How does an amateur photographer guage the level of his/her photography? Having friends and family compliment your images and recieving likes on social media is all very nice, but with respect many of these compliments and likes will be from non-photographers therefore they are not really a true indicator of your photographic skills. Entering photo competitions can be fun, however in a very competitive environment unless your work is amongst the winning images, you still wont know at what level you are producing work. Not long after I started on my photographic journey, despite having reasonable success in my camera club competitions and recieving likes and comments on social media platforms I soon started to ask myself just what standard my photography was really at. After some discussions with photographer friends, it was suggested that perhaps I should try for a distinction which would give me some indication of the level of work I was producing.
What are distinctions?
Sometime early in 2012 I decided that I would indeed try for a distinction. This is where a group of experienced photographers and judges, examine and indeed scrutinize a panel or selection of your work to see if it achieves the standard required for that particular distinction. There are several organisations that provide various levels of distinction and after researching the various options available to me I decided to try for the 'Credit' award from the photographic Alliance of Great Britain (CPAGB). After attending advisory days and taking the comments and advice I was given on board, I was ready to have my work shown and assessed in April 2013. Once you have applied and submitted your work, the panel will examine and comment on your images and decide wether they think your work is at the level required. Should they decide that your work is of the required standard you will be recommended for the Distinction and will recieve documentation stating your success shortly afterwards. Assessments are held a few times a year around the country, for my assessment I travelled to Birmingham and was of course delighted to find on the day that I was successful in my attempt and could now use the designaton CPAGB after my name. Having enjoyed the process I went on to attempt another distinction, this time from the Royal Photographic Society and was pleased to be awarded my 'Licentiate' (LRPS). More recently I gained the second level of distinction of 'Excellence' from Artiste Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique (EFIAP). I must point out that the FIAP awards are earned by success in international salons and by meeting certain criteria, they are not awarded by a panel of judges in the same way as the PAGB and RPS.
The result of all this means that I now have a fair bit of understanding of what is required to be successful and what the process of attempting a distinction involves. Achieving any distinction is not easy and making an attempt requires a great deal of thought and effort, however I found the whole process very enjoyable and informative and would suggest that anyone who feels ready and is considering going down this route to absolutely do so.
So why bother? What are the benefits?
I will admit that success in the distinction processes and having letters after my name doesn't really help me sell pictures or raise my profile much, however the experiences and knowledge I gained going through each of the processes has in my opinion made me a better and more thoughtful photographer. It has helped me to try and look at my images in an unbiased manner by attempting to remove any emotional attatchments I may have to the image, and to look at them in a more balanced way. Getting a 'Licentiateship' from the RPS or a 'Credit' from the PAGB is far from a formality, you will have to show a wide range of skills and competence in your camera work, also if you are application is a printed panel then the print quality is also scrutinized. There is no tolerance for errors like blown out highlights or blocked shadows wether your entry is print or digital, but with prints any clumsy editing techniques will be highlighted especially on larger sized prints. Then there is the question of which paper to choose and the way the print is mounted. These are variables that must also be considered, with so many different papers avilable to photographers nowadays this is also a big decision. All of this will make you look at your work more closely, it will make you think more about the images that you are selecting for assessment and it will make you think while actually taking images in the future. If you are successful, there is of course the satisfaction of having achieved something that may have seemed like a distant dream at the start of your photographic journey. If you are unsuccessful then this should by no means thought of as failure, it simply means that the one or more of the images you entered on the day were not of 'the required standard' for that particular distinction.
Earlier I mentioned advisory days, these are held several times a year at various locations around the country and are invaluable for gaining advice and critique on your work. Advisory days are designed to help you view your work objectively and from a neutral point of view. They are there to help you achieve a successful outcome. To some people there is nothing more daunting than putting your work up on display to be examined by experts and to hear their thoughts on your work, especially in front of an audience of other photographers. I personally found it very rewarding to go through the process as well as being a great learning experience. Indeed I have found the advisory days to be invaluable in the preparation for any attempt at a distiction, you can learn fron the comments not only on your own work but from the comments given to other photographers showing thieir work on the day. Most advisory days follow the same format with a brief explanation of what the judges are looking for before going on to examine the work on show. They will offer constructive feedback on selected images and chat with the photographer before answering any questions from those in the audience.
In the case of RPS submissions, as well as each individual print being of the required standard within your panel, the panel itself should be balanced and hang nicely as a body of work, the order in which the images are displayed is very important, it is crucial that your panel looks good from a distance before the judges move in for a closer look. Although its not guaranteed, hopefully after having taken your time to select your images for submission, having attended an advisory day or days you will ultimately be successful in your application and will have gained some new knowledge along the way that has improved your photography and the way you see your own images. Should your application be judges to be not of the required standard then you should learn from it, take the comments on board and make the necessary changes to your panel of work and re-apply , hopefully the experience will not only make you a better photographer and improve your work but will ultimately result in a successful outcome.
I have included links to my successful panels for CPAGB and LRPS below in the hope they may be of help to anyone who is thinking of making an attempt at gaining a distinction.