Does Being an 'Award-Winning Photographer' Actually Carry Any Merit These Days?

Does Being an 'Award-Winning Photographer' Actually Carry Any Merit These Days?

“Award-winning photographer.” Now, more than ever, I see the term popping up in a biography. But I wondered, does it hold any merit in 2018? With so many claiming to have received awards — most of which I’ve never heard of — it’s become a pet peeve of mine. Has the prestige of winning a photography award been diminished?

The problem with competitions and photography in general is that the market has become over-saturated. Contests pop up on a near-daily basis, to the extent it’s almost impossible to keep track of the reputability of individual awards or the boards dishing them out. The credibility of many is questionable at best, given that a large proportion now charge participants to take part.

For some photographers, it’s noted on their site or SEO banner even before their name, which feels like somewhat of a desperate attempt at grabbing the attention of potential customers, as opposed to relying on the strength of their work to book jobs.

What seems to be a recurring theme is the desire to omit the name of which awards have been conquered exactly. It raises concern that these photographers have perhaps won small-time, local honors and are relying on the general public — as potential clients - not being familiar with such awards. In that sense, anyone can be an award-winning photographer.

With all this comes a level of pretentiousness. One of my favorite lines that I’ve lifted from photographers’ bios included quotes about having “the unrivaled reputation.” Another talked of his “wealth of accolades,” while another put it bluntly when he referred to himself as “the best of the best.” All of this feels somewhat wishy-washy, a way of bulking out their About Me page in a largely competitive market. In truth, what is stopping me from listing myself as one of the most prestigious, acclaimed, and in-demand photographers in the UK? At this stage, despite that statement being fabricated and entirely subjective, not much at all.

The truth is, I actually prefer the work of my peers or some of the emerging photographers I’ve discovered through the likes of Instagram than some of the award-winners I’ve come across. One I discovered when conducting research for this article boasted of having over 70 awards to his name, and if I’m being frank, his work, to me, wasn’t anything particularly worthy of note. Adequate, sure. Happy clients, I don’t doubt. Worthy of 70 awards? Debatable.

Me searching for all the awards I don't have.

I recently wrote about Steve Irwin’s photographer son receiving high praise at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards in London. It’s really encouraging to see someone so young have their work highlighted in this way. I highly rate his pictures, especially given his young age, and think he deserves all the attention that’ll follow such a mention. So it’s not to say that award ceremonies are entirely defunct, I just feel they are too heavily relied upon to try and create some sort of false credibility. Photography is subjective, and photographers should be judged on their work, and not the praise of a small board of judges.

I had to ask the question: is there any correlation between winning awards and attracting new clients? In other words, does the average member of the general public with little-to-no photographic experience actively search for a wedding photographer with a series of accolades? From experience, it’s never come up in a topic of conversation with any clients or potential customers. I’m self-taught, and never have I been asked to present my academic achievements or proof of photography education. More often than not, word of mouth and a recommendation from friends will do more for you than any award.

The pictures are what matters. A portfolio and your recent work are what people care about. Everybody has different tastes, and will select a photographer whom they feel represents their style.

Ultimately, it depends what each respective photographer is seeking to attain. But in the digital age, as photography becomes more accessible to the masses, there’s a notable shift away from the importance of winning awards, and thus, you shouldn’t evaluate your success based on how many awards you (haven’t) won.

Lead image credit: Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Photo inset: my own.

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39 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Wait, you don't have a degree in photography? Stop by my office on Monday, please; we need to have a chat about your employment.

As cool as self-taught, IMO.

Mikkel Beiter's picture

I guess the title or meaning of Award Winning is a bit empty today and I say this as a double winner at the Sony World Photography Award. I see this as a huge achievement for myself and my photography and this is why I allow myself to use it on my website and Instagram :-)

Mike Kelley's picture

Some contests can be fantastic, some can be a complete waste of time and money. It really comes down to who is judging, where the work ends up being seen, and how much effort is required to enter.

Winning one contest on its own will probably do nothing for your career, just as getting published in one magazine will also do nothing for your career. It is the cumulative effect that can significantly impact one's career trajectory. Hundreds upon hundreds of publication features, blog features, and contest wins added together makes one generally a significantly respected photographer. Not that you need hundreds of each - but a good mix - and voila. All of a sudden you have gone from a nobody to someone worth noticing.

So, no, a single win in a sham contest is nothing, just as a single repost by a hub instagram is nothing. But many significant events added together can absolutely shape and define a career. I speak from direct experience. Know what you are entering, know where you are being published, control what pictures you're putting out and who is seeing them - and you will see big time impacts.

All that being said, calling yourself an "award winning photographer" so that it shows up in google results is just about one of the most tone-deaf things you can do in this line of work. Another thing to realize is that the more contests you win and more times you are published, the less you have to boast about it :)

Leigh Miller's picture

Did it ever?

Daniel Medley's picture

I, too, have seen more and more About or Profile pages include it. I suppose it makes some sense to a degree, but I can't imagine it trumping whatever is in the portfolio. Plus I don't think it has the chachet it once did.

The other thing that I see more and more in profile pages are, "Natural light photographer." Which just baffles me.

Claiming to be an "award winner" at least displays some sort of accomplishment, while "natural light photographer" simply displays limits in ability.

Andy Barnham's picture

I’ve seen ‘Natural light photographer’ too. I interpret the phrase as ‘I’m too lazy to learn how to use lighting and think this makes me look cool’.

Jack Alexander's picture

As someone who definitely used to claim that title, it directly translates to either not having the resources to have ever tried shooting studio... or you’re just straight up too scared to.

Andy Barnham's picture

Ha... I was never actually brave enough to claim the title! However I agree, resources and fear are also a factor; which is why assistant roles can be important and coveted.

Cristian Perotti's picture

What you are both saying is complete nonsense (a.k.a. BS). While it might have hold true to you Jack, that is your experience. Maybe you, at a certain point, did not have the resources and/or were too scared to try something with artificial light. However, it is weird for an Fstoppers staff member to say something as bold as that statement. As to Andy´s comment, unfortunately you do not have any pictures in your portfolio to show, but apparently you do not know that for whatever type of photography you shoot, you need to learn how to work light to your advantage. Perhaps that is why you do not have pictures for us to see. Photography, as stated by Karl Taylor and many other world renown photographers, is understanding light. If you don´t understand it, no matter what gear you have, your pictures will be horrendous. I shoot in studio, with flash outside and natural light only, and I prefer if I can shoot with only natural light. (I am no expert in any of these categories, just in case). I also know at least 6 other professional photographers who not only know how to use artificial light in magnificent ways, but they are truly experts, and still would much rather only shoot natural light for various reasons, including travelling light, colour and fall of said light, and other factors.

Andy Barnham's picture

I agree with your comments about light, but I find your lack of faith (and lack of sense of humour) disturbing. If you’re after examples of my work, Google my name to find my website.

Cristian Perotti's picture

To be fair, I have never been good at getting sarcasm or jokes. If that was the case, then I take back what I said :). Cheers!

Daniel Medley's picture

I know plenty of people who prefer to shoot natural light, but are absolutely capable with artificial light if needed. And vice versa, of course. In other words they have the ability to do whatever needs to be done to get the shot.

The ones who proclaim themselves, however, to be "natural light only" seem to be a different thing. When I see a profile stating they only shoot natural light because of some aesthetic quality inherent in natural light and limit customer shoot times to times of the day amenable to it, almost always it's because they simply aren't capable of using artificial light. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is.

There are shots and creative endeavors you can achieve with artificial light that arguably cannot be done with natural light.

At the end of the day, though, light is light and the more we know, the more tools we have to use it in a manner of our choosing.

Cristian Perotti's picture

I agree with what you say about certain endeavors that you can´t achieve with natural light. I also agree with your last sentence. However, the reasons why someone only shoots natural light and limit customers will vary depending on the person. Maybe most of them do it because of what you say, but we will never know. To give you a personal example with something. I have shot product photography in my studio. However, I do not enjoy it so I stopped accepting those jobs a long time ago. To me, it is a boring genre. So in a certain way you could argue that I limit customers as well.

