No Contest

"The real contest is always between what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. You measure yourself against yourself and nobody else." Geoffrey Gaberino

I subscribe to only one photo magazine, which I won't name here as I'm finding it less interesting and useful with each new issue. As is often the case with subscriptions to any periodical or service, subscribing automatically puts one on a list to receive e-mails from the organization. They may come from affiliated sources, too, as a "benefit" of subscribing. The magazine sends a bit too much e-mail, most of little interest (yes, I could just opt out). There's probably a law that states the frequency of unsolicited e-mails is inversely proportional to the value of their content. If there isn't, I hereby christen it "Monty's Law of E-mail Value." If you have to ask, see this Wikipedia entry.

Among the things the magazine's been vigorously promoting is their photo contest, cleverly titled and marketed to lead entrants to believe they've got a pretty good chance of winning some nice prizes and seeing their pictures published in the magazine.

I belong to too many organizations advocating environmental and/or wildlife conservation and generally "green" causes. Naturally I get e-mail from each of these organizations, including invitations to enter their photo contests. Twice I've paid the fee and entered these contests. I learned something from each effort. These were not bad experiences, and I had minor success in one of the contests. If you're going to enter these things, I hope you'll do so with full knowledge of what to expect. There's often a lot of fine print to read; it's worth the trouble to wade in and understand what might be gained and what will be lost when you submit your photos.

Fame! Prizes! Peer Recognition! Right…

Biggest, brightest, and loudest on any contest's Web site, and the e-mails that entice you to look there, will be the descriptions of the prizes awarded to the winners. There's always more than one winner. There's a Grand Prize; first, second, and third places; and usually a bunch of runners up or honorable mentions. Each level, with the bottom tier typically excluded, will have a raft of prizes that might include cash, photo equipment, workshops with well-known photographers, large prints made from your winning entry, publication of your winning photo in the sponsoring publication and Web site, or permanent storage in someone's basement or other archive. The list of goodies can seem endless, but of the thousands of entries any contest draws, only a few will be prize winners. Everyone takes pictures. A surprising number of those people are good. A few are very good, and a lot of these people enter contests. To win a prize at any level, your work must be exceptionally good art, exhibit a high degree of technical quality, and be different, not like the hundreds of other nice sunset over Lake McGorgeous pictures the judges see every day.

The Rules Rule

It takes work to prepare for a contest. A while back I wrote about creating a portfolio. When a contest's rules allow submitting a number of photos, you'll make your selections as you would to produce a portfolio. Determine how many pictures you want to enter, choose the photos, and then prepare the files per instructions in the contest rules. These will indicate the type of files accepted, nearly always jpegs; the height and width or a maximum size in pixels; and the resolution, with 300ppi being typical. The rules will often tell you if you may include a signature and copyright information in the image — if permitted, do it. If you need help with that there's no shortage of tutorials on the Web. Here's one for making a handy signature brush in Photoshop. Some contests require submitting a file describing the photos, and they may want shooting data for each image. You may also need to prepare a short bio or artist's statement. If you're going to enter, first read the rules, and then comply with them.

Dew on snowberries

A signature brush makes it easy to stamp your signature on photos. Once the brush is created, its color and size can be adjusted as needed.

Not all contests are free. Some require a small entry fee, rarely more than $10.00 (U.S.). Once you've registered you'll receive e-mails explaining the rules or directing you to a Web page with more information. I suspect the pay-to-enter contests have these fees to discourage casual snap-shooters, resulting in submissions only from people who are fairly serious about their pictures. No doubt that still results in a huge number of submissions. These may be the best contests to consider, although you'll be competing with some very competent and talented photographers.

When your image files and any other required document files are ready, the last step in the adventure will be uploading everything to the contest site. For some this is a simple matter of attaching everything to an e-mail and sending it, perhaps with a specific subject line, to the contest site. In other cases you'll be directed to a Web site, sometimes run by a third party rather than the contest sponsor. These sites provide the usual controls for selecting, from your local hard drive, the files to be uploaded. The click of a button will then initiate the upload.

Once you've uploaded your work and received confirmation of the upload (and thanks for entering), forget you ever heard of the contest. You may or may not receive additional e-mails about your entries, although you'll certainly receive unsolicited e-mail advertising the sponsor's products or requesting donations. If you've received no updates by the judging date, you're not going to, but you may eventually receive a message explaining where to look on the Web to see the winning entries.

The Real Cost of Entry

In the rules, or perhaps in a separate document or section of the sponsor's Web site, you'll find another important bit of information: the agreement, usually called the "Use of Entries", "Use of Submissions" or similar. Read this first, as it may save you a lot of work — the work of entering the contest in the first place. This section describes the rights the sponsors claim to your work, and to which you agree when you submit your files. These are often more draconian than they might at first appear. Read them carefully, and perhaps read them again. Here's an example taken directly from a real contest (bold emphasis is mine):

By submitting an entry, entrant grants Sponsors and their designees an irrevocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide perpetual license to use the entry and his/her name, city and state of residence for credit purposes in Sponsors’ online galleries, without further compensation, notification or permission, unless prohibited by law. In addition, each winner grants to the Sponsors and their designees an irrevocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide perpetual license to use and distribute the entry [(as submitted, or as cropped by Sponsors)], and his/her name, city and state of residence for credit purposes, in any and all media now or hereafter known, including without limitation in <our publication>, for purposes of promotion of this Contest and other Sponsors' contests and/or for purposes of advertising and promoting Sponsors and, except as otherwise stated herein, without further compensation, notification or permission, unless prohibited by law."

This kind of language is very common. Surprisingly, what's quoted above is from the agreement for a contest sponsored by a concern that should certainly know better. They should be advocating the photographer's rights, but this language clearly says the sponsors can do as they please. With your work. They get the rights to your pictures; they can do anything they want with them, including passing them on to others (sponsors and designees) for their own use; you can't get your pictures back (can't make them stop using them); they don't have to compensate you; and it's forever. They even get to use your pictures for purposes nobody's thought of, or in ways that haven't been invented yet. You're most likely to be concerned by this if some of your income comes from selling rights to reproduce your photographs.

The photos remain yours — this agreement is non-exclusive (although some are not) — so you're not giving up your right to do what you want with the pictures. There's also a chance of winning some free publicity and a prize. I see nothing else positive in this agreement.

If you think the offered prizes are worth giving away the described use of your photos, then by all means enter the contest. Realize, however, that the contest holder retains these rights to your work whether you win a prize or not. The agreement begins, "By submitting…." They get your photo(s), and chances are quite high you get nothing. You decide whether that's good or bad when you enter.

If you do happen to win (apparently at any level), they can then alter your photo by cropping. I've seen one result of this, and it wasn't pretty. A friend entered some photos and won at one of the higher levels. Her winning photo later appeared in the sponsor's periodical, in mailings, on their Web site, and in advertising in unrelated print publications, but cropped and manipulated so it was hardly recognizable as her work.

Kettle pond and the Mission Mountains, Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S.

Kettle pond and the Mission Mountains, Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S. This picture was selected by the National Wildlife Refuge Association in their 2009 photo contest for inclusion in their permanent archive. The NWRA contest rules had none of the restrictions found in the example cited above.

Earlier I said I'd entered a couple of contests and learned something from them. I learned to just say "No!" to contests. If you're determined to give them a try, I wish you good luck. Please read the rules and all the boring legalese carefully, so you understand what can happen after you've submitted your photos.

December 2010