A Beginner's Guide to Photography Distinctions

** update ** Clarifications & refinements made r.e. the PAGB system and I'll add further information in the comments over time.

I’m sure if you have been a photographer for any reasonable length of time you’ll have seen other photographers with numerous letters after their name. Some of these are gained through achievements in international exhibitions but there is a second type of accreditation you can work towards outside of photography salons. This guide is designed to explain the idea behind them and offer some advice on how to prepare, work towards & present your work in the hope of achieving a distinction.

Throughout this article I’ll be using terms & references most often associated with the RPS tiers of accreditation simply because these are the most widely-known and the RPS tiers of award have been something of an inspiration and standard that tend to be mirrored elsewhere. In most cases, even the name of the distinctions are the same regardless of the awarding body! I’m not recommending any one organization or accreditation over another – determining which is right for you is a personal decision – and there’s no reason why you can’t work towards more than one at the same time. This is a generalised, international article that simply recognises the RPS as the most well-known point of reference. Where I can I've included examples of other organisations that offer distinctions such as the PAGB or PSS.

What’s The Point of a Distinction?

Broadly speaking, photography distinctions are a way to test & recognise your skills against standards designed & maintained by photography societies & associations. The most common benefit for the photographer is it can be a valuable incentive & driver to improve their photography. Inspiration, or lack thereof, can sometimes be a major issue when working in creative arts and having something to work towards shouldn’t be overlooked. It doesn’t really matter what drives you to some extent, simply having the driver is important. These kind of awards can be useful to kick start you into improving your photography.

Once you’re chosen the photographic society that appeals to you most, read the guidance behind their distinctions. Decide if continued progress down this path will be useful to you; perhaps it will help you measure how you are developing and growing as a photographer. They can provide an external standard against which you can chart improvement at the very least. Whether or not this is important to you or not depends on how highly you rate the opinion of any given photo society, the standards they set and the opinions of others in certain photographic circles – obviously there are photographers who don’t have a single letter after their name who are phenomenal and those who have the highest level of accreditation but with work you wouldn’t look twice at. 

Accreditation Levels

The vast majority of systems offer three levels of accreditation. To gain an award you present a panel of images which are assessed by a judging committee who evaluate them against their own criteria - their verdict the decides if you meet the standard or not. How your images are judged & how many images you need to have differ from system to system. Sometimes detailed feedback is given, sometimes not. Regardless, you need to be looking to have a set of at least 20-25 solid images at a minimum from which you can construct your panel and for the higher level awards you're likely to need at least 50% more. Sometimes the panel can be presented as PDI (projected digital image), sometimes you need to submit prints; where prints are mandatory you should always make sure your images are mounted according to the society rules - I'd advise making sure you know exactly what you're doing with the mounting too as often judges perception of the image is tainted by poor mounting, even though it should be the image & not the mount that's judged! Sadly the reality is that you won't gain any advantage having well mounted prints but you have the potential to fail if your images are mounted badly.

Because the way your panel is assessed differs from system to system it’s worth reading their guidelines carefully, especially around clauses that prohibit using the same image at different levels of award, and understanding how the scoring works can help guide your photo choices. There can also sometimes be genres in which you need to categorise your work, especially at the intermediate & advanced levels of accreditation where a degree of specialisation is expected, so it's worth thinking ahead to be sure that you have a pool of very strong images to use at the mid- and top-tier levels where the standard required is higher.

Note that in some systems, notably the PAGB awards, the emphasis can be far, far less on the panel and more about each individual image - here they are scored separately and the total aggregated to determine your success.

I've used examples of publicly available successful panels from Flickr for each level to give a rough indication of standard - usually the society will have sample distinction panels on their website to help you out too but this isn't always the case which can make working towards their distinctions unnecessarily difficult.

Licentiateship

This is the entry level and generally by far the easiest distinction to achieve. Although the minimum standard of photography varies between awarding societies, generally speaking the bar is set at proving the following.

  • You can demonstrate a solid understanding of the technical aspects of photography; in other words, you can show how you can control depth of field for artistic effect, show an awareness of how choice of shutter-speed can be used correctly etc.
  • Demonstrate you understand the basics behind image presentation; by which I mean you can self-critique your own images and remove common flaws, distractions etc.  This is typically thought of as the “has basic understanding of photoshop” criteria, to put it another way.
  • Show an understanding of compositional technique & theory; this doesn’t mean use rule of thirds for everything but instead prove to the assessors you CAN use it and where it makes sense to compose your photos differently.

