First of all, there are many type of photographic contests out there, which are, of course, targeted to different types of people. I usually do not participate due to the fact that I do not “particularly” plan to have a career in photography. Actually, even if I would plan to go full pro, I would still generally avoid contests. Their only benefit is acute exposure. Which means that it short lived and most of the people have no idea what to do with it. To go chronic, you need to win many contests in a row. And that is unlikely. Usually the reputation comes from being published with REAL work.
But, as I said, there are many contest out there. I usually clearly differentiate between the one photo per submission and project ones. Also, I clearly differentiate between the ones with social media voting and the one that actually have a jury deciding, as long as the jury is actually composed of “qualified” people.
To break them down a bit, the worst kind are the ones with one or more photos per submission and the decision is made by the social media voting or a hybrid jury/social media. They are lotteries. Everyone is a photographer and everyone is an art critic. You get absolutely no value out of these if you actually care about your photography.
Even National Geographic is running this type of contest and for any photo you submit, they get all the rights. Of course, the stakes are high, the prized are great. But it is a lottery, not a contest. You can buy a 15$ ticket and maybe you will win because you have a large social media presence.
The best are the ones that are judging actual projects or large bodies of work with an actual jury made of art critics (NOT necessarily photographers). Shit happens there too, like it did with the World Press Photo Contest but at least the winners are artists, people who have invested countless hours in studying and working in this field. These contest might be a bit more “snobbish”, but they are the ones that raise the status of a photographer.
When it comes to me, I have many years in front of me before I can even dream of wining something in a real contest. I did submitted photos in the past to some competitions, but it felt like such a waste of time and it felt like I am trying to unfairly get benefits. I don’t feel I am there yet in terms of minimum quality and I do not actually have a body of work since I am so unfocused. I am still TAKING photos and not MAKING photos. It is a long and hard process to get to understand, control and focus talent and knowledge. Consistency is the key and that is what I do – I take photos and read about photography every single day. Something will come out, I am sure.