The Sacred Cow
I recently read an article that discussed photography competition as it relates to business, or perhaps better said, as it has nothing to do with business. The author also made mention of the awards, designations and the ensuing recognition that can be earned through competition and suggested that competition and business are mutually exclusive. Bottom line, I agree with this author's statements. Competition and business are separate.
The idea of competing has been around since, well, the stone age. We compete in nearly everything we do, we compete with ourselves and with each other. So why not compete with your photography? Competition can help you hone your skills by making you slow down and think critically about your images. You'll ask yourself questions like, is this the strongest composition for my image? Does it have impact? Are the colors harmonious? These are some of the questions to ask yourself when looking at images to compete with. Sure, there are a ton more too (is it in focus, are there details in the highlights and shadows?). These are also the same questions you should be asking yourself when creating images for your clients. Do you see the correlation here? You're not JUST taking pictures, you're creating images.
One of the pieces to competition that really sets it apart is the feedback you get. This is one way that will help you grow as a photographer to making better images. You submit some images, they go nowhere, and in the PPA's International Photographic Competition (IPC) you can get feedback from a judge on your images. This is not true for many other competitions, most don't give feedback at all. You just submit and they're picked or not, but you never find out why.
The dark side
Here's the flip side of competition. I believe you should compete in moderation, or maybe said in a better way, don't let it consume you. Some do, this is their Sacred Cow. They can't wait for it to start and everything else revolves around it, including self-worth. It would almost seem as though they see everything photography related in competition. Every image they see is judged against their competition mindset. It's important to note here, competition images may not (in most cases) be images you'd sell to your client. The same is true for client images, they probably wouldn't hold up in competition.
Follow the money
From competition, within the PPA, you can earn "merits" which are in turn used for earning a degree (Master Photog, Master Artist, etc.), that is, if you are driven for these, and there's nothing wrong with having goals. Keep them in perspective though. If you're doing this for a living, make a living. If you're doing this part-time, take advantage of having the latitude to accomplish these goals and not feel like you're failing to put food on the table. For the PPA, conservatively, competition within the IPC can generate over $100K. Each photog can enter up to four images for around $95, there are late fees and other variables as well, although the bulk of this is you pay $95 to enter. Assume 1250 participants at $95 and you'll get nearly $120K...again, this is a conservative estimate and of course not verified by the PPA...but do the math. This also doesn't include late fees or image critiques which also cost. This isn't a cash cow for the PPA though, membership dues are. Competition feeds the morale and that's important. Do well in competition, get shiny awards, recognition, eventually a designation behind your name, hold your head high among your peers. In this regard, Competition is absolutely vital to the PPA. Renew your $323 annual membership or your earned merits go away. You decide.
All this said, one of my goals is to eventually earn a Masters in Photography. That means I have to compete to earn the requisite merits for the degree, it doesn't mean when. When you compete just remember the audience to which you're playing...the judges. They want to see things in a certain way, and to some degree, judging is subjective. Above all else, your image MUST have impact. No matter what competition you're in. Do compete, see what it's all about, just remember, moderation.
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