It’s no co-incidence that these three areas are the first three a photographer tends to tackle – often in that order – so it makes sense that they form a large part of the entry-level award assessment. My advice for how to work towards them is therefore pretty simple. Learn your camera to the point of unconscious use. It should be like driving, you aren’t constantly thinking about the controls of the car, it becomes an act of muscle memory. The same should be true for all your photography gear… spend the time to learn how to use it until you are not even thinking about the camera at all!

For the presentation/critique & composition part, this is where I think you need to spend most of your time learning. I’m about to publish a beginner’s guide to self-critique but in the interim there are any number of ways to learn the basics, from online photography groups, senior photographers at photo clubs, even friends and family who will look at your images in a different way to you. Over time, as with the way you use your camera, you’ll find you can critique your own work quickly and easily. Processing is a much more technical and long term job, arguably a one you will always be doing because the processing tools we have are constantly being refined. Simply put, YouTube is your friend. For any technique you want to learn there is a guide on YouTube showing you how to do it. Likewise, composition guides abound on the internet and many websites have introductions to composing photographs and demonstrate how quality images have used a range of techniques to achieve success.

There is sometimes a fourth category that needs consideration. 

  • Panel presentation; in other words, how well your images work as a group. 

This final point is normally MUCH more important at the higher levels of accreditation but still needs considering even in the early stages. It’s hard to describe, but in simple terms it’s basically “how well do your images work as a group?”. Even though a lot of what is being assessed at this stage is how well you have mastered the basics of photography, knowing how you can pick and choose images and arrange them to show how well you are capable of presenting your work is still very important. It is, almost without exception, the main reason an otherwise skilled photographer would fail to achieve their award. A cynic might suggest it’s because this is the category where the judge’s opinion has most influence – after all, a good photo will be universally recognized as such whereas a good PANEL of photos is much more subjective. It's not unknown for a panel of images to be rejected at first pass only to be accepted later simply because the second judging panel had different preferences to the first. 

Remember that some awards have less focus on the overall panel making it even more important to read the rules!

Most societies offer assessment days where you can bring your work along and experienced photographers can help you choose which images form your panel to stand the best chance of success. This is why it’s important to have more images to choose from than the bare minimum your panel requires – even if the panel only needs 10 images, having more than that gives the person helping you more material to work with. Generally speaking these are really useful because the people assessing your panel often attend these prep days to help advise. It can be a pain to attend them though and it is a significant investment of time & effort so deciding if it’s worth attending versus simply building it yourself and having a go is something worth thinking about.

With a decent level of photographic skill, the ability to nit-pick your own images and a bit of luck you should be able to achieve any organisation's L-level distinctions easily enough. The PAGB equivalent is a "Credit", or CPAGB.

As I mentioned earlier, photo communities like Flickr are a great way to get a large amount of free informal feedback on your panel from people who have been through the process already & there are a number of groups & forums setup specifically to offer this kind of advice. In the case of Martin's panel above you can see how even though he has presented a variety of different images, he's unified them into a cohesive panel that best showcases his talents. For example,

  • Alternating portrait & landscape images with the vertical portrait shots "book-ending" each side of the panel
  • The people portraits on alternate sides of the panel and each facing into the panel, something echoed by the animal portraits on the second row.
  • The same technique is used for the aircraft and the second set of wildlife images below
  • The central images are both landscape shots, one urban & another a more traditional scenic view.
  • The entire bottom row is comprised of "natural world" images. The subject matter on the top row is less unified in overriding theme but because of the way he's arranged it, hangs together well

Coupled with the quality of the images themselves it's no surprise at all he was awarded his LRPS distinction. In my experience this is an example of a very good LRPS panel; there are certainly examples where the standard of photography is lower yet still achieves licentiateship.

Associateship

This is where it typically gets considerably harder, albeit in a relative sense depending on the organization you are applying for.

Here it should be unambiguously evident that the core technical & presentation skills are without doubt mastered by the photographer. Minor errors in how you shoot & present your images are a huge no-no and liable to see you fail immediately. Instead, the focus is much more on your panel and how the images work together as a cohesive group. Having an underlying theme can often help as well as it adds an “easy” element of unification. Though it’s not always essential, having the same type of processing & treatment to the photos helps too. In other words, choose black & white or colour, but try not to mix both unless there’s a damn good reason. Attending the assessment sessions can be arguably even more important at this level purely because assessing a panel is so much more subjective that getting the views of the people doing it ahead of time is crucial. 

