To Compete or Not to Compete: A Photographer’s Dilemma

Compton Water Tower (skyline at night)
This photo didn’t do well in a local competition, but the judges remembered it and later asked to publish it in a city magazine. Competitions sometimes have unforeseen prizes.

Photography and competition seem to go hand-in-hand. Local photography clubs, like the one I belong to, have frequent competitions and there are often local opportunities to submit photographs for inclusion in an art show or some such.

There are also many online competitions like Viewbug or Gurushots The online competitions where there are thousands and thousands of entries for each competition are mainly for ent entertainment and are a place to share photos.

From the sounds of it, photographers can be a competitive bunch. Some photographers though choose not to compete, actively avoiding the competitive element in photography.

This post may help you decide whether competition is right for you or not.

When to Compete

Think about how you feel when you’ve entered a photograph in competition. How you feel when your photograph does well and how you feel when your photograph does poorly?

The following are indications that you’re probably in a healthy place to enter competitions:

  • Regardless of how well your photograph does in competition, you learn something about yourself or your photography
  • Sharing your images with a judge or an audience feels good
  • Even when your photograph doesn’t do well in competition, you pick up your camera and go out the next day to enjoy photography
  • You can take what a judge says about your photograph, think about it, and if you agree make some changes – if you don’t agree, you can forget everything the judge said

There are many reasons to enter photos into competitions, and there really should be some reason to enter the competition. In other words, you should obtain some sort of benefit from the experience. The benefit shouldn’t just be a prize, you should get something out of the experience regardless of how well your photo does in the actual competition.

I think the best competitions are ones where you get some feedback on your image from a judge. However, keep this feedback in perspective. It’s how one person sees your image on one particular day. Consider what the judge says and then decide whether he or she has a point — or not. You’re the artist, the ultimate judge of your own work. In the end, you get to decide.

Havana Day 7 Old Havana Walk 107 Web
This photo has won a number of prizes, but it was disqualified from a local competition (Rookie of the year) because it had already won another competition, which made it ineligible – check those rules carefully! The organizers thought I would be devastated when they told me – but it didn’t bother me at all. This experience told me that I was in a good emotional place to be competing.

Competition means that other photographers are involved. You need to be in an emotional place where you are happy to see others succeed – even if you don’t – and you can support your fellow photographers.

How well your image does in competition depends on what other photographers enter. Sometimes, there is simply a better image than yours in the competition. It’s hard not to take judging personally, but there’s nothing personal about another photographer taking a good image. Even the best photographers in the world don’t win every competition. Be happy for your fellow photographer! We’re all trying to make beautiful images.

Judges often favor technical perfection. If you’ve read a few articles on PhotoYoga you know that the philosophy here is to photograph what you’re passionate about. Technique serves the emotion, but in competition this isn’t always the case.

On any number of occasions, a photograph that I’ve entered into my local photography club competition gets passed over. However, I’ve noticed at times the judge stopping to look my photo for what seems to be a long time before passing it. I don’t know what the judges were looking at, but it made the judge stop and think. Maybe the image has made some sort of impact. In a way, the image was successful even if it didn’t win anything.

Winning a competition isn’t the only measure of success.

Atop the City
This is a photograph that seemed to catch the judge’s attention at my local photography club’s competition – even though he had already pre-judged the competition and knew that it wouldn’t go on to the next round.

There are many reasons to compete. Sometimes getting a photograph out there to the right judge or audience opens up opportunities, but the opportunity will mean nothing if competition is stressful and if it gets in the way of your photography.

When Not to Compete

There are many reasons to enter your photographs in competition and times when you should probably think again. You may want to consider stepping away from competition if you find the following types of things happening:

  • You take photographs only with the thought of how well the image will do in competition.
  • Doing well in a competition makes you feel superior to fellow photographers
  • Doing poorly in a competition ruins your day
  • Doing poorly in a competition makes you want to quit photography
  • You replay judges comments over and over again and they make you doubt your photography

If you enjoy photography, and I’m guessing that you do if you’re reading this article, don’t let anything get in the way of this enjoyment – especially something like competition.

Chicago El
I entered this photo in a sponsored, memorial competition held by my local photography club in memory of a long-time member. It’s a big family affair and there are cash prizes. My photo didn’t win a prize from the judge, but out of all the photos entered, this is the one the family chose to give a prize. In some ways, that was even more of an honor.

