Money, Critical Mass & Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Every year during Critical Mass registration, people ask, “Why is Critical Mass more expensive to enter than other competitions? What are the registration fees for?” We are always happy to write about this, as money is an important topic for everyone!

First, we hesitate to call Critical Mass solely a “photography competition” – it is so much more! Even though there is jurying involved, it is a multi-layered program about exposure that has awards connected to it as well.

Critical Mass is an established, community-based program that transcends the traditional idea of what a “photography competition” is. Please read on for some behind-the-scenes information on the registration fees.

Let’s take a look at photography competitions in general first! It seems like new ones are constantly popping up, and it is left to the photographer to investigate which ones fall into the “legitimate,” “semi-legitimate,” and “genuine scam” categories. It’s critical to be a smart consumer and research before you buy, just as you do in other areas of your life…


1. Is the photo competition being produced by a non-profit organization or a for-profit business?

There are fundamental differences in the priorities of non-profit art organizations and that of a business. As a non-profit, we are accountable to the general public, our sponsors, our board, and the federal government.

Ultimately, all income goes back into the support of Photolucida’s programming. When you are evaluating photography competitions, make sure the business/organization hosting the contest is responsible, transparent, and easy to contact. Is the organization well respected in the field? Are recognizable jurors and photographers aligned with its programming? These are good questions to ask at the outset.

A small percentage of competitions exist for one purpose only: to make money. Competitions like this offer no real, measurable benefits to photographers who submit. Your “winning image” might wind up in an online gallery in some corner of the internet for a one-month virtual exhibit. Make sure to take a close look at the awards – if you were to win an award, would it look good on your resume? Or, would you be embarrassed to add it to your resume? It’s probably not worth parting with your hard-earned cash for something like this.

2. Other things to question: How many jury members are there? What makes them qualified? Can the jurors be linked to respected institutions?

Reputable competitions disclose who their jury members are, offer substantive prizes, and are transparent with competition details. It’s important to look at competition jurors to see if they’re “worth their salt.” Who are they? Are they respected members of the photography community? Can they offer meaningful opportunities to photographers? You’ll want to do a little research here. Google is your friend – use it!

3. As with anything, read the fine print! This is critical. Your images are at stake.

It’s important to read the fine print in the competition instructions – make sure it exists to begin with. If there is no clear language about entrants’ rights and image usage available, it might make sense to question the competition. If you’re not sure about the details, research the group to make sure they’re reputable. Call them. Ask other photographers what they think.

If it’s a competition that has been running for more than one year, take a look at who the previous winners have been. Are they high-caliber artists? Would you want to be included in this group?

Some entities host competitions as a way to get free image use from photographers. It happens more often than you would think! If you enter a competition like this, your images may be used by the organization for whatever they want, without due credit or compensation. Some groups hosting competitions like this are well intentioned, but they just don’t realize that photographers generally like to retain rights to their images. We know of one organization that actually printed images from photographers’ submission jpegs, framed them, and sold them at their annual auction – – without notifying the photographers that this was being done. Do research on what retaining copyright on your imagery means, as it means different things to different people dependent on where one is in one’s career and what the usage is.


Every year, as photographers weigh the pros and cons of entering Critical Mass, the question of money comes up. Critical Mass has a two-tiered entry fee. The initial cost is $75 for photographers in the U.S. and $90 for international photographers (due to the higher international postal rate for the book award winner’s monograph). Photographers who make the finalist round pay an additional $200, and their work goes on to be viewed and juried by 200 well-respected professionals at the top of the photography field. Take a look at the Critical Mass 2014 jurors – pretty darn stellar, right? It would be amazing to have your work seem by any one of these people, and finalists have the opportunity to have their work put in front of all 200 jurors. A lot of research and communication has gone into building this roster – we are proud that so many esteemed people in the photography world have chosen to give their time to our programming. And in turn, our aim is to deliver great imagery to the jurors who will perhaps find content of interest to them and their programming.

This kind of exposure can be invaluable for emerging photographers. It’s important to consider the feasibility and cost involved with sending your work to these 200 professionals on your own. Critical Mass makes these connections possible in a way that is almost impossible otherwise.


Registration fees support all aspects of the Critical Mass program: including a programmer to run the registration/submission/formatting/jurying stages of the online program, staff time to run the programming, DVD duplication, costs associated with the traveling exhibition, and (a tiny part of the budget) great Portland coffee for our pre-screeners!

The largest cost to the Critical Mass program is the publication of the monograph: the design, copy editing, printing, and shipping. Add to this the postage costs to send the DVD and monograph to all the participants (historically about 900 people in 30+ countries) – and that is an allocation of about $30,000. It is an expensive award, but we feel it is worth it.

Photolucida also does some behind-the-scenes things that are pretty neat:

We give Critical Mass scholarships to non-U.S. photographers who might be under-represented in the mainstream and/or truly unable to pay submission fees. We also have a Library Program where we send Critical Mass monographs to over 100 Oregon art school, college, university, and public libraries. And, we send our finalist DVD to 100 Oregon photography educators for use as a teaching tool, and to any educator that requests it.


We get it. Photographers sometimes feel stretched thin climbing the path up. We don’t want you to eat peanut butter sandwiches for a week because you submitted to Critical Mass. But services cost money to run, and Critical Mass is a complex program with a lot of labor and costs involved to make it happen.

If you are an emerging photographer looking for exposure for your work, it makes professional sense to have some kind of marketing budget. You need to decide how to get your work out there in the most efficient way possible to people who can offer real opportunities. You can spend your marketing dollar on a multitude of things: a new website, business cards, leave-behind materials, attending portfolio reviews, etc. You need to decide what makes sense for you at this point in your career and what your finances can accommodate. Critical Mass is just one of your options. We don’t promise instant success – the art world just doesn’t work like that. It is a process that takes time, and there are many ways to go about it. But, we do know that exposure through Critical Mass produces results…because we hear success stories all the time.


Do check the last handful of Photolucida’s blog entries for details on the monograph award, the Rauschenberg residency award, the CM 2014 Top 50 show curator and exhibition venue, interviews with past award winners, and profiles for jurors new to the program this year.

Do read the LENSCRATCH Mix-Tape interview – where details about Critical Mass are discussed by Aline Smithson and Laura Moya.

And, if you have the capacity at this point for even more details on Critical Mass, here you are!