The A-grade accreditation is often the one that tends to take people the most time to achieve and consequently the one where many people stop, either before or after they achieve it. It can also be the most frustrating and daunting level to work towards because such a large part of the assessment is based on the panel, not the individual photos. A common theme expressed by people who fail to achieve it is that their photos which “do really well online” or “win competitions” tend not to do well at this level of award and that's mostly because it's very hard to get 15 very good, competition-winning images with a unifying theme that work together as a panel. Arguably it’s better to have a lot of good – rather than great – images that tell a story or work well together than having 10-15 superb images that have nothing in common.

Above & below you can see two different examples of successful RPS Associateship panels in the "visual art" category. Both are very different in their respective qualities but clicking through to the larger images shows you the standard of photography as well as the themes running through each panel, culminating in the overall layout.

Here's an example of a successful DPAGB panel (their "mid-tier" award). You can see here that each image has been given a score - this is normally an aggregate from individual scores awarded by the judging team and you need to reach a minimum overall score to "pass" rather than the overall impact of the panel forming part of the judging. Indeed, the RPS rules advise having variety in your images so whereas a series of similar portraits such as this might work for PAGB it may be less successful for other distinctions.

Image credit Jane Lines, found on Flickr

Each example of successful panel I've shown here is different and this is because everyone's photography is unique - at this tier that's part of the point and the judges typically want to see elements of the photographer's creativity coming through, more son than in the lower tier.

Fellowship

This is the final level of accreditation which members can expect to realistically achieve in the vast majority of societies. Generally speaking, everything applicable for the first two levels applies here with the added emphasis on the photographer being able to tell a story, or demonstrate photographic art generally pegged at top-notch levels. Many organisations require a statement of intent & some form of “photography resume” outlining your achievements. At least, that’s generally the case! Still, you can review successful panels awarded this highest of distinctions and find hugely different styles, standards & tastes represented.

The way I like to think of it – which may not be 100% accurate in all cases I admit – is that it’s the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. You create a panel that’s technically & artistically superb, embodies YOUR photography and submit it for assessment.

A quick tip - if you want to search for sample FRPS panels on Flickr, just use the letters FRPS - adding 'panel' brings back a load of bright blue industrial panels :)

Image credit Paul Mitchell, found on Flickr - also, a lot of the images that make up this panel are available on his photostream if you want to view them much larger

Below is an example of a successful MPAGB panel, the PAGB equivalent of a Fellowship.

Image credit Jane Lines, found on Flickr

You can see the scores awarded to each image, something specific to the PAGB judging system

You can see more successful RPS panels on their website here and successful PSS panels L-level and A-level panels but unfortunately the PAGB doesn't seem to host any successful sample panels on their awards page. Also, a note to my international readers - at the current time the PAGB rules are unclear as to whether or not foreign (non-UK citizen) photographers are eligible to apply for their distinctions. UK clubs can have foreign members and UK clubs are why the PAGB exists but at the time of writing the PAGB committee have postponed making a decision on whether the awards are for UK citizens only. I'll be sure to post an update when it comes through.

Although there are other types of awards, these tend to be honorary in nature or only given to photographers who render service to the societies. Typically you don't work towards these as such but they are instead used to thank & recognise those who have contributed extensively to photography as a whole or to the specific society in question.

