A Beginner's Guide to Photography Salons

If you pursue an interest in photography for any length of time you will eventually stumble across the world of the photographic salon.  It can be extremely confusing at first and somewhat daunting - photographers with entire alphabets of letters after their name all vying for glory, discussing acceptances and HMs across the internet; online forums dedicated to the pros and cons of different salons, and how much better one patronage is over another.  For a beginner it's bewildering. 

It can be a very confusing world to enter and it certainly isn't for everyone.  This guide aims to explain the idea behind it and help you decide if this section of  photography is for you.

What IS a salon?

It's basically another word for an exhibition. In most cases, a camera club or photography society creates their salon with a few core sections - "open colour", "monochrome" and "nature" are three you will almost always find - and often additional sections depending on the individual tastes & interests of the organisers.  

With their salon all set up, the photo club then approaches a few international associations for their patronage - bodies like FIAP & PSA exist to promote photography and standards in international exhibitions and also supply a range of awards to recognise photographic merit in these exhibitions.  I'll talk more about FIAP & PSA later.  The idea is that a photographic salon with either FIAP or PSA patronage (most likely both) means that images are judged to a fair and usually fairly reliable standard, regardless of where in the world the exhibition is.

The call then goes out to photographers around the world to submit images for each section of the salon.  The limit is four photos per section so depending on the salon, the photographer can be submitting anywhere for 12 to even 20+ images to a single salon.  The photographer does pay to enter a salon and it's not guaranteed that images you enter will win an award or even be accepted.  It depends hugely on the relative standard of your work and the tastes of individual judges as to what is accepted into their salon.  By and large though, quality work is universally recognised though as with every art form sometimes there is no accounting for taste!

Once the entry phase has passed, the images are judged to standards set by whomever they have received patronage from and a week or two later, the results for the salon are published.  Many salons then hold real-world exhibitions in a public venue to display the images that have won awards for the everyone to view.  Photos that have won awards, commendations or honourable mentions are then sent certificats, small trophies/medals and in rare cases a salon may offer cash prizes.  The rest of the images are either accepted or declined and each photographer is given a report card showing how well they did.  The notion of an acceptance is important and one I'll talk about later.

You may also see reference to something called "circuits".  This is basically a collective of salons and often organised by national bodies within one or more countries.  The idea is very similar - you submit images for each section but instead of going to one salon, the same set of photos goes to three or more linked salons for judging.  As a result, it's possible to pay for one submission to a circuit and get far more acceptances or chances of an award than entering a single salon.  There are some technical limitations I will talk about later but the main drawback is that it's usually more expensive to enter a circuit than a salon, but almost always cheaper than entering the same number of individual salons.  For now, don't worry too much about circuits.

What's the point?

Unless you're a stunning pohotographer with a huge portfolio of world class images, the goal of most photographers entering a salon is to earn acceptances.  This means your photograph is officially recorded as meeting a minimum standard by the salon judges and they want to include it in that year's suite of exhibited images.  These acceptances then tie-in to the governing bodies I mentioned.  FIAP & PSA are the two best known ones though others are starting to emerge.  

FIAP - Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique, is an international association of photography comprised of more than 85 national associations.  For example, the PAGB in the UK, or the PSS in Singapore, are national bodies that are affiliated with FIAP.  

PSA - Photographic Society of America is, despite its name, another international association but differs from FIAP that it offers membership to individuals, clubs and national bodies.  It also has other activities for indivudual photographers to become involved in beyond exhibition patronage.

These bodies differ in history & where they are based but their stated goals are essentially to further photography as an art form & hobby, to provide standards in international exhibitions and to recognise & reward skilled photographers.  Each has different levels of support it offers to individuals in terms of learning opportunities but in the context of this guide, they exist to set standards and provide the awards you compete for when entering a salon.

They also offer accreditations for ongoing successful acceptances & awards over time.

Tell me more about accreditations

For most photographers acceptances are the main incentive for entering an exhibition. Awards are lovely but as anyone who has ever entered a photographic competition knows, judges are fickle with wildly differing tastes.  Our art is extremely subjective!  

However, both FIAP and PSA offer accreditations which recognise the success photographers have earned in patronised salons.  This is where the letters after photographer's names come from and indicate how "successful" someone has been in salons over time.  I'm not going into the exact details of each level and what you need to do to achieve them in this guide - that information is available from the FIAP and PSA sites directly and is subject to review & change - but the general idea is each level of accreditation requires a minimum number of acceptances across different salons in different countries.  Sometimes it depends if the acceptance is a physical print or a project digital image (PDI).

Put simply, you enter salons to get acceptances.  You get acceptances to earn accreditations. Accreditations give you those all important letters after your name and you can judge from the level of accreditation a photographer has what general level of achievement they have reached in international salons.

What kind of photographs should I submit?  What if I am not good enough?

It depends entirely on the quality of your work and what you like to shoot.  As a general rule of thumb, most exhibitors submit four colour and four monochrome images as a minimum and then, depending on the other sections in the salon, might submit nature, travel or landscape images too. My suggestion is to start to build up images in each of the following categories - 

  • Colour - this is a very broad category and is generally a bucket for anything that doesn't fall into one of the other allowed sections.  No specific theme in most salons, the only time a theme would apply is if there are other specific sections.  E.g. if a salon has a portrait section and a colour section, you wouldn't be expected to submit portraits in the colour section.
Grassland Pastoral - 61st SIPA PSS Colour Gold Medal Winner 2014 - Zhiguo Song, China

Grassland Pastoral - 61st SIPA PSS Colour Gold Medal Winner 2014 - Zhiguo Song, China

  • Monochrome - again it's usually an open, broad category for monochrome images.  It normally allows for "one colour" toned images OR black and white, but duo-tone is not monochrome and your image will be rejected if submitted as duotone into a monochrome section.  I'd advise checking with the salon organiser if in doubt.
Arm Wrestling - 61st SIPA PSS Monochrome Gold Medal Winner 2014 - Adhi Prayoga, Indonesia

Arm Wrestling - 61st SIPA PSS Monochrome Gold Medal Winner 2014 - Adhi Prayoga, Indonesia

  • Nature - this is a very restrictive section with some fiddly rules.  Within nature the PSA and FIAP often define sub-sections, specifically "Nature" referring to the natural world which CAN include captive animals, natural events & phenomena and so on.  "Wildlife" specifically restricts you to wild animals and you have to be able to prove the animals were wild if requested.  Showing human influence in either section is a grey area and usually frowned upon but, frustratingly, depends on context and individual judges.  A wild animal that lives entirely in an urban environment should theoretically be eligible for either sub-section, for example, but some judges just reject images with even a hint of human involvement.  Photo manipulation is also strictly forbidden for all but the most basic adjustments.
Piggy Back - 61st SIPA FIAP Nature Silver Medal - SUNG WEE HO, Malaysia

Piggy Back - 61st SIPA FIAP Nature Silver Medal - SUNG WEE HO, Malaysia

  • Travel - a fair broad category with wooly definitions that I find overlaps a lot with colour/monochrome, the best way I find to define travel is "scenes of life & human endeavour from outside the country the salon is held in".  The other notable difference is in similar restrictions on photoshop like with nature.  Think "World Press Photo" and it's broadly the same - humans doing things, minimal photoshop.
The Young Reader - 61st SIPA PSA Travel Gold Medal - Marco Urso, Italy

The Young Reader - 61st SIPA PSA Travel Gold Medal - Marco Urso, Italy

  • Portraits/Landscapes/Macro - as it says on the tin.  Some salons like to have specific genres of photography and split them off into their own section, usually because the club running the salon has an interest in that style of photography.  Although splitting genres is very common, less frequently are even more narrow sections such as Monochrome Landscape.  Usually the sections are self-explanatory, just make sure you read the salon rules.
Innocence - David Candlish

Innocence - David Candlish

  • Creative/Experimental - though all photos need some degree of post-production, a common new section is specifically for "Creative" photography, sometimes called Experimental.  The most common definition is that the author can use elements from any photograph they have taken to build a new image from scratch.  This means you can effectively compose any scene you can imagine and composite it together in Photoshop BUT each element must be from a photograph you have taken; stock photography and entirely artificial elements are usually not allowed. Note that just because a salon might have a Creative section it doesn't mean that photoshopped images won't be seen in some categories and there's a lot of online debate about "how much is too much" when it comes to photoshopped images that are not in the Experimental section.  Appreciation & acceptance of this type of image seems to vary from country to country but broadly speaking, it seems to be gaining in popularity.
Hold That Thought - Phil Barber, UK

Hold That Thought - Phil Barber, UK

After you've checked the relevant sections for the salon you are interested in and picked/processed your best images you either upload/email your PDIs (often at a specific resolution & limited file size) or post your prints to the organiser and wait for the results.

The question of being good enough is not an easy one to answer.  My best response is that you won't know until you try but the general rule of thumb is that quality always tends to do well. Although a lot of online debate suggests tailoring your entry for the country and salon you're entering I'd suggest ignoring all of the "meta-competition" discussion and just enter your best possible images. You can look at previous exhibition entries and winners to gauge the overall level of quality and even see if a particular salon feels like it has a theme in what it accepts.  For example, a large number of salons in the UK seem to favour heavily photoshopped images within their awards & acceptance list, suggesting a regional preference for images with a certain look & feel. When you have a better handle on the process as a whole you can look to tailor entries.

I'm more than happy to look through your portfolios to help build a submission or give tips on how you can improve specific images - get in touch via the comments or my email address/about page.

In all honesty, you won't know if you are "good enough" until you submit your images and get your first results card.  Be sure to check out the salon catalogue you will receive too - this shows what you were competing against and what judges liked the look of.

I've started getting acceptances - what's next?

If you're just entering salons for fun, you don't really need to do anything.  However if you are wanting to take salons seriously and work towards accreditations, it's very important you keep a log of what you entered, where you entered it, the result and a few other important facts.  I've got a sample spreadsheet I use to track my submissions and acceptances which I'll post for you to download.  From here, you need to choose if you are going to work towards PSA, FIAP or both.  My suggestion is to log information for both so you can choose later on and not have to go trawling back through old emails looking for what was accepted into which category many years ago!

Next, you need to check with your national photographic body (PSS, PAGB etc.) and with the international bodies what their acceptance criteria for accreditations are.  Aim for the entry level awards first, they normally require a few tens of acceptances, in a dozen countries/salons with a certain proportion of your entries as prints.

Once you're submitting and recording, you can shift focus back to taking great pictures and planning how to reach your first accreditiation.

It sounds like a lot of money & effort just for some letters... 

Whether or not it represents value for money and a worthwhile investment of time is up to you but I have collected some of the common collective opinions both in favour & against getting involved in international salons.

