Professional Photographic Competition is a challenge which comes with sheer joy and soulful heartbreak. Professional Photographic Competition is different than a photography contest. In a professional photography competition, competitors are judges by a panel of very savy judges who have years of photography and judging experience. Images are Judges against a standard and not head to head. It is not a popularity contest like a photography contest, but a competition based on specific standards.
Professional Photographers of America (PPA) hold the International Photographic Print Competition (IPC) every year in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixty or more judges along with a few dozen staffers and volunteers work over 5 days to judge the best and the best of the best who enter.
Photographers present their best work. Work they have poured their heart and soul into. It is a time when your work is being judges by your peers. Photographers wait with anticipation hoping their work hold up.
At PPA they have a standard which is called “the 12 elements of a Merit Image.” Those elements are:
1.) Impact is the sense one gets upon viewing an image for the first time. Compelling images evoke laughter, sadness, anger, pride, wonder or another intense emotion. There can be impact in any of these twelve elements.
2.) Technical excellence is the print quality of the image itself as it is presented for viewing. Retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and correct color are some items that speak to the qualities of the physical print.
3.) Creativity is the original, fresh, and external expression of the imagination of the maker by using the medium to convey an idea, message or thought.
4.) Style is defined in a number of ways as it applies to a creative image. It might be defined by a specific genre or simply be recognizable as the characteristics of how a specific artist applies light to a subject. It can impact an image in a positive manner when the subject matter and the style are appropriate for each other, or it can have a negative effect when they are at odds.
5.) Composition is important to the design of an image, bringing all of the visual elements together in concert to express the purpose of the image. Proper composition holds the viewer in the image and prompts the viewer to look where the creator intends. Effective composition can be pleasing or disturbing, depending on the intent of the image maker.
6.) Presentation affects an image by giving it a finished look. The mats and borders used, either physical or digital, should support and enhance the image, not distract from it.
7.) Color Balance supplies harmony to an image. An image in which the tones work together, effectively supporting the image, can enhance its emotional appeal. Color balance is not always harmonious and can be used to evoke diverse feelings for effect.
8.) Center of Interest is the point or points on the image where the maker wants the viewer to stop as they view the image. There can be primary and secondary centers of interest. Occasionally there will be no specific center of interest, when the entire scene collectively serves as the center of interest.
9.) Lighting —the use and control of light—refers to how dimension, shape and roundness are defined in an image. Whether the light applied to an image is man-made or natural, proper use of it should enhance an image.
10.) Subject Matter should always be appropriate to the story being told in an image.
11.) Technique is the approach used to create the image. Printing, lighting, posing, capture, presentation media, and more are part of the technique applied to an image
12.) Story Telling refers to the image’s ability to evoke imagination. One beautiful thing about art is that each viewer might collect his own message or read her own story in an image.
Images are scored on a scale of 65-100. To be considered for “merit” an image must score a minimum of an 80. The higher the score the better the maker has successfully incorporated all of the 12 elements.
100 – 95: Exceptional
94 – 90: Superior
89 – 85: Excellent
84 – 80: Deserving of a Merit
79 – 75: Above Average
74 – 70: Average
69 – 65: Below Exhibition Standards
Getting a score of 80 or above is hard. REALLY hard. For some photographers they have success quickly and have a natural gift for creating images for competition. For others, like me, we struggle our way to success. For me that struggle was heart breaking at times and joy filled at others, but through it all I improved little by little.
Each image is also required to have a title. Titles can really help an image. It leads the judges to the story you want them to see. It took me a long time to understand how titles can impact images.
This is my story of failure and success.
My first competition was in the summer of 2012. I entered 4 images and received one merit. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no real clue of the 12 elements and entered images with no presentation. I was told I would have an easier time meriting on “non-people” images. So I went with my fine art prints. I didn’t have a clue to even what a merit image was, so I was pretty happy with my results.
Land of My Grandfathers – MERIT IMAGE
Light and Shadow – NO MERIT
Winds of Change – NO MERIT
West Texas Summer– NO MERIT
Each year you have two opportunities to enter. A competitor can enter in their PPA district. My district is Southwest Professional Photographers Association (SWPPA). I entered in 2013 with miserable results. I received no merits for my images.
Woodland Warrior NO MERIT
The Prayer NO MERIT
West Texas Wind NO MERIT
Indian music NO MERIT
I recouped and got some one-on-one feedback from the late master photographer Darton Drake. Darton gave me wonderful advice and I took it to heart.
