By Debbie McCulliss
Have you ever entered photography contest? For a long time I didn’t, but that changed during the COVID lockdowns. In this two-part article, I will share why I started entering my photos and 25 things I’ve learned in the process of entering photography contests, competitions, and exhibitions during the pandemic.
Photography Contests and Competitions
I was, for a while, a member of Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and learned the ins and outs of their competitions. PPA has official jurors for each of its competitions, and an IPC judge reviews each image entered and records a video critique explaining how it stacks up to their 12 elements of a winning image, which include: impact, technical excellence, creativity, style, composition, presentation, color balance, center of interest, lighting, subject matter, technique, and storytelling. Judges discuss the pros and cons, which helps educate the entrant on how they can grow artistically. While I learned from the critique of each image I submitted, I started to research other available opportunities. It was helpful that any number of photography-related Zoom classes and video tutorials became available as the world went into lockdown. This was the green light I needed to establish new photography goals.
From a non-profit website, Call for Entry (CaFÉ opportunity listings), I learned that contests or competitions official rules and submission guidelines vary in the maximum number of entries per person, sizing, color space, entry fees, and deadlines. Some photography exhibitions or competitions are local, such as those sponsored by camera clubs, or state specific—open only to people who live in the state— while others are regional, domestic, or international.
Photography contests can run weekly, monthly, annually, or throughout the year. For example, the editors at Outdoor Photographer Magazine post weekly photo assignments on their website, and F-Stop: A Photography Magazine posts calls for entries in each of its issues.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) sponsors an annual Showcase photo competition, in which the top 250 images, selected from thousands of entries across six categories, are featured in the Expressions journal and the top entries receive cash prizes. Entries for the 2023 competition are accepted between August 1 and September 15, 2022.
The following competitions are among the better-known contests: International Landscape Photographer of the Year, Nature’s Best Photography Magazine, The National Geographic Photo Contests, Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest, Audubon Photography Awards, Share the View International Nature Photography Contest, The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, Neutral Density (ND) Photography Awards, and The Epson International Pano. Some of these contests have thousands of entries from photographers all over the world. For example, the 2020 Drone Photo Awards/Sienna Awards contest received nearly 14,000 images from amateur and professional photographers from 104 countries. Internationally acclaimed Sony World Photography Awards, sponsored by the World Photography Organization, recognizes an individual annually through the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award, and in 2022, 340,000 images from 211 territories were submitted. Founded in 1980, The Hasselblad International Award in Photography, which is considered the most prestigious contest in the world, is awarded to a photographer recognized for major achievements that include but are not limited to pioneering achievements or work that has a decisive impact on younger generations of photographers.
Within these innumerable competitions, there are also many genres that cover a variety of specific interests, including wildlife, birding, landscape, travel, portrait, monochrome, photo/visual journalism, environmental/conservation, architectural, sports, macro, urban or street, astrophotography, and drone, just to name a few. There’s even a weather photographer of the year competition sponsored by the Royal Meteorological Society. Many competitions offer a variety of categories that might include a student, youth competition or a mobile phone category.
National Park photo competitions are often sponsored by specific national park conservancies, friend of the park organizations or foundations. For example, the “Share the Experience Photo Contest,” sponsored by the National Park Foundation, is an annual photography competition that encourages nature lovers to capture their favorite moments and adventures in the national parks and public lands. Last year, the Joshua Tree National Park Association sponsored a photo contest, and the winning image was featured on the 2022 Joshua Tree National Park Annual Pass. Specific national parks may sponsor wall calendar contests. One example is the Glacier Photo Contest sponsored by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. On even a more local level, state parks may also offer annual calendar contests.
Camera, lens and equipment companies, such as Canon and Tamron, sponsor photography contests on different themes, specifically for photographers who use their products. Nikon has sponsored the Nikon Photo Contest since 1969 and their Nikon International Small World Photo Contest since 1975. The Small World in Motion contest awards movie or time-lapse photography taken through a microscope. Fujifilm Moment Street Photo Awards annual photo contest was born from a fascination with street photography.
With a little time and research, photographers can find contests that speak to them. Those who have an interest in protecting and conserving the world through the power of imagery might consider the Big Picture Natural World Photography Competition, The Nature Conservancy, The National Wildlife Photo Contest sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, The Marine Endangered Species Art Contest, or the Endangered Art and Photography Contest. While photo competitions offer a means of discovering new talent or new work from established photographers, not all competitions are universally suitable for everyone, which is why researching each contest is so important.
The variety of themes among the contests helped provide direction when I was just starting out in the contest circuit. Some of my images fit nicely in certain themes, such as bold abstracts, shadows, reflections, or autumn. Entering a themed contest helped me look through my images with a different perspective and allowed me the opportunity to curate images more objectively. At times, none of my images fit the theme of a contest, but this challenged me to shoot something new with the competition in mind or to think outside of my comfort zone. Themes sometimes even inspired me to consider new skills that might be applicable to new themes or genres.
Learn about the 25 things McCulliss learned about photo competitions in part II of this article.
This Diamond Beach, Iceland image won Juror’s Choice Award in an international juried competition that explored the ideas of liquid and sky. I was thrilled about winning Juror’s Choice. The juror, Ellen Jantzen wrote “Liquid conforms to the shape of its container. They sky is an abstract sphere, centered on the earth. Liquid Water, Sky and the liminal space between are by definition poetic and symbolic. Yet there are infinite iterations of liquid….” This image also won Judge’s Special Recognition Award in the 2022 Colorado Environmental Film Festival Photo Contest.
Debbie McCulliss travels the globe to bear witness to and record the strength, fragility, beauty, and rhythm of wildlife and nature. Being in nature provides her the opportunity to observe and intimately connect with the world. A Colorado-based winter wildlife and nature fine art photographer and budding conservationist, McCulliss journeys to learn about the history, environmental threats, and conservation efforts of the places that she visits. She believes that showcasing her work and writing for publication helps to increase the public’s awareness of ongoing needs: respect for nature and protection of wildlife, the marine environment, and endangered species. Her goal is to create memorable art that inspires conversation, evokes action, or leaves a lasting impression.
McCulliss holds master’s degrees in nursing, science-medical writing, and non-fiction writing. She is also a certified applied poetry facilitator. See more of her work at debbiemccullissphotography.com