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POTYs are potent!

While camera sales slip, people share images on screens rather than making prints, and professional photography becomes an ever more perilous career, one segment of photographic endeavour goes from strength to strength: international photographic competitions..

David Attenborough presents C V R Dowdeswell, winner of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1965, with his award © Topfoto

It seems some version of ‘Photographer of the Year’ – ‘POTY’ – is being announced on a weekly basis. While making for a crowded stage – every POTY project wants their images presented as broadly as possible – it also underscores the breadth of photographic genres, not to mention the broad interest in picture-taking throughout the world.

There’s at least one of each of the following: Astronomy POTY, Science POTY, Travel POTY, Landscape POTY, International Landscape POTY, International Portrait POTY, Press POTY, Nature POTY, Wildlife POTY, Nature Wildlife POTY, Comedy Wildlife POTY, Close Up POTY and Underwater POTY.

Not all POTY’s are created equal, and POTY competitions aren’t even the only game in town. There are other themed photo competitions and branded photo contests. A lot of the growth is in competitions run for profit by a new breed of ‘contest entrepreneurs’ . Then there are associated activities, such as photo contest listing sites – read our accompanying piece for more on that.

Who is behind all this activity and what do they get out of it? Well, money, unsurprisingly. Most of the competitions are stand-alone businesses or initiatives of an existing business. The organisers are responding to a demand from photographers for arenas in which to compete and platforms to have their images presented.

One of the drivers is the internet itself. Most photographic websites such as this one will give a winning sets of photographs a run regardless of the competition’s pedigree: with limited resources to generate content, a cracking set of images is always a welcome addition to the weekly line-up of stories. As a result many photo websites run anything which lands in the in-tray.

Perhaps some of the larger websites are even paid to do so, along with promoting the various competitions in the first place – cash for content. (Call us naive, but we were surprised to recently discover that there are kickbacks available for websites which promote Kickstarter fund-raising campaigns.) After researching this story, Inside Imaging will be more discriminating in identifying the more dubious contests, and denying them at least one small platform. We don’t want to be unwitting enablers for shysters.

That is not to paint all the for-profit photo contests in a murky shade. They are simply responding to a clear demand among photographers for affirmation. Or something. It can be done well, as we point out below.

It would be fascinating to explore the range of reasons why people actually enter photographic competitions. Is it the prizes; the recognition and acknowledgement; the credential achieved; sheer competitive spirit; all of the above?

– Fascinating, but more suited to a psychology PhD thesis than a humble photo website! So lowering our sights, we looked into the expanding universe of photo comps and identified three distinct ‘species’:

Camera and lens company contests
The camera and lens companies have good reason to promote picture taking, support their customer base and associate themselves with great images. Prominent examples are the Sony World Photo Awards, and locally, the Sony Alpha Awards. Nikon runs the more venerable Nikon Photo Contest (since 1969) and Nikon Small World photomicroscopy competition. Nikon Australia runs a Surf Photography competition (SPOTY?). From an entrant’s point of view, the generally free entry and tasty prize pools make these attractive propositions. And as the name of the game is getting positive coverage and thus enhancing brand recognition, plenty of PR resources go into promoting the competitions.

Froth Monster, by Travis Johnson. Nikon Surf Photo of the Year finalist, 2020.

For instance, the Sony World Photography Awards, like the poor, seems always to be with us. First there’s the Grand Opening; followed by the announcement of the country finalists; and then the winners in each country; then the finalists and winners internationally. Barely a month goes by without a breathless press release from Sony announcing one of the above, accompanied by a nice set of images. It’s an impressively slick PR operation and has, I would suggest, helped fast-track Sony as a photographic brand over the past six years.

With entry generally free, the big difference in this group of competitions is whether they allow entries from ‘foreign brands’ or have brand-exclusive rules. For instance the Sony Australia Alpha Awards are just that – the entry needs to be taken on Sony Alpha camera.

For entrants, the camera company comps are the sweet spot – they offer free entry and big prize pools, are well-organised, and you can be assured that all is above board.

Not-For-Profits

There is a small sub-set of the rapidly expanding group of photo contests which charge a fee to enter which use the revenue from entry fees to support an organisation or cause.

Perhaps the most renowned of these is the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, run by the Natural History Museum, London, since 1965.

With close to 50,000 entries annually, this is one of the biggest photo comps of any kind in the world. At £30 per entry, a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates it grosses an astounding £1.5 million pounds ($2.7million) which shows that, done right, there’s a lot of money to be made running international photo competitions. WPOTY also produces a range of merchandise such as books and calendars, which further contribute to the Museum’s revenue.

Sidebar: the 2020 competition was won by an Australian, Robert Irwin (son of the late Steve Irwin!)