I was an inexperienced photo-shop newbie, but had a vision of what I wanted from the images. Darton encouraged me to get help with my images. So I hired an experienced Photoshop professional to work on my images. My results at IPC were better. I entered 4 images and loaned one image.
A loan image is a merit image that has been seen by a second panel of judges and deemed the best of the best. Loan images are published each year in a book and all merit and loan images are displayed at Imaging USA. Some Loan images are framed and hang in PPA headquarters and some travel around the country in art shows.
In The Brides Shadow – LOAN
Sensual Seduction – MERIT
Sacred Moment – MERIT
Love & Lies – NO MERIT
2014 I had a much better idea about image competition and decided to venture into the world of pet photography. The results and SWPPA were once again abysmal. Needless-to-say I found a whole new respect for pet photographers.
Alluring – NO MERIT
Golden Treasure – NO MERIT
Are You My Mommy – NO MERIT
My Sisters Keeper – MERIT
During this competition, I felt broken. My confidence was completely shaken and I was ready to quit. It just didn’t seem like it was worth it. I didn’t understand and felt defeated. Without the support of Pete Rezac and Bree Adams, I would have quit. Both told me different things which I needed to hear, but it was really, hard! This was Bree’s first competition and she went 4 for 4. Pete had had his own success and was very close to getting his masters. I really thought that maybe this was just not for me.
Bree said something that changed my view. She said “why don’t you shoot something you really love that’s not client work but a personal project?” A light bulb went off and I decided to photograph my son. I will tell you that every competitor will tell you not to enter your children. As a parent you are too close to have an objective view of the image. But I thought I had nothing to lose and so I photographed my beautiful son.
Two things change for me. First, I shot for myself and second I found two mentors. Great mentors (Michelle Parsley, Keith and Holly Howe) will tell you want you need to hear and not what you want to hear. They will not spare your feelings for your growth. They don’t sugar coat and they 100% want you to succeed. Getting feedback, getting advice and really hearing it, changed the way I viewed my images.
I entered 4 images at IPC and received 3 Merits.
Bugsy’s Boy – MERIT
Where’s My Mommy – MERIT AND SHOWCASE BOOK
My Sister’s Keeper – MERIT (came to IPC as a Merit from SWPPA)
I’m Not Miss Muffett – NO MERIT
After this competition season, the number one thing which changed my work was taking Michelle Parsley’s class on print competition. She opened my eyes to simple, yet profoundly powerful, photoshop techniques which would enhance my images. She is a gifted teacher and supporter. Her feedback on my images was invaluable. I am so lucky to call her my mentor but even more fortunate to now have her as my friend.
With a new mentor and skills I began the 2015 season with new intention. This year I would need to secure 4 merits & one loan to receive my Master of Photographer Degree. I had never gone 4 for 4 and only received one loan. I was expecting it would take another year to compete my Masters, yet like all competitors, I felt I had given it my very best. I was head and tails better than when I started and with encouragement of my friends and mentors I thought I might just have a chance at 4 for 4 at SWPPA.
I started working on images a year in advance. I decided I would also venture into wedding albums and entered 3 at SWPPA. Oh wedding albums! They take hundreds of hours to prepare for competition. I had one amazing bridal image, that I worked on for over 80 hours to get it exactly right. Districts arrive early in 2015 and I was excited to see how my images would do. I had very high hopes as my mentor had critiqued my images and I felt so optimistic that this year was my year.
I was fiercely disappointed. I received 2 merits and once again felt defeated. This time there was a phone intervention with Michelle and Bree talking me out of quitting. Once again, my friends were going 4 for 4 and I had yet to achieve this goal. It was SOUL CRUSHING! I even won a GIA for best wedding album at SWPPA, but I still wanted to quit. I had done the best I could do, I didn’t know how to do any better! I was devastated!
My Heart, My Soul, My Everything – MERIT – GIA for best wedding album at SWPPA
To view My Heart, My Soul, My Everything click HERE
Beloved – MERIT
To view the BELOVED album click HERE
Latin Love – NO MERIT
To view the Latin Love album click HERE
From This Day Forward – NO MERIT
I ordered critiques from PPA and got some valuable feedback from Carl Caylor on From This Day Forward. I spoke with Keith Howe about it and he pointed out the same thing Carl had told me in the critique. What I loved about Keith and Holly is as I have gotten to known them over the years they pulled no punches. Keith asked what is scored and I said 79. He then said “well that was generous, I would have scored it a 73 – but I think you can get this up to merit.” Some might say OUCH to that, but the reality is, if you can’t take the honest feedback, knowing it’s coming from someone who really wants to help you, then you shouldn’t compete.
