Peter DeMarco on Photo Contests

Let’s face it, the idea of winning a photo contest and getting a the top prize is pretty tempting. They are designed that way or else no one would enter. You get the feeling of satisfaction that your photo was chosen over all the others and you get a nice chunk of change for your hard work. What could be better than that?

However, these days when pretty much everyone who picks up a camera and shoots a sunset is entering contests and hoping for that grand prize. Not to mention with so many photos pouring in, Companies can easily abuse or mislead the contest entrants. In some cases not only do contests take your photos but your money as well! It is a win-win situation for THEM!

Peter Demarco
Peter Demarco

Recently, I asked Peter DeMarco to share some advice on entering photo contests. In 2012, Pete won the Busan Tourism Photography Contest as well as a merit award in the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest. Pete continues to be a source of wisdom and inspiration for many photographers. His advice on contests is indispensable and I really appreciate him taking the time to answer a few questions.

What is the first thing photographers should consider before entering a contest?

Who is hosting the contest? Who are their readers, their audience? Who are their advertisers? It’s easy to submit photos which you think are your best or your favorite, but in the eyes of the contest holders, your photo might not be relevant. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see powerful yet disturbing images in National Geographic – say a bloody animal sacrifice, natural disaster, or extreme poverty for instance. But National Geographic Traveler is a different magazine. Their photos tend to be more upbeat postcard-like images that make their readers want to buy a ticket to that particular destination. Basically, learn everything you can about the people or publication holding the contest.

How should they choose their photos?

What I did was look at the winning photos from the previous years. By doing that, I think I had a better understanding of what the judges were looking for. Sure they tell you what to submit, but it’s a photo contest after all, not a writing contest. Seeing the winning images helped me much more than reading about what to submit.

What should photographers look out for or be cautious of?

Know how your photo will be used once it’s submitted. For example, any photo you submit to Nat Geo Traveler can end up as a free downloadable wallpaper on their website. As for my Busan photo, I still see it used all over the place. It was in the Asiana Airlines in-flight magazine, in the Busan subway, on a big billboard in a hotel in Seoul, in the newspaper in Daejeon, a politician used it as his website banner, and more. In all of the instances, I was never credited for the photo, but I knew that would be the case when I submitted.

What about rights? Are you concerned at all about handing over the rights to your photos?

The contest holder can often use your photo however they like – sometimes without giving you any exposure. You need to read the fine print. I’m never concerned about handing over the rights to my photos because I always know beforehand how my photos will be used. If it looks like the contest holder has everything to gain and I have everything to loose, then I won’t submit. Sometimes contest holders are just looking for cheap or free images.

Bagan Bliss. Winner of the 2012 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Merit Award. Photo Courtesy of Peter DeMarco
Bagan Bliss. Winner of the 2012 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Merit Award. Photo Courtesy of Peter DeMarco

Specifically talking about the National Geographic Traveler contest, what is your advice?

Never underestimate the power of a good caption. It’s often overlooked but I think can be the difference between winning and loosing. I’m reading this awesome book right now, “Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered,” by Austin Kleon.

He says, “Words matter. Artists love to trot the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself.” The story you tell in your caption can have a huge impact on the way people value your photograph.

 Who is in the photo? Why did you take it? What did you have to do to get the shot? Why should people care about it?

Another tip is that you need to capture a great story or feeling in your photo. Listen to this Nat Geo editor and contest judge talking about why they chose the 2012 winning images. You can see it’s not just about amazing pictures, it’s about great stories.

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When you entered the Busan Tourism Photo contest, did you know that you had a winner or was it a surprise when they called you?

I was surprised to win the grand prize, but I did think I would at least win something. If I didn’t think I had a chance at winning I never would have entered.

What made you submit that shot over all of your other awesome shots?

That was one of my favorite pictures. But again, I tried to get into the mind of the judges. First, the city’s slogan is Dynamic Busan. I think photos that show a modern, even advanced, side to the city are best. Think newer, bigger, shinier, richer, faster. The city wants to use these photos to promote Busan to tourists and foreign investors.

A photo of a woman selling fish in the market is poignant, but it’s probably not going to grace the cover of some city-made promotional material. In fact, it seems like every year photos of the city’s most modern neighborhoods or buildings like Marine City, Centum City or Busan Cinema Center win. That said, what do I know? It could all change next year and a photo of a monk at a temple could win.

Bu York. Winner of the 2012 Busan Tourism Photo Contest. Photo Courtesy of Peter DeMarco.
Bu York. Winner of the 2012 Busan Tourism Photo Contest. Photo Courtesy of Peter DeMarco.

Finally, what is your motivation behind entering these contests? Money? Fame? Bragging rights?

Some years ago I was posting my photos to a group on Flickr called “National Geographic: Are you good enough?” After a while, I thought – this is silly, why not submit directly to Nat Geo instead of some unofficial group with a bunch of other photographers just like me.

Once I decided to go for the real thing, it challenged me in a way nothing else had before. Contests force me to think about and evaluate my work deeply. Why do some images have more impact than others? What is my message? Why is this photo important? More than anything, it’s a goal that helps me to move forward as a photographer.

And in some cases, yes, I’ll do it just for the money. I know everyone always says don’t do it for that reason, but some extra cash never hurts. The Busan contest grand prize was $3,000! I bought a Nikon D600 with that money.

On another level, I want my work to be seen. Contests are just another platform to reach people who may never see your stuff otherwise. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about the exposure.

More importantly though, I want to give exposure to the people and places I photograph. I love Busan. The city has been great to me. If my photos can help get the word out then that makes me feel good. And Myanmar, especially Bagan, is a magic and mysterious place. The Burmese are an amazing people with a rich culture that has been shut off from the world for too long. Winning those contests just helps me do more of what I want to do: inspire people to get out and see the world. And it’s cool to see your photo published in Nat Geo too.

Thank you again Peter, for sharing your insight with us and I wish you all the best of luck with this year’s round of photo contests. Don’t forget that the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest ends on June 30th. However, the Busan Tourism Photo Contest will start accepting entries on July 1st.

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