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Why do Print Competition?

Margaret Bryant, Master Photographer

Most people who are involved with photography are aware that there are a myriad of photo competitions out there. They are on the Internet; they are in magazines. But the print competitions put on by the Professional Photographers of America and their affiliates are quite different. There are no cash prizes. This is not a contest where you hear no negative words and everyone pats you on the back and tells you what great work you do. It is not a popularity contest. This is a serious competition. The judging can be harsh. Not everyone will do well.

It can be frustrating. It can be confusing. Your ego might take a beating.

So why on earth would anyone participate in print competition?

Basically people do it for one simple reason: It makes you a better photographer. Being a better photographer makes your work more saleable. You can rise above the ordinary. With all of the other photographers out there, you need to stand out.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to print competition. But it will give you a taste of what is out there.

Let's start by untangling the list of letters that describe the various PPA affiliated organizations. Your local affiliate (guild) is the DPPA - the Dallas Professional Photographers Association. Next is the state affiliate - TPPA - the Texas Professional Photographers Association. Then is the regional (called "District") affiliate - SWPPA - the Southwest Professional Photographers Association. Then is the national (actually international) organization PPA - the Professional Photographers of America.

They each have print competitions and they can be stepping stones up to the national/international competition. You can also opt to skip steps and enter just nationals if you desire. Each organization has their own rules, and while based on the PPA rules, there can be slight variations. So if you are going to participate, you need to make sure you read the rules for the particular competition you are entering.

So let's start at the beginning and work our way up. The first start is the local guild. In our case that is the DPPA. Print competition is once a month at the general meetings. The entries can be prints or albums. Be sure to read the rules before entering. The entries are judged by 5 Master Photographers and are given scores. The scores are tallied and ribbons are given each month to the high scorers in each category. The judges use the PPA's 12 Elements of a Merit Print as a basis for the scoring. The scoring at DPPA is not averaged out and you get a total score from all five judges. A score of 400 or above is what you are aiming for.

I won't kid you; the competition in DPPA is very tough. It may be a local guild, but we have some world class photographers in Dallas and it can be very discouraging to see their high scores as compared to yours. Don't let that get you down. Yes, it would be nice to win a ribbon, but in the long term you are actually competing against yourself in your quest each month to make yourself a better photographer. Most importantly, those world class photographers and the judges are more than happy to look at your work and give you constructive criticism on how you might do better. This group might be intimidating at first, but most everyone is willing to share their knowledge and experience. Take advantage of that! While you are getting your critique, don't forget to ask what you did right and why it was right. When I was starting out I found that many times what I did "right" was unintentional and I didn't know it was "right". So be sure to ask that so you know to repeat whatever you did right!

So enter the DPPA print competition every month. Learn from what you did right and learn what you can do better. Your work should be constantly improving. You should be gaining confidence as your work improves. When you are ready, you can enter the TPPA print competition.

The TPPA print competition is in Kerrville, TX each summer along with their summer seminar. You do not have to attend the seminar to enter the competition, but you might find the judging interesting to watch. The state judging is more like the judging at regionals (District) and nationals. The judges sit in a row and in front of them is a gray wall with a rotating display in the center. This is where the print will be revealed by rotating the display. The title of the work will be announced, and then the display rotates around to show the print. There are two very bright lights shining on the print. The room is hushed and darkened so the focus is on the print. Each judge enters their score on a keypad. The scores are averaged and the score is announced. A score of 80 or above is desired. If there is no discussion by the judges, that's your score and that's it. You have no way to know why you got that score. (Judges are not allowed to speak to the photographers about their entries until the competition is over.) However, many times there is discussion among the judges that you can listen to. It can be revealing listening to the discussions not only about your print but of the other prints they are judging. Many people attend the print judging even though they did not enter, just so they can get some insight into what the judges are looking for.

Understand that judging is always somewhat subjective and a print that does well at DPPA may not do well at TPPA. And a print that did well at TPPA may not do well at SWPPA.

At the TPPA they give out awards for high scoring prints, folios and albums. They also give out awards sponsored by Kodak and Fuji.

