are always a consideration, and can break ties or impasses. Sometimes you get great work that just doesn't fit the contest guidelines very well, and it usually doesn't win.


I've got a different take on photo contests. I recently wrote a blog article on how I've used photo contests to seriously elevate my game. The way I use photo contests, winning is almost counter productive:


"Sorta kinda. Well, not really, actually."

I love when I'm wrong.

Thank you for explaining how these things work.

I would say this: Any contest that requests that a JPEG submission have a particular "dpi" is automatically ruled a bad contest with clueless rules. I can't count the number of times on the iPhoto forum folks ask how to "resize" images because their camera puts out 72 dpi and the contest wants 240.

As someone who has won a few photo contests (but lost more than he's won, of course), I have found the pleasure it brings to be short-lived. Once it's over, it's over, and your life isn't much different than it was before the contest. Even relatives don't give you much respect. ("You won a prize for that? You should have entered the picture you took of Mittens. Now THAT's a good picture!")

I have also found that if you're purposeful about it you can research the winners of past contests sponsored by the same organization. You'd be surprised how often judges choose scenic shots that include water or travel shots that feature exotic locales (meaning exotic to North Americans).

Ultimately it's about how much you feel the need to have a group of judges validate your work. I feel the need, but these days I'd rather have the judges be people who choose to buy my prints or books.

Whoa, wait a minute! Listen to this: The TOP Prizes! Get it? "My photograph of Mittens won the TOP prize." (Am I a wordsmith, or what?)

Here's what you do: you harvest all the posters on the blog from the past year, and they are the judges (so you don't have a bunch of people flooding in just so they can be a judge, or fix the contest), and in each round of voting, they each get one vote. You charge $10 per entry (to cover the web fee and shipping and handling), no more than 5 entries per person, payable through PayPal or by check. You put up a web page in which all the entries are posted, and then have a week-long round of voting. When the voting is done, a certain number of photos disappear from the web page. This goes on for a few weeks..like four or five. At the end of it, the four or five remaining people are declared the TOP prize winners, and each one gets a trophy or something. A plaque, or a certificate. Or maybe, if there's enough money involved, the winners would get their photos printed by Ctein.

This could be a major money-maker -- and you could probably force Zander to do a lot of the work. What's not to like?

Is this a great idea or what?

I just entered the VA Siamese Rescue calendar content. But I'm not looking to win, just support a worthwhile organization.

Typically one won't find my photos in photo contents. Not because they are so wonderful that I don't want to risk them getting used by others. While some are good, it is more because of the rules and clauses of most contests. Anything that removes my ownership and/or copyright I tend to avoid. That is most contests.

Take care,

Gordon, I agree very much with you; I think it faint praise, indeed, if it isn't accompanied by a check. In my work, I'm even suspicious of "praise", though always flattered by payment.

John Camp, great idea, but, does need that monetary "reward" (I'm somewhat coin-operated). Also, I'm not so sure MJ could "force" Zander into much. Beg, plead, bribe, guilt-trip, maybe.

My experiences have been more along John Frendreiss's than MJ's; I've been privy to judgeing of exhibitions, and I've been appalled.

Just my thoughts.


Conventional wisdom says they're involving for readers, but my feeling is, why "involve" people using a mechanism in which 99.9% of the participants end up as losers? That doesn't seem quite faithful to the spirit of photography to me...

But it is quite faithful to the human behaviour. We, as a general rule, like competing.

What Bron said +++. I'm kinda coin operated too. If there was a way for TOP to have a viable money making contest with Ctein printing the winners... jeez, that would give me faith in humanity. TOP would act as the dealer for a limited edition series and maybe Ctein could give us updates from his production (which I heart, they are always filled with sublime nuggets).

I have seen the quality of the people who merely post here (by clicking a lot of names in the comments as often as I can), and I am often flabbergasted by the talent contributing to this website.

There is merit to John Camps' idea too, it has a social component that people seem to relish ala flickr, but it sounds a little complicated to organize, and would require a mysql database and other things to secure the voting to make sure it doesn't get spoofed.

So, even though it probably won't happen, I will jump on the TOP photo contest, and offer to contribute my time to help organize it in any way I can, and thanks Mr. Johnston for that essay on photo contests, I think it should be required reading for many amateurs thinking about entering such things. I can't tell you how many times I have looked at a photo contest for a magazine, seen an entry fee, and thought: 'these guys are making out like bandits'.

What's this about a contest you're running? I missed the theme...


There's "Nothing Wrong with Photo Contests" except for all the things that are wrong with photo contests. :)

There is probably nothing wrong with the casino business either. I am sure it mainly caters to beautiful and wealthy people looking for an expensive night out. For those few with their last $25 but still hope to get lucky, well, if they are that bad at math, they deserve to lose.

