Why You Should Avoid Paid-For Photography Competitions

By Haje Jan Kamps on at

As you're getting better as a photographer, one question will undoubtedly make its way to the forefront of your mind at some point: should you enter your photograph into competitions? There are pros and cons, of course, but there's one thing that's for certain: if the people organising the competition ask you to pay for the privilege of entering your photos, think twice.

Chances are that you're basically entering a lottery - one that is as likely to be rigged, to boot.

I've had a general, universal dislike for paid-for photography competitions for a while, but I didn't quite realise how deep the rabbit-hole went until I was contacted by a group of scam-artists who decided to use photographers as their target audience. I've received about a dozen requests over the past few months, asking me if I would pretty please judge their paid-for-contests. The idea is that aspiring photographers pay an entry fee (anything from £10 per photo, to a £500 site membership -- and everything in between). They then get entered into a photography contest, and the 'best' photo 'wins'.

Personally, I think paid-for photography competitions are absolute abhorrent. Why? Well, for one thing, there are plenty of free photography competitions out there – witness the awesome Earthshots, or our American brother Gizmodo's own Shooting Challenge, for example. My main problem with paid-for photography competitions is two-fold: they are usually run by people who don't give two flying copulations about photography, and they are a veritable gold-mine for the organisers. Allow me to walk you through the maths:

At one such competition, they charge £100 per photo entered and offer prize values of about £10,000. I imagine the 'values' are retail values, which means that they can purchase the competition prizes for about £8,000 or so. That means to break even, they have to get only 80 entries into the competition. Of course, to get enough people entering, they need to get a lot of photographers to enter. And how do they do that? By approaching high-profile bloggers to be competition judges, in the hope that the judges will blog, tweet, and promote their competitions for free.

Where it gets really sinister, however, is that several of the people who have contacted me recently have also offered me a commission for each person entering the competition – so in effect, they're not even trying to be sneaky about it: they just want to make a crapton of money, and are willing to pay the judges money based on how many people they manage to get involved in the competitions. Most recently, I was contacted by a competition organiser who said that they would "like to offer you £20 per every person signing up through your link".

Next, they made the mistake of apologising for the low kick-back – and revealing how much money they are making off these competitions: “I know £20 doesn't sound much with the entry fee being a £100, though please bare [sic] in mind that 50% out of it will go to prizes."

So the business model is as follows: 200 entries into the competition makes then £20,000 in revenue -- of that, £8,000 is clean profit, £2,000 paid as commissions to judges, and £10,000 spent on prizes. With numbers like these, no wonder these paid-for competition sites are popping up all over the place.

To rub salt in the wound, many of these competitions will try to grab your copyright, making it doubly sinister; you probably won't win anything, and you're paying the competition company money for them to be able to sell your prized (if not prize-winning...) photographs as (micro)stock photography.

As always, keep your wits about you, be careful what you sign (or agree to when you tick 'I agree' on a web form), and if something sounds too good to be true... It probably is.

If all of that hasn't scared you away from entering more competitions ever again, check out the list on the profoundly imaginatively named PhotographyCompetitions.com to find yourself some competitions that are actually worth entering.

Photo credit: Haje Jan Kamps / Photocritic (Taken with a humble Canon compact camera)

Haje Jan Kamps is a prolific photography blogger who has written a small stack of books about photography. He also developed the Triggertrap camera trigger and has been known to travel the world a bit. If you’re of the tweeting kind, try him on @Photocritic!