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  • Writer's pictureAbdul Qudoos

Are Paid Photography Competitions Worth It? Honest Opinion


Joining a paid photography competition can feel like a gamble. You pay an entry fee, submit your best work, and cross your fingers that the judges will love it.

But are these contests really worth the investment?

Let's dive in and find out.

What are Paid Photography Competitions?

Before determining if paid competitions are worthwhile, it's helpful to understand exactly what they are.

“Paid photography competitions require entrants to pay an entry or submission fee to have their photos evaluated by a panel of judges. Fees often range from $5-$50 per photo submitted.”

Some of the most common types of paid photography contests include:

  • Organization/company contests - Major media entities like National Geographic or Canon often hold branded contests to promote their products/causes. Top entries are published and prizes are awarded.

  • Photo awards - Renowned photo awards like the International Photography Awards charge submission fees and offer cash prizes and publicity opportunities.

  • Magazine competitions - Magazines like National Geographic Traveler hold contests where winners are featured in print and/or online publications.

  • Exhibition competitions - Galleries and exhibitions like the Mobile Photography Awards offer the chance to display work.

Paid contests tend to offer higher caliber prizes and exposure benefits compared to free photography competitions. Let's analyze whether those potential perks outweigh the costs.

Are Paid Photography Competitions Worth It? Weighing the Pros and Cons

Entering paid photography contests requires shelling out precious funds in the hopes of some returned value. This begs the question: is participating worth the investment?

There are compelling benefits to be gained from paid photography competitions. However, there are also notable drawbacks to consider.

Potential Advantages of Paid Photography Contests

Exposure and Recognition

Paid photography competitions can provide unmatched exposure opportunities. Winners have their work featured in world-famous publications and exhibitions. This visibility can be hugely impactful in elevating a photographer's reputation and brand.

Even non-winning entries may be highlighted online or in magazines. So paid contests provide a chance for wide-ranging exposure not always possible with free competitions.

Monetary Prizes

Many prestigious paid photography competitions offer substantial monetary prizes for top entrants. The International Photography Awards grants over $1,000,000 in cash prizes annually. Substantial earnings like these allow photographers to reinvest in their craft and fund future projects.

While less common, some exposure-focused contests also compensate photographers by licensing winning images for commercial use.

(To make the most of these opportunities, let’s understand how to stand out in photography contests.)

Portfolio and Credibility Boost

Winning or placing in well-known paid photography competitions can tremendously enhance a photographer's portfolio. Adding accolades like "National Geographic Photo Contest Finalist" or "International Photography Awards Winner" lends immense credibility.

Even just being able to say you have entered prestigious contests makes a statement. Paid competition exposure raises a photographer's profile and talent caliber in the eyes of clients and industry peers.

Networking and Industry Connections

Paid photography contests attract top artists in the field. They provide an opportunity to network with high-caliber peers and potentially connect with industry leaders who may be judging or sponsoring the competition.

Building these connections can lead to invaluable career growth opportunities, such as mentorships, collaborations, and jobs.

Potential Drawbacks and Risks of Paid Photography Contests

Financial Investment

The most obvious drawback of paid photography competitions is the out-of-pocket costs required to enter. Entry fees often start at $5-$10 but can be as high as $50 per photo. Submitting to multiple contests or with multiple images adds up quickly.

Time and Effort Commitment

Entering photography competitions - paid or not - requires a tremendous time investment. Selecting photos, editing, preparing submissions, and promotion all demand considerable effort.

Time is money for professional photographers who might miss out on paid client work instead.

Low Odds of Winning

The stark reality is most contest entrants, however talented, simply won't win. Renowned competitions often draw tens of thousands of submissions. 

But that’s not the case with The Artist Gallery’s contests. The competition isn’t high and they award the top 25 photographers, not just the top 3. So the odds of winning are high.

Key Factors to Consider Before Entering

  • Your career stage. Emerging photographers have more to gain from the exposure. Established pros look for prestigious competitions.

  • A contest's reputation—its history, judges, past winners. This helps gauge the value.

  • How well the contest align with your photography niche and goals. For instance, if you specialize in landscapes, you might want to focus on the best photo contests for landscape photographers.

  • Your financial situation. Entry fees should provide a worthy return on investment.

  • Your availability. Make sure you have time to prep kick-butt entries.

Free vs Paid Photography Competitions: How Do They Compare?

You're probably wondering how paid contests stack up against free ones. Let's compare.

Paid Contests Have More Prestige

Paid competitions have a higher pedigree:

  • The entry fee filters out lower-quality work, leading to better submissions.

  • Paid contests attract renowned judges with industry clout.

  • The prizes, both monetary and non-monetary, are more significant for paid contests.

Tougher Entry Requirements and Judging

Paid contests also have higher standards:

  • Stricter submission requirements like super high-res files and detailed artist statements.

