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Thursday, 30 April 2009


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I find contests useful, but have a problem with those judged by the general public, either for vetting or for prizes. All to often in these cases, photos are judged not on the subtleties of vision and meaning, but on cuteness or what I like to call the "ohhhhhh" factor (think puppy snuggling with a kitten alongside a smiling newborn holding a flower...all in soft focus, of course).

I realize that TOP readers are likely more mature and informed when it comes to photography, but it's a very wide readership and there's a chance that many of the most worthy images won't get far at all.

As for a fee, by all means charge for entries. For one, this will take time and effort beyond your usual blogging duties. Second, as you said it will eliminate many of the "frivolous entries". As I am sure you would keep any fee low, be sure to limit the number of entries for each photographer or risk a deluge of epic proportions. Think in the neighborhood of $15 per photog for three images, max. Affordable for all.

If you do a contest, please make it a B&W PRINT contest! Please?! Or run two contests, a B&W print and a color jpg contest.
That would be consistent with the aesthetic often stated here and keep "classic" photography alive here. It might even balance some of the over-the-top gear worship that's been dominating TOP recently.....

Perty Please?!

If your idea is to promote the photographer, maybe the entry to the contest should be a small portfolio, say like 3 to 5 pictures?

A single picture might not really be representative of the quality and consistency of a photographer's work (i.e. "lucky shot"). But again, it would generate much more entries to look at.

Just something for you to think about.

We subscribe and look at your site to get your opinion on things related to photography. If it is about old guys/ladies doing photo, it is ok. if it is about current guys/ladies, it is also ok. But "Contest" is bad words. Do not like it. Award is better.

Yes, may be what you need is an award. I sort of remember someone has point to some flickr Italian girl in the past that lead us to see some good pictures. I think we can use the same concept, you simply award your recognition and tell us why you like these group of pictures in flickr site or any other sites.

The key is that we want you opinion why. Frankly, I as a contestant may want a big prize like a Sony camera you know but I do not want it comes from you. If I am rich enough, I buy you one but I am not. Hence, you shall save any money for a better clause (e.g. the hobby of buying camera as you said do not hurt people ... etc.)

If you want voluntary, may be the guys/ladies who want to join can tag their photos for you to look at first. (You can easily find picture tag with certain thing like "The Online Photographer Award Wanted 2009-04 ???????" where ???? is marked by you in one day. You can then select a sub-group for us to look at and agree by your pooling method here.) You may have to worry over whelm by entries though and not enough time to look at each of people who marked theirs and/or our objection for you to sub-select as now everyone see all entries as well, except those voluntary their site to you.

But really, why not just you select and we comment on your ... good and bad choice :-).

Fees for a contest could help provide a prize. But better than that fees could be used to fund a charity or scholarship fund of your or the winner's choice.

BTW - I love this site. I've only been familiar with it for a few months but I enjoy the broad range of discussion found here. Thanks!

Separate BW and Color categories would be good. Have photos submitted to a Flicker (or equivalent) site to save on admin. and bandwidth cost to you.

Then have readers choice winners (top three?) AND have a select panel of "experts" (three or so) select winners. Keep the results secret until prize day -- no running totals, this is not a race. The "experts" wouldn't need to agree -- each could select his/her top three in each category.

This would make for more winners as well as some interesting comparisons. And you could get quite a few postings out of it. One expert per day and the reader's choice countdown.

The expert commentary would be valuable to all.

I have an old video on VHS about competition photography - it's very entertaining. It's presented by an older photographer with a H. Ross Perot voice who calls it (recall Perot's "You people" then say this to yourself very quickly in a high nasal voice) "compuhtissionpuhtoguhfee". Apparently photo competitions were common at one time ? And this guy won many of them, but what's interesting is that he won them by knowing how to win them (think of the student who knows what the teacher wants to see when he takes a test). It's all about grabbing the judges attention in the couple of seconds that your slide pops up on the screen. Lots of gimmicky (and mostly humorous) stuff; plenty of practical know-how to create the result, but the whole approach to what he shot was based on what would win a competition.

To me, that kind of competition, or a very focussed one that lets photographers compete on skill (and not artistic vision) by setting clear guidelines makes sense. A more wide open contest holds no appeal for me; I don't care to know if a panel of judges thinks my photos are somehow more worthy of someone elses. But seeing who can best complete an assignment, demonstrating some aspect of life in a given county, etc. for a specific contest, seems a *little* less arbitrary.

