The Great Photo Competition Swindle

Published: April 14, 2014
The hobby of photography has rarely been more popular than it is right now. Thanks to the digital camera and, more recently, to the smartphone, more and more people are taking more and more photographs. The snapshot’s never been more popular either, but that’s not what’s under discussion here – we’re talking about photographs – taken either for profit or as art.

The popularity of photography has led to a flood of imagery onto the internet and, slowly but surely, this in turn has made the vast majority of photographs utterly worthless. Even as little as five years ago you’d have been able to carve out a small business taking stock images but these days, unless you have a photo-factory and can churn out thousands of very high quality images a month, you’ll be lucky to make ten bucks in a year. Given Getty’s recent announcement that you can embed many of their images in your website or blog for nothing – you’ve got to wonder how much further down the toilet the stock photo industry can go. But I digress.

So there’s all these photographs floating about on the Internet and looking for a home and all these photographers desperately looking for an outlet for their images and recognition of their abilities. Most photographers, (particularly the ones who might be classed as ‘serious’) believe that their photos are superior to everyone else’s – it goes with the turf – how many photographers do you know with someone else’s work on their walls!? Hmmm? The problem for the photographer now is proving that their photos are good. All of which brings as around to the modern photo ‘competition’.

For almost as long as the art form of photography has existed, the photography competition has attempted to grade the output of photographers. Magazines such as National Geographic and Nature, organisations such as Pulitzer and the National Press association and companies such as Canon and Nikon have operated such photo competitions for many years. And while I think doing well in these competitions is often akin to getting ‘Best Smile’ in your junior school awards, I think we’d all agree that they can help challenge photographers and, occasionally, boost their careers. And besides, sometimes it’s nice to know that you’ve got a great smile.

Ponzi Would Be Proud

The big problem is not prestigious events such as the National Geographic Photo Contest, but smaller competitions whose aim is not the promotion of fine photography but the acquisition by the organisers of cheap imagery. To be blunt, many of these small competitions are cons – not only do the organisers end up getting all the photos they want, often with terms and conditions that grant them royalty-free rights to use the photo in any way they wish for as long as they wish – but they get you to pay for the privilege! It’s breathtakingly awful.

The kind of competition I’m referring to is often run by a small or medium-sized business or a tourist organisation. Having found that decent photographs will cost them actual money they settle upon a great scheme – set up a photo contest, put up a couple of cash prizes (nothing too huge, just enough to tempt the unwary) and stick a promotional page up on Facebook. Proud photographers pay their $10, wait for the closing date and eagerly check the page to see if they’ve won. But the only winners in these competitions are the companies and organisations that operate them.

These competitions lure in photographers of all kinds, good and bad, with the promise of some publicity and maybe a prize. They do not look like a humongous rip-off because they are often run by otherwise decent law-abiding organisations. That’s the really insidious nature of these competitions, that an otherwise benign establishment such as a tourist authority, can act in such a duplicitous way.

The Small Print

Here’s an example of some small print for a competition run by a regional tourist organisation here in Australia. By entering this competition, entrants give the organisation permission to “… utilise their photographic images, including reproduction, copying and publishing, for specific purposes and initiatives. Entrants agree to allow [the organisers] to use their images in a variety of media forms including print media, council publications, internet sites, facebook, twitter and other forms of electronic communication, posters and event notifications.”

So if you enter this particular competition you’re basically giving the organisers the right to use your photo in any way they want, for as long as they want. And the kicker? There’s an entry fee! So not only do the organisers end up with all the photos they want, but they get the unwitting entrants to pay for the administration and, most likely, the prize pool as well. You’ve got to admit, it’s genius.

Now you might decide that there’s a certain cachet in winning a local photo competition, but once you see that photo in print advertising, brochures, Facebook covers, email signatures and posters for the next 20 years, you might wonder if you could actually have made some money from it instead. And remember it’s not just the ‘winners’ that grant an all-encompassing royalty-free licence in perpetuity to the organisers, but every single last entrant. It’s like setting up a market stall and paying people $10 to repeatedly punch you in the face.

Print Money

L.Ron Hubbard, the nut-job that inflicted Scientology on the world once said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” I’d like to bring his quote up-to-date and say that you don’t get rich taking photographs – if you want to get rich, you start a paid-for photo competition.

Many paid-for photo competitions are complete and utter rip-offs that benefit nobody except the organisers. The maths are pretty easy to work out – you set up a competition and have a winning prize of, say $5000 and an entry fee of $25 per image. That prize would get you a pretty nice full frame camera or a few new lenses and it’s easy to see how attractive that would be to the average gear-obsessed photographer for such a small investment of just $25.

So the organisers make a nice web page and a promotional Facebook page and they might even line up a couple of marginally famous judges. All they need to do is dupe 200 photographers into paying the $25 fee and they’ve made their money back – once they’ve given the judges their cut everything after that is pure undiluted profit.

There are plenty of paid-for competitions that exist only as competitions – they’re not attached to any organisation or magazine – their only purpose is to generate money as a business.  In some cases entry is tied to paying for some ‘premium membership’ with entirely dubious benefits. Beyond the entry fee they make the other requirements as wide open as possible in order to attract as many photographers as possible – you can spot these rip-offs a mile away because they have about 10 different categories and two of these will always be ‘portraits’ and ‘travel’ because everyone’s got a photo in those categories. They are, at best, a lottery.

You’ve Got To Be In It To Win It

It’s a pretty lousy situation all things considered and it will carry on for as long as people fall for this ego-flattering nonsense. I strongly suggest that everyone takes a deep breath and has a long hard look at the benefits of entering any photo competition. Is it a simple copyright grab? Do you have to pay for entry? Who are the judges? Is it basically a lottery? What’s the prize pool? What are the terms and conditions? Will winning provide any concrete benefits to you as a photographer whatsoever?

I’m not saying that all photo competitions are evil. I entered the International Loupe Awards myself last year and won a bronze for the single image I submitted. I entered because a lot of the fellow photographers I follow on Facebook and who live locally did and it seemed like a good way of assessing where I was photographically. I also did a lot of reading about it before entering and it seemed legitimate. There are decent photo competitions out there, but there’s also good car dealerships too and we all know what sort of reputation they have.

So what do you think? Have you ever entered a photo competition only to be bombarded with ‘upgrades’ to your entry? Have you ever hit that ‘Submit’ button and realised too late that you’ve been taken for a ride? Or have you found the opposite, that photo competitions you enter are awesome and you won a D800? Hit me up in the comments …

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson