The Professional Photographers of America will host the 2021 International Print Competition starting September 12. It is a five-day, intense look, at the best image-makers in the world and their work. I’ve been entering the IPC since 2011. It took me a while to get the hang of it and “play the game”. Playing the game means creating work that speaks to the judges, displays your technical and creative skills, and tells the story you want to tell. They say a photo is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to entering an International Print Competition, most of the 1000 words are the four-lettered variety.
Photographers, especially me, are introverts. We don’t like to put ourselves out there. We only want words of adoration and affirmation, and we do NOT like to be critiqued. When you enter the IPC, you are laying your BEST work out on the stage for a panel of five, highly critical, very experienced, judges. Their job is to make minute observations and determine if your work meets the standards they expect. It is one of the most humbling experiences you can have as a professional artist. You say “Here is my best”. They say “Not good enough.”. And I guess that’s why I enter. I am striving for perfection. In my mind, I did all I could on every image I entered. But there was always more. And I’ll enter again this year, hoping for more, coming up short, and starting over again.
The rules have varied some over the years, but the general idea is that your work is measured against a standard set of “elements”. In this case, there are 12 elements used to define success or failure. You can read more about those here https://www.ppa.com/…/the-12-elements-of-a-merit-image-mem Generally, you can think of it as a judgment of Overall Impact, technical excellence, and creativity. What IMPACT can you immediately make on a judge with your image? How well can you convey your story or message quickly? Can you be technically excellent while doing both?
Over the years, I have trained and practiced, and taken special workshops to improve my skills. I’ve spent countless hours just daydreaming about a particular image and I’ve spent the same hours again working the image in the editing room to get it “perfect”. And through all of that training and practice, I’ve only ever had ONE “perfect” score. Dozens of images, all failed. They didn’t fail me personally, but through the judge’s critiques, when measured against perfection, all but one could have been better.
Each year, an artist can only enter 4 images into a category. And each year, there are only 2 categories to enter, on average. Some years there are 3, and I’ve only ever chosen to enter 2 at a time. So in a given year, we might take over 500,000 images at our studio. And from those, I have to choose as few as FOUR to send to the competition. It truly is a submission of the absolute best of your best work.
There are basically “levels” or judging categories that the images are scored in. It used to be a numbered “score” from 0-100. And in my mind, that’s how I still play the game. But the scale is a little weird, so when I say to you “that image scored an 88”, it doesn’t sound like much. I mean, in school an 88 is only a B letter grade, and anyone can get a B. However, when you put in the context of the scoring system used at IPC, the result is much different than a B. There are generally about 5000 images per competition, and only 40-50% of them will score higher than an 80, or receive a “Merit Award”. Then when you know that less than 10% of them will score higher than an 85, you get a better sense of “success” vs “failure”. A score of 88 is a prized possession among photographers. Score in the 90s, and people are asking for your autograph. Score a 100 and they are literally calling to ask “how it felt”.
In the end, my goal was the improve my craft, and to earn the distinction of “Master of Photography”, “Master Artist”, and “Photographic Craftsman”. Each of these distinctions is awarded by the Professional Photographers of America as recognition of achievements in image-making excellence. Today in the US, there are approximately 40,000 PPA Members. They are all working professional photographers. Fewer than 1 percent of those members hold all three distinctions. I am one of those members.
Here is a look at my competition entries from the IPC over the years. I may have missed a few because it has been so long since I started my entries, but these are for sure the highlights. I’m especially proud that MANY of these are actual client images or they contain my own kiddos.