If you decide to host a contest I don't think there is anything wrong with a small entry or administration fee to cover your expenses. Since I'm not a very good photographer I'd probably be a spectator rather than a participant. I'm interested in seeing the work of other TOP readers.

Well, how about also limiting it to work shot within the last 6-12 months. As a younger photographer it isn't much fun to compete against another photographers lifetime achievements. In 50 years I hope I have 2 or 3 world beating images, but I don't think I'm quite there yet.

Should be a portfolio contest and not a photo contest. Or maybe a simple photo series with 4-5 images having a consistent theme. Anyone can get lucky with one photo, it takes talent to create a meaningful series/portfolio.

"It seems to me that the best outcome of a contest is for the winner to become better known."

Sometimes winning is not the point.

My daughter is a violinist, and I have been watching her go through a lot of contests this year (her last year of High School, before she goes to a conservatory). She has won some (fiddle champ of our county!) and lost some.

The last one was a string quartet competition in Minneapolis. When her group was accepted into the competition (a sort of "win") they got straight to work. Extra rehearsals, invited critiques by every good musician they could wrangle, more practice. Simply put, anticipating that contest made them a better quartet. So what if they didn't win?

Will entering a photo contest make someone a better photographer? I doubt it is on the same level as a book project, but it is still a positive motivating force. People will evaluate their work, hone their post-processing skills, and hopefully go out and take some pictures. Will it make ME a better photographer? I doubt it, because I'd be too chicken to enter.

I'm becoming increasingly leery of the judging and commenting and criticising of photos on the net. I'm an amateur, and I am tired of seeing all manner of idiocy regarding how someone should have taken an otherwise interesting photo.

In the past I've seen exhibitions of photos from Kodak contests (at National Geographic in DC and in Walt Disney World in Epcot). Now that's a contest. Wow. Almost all of the photos are good, some are great, and a few breathtaking. Were they placed on the net today, some neanderthal (no insult implied to real (and otherwise extinct) Neanderthals) would undoubtedly cite violation of a thirds rule, derisively call a photo a snapshot, complain that the photographer should have photoshopped a natural blemish out of someone's face, or offer some other inane suggestion as to how to make the photo better.

If you run a contest, I hope it is judged by people qualified to judge. You know photography and are connected with folks who do. Perhaps a group of a few truly qualified individuals could judge it.

I think there should be $10 entry and the winner gets a new Sony A900. Mike you will be required to submit an entry, and all TOP readers can then vote for Mike and only Mike. ch

I'm game.

Chuck and Debra have good insight. I used to run contests on the community site I work on and boy is it a lot of work. We gave the "winners" a show and sold the prints. A local charity was always the recipient of the funds.

@ Jeff...I assume your tongue is square in cheek? It is after all The ONLINE Photographer with a world wide readership.

Limit it to one single theme and stipulate your expectations regarding the use of "photoshop" excess or otherwise.

Set up an account with Flickr or some other place to have contestants upload images. You do NOT want these sent in emails.

Last but not least consider just how difficult it will be to compile and manage voting "by the people" We built an app to do it and something may exist online, but you always run the risk of this becoming an exercise of voting irregularity that will make Chicago look downright fair and honest.

Have fun!

I am already writing my acceptance speech.

Mike I hope you go ahead with a TOP contest but you know better than I how much work is involved. Somehow you would need to be compensated.
Why not do a poll to see how many participants there would likely be?

While we all love big prizes, I don't think we (you and your readers) have this site as a our main source of income.

I agree with you, a great way of encourage the contest is publicity. But at te same time, giving the times we live in, everyone of us has a way to reach millions of people over the web.

I don't care (not that much) about a #1 tag on one of my pictures, what would really make my day is that a photographer with a broader and more experienced vision than mine would tell me ways to improve my picture-taking.

Mike, I'd apreciate more a "this picture would be better if you just..." from you than any prize from a sponsor.

Gaspar H.

No, Mike, just No. Turn back from the Dark Side.

Vader: Your composition is weak, old man.
Obi-Wan: You can't win, Darth. If you mark me down, I shall become more photographical than you could ever imagine.