APOTY Skyscapes winner, 2020: Painting the Sky by Thomas Kast

Another ‘good cause’ photo comp is the Astronomy Photographer of the Year, organised by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The entry fee (10 pounds per entry) along with the naming rights, the ticketed exhibition, and the annual book featuring the best entries all go to help support the Observatory. There’s a £10,000 prize for the overall winner and £1500 for those images that top the individual categories.

The Royal Photographic Society’s Science Photographer of the Year competition is yet another prestigious, UK-based competition. It’s extremely rare in not even charging an entry fee, but with only 1000 entries per year it clearly has some latent potential (although there were some impressive shots from last year’s awards). Perhaps if the RPS actually charged an entry fee the revenue generated would make organising the contest less of an annual obligation and more of a revenue-generating opportunity? (Just sayin’!)

But as we looked deeper into the complex world of photo contests, we realised there really weren’t as many of these not-for-profit initiatives as one would assume…

It’s often not as upfront as it should be that most of the POTYs are making someone, somewhere some money. Some fall into a grey area. For example, the Nature Photographer of the Year: ‘Nature Photographer of the Year is a Nature Photography contest that celebrates the artistry of nature photography. We have some fantastic prizes for you to win including our top prize of €3000,- cash for the overall winner, plus other great cash prizes and cool photo equipment. When you enter our nature photo competition you will also help various nature conservations projects throughout the world.’ (Our italics.)

It doesn’t actually tell you much about how or to what extent these nature conservation projects are helped. Nature Photographer of the Year is fundamentally a business. There were close to 20,000 entries last year and the entry fee was €29 Euros. So whomever is running this show is grossing a sweet six-figure sum. All we can tell you is the business name is Nature Talks BV and it’s run out of the Netherlands. We hope it gives generously to conservation projects but we just don’t know.

It’s just business

The UK-based Comedy Wildlife Photographer is another which gives the impression that it is all about environmental activism, but when you look into it – not so much.

…We hope to get more and more people talking about conservation, engaging in conservation issues and inspiring others to act. As a means to achieving our mission, each year we will choose a small grass-roots organisation working with endangered wildlife and promote their work through our competition.

This year, the grass-roots organisation benefactor  is https://www.savewildorangutans.org. So how much of each US$27 entry fee goes to Save Wild Orangutangs? Well, we asked the organisers – who to their credit are easily accessible via direct email and were quick to respond to our enquiry:

‘After years of partnering with the Born Free Foundation, we have decided to choose and work with a new conservation cause each year and donate 10 percent of our net revenue to them. This year it is Save Wild Orang-utans. Apologies for the lack of clarity on the website – hopefully this is now rectified, but let us know if you have any more questions, happy to help,’ wrote Michelle Wood from CWPOTY.

Wading through a couple of dozen of these contests and a pattern developed:
– There’s an element of personal information and email harvesting involved – many  competitions force you to give up your email and physical address and other personal details before you can access the competition details. You are the product for sale in this case;
– Entry fee is usually around US$20 and generally channelled via PayPal;
– The prize pool is generally reasonably modest – anywhere between $1000 and $5000.
– The promotional material generally emphasises the exposure the winners will receive, rather than the fabulousness of prizes on offer;
– Numbers of entries is usually somewhere between 3000 and 5000;
– There are usually many categories, which expands the chance of having one’s work featured;
– In some – but not all – of these contests, copyright protection is a bit sketchy. Or worse.

A tell-tale sign that the competition is a bit suss is when its difficult to uncover who exactly is organizing it – or even where it s being run from.

While not having ‘road-tested’ it, Australia’s own International Landscape Photographer of the Year is one of the better run and transparent of the new breed. It kind of sets the standard they should all follow.

For a start, ILPOTY tells you on the homepage who is running the show: The International Landscape Photographer of the Year Award is curated and presented by Peter Eastway and David Evans. Elsewhere it’s made abundantly clear the competition is a business, with the name of the business and its ABN provided.

The accompanying book featuring 101 of the top entries – which is also offered for sale –  is a great ‘bonus’ feature showing the organisers are willing to make a little more effort than most to fulfill that desire from entrants to have their work professionally presented. (And provides a great platform for sponsor Momento Pro!)

You don’t have to give up your email and first born child simply to find out how much is costs to enter – competition details are as transparent and find-able as they could be. The organisers only request basic information when you register to enter, rather than your detailed demographics.

Copyright protection is robust and written in plain English, as is privacy protection: The Awards does not sell or rent your contact information to other marketers – with the exception of our direct event partners (such as our sponsors), affiliates, and our related business entities who may contact you from time-to-time.

The formula seems to have worked. Peter Eastway and David Evans have launched a second ‘POTY’ this year, International Portrait Photographer of the Year, which is closely modelled on ILPOTY, complete with a quality photo book produced by Momento Pro.

Now read our accompanying article, Photo contest smoke and mirrors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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