So back to work I went changing it so I could send to IPC. I pulled the album that did not merit and entered another image which I hired Michelle to paint for me. This is perfectly legal in PPA – she worked under my exact instruction to create an image that was EXACTLY what my vision was of the image. She also made me promise to learn how to paint an image, to which I agreed.
IPC 2015 was my first time to go 4 for 4 and I received one loan which was just what I needed to walked for my Master of Photographer Degree. It was a joyful celebration!
You’re Not My Daddy – LOAN
Center Stage – MERIT
Beloved – MERIT – SHOWCASE BOOK
My Soul, My Love, My Everything – MERIT
CREATE FOR LOAN
For years I had heard the saying “don’t create for merit, create for loan” or “don’t create for an 80, create a 100.” I never understood it. On no level did I understand what they meant. I was just completely confused by this notion. Bree would often say to me “I’m pulling that image because I don’t think it will loan.” Shaking my head, I had no idea what she meant.
Michelle started another class called the Storybook Look. She explained in the class that images that score high have great story telling. If you can tell a great story in a second, you have a better chance at loan. I quite honestly had never thought of it that way. With this information the door was at least unlocked to the mystery of “create for loan.”
Because I received my degree, I felt the weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I had nothing to prove to anyone, so 2016 was a year of me creating images which I loved and told stories. I took a painting class so I could learn how to paint an image. I learned how to turn a scene from daylight to night, I collaborated with Bree on an album about Woman and their Daughters, I shot a fashion shoot with a unique twist.
And once again the light bulbs starting turning on. For the first time since starting competition, I was shooting for loan. I cannot tell you what changed, but something did and I could finally understand what shooting for loan meant as it applied to my work. If I didn’t think it had a chance at loan, I left it out. It was the most amazing year!
It was a year of real growth. I was really frustrated with my painted image when I received feedback that she had helmet hair. I called Michelle and tried to hire her to work on the hair. She refused. She said to me “you are talented, you can do this, I am not taking your money, figure it out and hung up the phone.” A REAL MENTOR KNOWS WHEN TO PUSH THE STUDENT OUT OF THE NEST. So I struggled my way through it. On that one image I started over on it 10 times! But I learned how to paint. I got critiques from Heather Michelle about techniques and started over. I got feedback from Keith and started over. I got feedback from Michelle and refined. It was a long process but, I had to create the vision I had in my head. I learned so much by doing it through trial and error and would have never continued my learning had Michelle not given me confidence to do it on my own. I didn’t think it would loan but was looking for a solid merit and BAM it merited and then much to my surprise had a unanimous Loan.
The Counts Bride was another real labor of love. BAM while shooting this image I was LOAN. Taking the skills I learned in the Storybook Look Class, I worked and worked and worked this image. What was thrilling about both the Counts Bride and Mi Amore is that they are client work.
The Heirloom Album was the perfect illustration of photographers helping photographers. Bree and I collaborated on the concept for 4 months, we story boarded our ideas. David Edmonson loaned us the wedding dress, Angela Navarette loaned us the veil and rosary, Landon Day and his wife Niki and daughter were models and Jennifer Fermaint was the mom. All photographers helping photographers and the success we achieved is shared with them.
And the last image I entered merited but did not loan. I was very sad about this because I thought the impact was great! It was created for a commercial shoot & on set I could see LOAN images being made. While it didn’t loan, I can now see what I deem is Loan images.
Mi Amore – LOAN
The Counts Bride – LOAN
The Heirloom ALBUM– LOAN
To View The Heirloom album click HERE — BE SURE TO FULL SCREEN SO YOU CAN READ THE TEXT
The Pagan Bride – MERIT
With 4 merit images and 3 loans is a Platinum Photographer of the Year. That is a honor for .25% of competitors in 2016. It’s a journey and I have grown and learned so much along the way. While I would have loved to have gone 4 for 4 my first year and subsequent years, I would not have grown nearly to the point I am now. It has been a roller coaster of the highest highs & the lowest lows, but totally worth the ride.
So I am writing this as a way to document my journey and to provide hope for competitors who are new or those who have not had the success they wanted.
CHOOSE THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
Surround yourself with people who support you. Hang out with the creatives. Keep company with those who would rather you know the truth, than stroke your ego. Get a circle you trust who will push you out of your comfort zone. Have in your corner when you are at your lowest of lows, people who will see in you what you cannot see in yourself. Trust these people. Listen. Learn. Grow.
To creating, being more, pushing for excellence!