Why do we enter Photography Competitions? Landscape Photography of the Yeat time again!

28th July 2017
It's that time of year when UK landscape photographers focus on the 'daddy' of them all, the 'Landscape Photographer of the Year' competition. I've entered on four occasions now, reaching short listing stage twice and getting nowhere twice - a nice balance. Whether my shortlisted image this year makes it into the final, I'll wait and see. Either way, I wanted to share some reflections on entering photography competitions.

There are literally thousands of photography competitions run each year, with the most prestigious including The Pulitzer prize for photography (only open to photographers contributing to US news media outlets), The National Geographic Photo Contest with more than 7000 entries each year, and the Sony World Photography Awards.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are 'competitions' based on platforms such as Facebook and run by local businesses who might simply be trying to get some 'free' images without having to pay for them, through the guise of a competition!

Being a landscape photographer, I'm interested in competitions relating to landscape photography such as Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year and The Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. Increasingly across social media, there seems to be more disquiet about the fairness and objectivity of these types of competitions and its worth thinking about why photography comps are run, how they're judged and why people enter them in the first place.

Why are photography competitions run?
All the big competition organisers are investing time, effort and money into running the thing, so what is their primary objective? My guess is that dressings aside, it's a business decision that in the final analysis will be about generating money one way or another. The number of big philanthropic competitions, whose sole interest is to provide a platform for talented photographers to shine is at or around zero!

Is this a good or bad thing? Well, that's for you to decide individually. If you're comfortable with the idea that the competition at its core is a commercial enterprise then go ahead and enter. If you consider this idea to be distasteful, you have the choice not to enter and not to pay your money to do so (oh yes, don't forget that you'll generally be paying to enter for a chance to win!).

How are photography competitions judged?
On a number of occasions now, I've been asked to help judge photography competitions. Generally, I've been asked to look at lots of images and select my top three choices. After I've given my views, these are collated with those of other judges (where there are more than one) before a final decision is made. This final decision is usually made by one individual, rather than a more objective totting up of scores e.g. as in judging a boxing competition. Sometimes, criteria have been suggested by the organising body for me to use. As often as not, those criteria often seem to go out of the window when final decisions are made about winners.

My conclusion it maybe simplistic, but probably not a million miles off. It boils down to whether or not a particular individual on a particular day, fancies your image or not. You might have entered the most stunning of images, but if that individual judge doesn't have the same emotional response to it as you, it's not going to win! Doesn't sound fair does it? Well, photography competitions aren't fair - they're not based on empirical criteria, rather, they're based on subjective judgements made by subjective humans. Big competitions can be the biggest lottery of all. What if your stunning mountain landscape shot is passed over at the initial short listing stage because the judge who saw your image was an avid cityscape fan, or vice-versa? Instead of being successful, it wouldn't get through the first round. Had a different judge been short listing, it could have gone on and won! It's just very difficult, if not impossible for a competition with tens of thousands of entries to be 'fair' to everyone. If that upsets you, consider carefully whether or not you want to enter in the first place.

Why do people enter a photography competition?

I've a good idea of the different motivations that people have for entering competitions, but I'd rather just offer my honest personal thoughts about why I enter (a VERY limited number of) competitions. Back in 2009 or 2010 I entered a competition for an organisation that looks after footpaths in the English Lake District. My picture was the runner up and I was pleased enough with that.

On reflection, I'd given little thought to why I was entering but even then, I was mindful of 'exposure' - having images seen by others and hoping that in some way it might help should one day I try to make a living out of being a photographer!
I've entered local village shows with images and duly won. Reflecting on this, I was being rather vain and just wanted to 'show off' so others could see what I could do. (After winning, they asked me to judge the photo's the following year so that was the end of that winning streak!).

I entered competitions during my short time at a local camera club. I did pretty well, winning a competition trophy. Again though, it felt like I was just entering in order to show off, and pit myself against other photographers. During this time, I started to question the whole idea of entering photography competitions. More and more, I was turned off by the idea of 'competing' against others. I was much more interested in taking inspiration and learning from others images, rather than seeing them as something to beat. For me, collaborative discussions about where images were taken and how, was much more meaningful than attempting to judge whether one image was better than another.
In recent years, I've entered the Landscape Photographer of the year competition. The first attempt was a disaster. After submission, I realised I'd sized all my entries incorrectly when uploading, meaning the judges would just see pixelated blobs of an image! The next year, I was shortlisted but alas, didn't make it through as a finalist. The following year, my images were much improved but no luck that time. Lastly, this year I submitted a number of images which I personally love and which are bound with emotion and memories for me. My least favourite of the submissions was the only one to be shortlisted which left me feeling rather conflicted.

I have to confess that in recent years, my motivation has been to try and do well in competitions in order to gain more exposure. The hope being that in turn this helps my photography business become known to a wider audience and to grow. This sounds like a rather shallow, even cynical motive for entering doesn't it? Well, going back to my thesis that are their heart, the big competitions are simply commercial enterprises, then I'm not really at odds with some higher moral or ethical imperative.

The chance of me winning a major photography competition are miniscule as are my chances of winning the national lottery, but that doesn't stop me from entering now and then. So, I have to reflect and consider what the real 'win' is for me? Firstly, entering competitions force me to reflect on work that I've created over the past year, spending time really scrutinising what I've done and considering the relative merits of my images. Without this milestone date in the calendar, would I undertake this yearly review? Another benefit is that it forces me to look at lots of images submitted by others. I take lots of pleasure from seeing these images and considering how others have interpreted particular landscape scenes. On some level or another, these images may come to influence me, whether that be striving to improve the standard of my work, considering different ways of interpreting scenes, or encouraging me to explore different locations. So, whether I 'win' a competition or not, there are other ways in which I benefit and that's ultimately why I now enter the process in the first place.

So, finally, here's the images I submitted for the 2017 LPOTY comp. Only one got shortlisted, but the rules mean I'm not allowed to identify it yet - Sorry!

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