If in the not too distant past, you had piles of photographs that you would look at once in awhile lining the shelves of your closets, today you have piles of digital pictures lining the hard drive of your PC.
So how is this "digital lining" different from all other linings? Simple: You can make money with the pictures lining your hard drive - even if you're not a pro. The digital photo revolution has changed the picture taking world in so many ways; the demise of one-hour film photo processing shops, home color printers specifically designed to output brilliant color photos and the modern and very widespread custom of showing video and photo slide shows at Bar Mitvahs and weddings, now a cinch to put together thanks to the hundreds of free photo slide show programs out there, like Picasa and iPhoto.
But even better than the slideshow thing - digital photos can be a source of side income, for professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs alike. There are dozens of Web sites that will either pay you directly for your photos, or let you enter contests, for free or a minimum entry fee that could net you awards, recognition, prize money - or even a new career, based on a latent talent you never even realized you possessed!
Let's see: You can win up to $10,000 in the International Photography Awards sponsored by Pilsner Urquell Beer (http://photoawards.com, $15/$25 entry fee, and they promise not to put your photo on a beer bottle); The National Photo Awards (http://tinyurl.com/23j9fp), $8.95 entry fee, $500 monthly prize; http://FotoFanatic.com, $50 monthly first prize, $4.95 entry fee; and the Michael Kellicutt 2008 International Juried Photo Competition (http://www.coastalartsleague.com/photoshow/), first prize $1,000, entry fee $20. All these (and many other) contests are open to participants worldwide, and are judged by a panel of professionals. So, the better photographer you are, the better your chance of winning.
A different approach to photo contests is taken by a Web site called Competico (http://www.competico.com/), an Israeli start-up that sponsors themed contests on topics such as "cutest pet," "prettiest garden," "best nature photo" etc. There are dozens of contests going on at any time, and the winners are determined by votes of Web site visitors.
Prizes range anywhere between $100 and $400, depending on the number of participants in a contest (entry fee per photo is $1, with two free uploads to start with; according to the company, you get four free uploads if you click on the link at http://photocontestblog.com/). The sheer variety and number of contests at this site makes it perhaps easier to win a competition at this site, which attracts amateurs, as opposed to others that attract professionals and semi-professionals seeking exposure.
All these contests will accept digital photos, whether taken by a digital camera or scanned from a traditional photo. And there's plenty of money in digital photo prize money, just waiting to be taken home.
The question is, are your pictures good enough to win? And if not what can you do about it?
Welcome to the world of "photo enhancement," where you "treat" a photo to eliminate red eye, emphasize natural colors - or even create effects that will make your photo stand out from the crowd. While some contests require a "straight" photo, without any special effects (check the rules before you mess with your picture), others are glad - and even prefer - enhance photos that are unique. Some contests are geared to combinations of "real" and enhanced digital images. And nearly every contest I have come across understands, and perhaps expects, that entries will have been "cleaned up" from artifacts, extra shadows and darkness and "scratches" before being placed on-line for a contest. Far from "cheating," using an image enhancement program can bring out the "real" scene you photographed, compensating for the cheap-o on sale digital camera you used to take the picture! Of course, when you think "image enhancement," you think Photoshop - with good reason, since PS is the premier image enhancement program.
There's a good reason it costs close to $700, but you don't have to spend $700 to fix up your photo and enter it into a contest where you can win $100; you want to win while outlaying the least amount of money necessary (usually the entry fee, which you usually can't avoid, unless the site is running a "special"). There are plenty of free downloadable and on-line applications that will help you fix up your photos, getting them ready to "run" for "best picture" - and win! You might have heard of The Gimp (http://www.gimp.org/), a free Photoshop substitute I've mentioned before; it does basically everything PS does. What you may not have heard about is an adaptation of The Gimp called GimpShop (http://www.gimpshop.com/; both are free for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux platforms), which set up The Gimp with a familiar Photoshop interface, even providing the same keyboard command combinations used by PS.
The Gimp/GimpShop is not the only free Photoshop substitute, by the way; you can also download Paint.Net (http://www.getpaint.net/), a shockingly Photoshop-like program (for Windows only). Both The Gimp and Paint. Net utilize plug-ins, just like Photoshop, and have the full set of PS tools users know and love, like curves. paths, masks, layers, history, tutorials, a large on-line support community etc.
If you want to integrate an Adobe Illustrator-type drawing into your photo - or just put together a drawing on its own - you don't have to shell out for Illustrator, Coreldraw or Freehand; just surf on over to http://www.inkscape.org/ and download the free Inkscape, which lets you draw artwork using tools and interfaces that users of the Big Three drawing programs will feel at home with. The program produces SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format files, and you can save your drawings as EPS or PDF files, or export them as bitmaps, for importing into Photoshop - I mean GimpShop or Paint.Net.
You don't even have to download software anymore to take advantage of advanced graphic tools. If, for example, you want to convert a bitmap file into vector (SVG) format for integration into a photo or other document, you can take advantage of a free on-line service called Vector Magic (http://vectormagic.stanford.edu/), a project of Stanford University that lets you upload a bitmap and get it traced into a very high quality vector output that you can then download back to your computer.
One day soon, in fact, you'll be able to use Photoshop and Illustrator-like software on-line as well; the Aviary site (http://a.viary.com/tools) will be going live in the near future with a full range of multimedia tools, for graphics, 3D modelling, image editing, page layout, and others (sign up at the site for an "early bird invitation"). It actually makes sense to use on-line tools to fix up on-line photos that you are going to be submitting to on-line contests; just make sure the money you win gets downloaded!