why professional photographers never enter photo contests

I stumbled on a really cool contest yesterday. One I really wanted to win. One involving my dog. And uploading a photo of my dog. The cuter the photo, the better the chances of winning. So naturally I was going to pick one of my best shots.

I was ready to hit ‘send’, when I stopped to read the terms and conditions:

“By using the Service, End User irrevocably grants X and their assigns a non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free license to: (i) copy, display, distribute, publish, and create derivative works from, communicate to the public, perform and display the Content (in whole or in part) worldwide and/or to incorporate in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.”

In other words, they can do whatever they darn well please with my images. Forever.

Hmm, no thanks, I’ll pass.

Photographers who sell their images for a living know certain things to be true:

1) their images are their livelihood. they are what keep them alive.

2) their images have inherent value. in some cases, great value. their images have the potential to pay for all of that expensive software and cameras and lenses they need to run their businesses.

3) they should never ever ever just give them away for free, or upload them to photo contests that have terms like the above, no matter how enticing the offer, nor allow someone to do whatever they want with them. they know that those who *don’t* also value their images enough to pay to use them will also be the ones to take advantage of the photographer’s generosity. (trust me, I’ve been there, I know.). they know that often times companies holding contests or mining for donations are trying to build a stock portfolio of images for free that they can then use to profit on. sometimes greatly. they are smart enough to outwit them, and stay away.

4) they know that some (commercial) clients want exclusive use of an image. they know that once they release that image to any other person for free, it will never again have the potential to generate (high) exclusive use licensing fees. Ever. If three years later Petsmart comes a calling to use that great photo of that Bernese Mountain Dog on your homepage, too bad so sad you already gave it away. Bye bye Petsmart.

5) they always read terms and conditions very carefully, and have detailed image use agreements, for anyone they are sending photos to. they know their careers depend on it. they know this because that very first time they fired off an email with a high-res file attached and no detailed image use agreement, it turned out to be a mistake. in almost every case. (Trust me, I know).

6) they more than expect- they demand- that they have image credit for any photo submitted to anyone, for any use, at any time. they are the artist, the creator, the person who worked hard to produce that image. and they know they deserve to be recognized for it.

7) given point #2- they charge for image use. which depends on what, where, why, how, how many, and how much the user is profiting off the image. they know if the end user says they are asking for ‘donations’ as a means of not paying them, the photographer does their due diligence and background checking to require proof of donated monies and proof of 501c status. they would never just take a person’s word for it when it comes to their images- their livelihood- their reputation.

If you are a photographer, and consider yourself a professional, please think carefully about these things. Before uploading/sending/donating images, please read the fine print, ask questions, ask yourself if it’s a good idea, and do some background checking on the organization/individual, *before* you proceed. Because once it’s out there honey, that image ain’t never coming back.

Fergie’s cute shot of her taken outside yesterday is staying right here with me. I’ll find another way to take a weekend trip with my dog. ๐Ÿ™‚


Updated to add:

There ARE contests out there run by legitimate photography organizations and associations that have the best interests of photographers in mind. You just need to always read the terms to see what kind of licenses they are giving themselves.

One that I was going to enter myself, is PDN’s Faces contest. Photo District News is a professional trade magazine that has been in print for 2 decades. If you read the terms and conditions of their contest, you see it varies wildly from the above. I was going to enter this year myself, but didn’t have time to go through my images to pick ones to submit.

PPA (Professional Photographers of America) and WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) also have their own photo competitions and juried awards shows. Check the PPA website and the WPPI website to see what’s upcoming.

And in terms of donating images to help raise money for needy animals, the best thing to do is to volunteer your photography services at shelters and rescue organizations near you, to photograph their adoptable animals, and also to volunteer to donate at their fundraising events.

If you don’t live near the organizations you want to support, or you don’t have time to volunteer, the best thing to do is to donate your products to their fundraising events.

Every legitimate rescue group, shelter and animal wellness organization and association has a large annual fundraiser with raffles and auctions. Sending them a framed print is no skin off your back, and they can auction the item off to help raise money for their charity. If you really want to go hog-wild and help them out, donate a large gallery-wrapped stretch canvas. That is sure to help them pay the bills when it gets bid on in their silent auction.

Even though I don’t publicize this, I do this every year, and usually donate about $2500 in products to rescue and animal welfare groups. It’s a great way to give back to animals that doesn’t involve you compromising your control over your images and your livelihood.

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10 thoughts on “why professional photographers never enter photo contests

  1. Thanks for writing this.

    I’m currently in the process of finding photographers to donate their services to the non-profit i work for, and the topic of licensing and ownership has come up.

    We want the images to remain the photographers, but also don’t want pictures of our clients to end up being sold via an image site and possibly end up representing a for-profit company, event or campaign. On the other hand imagery is a large part of our fundraising efforts. We need to compel our supporters and donors in a way that has them relate to the experience of first time home ownership (we create affordable homeownership for low and moderate income families in seattle. their stories are the best chance we have at pulling in more donations).

    What do you think a fair compromise would be? Just as you wouldn’t want your rights for your property to be taken from you, we don’t want the rights of our clients to be sold to anyone either.

    Is there a happy medium?

  2. I learned a long time ago that you have to carefully read a contest’s rules or you’ll get screwed. There are so many fake ones out there.

    I’m glad you mentioned volunteering at a shelter. I started volunteering at the beginning of the year and i LOVE it. I don’t specialize in pets, but I take photos of them for the website and facebook and it’s already helped them adopt out animals that weren’t getting attention before because of such poor photos. I’m gearing up to donate a portrait session for their silent auction. Maybe next one around I’ll have money to donate a big canvas! My goal is to personally raise at least $1000 for the animals this year. =)

  3. My wife laughed when she read this and told me:
    “This is what you always say but no one ever believes you!”

    I do not currently make money on most of my photos, but I refuse to fund these places with good photos. They could make more off one of my photos than they give away in all prizes combined. (One I was just notified about, spread over 11 winners the total prizes added up to about $150!)

    I guess its not technically a scam, but I wish everyone understood what was going on so that these places would simply whither and die.

  4. Great post Jamie. I think I know which contest this is and I was surprised by this little detail. Thanks for the details on other ways to give back!

  5. Haha I know what contest you’re talking about and I totally entered Olivia ๐Ÿ™‚ I totally agree with you though and I thought about it afterwards and was like… hmm I probably should have read those terms.

    Dang it!

  6. I can see them asking for rights to print it, if you are the winner, but going free willy nilly with it is rather uncalled for. I think some places grab pre-made legalize and don’t modify it to what they really need.

    Beautiful dog photo, by the way.

  7. Agreed. I’ve had two people suggest I upload photos to contest sites – one was for a dog retail company. You could win a $100 gift card from this place. Enticing, yes. Until I read the terms. No thanks – my images are worth more than a “chance” to win a gift card.

    Nice post.

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