I think it would be fair to limit entries and voting to TOP subscribers. Flickr might work for entries and voting.

The first prize would be a coveted Not-so-Random Excellence post on TOP, perhaps with a link to a portfolio on flickr or elsewhere. An arbitrary number of other contestants may or may not receive Random Excellence awards from Mike.

You may get a flood of new subscribers. Oh well. You could call it the "A900 Photo Contest".

Charge to enter, small portfolio basis for judging, use a hosting service, publish a (Blurb?) book of the winning portfolio plus runners up. Include your personal choices in the book.

Dear Mike,

I do some of my best thinking in the shower...

My first instincts were to tell you to put down the can opener and step slowly away from the worms. Way too many unknowns for you doing this, including potential hassles, impossible to make everybody (or even half the readers) happy with the design of the contest, and the distinct risk of marching broomsticks.

But as I lathered up my hair, an idea started seeping out of the roots.

I *think* you can make this both fun and educational and not drive yourself crazy, so long as you limit its scope in every respect. Here's what I would consider doing:

1) No fees and no prizes. The winner gets their photograph posted prominently in a column on TOP, where thousands of readers can either applaud its brilliance or nitpick it to death (boy, if it weren't for the honor of it all...).

2) No categories. It's just an excuse for people to nitpick or lobby for their preferred categories. (Chuck, if you can actually produce an aesthetically appealing photograph that includes a puppy, a kitten, and a smiling baby holding a flower and do so without the use of composites, obvious restraints, or opiates, I would probably give you a prize!)

3) People get to submit one and exactly one photograph. No substitutions, no withdrawals. Prevents people from trying to overthink the game. It's also educational; now the readers get to find out what judges feel like when they have to pick the best of show.

Arbitrary? To be sure! If you (the reader) really feel that you have a dozen photographs that are so utterly wonderful that you can't choose between them, then roll a pair of dice! Any one of them will be a fine entry.

4) Limit the contest to five days or 500 entries, whichever comes first. (Remember those broomsticks!) If people don't get in under the deadline/threshold, it's not like they're missing out on a fabulous prize.

5) Mike picks his 10 favorites (given the caliber of reader/photographer here, those are going to be 10 damn good photographs).

6) The finalists go online and readers get to vote on their single most favorite. Unlike Mike's usual reader polls, statistics do NOT get reported back to the voters; avoids making it feel like a horse race, possible hurt feelings, and reduces the urge for any people or group of people to trying game the system.

7) At the end of the voting period, over three days, Mike posts the third-place winner, the second-place winner, and the first-place winner. Much anticipation, argument, and hilarity ensues.

That's it. Game over. Please play again.

Once you have one TOP contest under your belt, you might be able to better evaluate whether you want there to be real prizes in a future contest, categories, entry fees, size/time limits, etc.. But right now, way too many unknowns.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

What about requiring/suggesting a donation of your standard 6$ amount for submission?

Fairly cheap by photo contest standards, still probably enough to ensure some level of motivation.

And those 6$ get participants up to 2 years of T.O.P. reading with a sparkly clean conscience!

As for the poll idea, it is way too easy to skew internet polls using a semi-concerted effort. This really does not sound like such a good idea...

May I simply endorse charlie d's remarks (some of which I was getting ready to write). A contest may seem "fun" and even financially attractive. But if you've never operated such a public contest you have absolutely no idea of the pain you're asking for.

There's a wonderful bit of dialog from the classic film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House that fits here. Melvyn Douglas, playing an attorney for prospective home builder Cary Grant, has discovered that Grant has made a legal blunder. As guidance for the future Douglas says something like this to Grant.

"Look, if ever think you want to do something like this again be sure you think about it very, very carefully. Then, when you're sure you're right, forget about the whole thing."

Don't say you weren't warned.

If this was to be done, I think it should be limited to people who have contributed comments to TOP before the contest is announced. Otherwise, once the word gets out, there could easily be an unmanageable number of entries (it *is* called the "world-wide-web.") This is especially true if the entry fees were low, and if the prize was large, and the entries are electronic, which they'd almost have to be. So I think while a small entry fee is okay, the prizes should be small. This should not be a money-making proposition for anybody. Or, possibly -- this would be unique -- we have a larger prize, but that fact is not announced until after the contest closes. Also, I don't think it would be a bad idea to have an open discussion of judging criteria before the contest is officially announced, so we don't get cute puppy photos...Categories: Landscape, Street, Still Life, Portrait...what else?