  • It can broaden your horizons.  Even though I was posting my work online frequently, the types of communities & groups I am involved in seem to have a consistent style of photo they like to shoot and share.  Salons are different again and while a lot of what I see winning awards is - to me - utter garbage, I've also seen some stunning work that's very inspiring. With so many photographers involved you are guaranteed to see a range of styles & standards, all of which is useful to study & understand.
  • It can be expensive.  Depending on what's motivating you, this can either be a manageable cost associated with your hobby or a serious investment.  It all depends on what you want to acheive - if the accreditations & chance to win awards are you motivation, you can easily find enough salons to empty your wallet.
  • It can be frustrating.  This is a really broad point!  When you start down the path of the salon, you have to accept that judges are fickle, inconsistent & unpredictable.  Some of your photos may have earned you tons of cash with clients, or go down a storm on social media yet flop miserably in exhibitions.  Conversely, you may have some images that win you awards in some salons and don't even get accepted into others.  Sadly, this is par for the course when it comes to this type of photographic endeavour.  Quality will win out over time, but you need to be prepared for some salons to just be inexplicably strange in the photographic art they accept.
  • It can be motivating.  Projects are a great way to get you out shooting and working towards the international accreditations is just another type of project.  While it may not help you sell more photos or get likes on Facebook, working towards a goal over a number of months & years can definitely be rewarding AND leave you with a great portfolio of images.
  • Make new friends!  Salons often offer group rates for 5 or 6 photographers who submit work together.  As well as being cheaper than individual entry, joining a group can be useful for making new friends & getting feedback on your work from experienced exhibitioners.
  • It's a waste of money.  There's a section of the community who regard the whole salon "industry" as nothing but a source of income for the salons.  Though personally I think these people are being overly cynical with many exhibitions having run for decades, or even centuries, it's certainly true that in recent years the number of salons worldwide has simply exploded.  It's easy to see that and assume it's just people trying to make a fast buck, or the opposite could be true and that the massive surge in popularity for photography has led to the increase we see in salons being hosted.  Personally I suspect the truth lies somewhere inbetween.  Caveat Emptor applies for sure, and if in doubt I'd check online for discussions about which salons are well known & reliable and which ones may be less well-intentioned. Certainly you should make sure the salons you apply to are FIAP and/or PSA patronised - these organisations have the responsibility for ensure the standards & honesty of whatever they give their patronage to and should therefore be reliable.  A good rule of thumb is that the longer a salon has been running, the more reliable it will be.
  • It can improve your photography.  Having to think very critically about what you submit is something you should already be doing!  But as a general rule, judges are extremely harsh when it comes to easily fixed errors - if you keep this in mind when preparing your images your final result will be better.  Likewise, seeing the types of images doing the rounds across the salon scene can help inspire you to shoot new subjects in different ways, or apply different post-processing techniques to create a new look & feel to your images.  

The decision whether you choose to spend time, money & effort in chasing exhibition glory is very personal.  My biggest recommendation is to think about it and try it a couple of times to see how you find the process, the results & to see if you enjoy it & think it helps your photography.  It's certainly not for everyone but that in itself shouldn't stop everyone from trying it.

QUICK REFERENCE GUIDE

  1. Work on your portfolio - get 4 solid images for each section you want to enter.  I suggest colour & monochrome as a minimum, plus extras for other sections like travel, journalism, portraits etc.
  2. Start with a PDI competition.  Though you will need to enter print competitions eventually, for your first salon it's much easier to do digital only.  Look for one that ideally has been running for a few years.
  3. Make sure it's FIAP and PSA patronised - you want both at this stage.  Most salons are patronised by both organisations.
  4. Read the rules for the salon carefully - although salons with FIAP & PSA patronage must adhere to core rules, it's still worth checking things like the resolution needed for your files, the cost and any other special rules.
  5. Submit your entry!  Upload your files to the salon website.  Make sure you use unique names for each image and that you record the names of the files you sent AND the categories you sent it for.  Make sure you record the PSA category as well as the salon category.
  6. Good luck!  Hopefully you will get at least one acceptance in your first exhibition!  
  7. Make sure you record the relevant details for all awards & acceptances.  Use my spreadsheet as a starting point!

Eventually I will be converting this blog post into a dedicated downloadable guide complete with more advice, an FAQ and tips for those who are serious about taking their first steps down the path of the international exhibition.  When it's complete I'll let you know!

Be sure to download my FREE sample salon record spreadsheet - download it here.

If you liked this intro, or have comments/queries/complaints please let me know in the comments box below.

 

Images used for educational purposes but without permission in most cases - if you are the owner and don't want me to use your wonderful photo as an example of what the current state of the art is just let me know and I'll remove it!  If you want me to link back to your site please get in touch with relevant details!

Hold That Thought by Phil Barber, check his work out on 500px and his Facebook page

The Young Reader by Marco Urso, more details are available on his website here