RPS Distinctions

Now that the website is built, I have started to wonder about others ways in which I could develop my photography. A few options suggest themselves:

  1. Join a club – no offence to camera clubs but I must admit that the club scene doesn’t really appeal to me. Like some other landscape photographers, I tend to be a bit of a loner who likes to pursue his craft in solitude out in the wilderness.
  2. Enter competitions – I have occasionally entered the odd competition, usually small local things, with some success, though I haven’t really gone all out for the big ones like LPOTY, SLPOTY or OPOTY. What I want at the moment is some way to get some feedback on my images, to know if anything I do is really any good. Friends and family seem to think so, but they would do wouldn’t they? Success in competitions seems to be too much of a lottery, at the whim of the judges, to be any reliable indicator of how good a photographer you are. Witness the annual outpourings of anguish when the big competition shortlists are announced and many well known and highly accomplished photographers are overlooked (again). That’s not to say I might not have a go in the future; I think you just have to treat competitions as a bit of fun and not make them the be all and end all of your photographic life.
  3. Social media – I already have a personal Facebook page for sharing news and images with friends and family so I thought I would set up a page on FB purely for my landscape photography. It is still in the embryonic stage, but you can find a link to it in the page footer. Once that was done, I thought I’d better collect the set so I now have accounts on Instagram and Twitter also, as that is where the landscape photography community seems to hang out. Both outlets are also still very much in their early phases, so more followers are very much welcome.

I had been aware for many years that some photographers sported letters after their name, such as LRPS, ARPS and the ultimate accolade FRPS. So I looked at the Royal Photographic Society website and decided that having a go at the LRPS distinction would be a worthwhile objective to pursue. My images would be assessed by a panel of experienced senior RPS members and if they were considered to be of a sufficient standard (ie if I was any good) I could call myself an LRPS (Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society).  So that is what I am engaged on at the moment. The rest of this blog will update you on how I am getting on so far and future posts will continue the story as I progress towards the final assessment.

To be considered for the award of LRPS, you submit a portfolio (or Panel in RPS-speak) of 10 images for assessment. Most people seem to submit a portfolio of prints, though assessment of digital images on screen is also possible. I like the fact that I will be working towards a set of printed images, as too often these days images spend their lives confined to a computer screen. Assessment of a portfolio also seems a good idea as there is the opportunity to present a cross-section of different types of images. You would think that putting together a portfolio is just a matter of printing out your ten best shots and firing them off to RPS headquarters in Bath for assessment. However, this is far from the case and I would say it is essential to do some careful research first, by looking at successful portfolios on the RPS website and/or preferably attending a Distinctions Advisory Day, which is exactly what I did at the beginning of September.

RPS Distinctions Advisory Day

The nearest venue for these appears to be Bridge of Allan, which is a good two and a half hours drive south from Inverness where I live, so an early start was required to get there in time for the 10.30am kick off. The idea of an Advisory Day is for LRPS candidates to present their portfolios of 10 images (together with 5-10 spares) to a group of RPS Panel Members who are experienced in assessing submissions for the various RPS distinctions. Candidates then receive advice on whether their images and the portfolio as a whole are up to the required standard and ready to be formally assessed (on a different occasion). It is also possible to attend an Advisory Day as a spectator without any images to present and in fact most of the audience at this Day were in this category, as was I. I would estimate there were about 60-70 people in the audience on this occasion.

The session lasted all day until 4pm with a break for lunch (bring your own sandwiches). During this time three recent successful panels were presented, one at LRPS level and two at ARPS. Displaying the successful panels, the Chairman (James Frost FRPS) gave an overview of the requirements for a successful panel and how each example had achieved this. The audience was then invited to file past the images and inspect them at close range to get an idea of the level of technical quality expected.

The procedure when displaying Panels from candidates seeking advice was a little different in that only the RPS Panel Members giving advice were able to view the images up close and the audience could only see the images at a distance from their seats. Images are presented mounted (but not framed) in 2 or 3 rows according to a pre-planned hanging plan which is also displayed. The 5 RPS Panel Members present looked at the images both as a whole and individually up close for about 3-4 minutes (I know because I was timing them). They then sat down and one Panel Member gave feedback on the portfolio lasting between 3 and 7 minutes depending on the portfolio. So the average portfolio got around 10 minutes of attention from the Advisory Panel, which might not seem much for a 5 hour round trip in my case, but read on.

It appears that the selection of the images and the order in which they are displayed (the “hanging plan”) is extremely important. In fact it has been said that the overall appearance of the portfolio when displayed on the wall is assessed as a kind of 11th image. This is where things start to get a bit mysterious. Some images apparently make a good “edge” image and others make a good “central” image. “Edge” images have subjects which “look” towards the centre of the Panel and are ideally balanced by another edge image on the other side with a subject “looking” the other way (ie also towards the centre of the Panel). The choice and arrangement of the format of the images (ie landscape, portrait, square, or panoramic) must be carefully considered and displayed in a pleasing layout. Basically you have to demonstrate that a considerable amount of thought has gone into your Hanging Plan, a difficult exercise when you have only a tenuous grasp of what is expected in this area. This is the sort of arcane knowledge that can only really be glimpsed by attending an Advisory Day.

So moving on to the candidates who came seeking advice. Ten were aiming for an LRPS distinction and 9 for ARPS. Almost all portfolios received advice that some work needed to be done before they were at a standard suitable for Assessment, apart from one lucky (and pleasantly surprised) ARPS candidate who was told his images were too good for ARPS level and actually on the way towards FRPS. The trouble with significantly exceeding the standard required for a particular level is that you are required to show progression from one level to the next, which may be difficult if your work at one level is already approaching the standard for the next level above the one for which you are applying.

I won’t go through all the comments on all the portfolios presented, but try to give a flavour of the kinds of things to look out for. The basic take home message is: don’t allow the Assessment Panel room for any element of doubt over an image. They are extremely picky, especially regarding technical aspects of the prints. All the basics have to right:

  • sharp (but not too sharp)
  • no visible noise
  • accurate natural colour
  • no colour casts
  • no distracting elements or overly bright areas in the composition
  • keep detail in the highlights and shadows (burnt out highlights guarantee failure)
  • don’t print on glossy paper
  • no chromatic aberration
  • no visible signs of processing (eg halos)
  • correct point of focus (eg on the eyes for portraits)
  • correct exposure
  • avoid harsh light

You get the drift. Things they are looking for in a portfolio:

  • a variety of photographic skills and techniques. This could either be within a single genre (eg landscape or wildlife) or using a variety of subject matter.
  • awareness of how to use good light
  • effective composition without distracting elements
  • evidence of imagination and creativity
  • a balanced and cohesive set of images.

The full criteria against which portfolios are assessed can be found in the LRPS Guidelines on the RPS website and are essential reading.

I am now scouring my hard drive to find a set of ten images which might possibly meet the criteria and avoid all the pitfalls. I’m booked in to receive advice at the next Advisory Day in January 2018 so I have a while to come up with the goods before then. Watch this space.