A meritocratic recognition by a panel of acknowledged experts, each with a well-known slant on photography. Recognition (note that I'm saying recognition and not "awards") by all-panel-agreement votes and recognition by individual panelists (note I'm saying panelists and not "judges").

And to keep if "about photography and for photography," the entry money (after expenses, and I'd expect Mike to hire some assistance to keep things manageable) would go to an educational institution's photo program of Mike's choosing.

I'd enter something like this in a heartbeat, and I've never entered a contest in my life. I just like the notion of supporting this community.


whatever you come up with, I'm sure it will be a kind of contest that it's safe to enter. Just do it. It's a good idea. I'd promote it on my blog and I'm sure your readership will explode to +0.0005% of what it was before :)

No, really, I like the idea and I would certainly enter, even if mine is the least likely kind of photography to win. Go on!

Just a thought, how about entries from subscribers only. A way to maybe generate some extra income from people wavering on the issue and within the bounds of your own admirable moral compass (phrase of the moment in UK). Unless of course it backfires. But why should it if the norm is to either pay a fee and/or to have bought a periodical holding the competition.

I'll second Jeff's thought that it should be about a small set, not a single image.

It's just too hard to tell what's intentional in a single image, and so you tend to get winners which are shallow but well-polished: the picture needs to shout that it wasn't a mistake. Whereas with 5 pictures there's space to show consistent vision.

Whatever you decide, be sure to postpone announcing second place.

Hi Mike,
1. Silly me, I "thought" that was what "Random Excellence" was, an image, or group of images that "won" your attention and you awarded the prize of display on your site. It seems to be working well.
2. If you should pursue a second avenue I support the single image concept, if I understand your statement, It's about a winning image, lucky shot or not. (Was it Steichen or Steiglitz who replied to the interviewer when he suggested that photography was "just a matter of good luck". "Yes, it is, but isn't it interesting how so few seem to have all the luck".
I Think you were selecting a winning image not necessarily the best photographer, though not mutually exclusive.
3. I had the good fortune to attend a presentation by James Natchwey a few years ago and when asked the inevitable film/ digital/B&W/color questions. He paused and said "It's about the image."
and in my recommendation that should be the only criteria. The image that "takes you" (as Haas is attributed with saying)


Easy, I know, but I agree completely with the Ctein's formula.

If you do it, think of the contest as an opportunity to publish discussion about the photography. I've made it into a couple of juried shows and one of the frustrating things about getting in is that you have no more idea why you did get into one show than why you didn't get in to another.

If you are a winner, the prize should be the audience, and commentary about your work that rises above the level of most net commentary.

You also have to decide how to cut down the number of images you have to deal with to something that would not overwhelm you. If you allowed 4500 images into the contest, for example, and you allocated 10 seconds to look at each one it you take you over 12 hours to see them all (with no bathroom breaks). Looking at 6 images a minute for 12 hours seems pretty hellish to me.

500 entry slots and a single 3 image portfolio as the unit of entry would cut the bulk down nicely.

To the various folks who've suggested limiting the contest to subscribers:

Please read this earlier column from Mike


The moment that Mike starts giving the subscribers something extra for their donation, he is likely to run afoul of the IRS definition of "gift." Subscriptions then become taxable income. Depending on Mike's (probable) tax bracket, that reduces the value of all the subscriptions by 30-45%.

That makes that idea a financial non-starter.

pax / Ctein

What might be interesting is having, say, 16 judges (picked from the regular TOP contributors) nominate entries. The entries get placed into a bracket (all of the judges can collaborate to decide the arrangement of the bracket - i.e. "seeding"). Then pit two entries per day against one another.

TOP's readers get to vote on the daily "winner" via simple voting buttons. This keeps things very simple and entertaining.

See the new comment by Stuart Frentz at the end of the "I'm Just Sayin'" post.

I *asked* him not to do that. [g]



I think it’s a great idea; however, I would offer the following suggestions:
No one winner, but rather a number (say 30) of submitted entries that you or a panel deems worthy of discussion. One of the selected images could be posted on an intermittent basis for discussion and comments. This will reduce your burden of having to produce content continuously. Additionally, I for one, would love to see the work of some of your readers, who I find a pretty thoughtful and civilized bunch (maybe that’s because you edit the posts?). Contest? over something as subjective as a photograph, no; but sharing good work, yes. Of course, any entry fee will need to be reported to the IRS.