GENERAL ADVICE

  • Read the rules & guidance provided by the governing body. Then read it again - there are often numerous requirements and missing any of them can lead to instant disaster. Don't waste time & money by not doing your homework!
  • Take all the advice you can get before submitting your work. Use online groups, assessment days and seek the advice of others who have achieved the award your chasing to help refine your panel. These awards aren't cheap so it's important to prepare as much as possible.
  • Research previously accepted panels. This can help you see if certain styles & types of image are favoured by the judging panels. Without this research you can put yourself at a disadvantage as some associations have strong bias towards specific genres.
  • Spend time planning & developing potential themes. Even if you don't need it for the lowest level of awards, you will need one eventually! Even if a specific series of images does hit the quality you want you'll likely still end up with some cool images. 
  • Remember that the panel is what's important, sometimes you will need to replace an image you love with one that's better for the panel.  Murder your darlings!
  • When working within a theme make sure you don't include too many similar images - this can be tricky when tackling certain subjects like birds, wildlife etc. Keep checking you have variety across your photos.
  • Try to avoid cliched or common subjects that judges might see a lot of - local landmarks or famous buildings, "generic" landscapes, lazy street photography and probably the bane of judges... the flower shot! Images like these can work but only if you add your own creative twist on them.
  • Along similar lines, think about what the judges might find exotic, unusual or interesting. Travel images are typically a good place to start but even here you need to find a way to present your work with a personal touch and avoid the "tourist snap trap"!
  • For print panels, learn how to cut & mount images properly - while you can sometimes find companies to print & mount your images in the long term this is HUGELY more expensive than doing it yourself. I'd strongly consider getting your own photo printer if this is something you're serious about.
  • Take your time in preparing your images. Once you have a set you're happy with and a panel layout that works, walk away from it for a short period. Coming back with fresh eyes might help you spot small errors or areas for improvement - asking another photographer friend to review the images too is also a good idea. Even one or two tiny errors can be enough to harm your chances.
  • Seriously - get anal about quality. Even though many of the best photographs ever taken don't have pin sharp focus and have blown highlights these are huge no-nos - technical quality can frequently override even powerful & effective photojournalism images.
  • Ask what each image adds to the panel and what skill or message it's intended to deliver. If you can't clearly see it yourself, a judge will struggle too.
  • Don't be disheartened if you fail. In my own opinion I think the most valuable part of the process is not the final award but the process.

Common Criticisms

In the wider world of photography, working towards photography distinctions is not that common. For example, taking statistics from the RPS website:

  • ~3500 members hold an LRPS distinction
  • ~2300 members hold an ARPS distinction
  • ~800 members hold an FRPS distinction

While advocates of the RPS distinctions could argue these small numbers are attributable to the high standards required it has also been argued that in the long-term, many photographers aren't interested because these kind of awards doesn't really have any tangible value outside of the audience to whom it appeals. In other words, it could be said you're paying for the privilege to achieve recognition from others who have paid for the very same recognition. Certainly it's unlikely to be recognised outside of photography circles and given the numbers above, perhaps even not by other photographers. It's highly unlikely to help you turn pro or benefit your photography business. 

The most common & tangible criticism is simply the cost. To achieve these distinctions you almost always need to be a fully paid-up member of the awarding body, often running into hundreds of pounds/dollars per year, and to keep the accreditation you need to maintain that membership – lapses means your accreditation is revoked. You also commonly need to hold the preceding tier of award for a certain time period before applying for the next level. If you buy into the whole accreditation scheme then you need to pay for it for life and this leads some to conclude that distinction programs are just another means to generate revenue. Some awards don't have these criteria but this leads onto another factor to consider...

It's also a sad fact that some distinctions are held in higher regard than others, especially internationally. Even though any assessment of this type can be ultimately be considered a subjective exercise, if you want to achieve recognition in these circles you need to be aware there is a "pecking order" so you'll need to ensure you choose the "right" distinction to work towards. If recognition & peer comparison is a motivator for you then choosing an award that others consider easy or cheap might lead to disappointment. As well as the internal prejudice, there are people for whom your level (or lack thereof) leads to preconceptions about your skill as a photographer. The reverse is also true and it's sometimes the case that people assumes those who chase distinctions are elitist, narrow minded advocates for what they consider to be the "right" way to do photography. Though these views are thankfully rare, they are always unpleasant when encountered.

Finally, the most snarky opinions assert that if you submit some crazy, heavily-composited and processed suite of bizarre images and call it art then judges are much more likely to accept it because they don't understand it. Again - whether this is true or not is largely irrelevant to most of us but perceptions like this do exist :)

Take a photo of any old subject > composite in a background > overlay a texture to hide the joins. Distinction success guaranteed! 

This may be a tongue in cheek joke but worse has been said of the standards of some associations!

Overall, aside from the cost elements, the majority of them are only really tangible concerns if you take this branch of photography far, far too seriously! As I said earlier, a huge benefit of these awards is the incentive & creative stimulus they can offer. This by itself can be worth the money and time invested into working towards them, along similar lines to the world of photography salons.  

Hopefully this guide has been useful - if you have any questions or want to discuss a potential panel then either get in touch or leave a note in the comments! 

 

Images used without permission for educational purposes. If you are the image owner and don't want me to show off your talent in this guide let me know and I'll remove them.