Sean Sauer's picture

I concur. Learning to use a flash is very intimidating and a lot of people just default to "I only shoot natural light". I myself was deathly afraid of learning how to use a speed light. I got into macro which needed more light forcing me to learn it. I then applied the same principles to larger subjects. It was hard and I'm always learning but it's actually fun the more I get into it.

user-216690's picture

I always thought that if I were to start shooting people that I would construct a glasshouse, with a series of blinds (over each pane), and use natural light in a subtractive process. If memory serves, Snowdon did something like that.

Daniel Medley's picture

Buying a couple of strobes would be less expensive :)

user-216690's picture

But of course; however, I'm a little in love with the idea. Maybe one day.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Evertime I see some "flash" photoghers rag on "natural light" photographers, I LMAO when I look at their snapshots. It might do you well to maybe worry about improving your skill and not worry so much about everyone else's. Learn the basics, natural light, then, maybe, accent or accentuate with some flash/strobes. Then, do some creative lighting.

Daniel Medley's picture

Oh, getting a little snarky, huh?Maybe instead of pathetically attempting to personally attack others you try to participate in a conversation in a meaningful manner.

But I suspect that's too much to ask of you.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Practice what you preach, son. You've been eggin' on natural light photographers starting with that boudoir photographer. So, stop playing victim when someone calls you out on it.

Speaking for me only, I prefer the organic look and feel of natural light. It's images like yours why I don't like flash/strobes. It just has the flat and fake look. It looks unnatural. Even cut-scenes in some games looks more realistic.

Daniel Medley's picture

A couple of questions: 1.Stalker, much? 2. Why the anger?

Since you're actually referred to a post from several days ago it may be a good idea to let it go. Otherwise you're just coming across as a tad creepy.

I'm not egging anyone on and I've never "ragged" on anyone. The only one in need of a diaper change here is you. I don't have a problem with predominantly natural light photography. If you had bothered to actually read instead of lashing out because, apparently, your widdle feewings got hurt you may have been able to grasp that.

The only thing that I've done was point out the fact that many people use "natural light photographer only" as a crutch. The fact that you've clung to that so fervently is, well, a bit odd.

I suspect that a fair number of artificial light photographers would probably be lost, too, in a tricky natural light situation for the same reasons I've pointed out towards many so called natural light only photographers. But I'm not going to get into the whole thing again because it would be repeating things I've already said that you should have comprehended before lashing out in your apparent anger.

You also seem to be lost on the false notion that artificial light has a inherent "look" and that natural light has an "organic look and feel". Oy. Again, light is light.

But since you've mistaken snarky arrogance for actual conversation, you seemed to have missed that point.

So go bury your face in your crying towel and get over it already.

Is that like bragging your shot is hand-held?

Chad D's picture

people are suckers they saw the miracle cleaner actually work on TV !!!!
really it took the soap scum off with one wipe !!!!!!

my wedding photographer was the most award winning ever :) and my cake is one more layer then my friends !
did you see my new phone case and my shoes !!!!!!

imagecolorado's picture

Winners win, losers lose. If you haven't won an award, you aren't an award winning photographer. What that is worth is up to the potential client. Not all awards are created equal. Winning a camera club contest isn't the same as winning a Pulitzer prize.

Andy Barnham's picture

The more awards I see on a homepage, the more I believe they know their work is mediocre and need reinforcement of what little talent they have.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Do you think that some awards might be more valuable as cap feathers?

user-216690's picture

I tend to view placing in competitions as useful marketing tools; I imagine the exposure for winning something like the Sony competition would be quite valuable. I also know I will never win any of these things.

Ian Douglas's picture

I suppose the answer to the articles' posed question (in the title) is it depends. It depends on the award, how prestigious it is, how many others competed and how 'open' that competition was.
Certainly I now commonly meet photographers (not professionals) who are wholly focused on targeting Salons as this earns (in their eyes and in those of their circle) kudos. The problem is that photography goes through fashions and particularly so nowadays. We are just exiting (I dearly hope so anyway) the ICM (intentional camera movement) 'fashion'. Never have I seen so many pseudo-art photographs that are the elevator music of photography. Each to their own though.
Each Art College year outputs many hundreds (if not thousands) of 'Fine art' photographers who already have a website and often dubious self-promotion.
Most of the finest photographers I know are amateurs, self-taught and have no awards but I am sure it helps the artisan photographers (professionals) who like sign-painters are to the likes of Picasso need to get noticed and therefore earn their daily bread.

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