Great idea.

If it takes a week of your time to organise, judge, and set up... you should pay yourself a wage. I recommend a small / modist handling fee. $5.00 x 500 entries... sounds good to me.

Great idea... and a lot of fun no doubt...

Love Ctein's ideas...

A quote from Ctein's post above

"7) At the end of the voting period, over three days, Mike posts the third-place winner, the second-place winner, and the first-place winner. Much anticipation, argument, and hilarity ensues."

I like Ctein's idea...but...why not throw-in and extra whammy to up the thrill factor.

On the day you are to announce 2nd place, announce instead that new information is coming that will delay the assignment of 2nd place for 30 days or so.


I do get a kick out of reading your stuff.

Cheers! Jay


I can't enter such a prestigious contest while I have a visual of ctein in the shower--lathering and luxuriating under pulsating shower heads.

It's too much....

"Fees for a contest could help provide a prize. But better than that fees could be used to fund a charity or scholarship fund of your or the winner's choice."

I couldn't agree more. I suggest that the entry fees go toward something like Habitat for Humanity or America's Second Harvest. People are losing their homes and going hungry. Those of us lucky enough not to be in their position should help as we can.

I also suggest that, rather than having a popularity contest, you secure a "celebrity judge," someone known for photographic excellence. Use the philanthropic angle to hook them in. Also, make the entry period short enough that the judge isn't overwhelmed by sheer volume.

Ctein's got your roadmap, Mike. That would work.

Restrained is better.



I would go with Ctein's plan, but with modification:

1. have the entries go to someone else first, someone you trust to forward them to you, have that person copy the files, taking care to remove all identifiers from the entries, to make the entries anonymous and eliminate even the possibility of appearance of bias.

2. If there is public voting, nobody is allowed to claim a photo or otherwise indicate or identify the author of the photo.

3. Only when all votes/decisions have been reached do the photographer get identified and lauded.

4. No lobbying.


veteran of the judging wars

JC: But a lot of Mike's photos that he posts here have Lulu in them! My favorite picture of my own has my chocolate lab ( "Hunter" ) with a stick in his mouth down low in one corner; the damned thing is even named: "Swimming in Fog". Would that be too much of a cute puppy photo to post?? lol


In general, I'm not a fan of contests (though I have entered and even run a few in my time).

Basically I'm not very motivated to submit what I think are my best pictures, and the anguish of making that decision (which canges on a daily basis) is stress I can do without.

What I do like are challenges - being forced to do something new, and perhaps learn something along the way. As a concept, I think the Dpreview challenges are perhaps the most interesting "contests" currently on the 'net.

One thought which might work well with the readership here would be "in the style" of challenges - photos would have to emulate the style of a particular photographer

I think this would

a - ensure that most entrants would actually have to go out and take new material

b- encourage people to look, REALLY look, at the work of the chosen photographer

c - I suspect it would be a real learning experience (so everyone is a winner)

d - pushes photographers outside their comfort zone

e - discussion would be less about "this is better than that" but more about a particular style of photography and how well a given photo captures that style (or why it misses), so non-entrants can play (and learn) too.



I'm intrigued by the "challenges" idea Colin describes!

Dear Cog,

Agreed, for the most part! I failed to explicitly assert anonymity, but I was assuming it.

Not sure it's necessary on the Mike level, at least not when the stakes are this low. But on every other level, fer shure.


Dear Colin,

I like it! Seems right up Mike's alley (and expertise). He sets a challenge, people get to submit ONE photo, he gets to cull them any way he sees fit, and then the mobs descend.

pax / Ctein

OK, I'm convinced. A double blind juried challenge, open to all, requiring exactly five b&w prints of puppies in the style of Bill Brandt. Contestants vie strictly for pride of place and fleeting renown, the winners' work to be admired and discussed for no more than a decent length of time, after which all entries are auctioned off for charity.

Dead serious now: the editor and contributing writers of TOP would make one very cool jury.

In preparation for this contest that is not even in place, I am going out today WITH my camera.

Thank you all, I am already a winner.

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