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Beware of scam photo contests

Three to four times a year I host a photo contest for members of My Photo Group. We are fortunate enough to be sponsored by Focal Press who sends us free photography books. Those books are used as prizes to the winning entrants.

The contest serves several purposes; it gets more distant members involved in a group event, it allows interaction from home and it allows members to explore their vision and compare it against how others interpret the same theme. Plus it gets them a free book. This particular contest serves to foster the photographer's talent in a self fulfilling manner. Unfortunately not all contests have the participant's good will in mind.

Now let me sideline a little and talk about the stock image industry. Not long ago if a company, ad agency or business did not have a budget to hire a photographer their best resource was in stock images. The ad rep could select images from a catalog of thousands of images, pay a licensing fee and create a unique ad/brochure/sell sheet and so on. Stock houses made photographer a lot of money licensing photos for advertising.

Over the past decade, with the advent of digital, that image licensing model has deteriorated as micro stock image sites grew as an industry. Using less than professional images and cheaper licensing rates, micro stocks undermined the working professional photographer. Finding images to use has become numerically absurd and ridiculously cheap. You can find the right image, pay pennies on the dollar and have almost unlimited use for that image.

So what does that have to do with photography contests? With as cheap as current image licensing rates are it confounds me when I hear of businesses using photo contests in order to cull images for their personal unlimited use without shelling out a single dime. You heard right, companies and organizations are farming for free, unrestricted images by using photography contests as a  lure.

This is how it works. A contest is posted with some juicy and enticing prize (camera, gear, money, etc) luring would-be photographers with a promise of exposure or use of the winning image in a national campaign or a chance to showcase their skills in some way. In return for this chance any image submitted becomes the property of the contest organizer with all rights transferred. Usually the image submission has to fit a theme, one that fits the nature of the sponsoring company. This means that all those hundreds (or thousands) of images custom picked for these contests no longer belong to the photographer, can not be used or sold by the photographer and will never get compensation for their use.

Another variation is the pay to participate contest. These contests require some form of entry fee with an option to buy in on some form of publication, seminar, continuing education program, etc. During the designated contest time you are sent a notice that you have won 2nd or 3rd place and for an additional fee you can get a professional listing in their publication. Not only do they take your photographs but they also take your money too.

The bottom line is to read the fine print of any photo contest you are looking into entering. While there are many legitimate ones out there they are far outnumbered by sketchy ones. Ultimately you want one that will really be of benefit to you with some form of compensation, whether it be in money, prize goods or real exposure that would lead to further jobs. You should never enter a contest where you give up your rights to your own creative work and if the contest organizer asks for an entry fee that should be a warning too.

Remember that you are the first and last line of protection for your work. Protect it.


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