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When i was taking photo classes in High school i went to the state competition my junior and senior year. I placed 2nd both years within just points of 1st. my junior year is was the written test on the history of photography and the 2nd year it was photoshop that i didn't know very well.
I've been in quite a few and placed 2nd in one and won a local one in the city I used to live in (I won some new equipment, nice eh?). The one I placed 2nd in really frustrated me, it was photographing animals and if I would've won my cat Hades would've been on the cover of that fancy cats magazine. He got mentions though at least but my photo was tons better, at least it was cover material while the other one was more calender type, oh well.
placing in top five though gets you a little bit of money, the most important reason to enter contests though is to get your work out there and it'll be seen. No matter if you win or not you can guarantee that the local paper or magazine will mention yours along with the photo you entered and that is free advertising, you can't go wrong.
I've entered quite a few contests online. I've won 3 times and gotten 2nd twice. I also entered a peoples choice contest at the fair last year and won $150. That was nice. I need to do that again, but I have to enter in the pro division, strictly now.
I won lots of awards in college for my news photography for the paper, I got 2nd I believe at the state fair in an animal photo contest. For 2 years I entered the USAF photography contests and won 1st in many categories with one of my pics winning in the AETC category (competing with several bases) I did win some money with those!