If you’ve followed my page over the past year or are friends with any other members of Professional Photographers of America (PPA), you may be familiar with the term “print competition”. Well, it’s that season again! From February to the end of June, PPA photographers are scrambling to put together their best images, called a “case”, for competition.
A fellow photographer described print competition as a car show. The images are like the concept cars, amazing and over the top. Our clients don’t necessarily want that type of image but it shows what we’re capable of and makes us more confident in our skill set. And yes, editing plays a large part in the final image. But understand that no amount of editing will make a poor image merit worthy. Editing is just window dressing on top of a well-lit and technically excellent image. So, for print competition, I may flip an image for better composition or change catch-lights lights (pet eye catch-lights are a huge topic of discussion at the moment in the competition world!) or change the color of a piece of furniture. I will spend an hour with the image magnified at 200% and clone off every piece of dog hair and schmutz from a velvet sofa. I may change the tones in a dog’s fur color so that it matches the overall tone of the image. I will have a concept in mind when I’m shooting the image that requires just the right lighting or props to tell a story. These are not things that a client necessarily wants or cares about. I will spend five to ten hours on a single image. That’s not feasible as part of a business model. But that’s OK. Because after you spend an hour cloning out dog fur, you learn to take the time to clean the couch off before you start shooting… Competition will make your client images better.
Judging begins at a local level and progresses through State, Districts, and culminates with the International Photographic Competition (IPC). Local and State competitions aren’t run by the PPA but they usually follow the PPA guidelines to give their members a chance to try out new images and get a feel for how the judges will score. District and the IPC are organized by PPA and are overseen by the Photographic Exhibition Committee (PEC).
These print competitions differ from traditional competitions in that entrants (known as “makers”) don’t compete against each other but against a list of twelve elements. Those criteria, which include technical aspects such as lighting, technique, composition, and color balance, also include more subjective criteria like impact, creativity, and story-telling. An image that has successfully addressed all twelve of these elements is considered a “merit image”. There are no first/second/third places during the actual competition – the makers are judged individually on a scale of 1- 100 (although there may be separate prizes given by competition sponsors). At the International Photographic Competition there are two rounds of judging. Images that score 85 and above go through a second round of judging to see if they can join the Loan Collection, the best of the best.
To make certain that all images at all levels are scored using the same baseline, the judges take classes to learn how to judge an image and will work local and state competitions as “Judges in Training” before becoming PPA Approved Affiliate Jurors.
PPA has been at the forefront of recognizing digital artists. In addition to their “Photographic Open” competition which includes portraits, landscapes, and albums, they have a second competition called “Master Artist” where composited, manipulated, and painted images are judged not only against the twelve elements but also for the technical difficulty in producing the final image.
Last year I won a silver medal at IPC in the Master Artist competition because all four of my images merited and then one of those images went on to join the Loan Collection. In the Photographic competition, two of my images merited and one went on to Loan.
What’s the point of all this work (and money… entry fees, baby), you ask? Because it makes us better photographers. Striving to make the very best image possible, engaging with other photographers for feedback and critiques, as well as earning some recognition (hey, it doesn’t hurt!) is good for business!