If you use a mail order film developing firm, you have undoubtedly received many sales fliers back with you prints, and many of them are ads for photo contests for amateurs.
They exist for semiprofessional and pro shooters, too, as seen in many trade magazines. Are these a legitimate way to get your work seen and make some money? It depends!
Both pro and hobbyist contests are run both locally and nationally, all over the US and Canada. Local contests, charging $25 or so for three or four entries, with a local exhibit, are most reliable.
You still own the copyright on the photos, and the fee to enter really goes for space rental, ads, and refreshments for the show. The national and international contests with no “gallery show” attached are the ones to look out for.
Two keys to not just legitimacy, but motive, are easy to spot. Do they, if you win, now own the rights to your image, and do they publish a book that you will have to buy in order to see the winning photos? If you sign a form to submit photos, and it says that rights or the copyright become their property – that is a red flag!
This means that you are signing over all rights and ownership to the image, forever, in most cases. In other words, you don’t own the photo any more. Is that worth the prize money or opportunity? That’s for you to decide… but the smaller the print, the more careful I would be.
Second, where will the prize-winning photos be shown? In a gallery, newspaper, or magazine? Great – you’ll have full access. If the only place they will appear is in a book that the sponsors publish (which you can buy for the nifty price of just $80) then the “contest” simply gives them free content for a book, which every contestant will purchase.
It’s a pretty sweet deal really – they have free content, a guaranteed buying base, all they do is cover the price of printing, which they recoup with profit, from the same people who supplied the free content!
Only you can decide if these contests are worth entering. Local fare is often 100% legit, and a great way for others to see and appreciate your work, while bringing together the community and celebrating art. The worst of the bunch are just a scam to sell books and freely own the rights to unsuspecting photographers’ images.