Why Photographers Should Avoid Paid Contests

Have you ever done spec work? It’s when you complete a finished project before you sign a contract—halfway between pitching and gambling. If you’re on the fence about the ethics behind this, this video rant by Ted Forbes should convince you to avoid it:

“This is worse than working for free. When you’re working for free, at least you know you’re not getting paid.”

In five minutes, Forbes argues that spec work devalues the entire photography industry. It’s especially common in contests, wherein a client will ask photographers to submit images and offer to pay for the best one. They can morally justify their actions by saying they’re paying for good work—but it’s the time and effort from everyone who isn’t picked that’s unfair.

don't work for exposure

For comparison, Forbes argues, imagine how absurd it would be if patrons at a restaurant asked to try 10 different dishes and offered to pay for the best one. It’s not the way the world works in any area, except certain arts.

He ends by recalling a similar contest he encountered for graphic designers several years ago:

“It was earlier on in my career, and I didn’t really see what the problem was, because I was starting out and I thought, ‘Oh, well, you need to get exposure somehow.’ Well, what you don’t realize when you’re starting out is there are idiots out there who will take advantage of you. And they think—well, they don’t think. They’re in it for themselves. They want a selection to choose from, even though they’re willing to pay for it. And they don’t realize how bad that is for everything. It’s bad for them, it’s bad for us, it’s bad for everyone in this industry out there trying to make a living doing this.”

If you’ve ever done spec work, or have opinions one way or the other, let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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2 responses to “Why Photographers Should Avoid Paid Contests”

  1. Scott Wardwell says:

    I am a fine-art landscape photographer in central Maine and at a late summer craft show I was approached by a man who owns an island in the middle of the lake we have a camp on. He asked if he could commission a couple of pieces showcasing the island. I said yes. I had nothing already in my body-of-work and set out to capture the moment and look he and his wife were after. After several trips out onto the lake at sunrise and sunset in my boat and kayak, I presented him with 4 pieces on approval (one of the Milky Way overhead). Just when he almost bit, he wife pulled him back and said more vivid red sky, which is not the norm. The last email said they were not in a hurry and would wait and see. In the meantime, I spent several hours on the water, several more in front of the computer, blew the engine in my boat and apparently I still do not have the money-shot.
    At this point, commissions are a money-pit and a creative black-hole which does not truly reflect my artistic vision. I am going to keep him updated to my website as I add things but trying to meet his criteria is a long-shot.

  2. Billy Wooten says:

    I understand and agree with you, completely. Those of us in the music profession have very similar experiences with requests to perform free gigs for exposure (…no pun intended.)

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