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To submit or not to submit, that is the question

by Drew Smith | March 1, 2005

Nature's Best Photography ExhibitA few things to consider when entering the 2005 Nature’s Best Photography Awards Competition and other Photo Contests by Drew Smith, Executive Editor of Nature’s Best Photography magazine.

As an avid nature photographer who has entered numerous photo contests over the years, I have discovered that submitting images for competition can be both tremendously rewarding and profoundly overwhelming. The excitement in seeing some of my photographs selected as winners has been a very powerful learning experience and raised my self-confidence as a photographer. On the other hand, deciding which of my images to enter, trying to decipher the widely varying regulations, and considering issues of copyright and publication rights has made entering some photo contests a daunting undertaking.

Since joining the staff of NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY magazine, which hosts one of the most prestigious international nature photography competitions in the world, I have gained significant insight into the other side of the photo contest equation. Knowing what I look for as a contest organizer and editor, even in terms of how a submission is labeled and packaged, has proven extremely helpful when I am entering my own submissions to competitions. In the spirit of sharing lessons-learned from one photographer to another, I hope this article will shed some light on the often-overwhelming process of photo contest submission. Although my advice is most directly related to my experiences with the annual Nature’s Best Photography Awards competition, I hope you will find it useful for other contests as well.

  • READ THE GUIDELINES CAREFULLY. There is no easier way to be immediately out of the running than by not following the guidelines—they are devised with specific requirements in mind and not following them can get you disqualified, even if you submit amazing images.
  • READ THE FINE PRINT. Perhaps the largest area of concern amongst photographers considering entering a contest is deciphering the legalese regarding their future rights to their own work. Winning a contest can be great publicity and a great confidence builder, but it can have unforeseen complications when many contest organizers and sponsors write into their contest regulations that they may use any images submitted in any way they see fit at any time in the future. In deciding whether or not to enter any contest, you must first give the fine print a very careful read. Once you have chosen the images you want to submit, be sure to very carefully contemplate what you are agreeing to by entering—consider if/how the future use of your images will be compromised and what level of use you are willing to grant to another party.
  • Study past winners – you can learn a lot from looking over the results of previous contests. Get familiar with the subject matter that has been covered and, more importantly, what was not covered. Judges are looking for unique images with interesting perspectives they have not seen before, new ways of seeing familiar subjects as well as unfamiliar subjects. It is not likely that similar images (same subjects and compositions) will be chosen more than once.
  • Submit a diverse group of images – do not enter 20 nearly identical images or photographs of a single subject (i.e., 20 pictures of grizzly bears, 20 sunset shots). Editors are looking for a variety of subjects, compositions, settings, creative uses of color and diversity in a selection of images. The greater the variety of images you submit, the higher the likelihood of having one or more appeal to the judges.
  • The more unique the subject matter, the better. Think about how many times you have seen an image similar to one you want to submit. If shooting a familiar subject (grizzly bears in Alaska or lions on safari), don’t just shoot the quintessential image of that subject that we have all seen before. These images may be powerful and sell well, but even a very expertly composed and exposed image may not make it into the final rounds of many photo contests simply because it is not unique. However, if you capture the same subject from a new perspective, show something in a new way, you have a much greater chance of winning. This challenges all of us in our photography, and should be something to consider when looking through the viewfinder.
  • If your image does not tell a story within a few seconds of looking at it, it may not be looked at twice. Remember that unlike photo essays and feature stories where you have some room to describe an image and tell the story behind it, in a photo contest the image stands alone and must speak for itself. If the image does not tell its story and capture the viewer within a very short period of time, it will not have staying power in the contest.
  • If an image was a finalist in previous years it may be worth submitting again. If you know that the judges liked an image enough to keep it as a finalist in a previous contest, it is likely that they will be drawn to it again. So much depends on the pool of images yours are up against—it may be a gamble worth taking to submit the same image again, and it may just win a prize the second or third time around.
  • Remember that judging is a subjective process – each judge has a different idea of what makes a great image, and so much depends on factors that are completely out of your control. If your images are not selected in a given contest, do not lose hope! Rejection of your images is not rejection of your skills as a photographer. Many more amazing images are submitted than can ever be selected as winners and judges often have the unfortunate task of cutting innumerable “keepers” every year.
NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY magazine is a full-color, quarterly magazine of high production quality that features the very best in wildlife, landscape, outdoor recreation, travel and backyard photography. In addition, the magazine hosts one of the most widely respected and visually compelling nature photography competitions in the world, the annual Nature’s Best Photography Awards competition. Their goal is to promote photography as an important forum for creative inspiration and expression, natural history education, and conservation motivation. Entries for the 2005 competition will be accepted through April 2, 2005. Over $10,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded, and winning images will be published in the Fall 2005 Collector’s Edition of NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY magazine and may be featured in their annual Awards exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC (pictured above) and their AOL gallery. Find out more about NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY magazine, the 2005 Nature’s Best Photography Awards, the upcoming Nature’s Best Backyards Photo Contest, and view a selection of winners from the 2004 Awards competition (selected from over 15,000 submissions by photographers from 26 countries) at www.NaturesBestMagazine.com.

I am proud to note that Nature’s Best Photography understands the rights concerns of photographers and takes them very seriously. We recognize that nature photography is not an easy career path and we are very interested in helping photographers find success and increased access to diverse revenue streams. By entering the Nature’s Best Photography Awards competition, you are granting us permission to publish your image only if it is a winner, not simply because it was submitted. Each year our Fall issue is comprised entirely of award-winning images from our annual contest, and the only other uses we are allowed are display in our annual Awards exhibits (including our exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and our AOL gallery) and promotional uses related solely to publicizing our contest. In all instances, credits are given and photographers retain all other rights to their images. Any other future use of your image is negotiated with you and compensated on a case-by-case basis. This allows photographers to send us their very best images without compromising their own future use of those images. In fact, publication in our magazine and display in our exhibits will put your photographs in front of a large audience of prospective customers and provide you with a great marketing tool for your work. In addition, through entering our contest you are introducing your work to our editors, who may not be familiar with you and your photography. We are always looking for new talent and enjoy building relationships with photographers who we first came to know through our photo contest.

Entering contests is a good learning experience and good practice for making editorial and stock submissions in the future. Learning how to put together a submission that works, how to carefully edit a large body of work down to a small number of representative images, how to package and label your work; all of these factors will help you in making future submissions. Each submission gets easier—once you work through the process and become familiar with how the submission process works, you have demystified the process and know what to do next time.

About the Author

Drew Smith joined the staff of Nature's Best Photography magazine in 2003 and currently serves as the Executive Editor. He has been an avid nature photographer for more than ten years and has submitted to and helped organize numerous photography contests over the past several years, including participation in all components of the annual Nature's Best Photography Awards competition.

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