  • More rigorous evaluation of each entry since there are fewer to judge.

  • Some paid contests have preliminary and final rounds of intense judging.

Bigger Exposure and Bragging Rights

The stakes are loftier for paid contests:

  • Free contests rarely offer massive cash prizes. Paid ones offer bigger purses.

  • Paid contests often partner with big brands and publishers for insane exposure ops.

  • A paid contest win looks sexier on your resume. More bragging rights!

Who Benefits Most From Paid Photography Competitions?

Paid photography competitions offer enticing opportunities, but are they a smart move for every photographer? Let's look at some factors to consider.

Professional vs. Amateur Photographers

The prestige and competitive nature of most paid photography contests make them better suited to established professionals. They have the skills, experience, and portfolio caliber to fare well against top competition.

Even for newly professional photographers, paid contests can be a valuable investment in their career development. The entry fee often ensures a higher quality of competition and more serious consideration from judges.

(If you're just starting out, you might want to explore the best photography contests for beginners to gain experience.)

Genres and Specializations

Genre-specific paid photography contests are best for those with niche expertise. For example, an urban landscape photographer would benefit most from paid cityscape contests.

Photographers specializing in diverse genres like portrait, travel, or nature photography may be better off entering generalized contests accepting various categories of work.

Career Goals and Stage

Paid photography competitions are smart moves for full-time photographers seeking exposure to grow their business and client base. The publicity benefits offset the costs.

Hobbyist photographers or students may be better served to allocate funds toward photography education, equipment, or mentoring to develop skills at an early stage.

However, they can also try our contests as we award the top 25, not just the top 3.

Tips for Maximizing Your Chances of Success in Paid Photography Competitions

Choose Reputable Contests

Focus on entering prestigious competitions known within your niche rather than every minor contest. Research entry numbers, judges, past media coverage, and alumni networks. Build a list of 5-10 leading competitions to enter annually.

(And most importantly, before submitting, ensure you've covered all bases with a comprehensive checklist for entering photography competitions.)

Take Time Preparing Entries

Treat submissions like portfolio pieces, investing maximum effort into captures, post-processing, and presentation. Follow all entry guidelines closely. Spend time refining supporting materials like titles, descriptions, and artist statements.

Crafting a compelling write-up can significantly boost your chances of success. Learn how to create an impactful artist statement that captivates judges and sets your work apart.

Leverage Exposure Opportunities

Promote contest entries via the website and social channels. Pitch local media on your participation in leading competitions. Upon winning, immediately distribute press releases to photography outlets. Enter the images in additional contests for further exposure.

Learn From Setbacks

If you don't initially place in contests, request judges' feedback if available. Study winning photos to improve your technical skills and creative vision for the next round. Persistence is key.

Also do familiarize yourself with judging criteria in photography contests to align your future submissions with what judges seek.

Alternative Photography Showcase Ideas Beyond Contests

If paid photography competitions don't suit your budget or goals, many alternative options exist for showcasing work:

Join a Photography Association - Organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers connect you with industry professionals, education, job opportunities, and group exhibitions.

Apply to Local Gallery Exhibitions - Research galleries accepting proposals for group or solo photography exhibitions. Displaying in esteemed local art venues builds credibility.

Showcase Work on Photo Sharing Sites - Build an audience by sharing photography on Instagram, VSCO, Behance, Flickr, and photography websites. Leverage social media for maximum visibility.

Create Photo Zines or Self-Published Books - Self-publish photo books or zines through services like MagCloud and promote them through online stores and local shops.

Offer Photography Workshops - Create your own photography workshop locally or submit proposals to teach classes through established education companies. Position yourself as an expert.

Sell Prints at Art Fairs and Markets - Renting booth space at local art fairs provides great direct exposure. You can sell print products and promote your photography services.

Volunteer as an Event Photographer - Volunteer to photograph nonprofit galas, cultural events, races, and community happenings. It's a win-win providing real-world experience and community connections.

The Verdict - Are Paid Photography Competitions Worth It?

Paid photography competitions require investing time and money upfront. But the potential payoff makes it worthwhile for most photographers.

If approached strategically, paid contests provide massive exposure, career advancement, invaluable learning experiences, and connections.

The key is to:

  1. Choose reputable contests that fit your goals. Avoid random competitions with little value.

  2. Prepare flawless submissions and follow guidelines to the letter.

  3. Make the most of the experience, win or lose. Connect, learn, and leverage it.

  4. Consider your career stage. Emerging and mid-career photographers have the most to gain. But even seasoned pros can benefit.

  5. Balance competitions with other exposure opportunities—don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Photographers at all levels should consider entering contests like The Artist Gallery with better odds of winning and recognition.

So are paid photography competitions worth it? In most cases, yes—enter smart and the investment pays dividends for your career. Just like in life, you have to take some risks and engage in a bit of friendly competition to push your work to the next level. 


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