By Gary Rabenko

It feels good to win. It doesn’t feel so good to lose. Worse still is paying and then not winning. Compulsive gamblers might just keep playing. But as softheaded as I think many wedding photographers are, you probably agree that few would continue to pay photo contest entry fees if they did not usually win.

A quick search yields an abundant supply of photo contests. A few are well established and highly regarded. Most, if not all, have entry fees. Many great artists either choose not to enter or simply forget. Thus, you can be touched to no end by an amazing image that was never given a chance to win any award, taken by a great photographer who now cannot claim to be that award-winning photographer!

Decades ago, I had considered traveling down the self-promotional road of award winners myself. I was a member of one of the oldest and most respected professional photo associations. As I studied each month’s competition, I quickly realized that winning depended on far more than imagery. Judges who were supposed to be impartial often knew certain entrants and their photos. Sometimes new entrants were favored over past winners. Recipes for winning entries were being copied. Some entrants repeatedly won with the same recipe. Others lost with images that prior judges claimed were superior, while the current month’s visiting judges favored images that previously lost!

This whole award-winning thing has become a sport for a few, a joke to others, and is ignored by most. I recently had conversations with several highly respected clients who admitted that they knew the whole award-winning thing was bogus, which reminded me of the world of photo contest scams. Some years ago, I e-mailed the organization that bestows numerous awards to a photographer in this community. This photographer is constantly updating his ads and Instagram, excited over winning more and more “best in show” or “first place” entries. Back then, when I e-mailed the organization, I simply wanted to know who did their judging. Not only have I never gotten a response to that e-mail, but the website originates in China, is owned by someone in the former Soviet Union, and is listed as a scam website with only a handful of visitors. I guess if I paid by credit card or PayPal and played by their rules I could be an award-winning photographer. But wait — there are many other organizations and I would only be award-winning by this one.

Another organization with a very similar name and a nearly identical logo does the same service — in essence, selling awards, seemingly unrelated to skill and talent. Then there are massive photography conventions that raise huge sums for vendors associated with competitions and half a dozen bridal organizations that rate and rank photographers. Any members I’ve met have told me it is a rat race. Sometimes photographers write to denounce competitions, other than their own of course, which is always entertaining to anyone not accredited by those organizations.

For the handful of photographers who really believe, awards can seem so authentic — for a while. But if you visit the contests’ websites, you will find unending numbers of photographers, many with very mundane images, and it becomes obvious that the award means nothing, and being on the organization’s list is not getting them much business.

Every small-town dance studio has trophies and banners in their window heralding amazing victories, including “first place” or “best in show.” It is how they do business. Perhaps an honest dance studio that did not pay all the associated fees and insists their students buy expensive outfits to participate in all the out-of-the-way contests may not get many customers. But no question—serious students will get serious training, and that is what it should really be about.

I am not saying every single photo entry is going to win in those contests. They probably have some losers. But the nature of these competitions makes them rather meaningless to the client and should be considered a siphoning of valuable time and energy away from you, the photographer’s client. The organizations are there to make money from entry fees and from charging more and more to bump entrants up into more prestigious categories with other promotional benefits. Losers would eventually stop paying. Winners keep paying. How does one win? Well, in addition to numerous entries, having connections, paying premiums, and entering with little opposition in that category or zone, some styles and photo compositions are more likely to win. As I said there are many mundane, and even awful, photos winning awards. But the sites want attention-getting photos that you might accept as being winning-worthy, even if the judges themselves know nothing about composition or contrast.

Attention-getting and shocking images will win more than others. Even a non-English-speaking person in a third-world country or a friend who knows nothing about photography but wants to help you win awards and can set up an overseas website should know that with enough entrants, some maybe could manage not to win.

Old-time members of the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) will recall a time when photos of a tisch, badekin, chuppah, or a Williamsburg shopkeeper could win in competition with the ordinary “American-looking” photos. Especially if the judges were goyim who had never been to or seen frum events! I mean, certainly the drama of a great people in happy or pious moments deserves to win awards! But if you are choosing your photographer and are influenced in the slightest by that “award-winning” shtick, maybe photographers who don’t sell that way deserve your business more.

I was taught that being an artist was all about doing what was right for my client at that moment. That my clients deserve the best attention I can give them. There is a huge difference in shooting for a client and shooting for a competition. Shooting for a client means taking their interests and feelings to heart. I know for a fact that many photographers lead clients to do things that will make an attention-getting shot to put on Instagram even at the expense of valuable time for the family or expected photos that the client would prefer.

Your event should have many great shots. But they should be great because they are appropriate, tasteful, and flattering, not merely because they are different. Most of those “winning” shots are manipulated in post-production to make them stand out. Some may involve an unusual perspective or an intricate pose, or going out of the way to do it. Good photographers can do that if you want, even if they don’t want to spend time and money on competitions.

There once was a photographer who advertised that he was “award-winning,” and when I challenged him, he admitted it was just an expression. The next step is to pay a fee to a remote website and really be “award-winning.” But who is winning? Don’t let yourself be the loser. Hire the photographer who will spend time on your imagery and who is honest and upfront about everything. When you are happy, your photographer should always feel like a winner!

Rabenko Photography & Video Arts is located at 1053 Broadway in Woodmere. To learn more, contact, 1-888-RABENKO, 888-722-3656, or visit


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