There are lots of photo contests throughout the world, and one of them has to offer more prize money than the rest. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that the world’s richest photography contest takes place in deep South Texas, and has since its inception in 1994! Not only that, but it has spawned divisions that offer significant money to amateurs as well as youths. Specifically, the South Texas Shootout offers $100,000 in prize money (plus a special $5,000 Rare Cat award); the Small Tract Competition offers $20,000 in prize money; and the Youth Contests offer a total of $7,500 in money and other prizes.

But it’s not just the awards that make these contests special, and to understand this it helps to know something about the organization that sponsors the contest: The Valley Land Fund.

The Land Fund’s purpose is “to preserve, enhance and expand the native wildlife habitat of the Rio Grande Valley through education, land ownership and the creation of economic incentives for preservation.” Given that 95% of our native habitat in the lower Rio Grande Valley has been developed or otherwise rendered inhospitable to wildlife, saving what remains is a now or never proposition. To date, the areas the Land Fund has saved and/or made more wildlife-friendly include Quinta Mazatlan (McAllen’s World Birding Center facility), Chihuahua Woods (part of the Nature Conservancy of Texas), the river front property at Salineño (which draws birders from around the world), and the Land Fund lots on South Padre Island (perhaps our most threatened and locally important wildlife area). For more details, see

Obviously, it takes money to do this and that’s where John Martin, a man never known for thinking small, came in with the idea of a wildlife photo contest. The genius of his plan is that it pairs landowners with photographers as equal partners, and gives equal importance to all wildlife regardless of size or popularity. The fact that this model continues today is testimony to its efficacy.

One result of this plan is that it opened the eyes of many landowners to the wildlife that share their properties. The number of landowners who did not realize the natural treasures on their properties has become legendary. Many, when asked about partnering with a photographer, essentially said “sure, but there’s not much wildlife here.” When the contest was over, they were able to see the treasures bequeathed to them. This awakened many a latent sense of stewardship, as well as a competitive spirit that caused them to want to enhance their properties so they would do better in the next contest!

This is not to say that there have not been changes in the contest, but these have been more in the nature of fine-tuning than overhauls. Specifically, local photographers wanted to participate but some were afraid they wouldn’t measure up to the pros. Thus, a small tract competition was created. It operates under the same rules as the South Texas Shootout in that all photographs must be taken on the property of their partner-landowner during the contest period (April 1 through June 30). The difference is that the land in the South Texas Shootout is of unlimited size; while in the Small Tract Competition it cannot exceed 100 acres (many entrants shoot on much smaller properties, including their backyards). In both contests, the prize money is awarded for each image that places 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in its class (50 classes in the Shootout; 25 in the Small Tract Competition), for each image that places 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in its Division (5 in each contest), and for each of the three Grand Prize Winners in each contest. And since the landowners are equal partners, they receive half the prize monies. This is particularly popular with those small tract participants who shoot on their own properties as they keep all the winnings.

It was not long before the contest was expanded to include a youth division. This quickly became so popular that there are now two (ages 10-15 and ages 16-19). Unlike the other contests, there are no teams (i.e.: they keep all their winnings) and they can shoot anywhere in the area other than zoos.

Some locals have said they would like to enter the contest but don’t think they’re good enough. To them I can only say that participating in the contest is an excellent way to improve as it motivates you to go out and shoot. Also, there are local photo classes and a McAllen based nature oriented photography club (TexNEP – that can get you started.

But the Land Fund’s mission also includes education, and that’s where the now famous photo contest books come into play. These books, which showcase the winning images, introduce to the public our local natural wonders and, after all, we cannot appreciate that of which we are unaware. A collection of the seven books from all of the contests recently sold at a local auction for $1,100 (the current one sells for a mere $45; $27.50 if 20 or more or purchased). So not only are these beautiful books educational, they have proven to be a very nice investment. Likewise, a number of local businesses now give copies of these books to their clients instead of generic gifts.

The contests are held in the Spring of every even numbered year; the next one starts on April 1, 2008. Entries are currently open and run through February 29, 2008, but if you enter before the end of 2007, the entry fee is reduced. The books are issued the following year, and have become very popular as Christmas presents, especially for people with friends and relatives who do not live in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

If you are a photographer, or have photographic ambitions, contact Michelle Romero at the Valley Land Fund (956-686-6429). You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.