Winning an award in international photo contests is the dream of many photographers and often the pinnacle of their careers. Beyond that, there is no doubt that winning a respected award can be a massive boon to a photographer’s career. Anna Kariel, a Charlottesville-based photographer who won the APA award, says,
It hugely helped my career. I was relatively new to the Bay Area, and this was a wonderful opportunity to connect with creatives, photographers, and production professionals. I also experienced a significant boost to my SEO ranking and continue to highlight it in the “About Me” section of my website. It was also very exciting to go through the experience of printing my work and presenting it in a gallery alongside so many talented and established artists.
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Many photographers find that participating in awards can get their work noticed and give them credibility as a photographer, but also spur them on, as it encourages them to get out of their comfort zone and evaluate their work critically through the eyes of a judge.
On the downside, entering can be time-consuming and costly. Also, failing to win one award after the next can be demoralizing. We chatted to a few photographers about how they made it work for them.
Karen Williams is a consultant at Wonderful Machine and a former Photo Editor for Barrons, Airbnb, and AARP to name a few. She says
Entering awards allows photographers to share their art with people who may not otherwise see it, which can lead to new clients, as well as opportunities to collaborate with other artists.
Karen believes that entering photo contests is also helpful because it allows photographers to get feedback on their work and encourages photographers to really push themselves. She continues,
Photographer awards can be important because they allow you to show off your skills and provide evidence of your ability to produce high-quality work. They are also useful for establishing your credibility when pitching to new clients.
Karen believes that it comes down to who the judges are when assessing how respected an award is. She says,
If they are well-known, respected, and experienced in their field, it’s likely that they will be part of a more well-respected contest.
She believes that the Communication Arts Award, World Press Photo Award, and America Photo (AI-AP) are particularly respected in the industry. Even being a runner-up or highly commended photographer in one of these awards will impress potential clients.
All the award-winning photographers we surveyed for this feature had a strategy. For example, Gene Smirnov, a Philadelphia-based editorial photographer, says,
As the year goes on, I try to keep folders with my favorite images. This helps me keep tabs on what’s been produced as some creative ideas may get lost in the shuffle. Also, sometimes you look through your work and think, ‘wow, I should enter this in a contest’. Then I start to consider what others have been awarded for, which judges are on the panel, etc. I think you have a better chance by pursuing your best work and having conviction in what you’re building. In any case, it has to be relevant – In my experience, judges will always gravitate towards images that speak to what’s happening in the world.
The more systematic you are, the higher your chances. For the Ukrainian landscape and fine art photographer Yevhen Samuchenko, entering awards is a key part of his business strategy. He has dozens of prestigious titles under his belt. He expands,
I am an active participant in photography contests and have been shortlisted and won many awards. I usually get offers for exhibitions or sales of my photographs after winning or being shortlisted in major global photo competitions. As a result, my work has been exhibited in more than 30 countries. Winning awards is also important for my photography sales. I mainly sell limited edition prints to collectors directly through my website.
Anna has a very systematic approach. She doesn’t only consider her chance of winning, but also how valuable the networking opportunities are and if the judges are art directors she would like to get noticed by. Finally, she assesses the publicity potential and how much exposure winning would give her.
Rebecca Topakian, a social documentary photographer, says,
I almost never pay to enter a contest unless the contest is extremely prestigious. Most photographers don’t make a lot of money, so I don’t think artists should be charged to enter something that was set up to help us. So, there are a few criteria that need to be fulfilled in order for me to enter. Firstly, it needs to be free to enter and done by trustworthy organizations with trustworthy partners. Secondly, the organizers should maintain good relations with the artists. The idea is not only to win a few meters of wall to hang your prints but to start a relationship with the organizers, curators, or editors. Thirdly, the reward needs to be worth it and fair. For example, I don’t like contests that offer an exhibition but with no budget to print or frame.
There are numerous contests available that cater to different styles of photography, genres, and communities. In this section, we have curated a list of some of the most renowned photography contests worldwide, along with some niche contests that cater to specific styles of photography or groups of photographers. Our list includes free photo contests and ones with entrance fees (which will be accurate for 2022/2023).
