I was honored to have been invited to be one of the three judges at the digital photo competition of All Valley Professional Photographers (AVPP) last night. The caliber of talents was impressive; although there were only 38 entries in this first competition of the year, the photographers collectively demonstrated an eye for details, color harmony, composition, and some more than others, originality and creativity in a wide range of categories from nature, portraits, wedding, to digital art.
In the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) family of organizations, photographers are encouraged to enter local and state-level competitions to get initial feedback on their work in preparation for the annual district/national competition. These local competitions also represent opportunities to earn recognition. So, last night at AVPP, the competing photographers are testing the waters, so to speak, to see how well their images may be perceived by a panel of judges. 31 out of 38 images merited; that was an unusually high percentage, but it can be explained by immense creative skills and practical experience of the entrants. Most images were scored between 80-84, indicating a level of “deserving of a merit”, one category up from “above average”, but just short of being “excellent”, the next category up. I was happy that the panel of judges amply rewarded the image makers for their concepts and efforts, and the images demonstrated a lot of potential for next levels of competitions. Unfortunately, there wasn't sufficient time for all judges to share their comments for each image, as it would have been enlightening for me too.
As I reflect on the night, I feel obligated to point out to the group that they should strive to perfect their entries for the next rounds. Who wouldn’t, right? Well, sometimes we are too proud or blinded or emotionally invested to evaluate our own work objectively. While the competing photographers presented many brilliant ideas last night, execution was not without problems: sensor spots, banding, over-dodging / burning / sharpening, subjects being out-of-focus, distracting highlights or objects, a lack of details in prominent black or white areas, and awkward composition or posing. At the state level and up, technical deficiencies are considered sloppy and inexcusable, and I have seen superior images stripped of their merits, at original scoring or after a judge’s challenge.
In my scoring for the night, to show the makers my vote of confidence, I awarded merits to images that impressed me with their impact, storytelling, technique, and artistic values, despite minor, fixable technical issues. On the other hand, I equally denied images from merits for major or overwhelming number of visible issues. Sloppy burning and dodging is like not coloring enough or coloring out of the line, obvious even to untrained eyes. Hiding imperfections, such as unsharp subjects, behind artistic filters may be the solution to deliver an otherwise beautiful image; nevertheless, the flaws will not escape the judges in PPA competitions. Perfecting an image involves being detail-oriented as well as learning when to stop, knowing "when enough is enough". Also, remember, sometimes less is more; you may find a frame within the frame, a story within the big story. Do not forget that a big part of photography is “photo-”, i.e. Lighting. "Light" shapes forms and textures and induces dimensions and drama into an otherwise flat image. I made the same mistakes in the past, and I now try my best not to repeat them.
An image's final score was calculated by averaging the scores of the three judges. If you were one of the competitors last night and your image scored in the low 80s (or any score, really), I’d highly recommend you seek advice on how to resolve and remove technical issues in the image and improve on presentation. Doing so will improve your chances of meriting in the next competitions. Reach out to other photographers whom you trust and make it an educational experience for both of you. It is going to be a win-win situation. Besides, who wouldn’t want their images to go "Loan" at the International Photographic Competition (IPC)?!?* <smirk>
As one of the three judges, I gave my best and fairest judgement and opinions at the competition. It was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope the entrants and the audience felt the same. Being able to explain something clearly to other people (especially in multiple ways) means true mastery. Honestly, I am still learning, and my opinions do not represent the absolute truth. The system is not free of subjectivity, but I believe this is the best continuous education available for working photographers.
In the end, photography is as much an art as it is a science. Artists are notorious for being persistent or stubborn; many have become icons of their times because they have defied traditions. As Jerry Stevenson, the 1st place winner last night, said, “Stay true to yourself / your heart.” I couldn’t agree more. The more I learn, the more risks I take, and the more confident I feel as an artist: by the way, a relatively new identity for me! Don’t get discouraged -- I have my fair share of my “best” images not meriting. (Note the present tense!) Not everyone likes my images, and that’s ok. My art is not for everyone, including PPA / IPC judges. PPA has to set some rules for its game, but that should not preclude us from creating for ourselves.
If you are still not convinced, come see the print comp of Inland Empire Professional Photographers & Videographers (IEPPV) on Wednesday, March 15. Your dear judges Jose Quintanilla and I will be in your seats, having our images judged. Jose was among a few people who inspired me to compete at PPA. My first time was a total disaster, as I pretty much went in blind, but I was proud to tell my family and friends (and I am telling you now) that I competed with Peter Lik!! He was listed just below me alphabetically! *grin*
Congratulations again to everyone who entered last night! You are doing the right thing to become a better photographer. I look forward to competing with you at PPA Western District and at IPC!
* For those of you unfamiliar with the PPA family of organizations -- Professional Photographers of America (PPA) is the largest non-profit organization of professional photographers in the United States. It has affiliates at the state and local levels (sometimes called “local guilds”) that maintain their own autonomy but mostly abide with PPA guidelines. AVPP is one of these local guilds in the Los Angeles area. It holds its monthly meetings at the La Canada Flintridge Country Club overlooking breathtaking valleys with a distant view of downtown Los Angeles.
Print competition is at the heart of the PPA system of education and recognition. While inevitably there are some aggressive competitors and emotions can run high, the competition system mainly sets a standard and encourages members to "up their game" and beat themselves. It is not all about who is no. 1, 2, 3, but how an image measures up according to the 12 Elements, a guideline to provide an objective look at a very much subjective art. Each image is scored against a predefined scale, and any entry with a score of 80 or above receives a merit. Most state and local affiliates have adopted this system and offer regular competitions throughout the year. This enables their members to prepare for the annual PPA/IPC competition, in which a merit counts towards the three Masters degrees -- Master of Photography, Master Artist, and Photographic Craftsman -- offered by PPA as incentives to working professional photographers in the field to improve their crafts. Furthermore, the best of the best entries each year are included in the exclusive Loan collection that is published as a book and may tour around the world. Image entries are judged by a panel of trained judges, all working or retired professional photographers who have earned at least one Master’s degree and who have been through many hours of judging at state, national, and international levels. Competitions are taken very seriously, and I find it a very rewarding experience. Feel free to contact me at rebeccaliphotography[AT]gmail.com or 781-281-8885 if you’d like to know more.
Professional Photographers of America (PPA)
Professional Photographers of California (PPC)
All Valley Professional Photographers (AVPP)