The next level of competition is regional (District) competition at SWPPA. This competition is in conjunction with the regional convention every fall. Both TPPA and SWPPA alternate who will host the regional convention each year, but the print competition is always put on by SWPPA. The convention is usually every fall in the DFW area. Again, you do not have to be present to participate. Like the state competition, the prints and albums (no folios) are presented in a darkened room to a panel of judges. Digital entries are now accepted at District competition and they are presented in a darkened room on a large calibrated monitor.  The scoring process is similar to the state scoring. The judges are quite tough. Many people believe the scoring is tougher at SWPPA than it is at nationals. Awards are given out at this competition too. However, the scoring differs from the state scoring in one significant way. Any entry scoring 80 or above receives a "Seal of Approval" on it. You can submit this entry to nationals without having to be judged again. You can enter up to four prints and/or albums in this competition and the goal is to get 80 or above on all four entries. If you do this, it is said you went "four for four" which is a very high compliment indeed!  All of the print entries that scored 80 or above (and sometimes 79 and above) are hung up on a display in the convention hotel so you can see all of the winning entries. It is a good learning experience to watch the judging and view the displayed images, even if you don't enter.

At the top of the levels of competition is the PPA national (actually international) competition every summer. At this level of competition you have some choices about what to submit as entries. If you received any "Seals of Approval" on any entries in district competition, you must to submit them to nationals to receive your "merit". (You collect merits to get your PPA Master of Photography degree.) As to your other entries that did not receive seals, you can:

  • Enter them in nationals unchanged and hope for a better score from different judges,
  • Rework them in response to the judge's comments at district,
  • Or submit entirely new entries for those that did not receive a seal.

The national judging is similar to the district judging except for two things; one, the public is not invited to watch and two, there is no score, only a thumbs up or thumbs down. The thumbs up means the print scored at least an 80 to get what is called a "merit". If you received a seal of approval on a print or album in district, submit it to nationals and you will automatically receive a merit for it. Prints and albums that receive a merit are considered part of the "General Collection" of print competition that year.

All of the merited prints go through an extra round of judging to determine which prints or albums will be accepted into the "Showcase Collection" or the "Loan Collection". The Loan Collection is the apex of print competition and is quite an honor! At one time it was called the "traveling Loan Collection" and would indeed travel the world on exhibition. It has not traveled in many years, but is still regarded as the apex of print competition. You get an extra merit for every entry accepted into the Loan Collection. The Showcase Collection is for those prints or albums that are still exceptional, but not quite at the level of the Loan Collection. Marathon Press also publishes books each year containing Showcase and Loan collection prints and albums.

Each year at nationals, you may only enter a maximum of four prints and/or albums into the print competition. Like district competition, you get bragging rights for going "Four for Four" on merit prints. (Meaning you entered four prints and/or albums and all four merited.) You also get a Photographer of the Year pin and are recognized each year at the awards presentation at Imaging USA. Additionally, if you get one or more prints into the Loan Collection, the Photographer of the Year pin is a different color to signify the number of loan prints you also received.

There are no ribbons or trophies for nationals. Instead you are trying to accumulate merits towards the degree of Master of Photography. When you have received 13 print competition merits and 12 service merits, you will be awarded the degree of Master Photographer and have a gold medallion hung around your neck at a ceremony. It is a wonderful achievement and is a lot of work! Since you are limited to only four entries each year in the print competition, and any extra merits for the Loan Collection, you can see that it can take a while (years) to get enough merits for the degree. Take a look around you at any gathering of professional photographers and see the percentage of them that are wearing the yellow ribboned gold medallion (or blue ribbon with yellow stripes). You can see how few are awarded and how prestigious the award is.

There is a lot more to print competition that what I have outlined, but this may give you an idea to how the process all works and some of the terminology you might hear. So back again to the original question: Why would you want to do this?

Here are some reasons to think about:

  • The personal achievement of growing and improving as a photographer.
  • The personal achievement of getting merits towards your Master of Photography degree.
  • The thrill of competition and showing off your very best work.

Most importantly, becoming a better photographer for your clients. Rise above the ordinary work of your competitors or maybe even work of the clients themselves. Give your clients a reason to come to you by creating incredible work for them.

I challenge you to become a better photographer by competing in print and album competition. Yes, it will be hard work. It will at times be very discouraging. But in the end, with your hard work and perseverance you will be the ultimate winner by being a better photographer. Try it and see!

Margaret Bryant



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