This contest produces the leading juried annual, showcasing contemporary photography from national and international professional photographers. Selected entrants are included in their renowned annual, online in The Archive collection, and included in the spring slide show announcement. (Entry fee: $35 per single photograph and $75 per series)
The winners of this prestigious award are featured in the Communication Arts Photography Annual and on commarts.com, a resource used by art directors, designers, and art buyers. Categories range from advertising to books. (Entry fee: $40-$80)
The directory recognizes the best in advertising by publishing the best of the best in its archive, which is used as a resource for talent globally. Information about how to submit is on their website. (Entry: free)
This is a huge international photography competition, covering the whole bandwidth of professional photography, from editorial to commercial photography, with hundreds of subcategories for professional and non-professional photographers. The top cash price was $12000 last year, followed by $6000 and $1200 for each professional category winner. (Entry fee: $40 or $30 for non-pros)
This is globally the most recognized photography award for professional photojournalists, which will guarantee winners exposure and prestige. Global winners get $5000. (Entry: free)
It is one of the biggest global photo competitions with a top prize of $25k plus Sony equipment. There are professional, open, youth, and student photographer awards. Categories are broad and differ for each award. (Entry: free)
The book judged to be the ‘photobook’ of the year wins $10k in this prestigious award and will be exhibited in Paris and around the world. (Entry fee: $30-$60)
A prestigious graphic design award, that includes a photography category, which offers an excellent opportunity to get your work in front of top graphic designers and creative directors. Winners will be featured in the esteemed annual. (Entry fee: from $65 to $350 depending on various factors)
This is a hugely prestigious award for recognizing the work of one photojournalist/feature photographer with a prize of $15k. (Entry fee: $75)
A highly regarded French award with a wide range of categories. The top prize includes $5000 and promotion in their printed annual and online. (Entry fee: $30-$50)
A prestigious international portrait photography competition with an award of £15000 run by the UK National Portrait Gallery. (Entry fee: £20)
Monthly competition with a different theme each month and a $2000 cash prize as well as inclusion in magazines and online platforms. (Entry fee: $20 first image)
The BJP is one of the oldest UK photography magazines and awards. The winner will get a £5000 production grant for a solo show in London. (Entry fee: varies)
A very prestigious photodocumentary award with a cash prize of €25,000 as well as a Leica M camera and lens worth approximately €10,000. (Entry: free)
This contest celebrates black and white photography with a prize of $5000 for the singles and series. (Entry fee: $20 – $30)
Recognizes the best in travel photography in multiple categories. The top prize for 2023 is £1000 plus valuable equipment and/or other benefits. (Entry fee: £12-£24)
Celebrating creative photography with a top prize of $3500. The theme is different every year. (Entry: free for first single, starts at $45 for a series)
This photography festival in the South of France culminates in the awards ceremony, with various prizes and grants of €8000. (Entry: free)
Grants will invite photographers to submit proposals. They are designed to help photographers realize important projects they couldn’t do otherwise. For example, social documentaries, for which there is not a big commercial market. Competition to gain grants can be high and submitting applications requires a well-thought-out proposal, which takes time and effort.
Rebecca’s work consists of social documentaries and personal creative projects. So her work often depends on grants. She says,
I spend a lot of time applying to different types of contests and grants for photography. I usually try to focus on those that correspond to my work. If it’s too reportage-oriented or too traditional compared to what I do, I don’t apply. This saves time for both the jurors and myself. But I go for it if they favor creative approaches that are a little off the beaten track. It’s important to save energy and apply only to the grants that correspond to what we do. Another important criterion is what’s on offer, i.e. money granted, a book deal, or an exhibition. I find it important to prioritize worthwhile applications. If not, I would spend my entire time on applications.
The numerous photo grants Rebecca has won helped her establish herself. She says,
Grants have brought me exhibitions, books, and exposure. People who otherwise would have never stumbled on my website or Instagram have seen my work.
For her, they have not led to commercial contracts, which is not unusual since it is rare in her specialty. However, they have helped her in many other ways. She says,
I’d say that the more grants you get, the more other contests trust you with your ability to meet deadlines and respect a budget.
Mark Harrison, a portrait and social documentary photographer based in the UK, finds that doing some background research worked well for him. He says,
I have a pragmatic approach to entering awards. I ask myself: ‘How much does it cost and might I win or be shortlisted?’ I know that it’s not just about the best photo; it’s about what they are looking for. So I look carefully at the judges and the requirements.
After discovering that the winners were going to be displayed on digital billboards by their sponsor, he concluded, “So nothing violent, religious, too depressing, or too weird would get selected as it would reflect on the digital host. I also found out that they were looking for a balance of race, age, and sexuality to be included.”
This gave him valuable information about what image to choose, so he went with this photo, which secured him a win.
This Award recognizes and promotes photographers from all over the globe. Their images capture human efforts towards a peaceful world and the quest for beauty and goodness in our lives. The award-winning photos best express the idea that our future lies in peaceful coexistence. I would say that photographers should capture the special moments in everyday life.
Chris Coe, the founder of and a judge for the Travel Photographer of the Year award (TPOTY), emphasizes the importance of originality and emotion in your entry. He says,
Photo competition judges are highly image literate and see lots of images in the course of a year. If you want your entry to stand out, start by being original. Often entrants copy previous winners, and they are never going to win by doing that.
For him, it’s about strong and original composition and emotion or connection. He says, “A good image should make the viewer feel something e.g. excitement, serenity, joy, horror, etc. We see very few images with humor, so these always stand out.”
Mike Davis, an editor, professor emeritus, and author, recently helped to judge the Communication Arts Photography Award. He emphasizes that the sequence and words also matter. Particularly for the more prestigious awards where it’s not just about one image, but conveying a more complex message. He says,
Sequencing has to make sense and produce a visual experience, independent of the informational aspects of the images.
When it comes to words, he emphasizes that
Titles of multiple-image entries are important. They have to pique interest while informing. One or two-word titles typically don’t work. And captions should do more than the pure descriptions of what can be seen in the photos but give context and add information, instead of repeating what is apparent.
Does having award-winning photos in your portfolio lead to more work? That’s difficult to quantify, but there is no doubt that winning a prestigious contest lends a photographer greater credibility. Mark says,
It means you can hold your head up when showing your portfolio and point out the images that others have selected. It suggests that you are of a certain standard.
Entering awards also injects some excitement into a photographer’s working life and can push them professionally. Following awards and pitting yourself against the winning entries encourages you to think creatively and get out of your comfort zone. It helps photographers practice objectivity as they have to evaluate their work from the point of view of the judges. Not only for their submission but as well as when they don’t win an award and see the winning images later. Many photographers find that it pushes them to aim higher and that it’s a great way to stay attuned to the latest trends in their field, ultimately helping them to raise their game.
Digital Camera World: Achieving Success in Photography Competitions – Don’t Overthink It
PhotoShelter: Are Photography Contests Worthwhile or Worthless?