I have not made a single dime since January this year and though I was brought up to never take credit for anything, I've caught myself checking out photo contests.

(Your "99.9%" is just a figure of speech right?)

"(Your "99.9%" is just a figure of speech right?)"

Weng Ho,
Well, my experience is fairly limited. But it was not uncommon for our contests to have around 1000 entrants, very roughly, competing for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize. So I guess the figure should really be 99.7%.


"I guess the figure should really be 99.7%"

Your calculation is correct only if one assumes that every entrant has an equal chance of winning. In fact, as many as 75% of the entries, uh... how can I put this tactfully... suck. The odds against winning are still high of course, but the better your work the better the odds. On the other hand, the better your work the less you may feel the need to enter it in the average photo contest.

Remember that I wasn't calculating the chance of winning, but the chance of losing...even if a picture doesn't stand a realistic chance of winning, if it ends up a loser it's still a loser.

The quality of the entries depends to some extent on how the contest is framed, too, and even on the prizes. One of our contests featured prizes of pretty sophisticated darkroom equipment, which naturally had a tendency to attract people who had darkrooms. Conversely, one contest was called "35mm Color" and that one drew a lot of drugstore prints.


27 years ago??!! I remember that picture well, and still have the newsletters in a binder on the shelf. If it is that long ago, I must be old.:-)

Being a commercial photographer for 35 years, every assignment was a photo contest and the judge was the guy with the check.
Give each photo a number, put them in a hat and pick a winner--everyone that didn't win will still be bummed out.
I'm sure just as many people will think the one that won is a great photo, but theirs was better.
Years ago on a shoot of many of the same products--baseball gloves-- the guy with the check rejected 5 shots and we had to re-shoot them--they were also rejected and we had to reshoot them a 3rd time--unbeknownst to me at the time the in house AD resubmitted the first shots and lo and behold they were just what he wanted. Great shots.
Mike, Don't do it. It's spring lets all get our cameras out and take lots of great photo's and we will all be winners.
We will always be a winner if we are the judge.
Enjoy your images and have fun.

PS. The smallest details make such a difference; had the girl's quilted hood been round instead of peaked, the picture would have been much less interesting. How unpredictable. This is the kind of thing that delights me about photography and about seeing, though I rarely make good use of it in my own stuff. Very inspiring.

I can see why the photograph won- (as you yourself said) it's very much alive, spontaneous and... imperfect. The composition isn't quite there, the photo is split into halves, yet the action on the left together with the almost surreal image on the right is dynamic enough to make it work anyway. And I bet the majority of complainers submitted those technically perfect, classically overcooked, picture postcard nature or landscape compositions. A lifesaver thrown a drowning man.

My problem with contests - and with anything that requires me to select a single Favorite Something - is that I have a huge blind spot in terms of gauging what other people find compelling (or not) about my work.

It's not so much a matter of knowing whether or not my work overall is of sufficient quality; it's trying to decide which single image (or even which three images) ought to be, well, singled out for attention.

Eventually it starts feeling less about the work itself and more about how well you can mind-read the judges.


I think the hooded child adds much to this pic. What's the source of the screen like layer over the whole photo?

"My problem with contests - and with anything that requires me to select a single Favorite Something - is that I have a huge blind spot in terms of gauging what other people find compelling (or not) about my work."

This might even be a good learning experience for you in that context. I had a friend once who used to carry "matchbook portfolios" around with him--little cases of tiny 2x3" prints he could carry in his coat pocket. Whenever anyone said to him, "I'd like to see your work sometime," he'd whip out the little portfolio. Eventually, after showing a lot of work to literally hundreds of people and watching their reactions, he put together a "greatest hits" portfolio of the pictures he felt got the best reactions from people. It was a marvelous little set--I really thought it was superb work. I still have fond memories of it.

Anyway, the best way out of your dilemma...DATA! Get other people to help you choose. You don't have to take anyone's opinion or advice, but it might help you get clear about your work to show it around to a bunch of people you respect and watch their reactions.

My friend often didn't ask for verbal responses. He would often just gauge how long someone lingered (or didn't) on a particular picture.


"What's the source of the screen like layer over the whole photo?"

It's a halftone. SOP in inexpensive printing in ink for many years.


I remember this picture well, loved it then and am glad to see it again. I was subscribed to the newsletter at the time.

A lot of folks had negative opinions of Fred, I just tried to take what was useful and helpful and make my work better. I appreciate what he gave.

I like Mike's suggestion of a mini portfolio. I did something very similar using the unusually sized photo business cards from http://moo.com. I got 100 cards printed, with 10 of my then favourite images. Worked as an instant portfolio review when you were giving a card to someone. I'd also let them pick their favourite image out of the set - was a good way to see which ones were more popular.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcgregorphoto/1438591728/ to see what the cards look like.

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