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Most people would not regard photography as a competitive sport. There is no world record to better, nor a national team to represent. In this entirely subjective art, exponents earn acclaim by capturing hearts and minds, rather than by pointing to superior statistics.
Yet we are evolutionary beings who were born to compete. While photos carry no scientifically quantifiable qualities, we still mark ourselves against photographers of greater note. In doing so, photographers of all levels can benefit from third-party critique, greater publicity, and even financial gain.
To explain the virtues and decipher the mysteries of photographic contests, we enlisted the help of former Mobile Photographer of the Year, Sheldon Serkin. With the winners of the 6th Annual Mobile Photography Awards revealed just last week (be sure to check out all the beautiful photos, when you get a chance), there’s no better timing.
For the debutant, photographic competition can seem like an exercise in disappointment. In reality, such contests provide the ideal framework for practicing important skills and gaining confidence.
The learning curve begins long before the closing date. Self assessment is essential for any photographer — without recognizing areas for improvement, progress is almost impossible. Passing judgement on your own work is never easy, but photographers who enter competitions are forced to practice.
Brooklyn-based Sheldon Serkin went through this exact process before entering the world-renowned Mobile Photography Awards (MPAs) in 2012. After two years of shooting street photography with his iPhone 3G, Serkin felt that he had assembled “a handful of good images.” This throwaway phrase belies the unforgiving eye with which Serkin weeded out less-than-perfect pictures.
One of his ‘good photos’ was highly commended in the Street Photography class. Serkin recalls “a great sense of support and validation.” Peer praise of this variety is always welcome, particularly when it comes from an experienced jury. Along with greater confidence, it provides evidence of improvement. “The acknowledgement from my peers spurs me on to keep shooting, trust my instincts and continue to try to get better,” says Serkin.
The most prestigious competitions also offer an unparalleled publicity platform. Having risen to the top of a world-class field, winners of the annual Mobile Photography Awards and iPhone Photography Awards (open for entries until December 4th and March 31st, respectively) featured in the likes of Time magazine and major newspapers. The champion images are then displayed in galleries throughout the world. After being named Mobile Photographer of the Year in 2014, Serkin enjoyed more exposure than most.
It would be fair to say that awards are a rarity in photographic competition, even for the most talented image-makers. As with any creative endeavor, the key is to “buy a ticket.” This game of chance rewards the persistent, and those who play with intelligence.
The easiest place to start is with social media. Many brands run fun photo contests — see Enlight’s very own Facebook page every Saturday for some examples. Entries take seconds to upload, but the images will be seen by hundreds of fellow competitors. For the lucky winner, even greater fame awaits.
Similarly, specialist sites such as Photocrowd run numerous contests each year, covering various niches. Users compete for prizes and recognition, while participating in a very social environment. The judges also tend to provide good feedback on images, which is great for beginners. Snapwire provides a variant on this system, where photo contests are run by companies and individuals, who will then go on to purchase the winning images. Both of these platforms have their own iOS apps for straightforward mobile uploads.
Nothing can compare, though, with winning the big competitions. These photo contests often have strict rules, and sometimes even an entry fee; but such inconveniences are offset by the potential reward. According to Serkin, who last year became a judge in the Mobile Photography Awards, it is vital to identify your strongest images, and use them wisely.
“Be merciless in your choice of entries,” advises Serkin. ”Enter only your absolute best image or images, and make sure that you enter them in the most appropriate category.” Where possible, he suggests asking for a second opinion. “I would recommend soliciting input about your entry from family and friends, who know you best and can help you select images that represent your unique style.”
Glory of this magnitude is certainly worth chasing, but there is one pitfall in some widely publicised competitions. Promoters take advantage of our collective enthusiasm in order to acquire image rights. In many cases, the terms and conditions may include clauses that look like this: “Each entrant grants a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to [insert promoter here].” Sometimes, there are legitimate legal reasons for their inclusion, as promoters need permission to publicise winning entries. Just be aware of what each competition asks for, and walk away if copyright is the price of entry.
Even for the first-time iPhone photographer, competitions offer a unique platform for self-improvement. With thousands of photo contests open to all, good things come to those who enter.
Written by Krystle Vermes.
Contributing photographerSheldon Serkin is a mobile street photographer hailing from New York. His work has earned multiple awards, and been featured on Gothamist, Hipstamatic.com and the Guardian’s website, along with several photography books.