Chapter 1 introduces the idea of integrating common, easy- to- use technologies into the music practice room. We lay the foundation for the book by exploring effective and efficient music practice strategies supported by research. Underlying our discussion is the theory of expert performance and deliberate practice. We explore distributed practice, marking parts, mapping, blocking chords, working with a metronome, changing rhythms, and mental practice. We also introduce several new practice strategies that have not yet become common, such as interleaving practice. Throughout the book we will focus on how to expand these quality practice strategies with technology.

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 10.21.46 AM

Competition is sometimes put up as the opposite of cooperation and these can be in conflict. If you find yourself feeling possessive or secretive about your photography or doing things to try and get a leg-up on fellow photographers than you may want to rethink your motives for entering a competition. We’re all trying to make beautiful images and trying to impede another photographer or not helping them means that you’re putting the competition before the art.

The best competitions to enter are those that give you some type of feedback on your image designed to make you a better photographer. Some competitions though are designed simply as “accept” or “don’t accept” without any reason provided by the judge. Think carefully about why you might enter this type of competition – what are you really getting out of it?

I once heard a judge talk about what images he selected and didn’t select for a local photography club’s annual show. On multiple occasions, he eliminated a photograph because he didn’t think the title of the photograph was good enough.

When faced with limited space, judges have to cut some photographs and the reasons for cutting can border on the arbitrary. It’s not healthy to base our entire photographic identity on how one person felt about our photograph on a particular day. If you feel that you’re doing that than think about stepping away from competition for a while.

A competition should never harm your photography – if it does, get it out of your life!

There are plenty of photographers who never enter their photographs into competition and some who never even share on social media. Photography is for you and you alone.

Do what is best for you.

I come from the world of classical music where auditions and competitions are the rule. There have been many times in my career that I’ve had to walk away from an opportunity because the competition became too much. I was losing my love of music.

This photo has never done particularly well at competition yet I love it and that’s all that really counts.

Edge of Sunset
This photo has never done particularly well at competition yet I love it and that’s all that really counts.

Final Thoughts

Whether you choose to enter your photos in competition or not is up to you. If you’re anything like me, it depends on how I’m feeling at the moment.

Some days I feel emotionally and photographically healthy enough to enter my photographs into competition and regardless of the outcome, my photography and creative energies will be fine. Other times, competition gets in the way and I need to focus my energies and attention on collaboration and on the creative side of photography.

There are good things that can come from competing. Competition can motivate you to do better and you can get important feedback about how others view your images, but competition can also be a barrier to your creativity.

There is no pressure to compete – if you feel pressure, think about where that pressure is coming from. Unless you’re a professional who must create images on demand, your photography can be anything you want it to be. That includes being a non-competitive photographer.

Whatever your decision, protect your love of photography. Negative feelings or insecurities will never help you create beautiful photographs. It’s better to walk away from competitions than to walk away from your camera.

Artist Tree


This post is sponsored by PhotoYoga.

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3 thoughts on “To Compete or Not to Compete: A Photographer’s Dilemma”

  1. Great article, Jenn. I enter a few competitions but with little expectation of winning. The process of selecting an entry or entries helps me look at images in a more critical way. I rarely even look to see who/what images did win. That said, I do (soon to be did) belong to Viewbug. While I enjoyed uploading photos and getting feedback though member awards, stars, etc., I found two issues that bother me. First, the same types of photos always win, regardless of the subject of the contest. Docks or piers with leading lines are big. So are mountains landscapes. And slow moving water. And pocket watches are always a hit in still life competitions. Often the finalists are so similar it is hard to tell them apart. A couple of years ago, there was a castle/palace competition. About 1/3 of the finalists were shots of the same castle in Ireland, most from the same perspective. In another contest, two finalist shots were identical except that one had a normal sky and the other had moving stars. It was easy to compare them because the light was very orange and it was a shoreline. But they were by two different members. So they must have been standing on top of each other and one manipulated the sky. The second issue I found was that members with paid subscriptions seem to get better placement for selection during voting. After I upgraded to premium, the number of awards and recognition my photos received increased dramatically. When I went back to a free account a couple years later, they dropped to almost zero. I think whatever algorithm Viewbug uses favors paying members. Few members under the pro level make it to the finalist stage.Thanks for letting me do a minor vent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Marie for your comment! We all have a war story or two about competitions! Good point about the curating part of the process. I find this as well. I always spend WAAAAAY too long trying to choose images to enter. Interesting note about the subscription – we have to remember that many of the competitions that charge $$$$ have ways of incentivizing upgrades.

      Liked by 1 person


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