I’ve never thought of myself as a competitive person.  In school, I didn’t compete in sports or debate or the other usual competitive opportunities that are given to us.  When I entered the world of professional photography and Professional Photographers of America, PPA, I was surprised by how much I became interested in competition.  PPA holds image competitions  at the local, regional, and international level.

International Photographic Competition  (IPC) was held this past week, so I thought it might be a good time to discuss why I compete.  Many people have asked me that over the years.  ( I was even challenged my Art Biz Coach to write about this.  Thanks for pushing me Alyson!)

The first competition I ever watched was at the Professional Photographers’ Society of New York State, PPSNYS, state convention.  I was very new to the industry and to PPA and had no clue what this was all about.  But I was riveted to the process.  I immediately recognized it as a way for me to improve my work.  Here were these judge’s discussing what made an image strong or weak.  And after watching for a while, I began to see the difference between a print that scored well and one that didn’t .  It was better than the best reality show!

To thoroughly explain why I compete, I need to give a bit of background regarding how this competition works. (Learning how it works was part of the process for me, though there is much better information available now about both the image competition and the degree program. )

Judge’s are minimally Master Photographers themselves and have extensive advanced training to become approved jurors.  There are 6 judges on a panel plus a jury chair.  Five judge’s are judging at any time, with the sixth sitting out, though still observing.  Every so many images, the judges rotate and the observing judge moves into an active role.  Each judge scores an image according to the scores described below and the scores are averaged for the final score.  A judge can challenge a final score.  It’s always extremely interesting and informative when an image is challenged and there is discussion about the current image.

All images are scored based on 12 elements.

1.) Impact
2.) Technical excellence
3.) Creativity
4.) Style
5.) Composition
6.) Presentation
7.) Color Balance
8.) Center of Interest
9.) Lighting
10.) Subject Matter
11.) Technique
12.) Story Telling    (See a complete explanation of these 12 elements here.)

After judging an image in relation to those 12 elements, scores are given in this manner:

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

I’ve never seen anything score below a 70, rarely below 75, and once saw an image score 100. Most fall in the 75 to 85 range.  The one that everyone dreads is the 79.  At 80, the image  receives a blue ribbon and is eligible to receive a merit and be included in the General Collection.   Merits are accumulated and used to earn PPA degrees, so they are a very good thing.  🙂

There is much, much more involved but those are the basics.  The important part is that I respect and trust the system.  It’s not perfect.  There is a layer of subjectivity to the judging, but that is present in all of art.  It is a carefully crafted, monitored, evolving system that offers an opportunity like no other to improve one’s work.  One of the best features, to me, is that you are mostly competing with yourself and those 12 elements.  Until you get into the very top tier, you are not competing with anyone else.  It’s not the only way to improve or to judge your work, but it’s a good one.

The first time I entered image competition, my goal was simply to enter.  I did the best I could with what I knew at that time and chose four images (4 is the limit) that I felt were strong.  Learning to recognize strength and weakness in your own work is an important piece of your artistic education.  I had no expectations going in, simply wanted the experience of entering.  I watched the judging and actually had the benefit of the judges challenging and discussing a few of mine.  I learned SO much from those images that didn’t score high enough to get a merit.  One of my images squeaked through to a merit with a score of 80.  It was so instructive as well as encouraging to have the judges discuss that image and one judge, in particular, push to make it a merit.  When the images were all hung for the exhibit, I found an extra ribbon on mine, a Judge’s Choice ribbon.  I was so new to all of this that I had to ask someone what that meant.  Each of the judges is given one Judge’s Choice award to give to their favorite image of the competition.  The judge that had championed my merit image had given it her Judge’s Choice Award.   🙂

After that successful first attempt, I was determined to enter again and figure out how to score higher than an 80.  It took a few years for that to happen.  I had a few more 80’s, kept trying, skipped a year, had a few years with all four scoring under 80, kept learning and trying. I was determined to figure it out.  All the time I was trying to figure out how to make better images for competition, all my images were getting better.   In 2013, I earned enough merits to earn my Master of Photography degree from PPA.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  I’m still pushing to improve my work.  There’s always a next step.   A few years ago I learned that there are more levels beyond merit image. At IPC, once all the merit images have been decided, all of those are judged again to determine if they will be included in the traveling Loan Collection.  These are the best of the best.  In 2012, I was delighted to have one image included in the Loan Collection.  In both 2013 and 2014, three of my entries “went loan”.  (Each Loan image earns you an additional merit point.)  So, now I’m not just shooting for a Merit, I’m working for Loan images.  I’m constantly thinking about how I can “up my ante”, how I can push my abilities or just create something unique.

And another step…from those Loan images, a top ten and one “Best of” in each category is chosen, Grand Imaging Awards. There was a very humbling moment at the convention where I received my Master of Photography degree last winter. They were announcing these Grand Imaging Awards and knowing that I had 3 loan images, I thought I had a chance at at least being in the top ten…until I saw the top ten.  I was both humbled and inspired.  I had new goals for my work.

Competition is not something to be feared.  Yes, it can be hard to put yourself and your work out to be judged  but one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” 

It is a journey.  In the end,  it’s not about the ribbons, the degrees, the loan collection. Those are just the path that takes you on a journey to push your own boundaries and see what you are capable of creating. 

Here’s a selection of a few of my images along the way: