A personal perspective of the APS Panels and Exhibition Honours.
By John Chapman APSEM, GMPSA EFIAP/p ARPS
The path for honours can seem difficult and confusing and some give up along the way as they feel it is impossible to achieve. I have also gained the impression that some feel it is biased towards those who performed lots of voluntary work for APS. As a person who is not a member of any camera club and has never held an office inside APS (well I am now a member of the Honours Committee but still do not hold any actual position), I can verify there is definitely no bias towards the club members or APS officers. There is a separate set of service honours for those who have held office in clubs and APS. I feel the problem is that many just do not understand what honours for achievement are being granted.
There are two systems for gaining honours for achievement. The first is for exhibition success. This is straightforward. Simply put, compete in multiple exhibitions and your acceptances and awards gained prove that you have achieved the required standard. The requirements are clearly defined and you only need to reach the required numbers, it is not necessary to get extras. It is up to the applicant to prove their achievements by supplying the required documentation. A disadvantage for many is that entering exhibitions can be costly and also takes some time (multiple years) and hence is not a quick route to honours. An advantage I see is that you are exposed to lots of ideas and get to know what the current exhibition standard is and this will improve your own work.
The other system for L, A and FAPS is to apply by submitting images to a Panel of Judges. The Panel submission is a replacement for exhibition success and hence must meet the same standards. A mistake by some is to submit beautiful images to a Panel that would be considered excellent by many for a particular use such as a magazine or a calendar. However, if they would not fare well in exhibitions they would be rejected. The problem is not with the selection panel or APS, it is simply the photographer did not understand what was required for a Panel submission to be successful. To improve your chances of success with a Panel, you must have some knowledge about current exhibition standards.
MAPS can also be awarded by submitting a Panel. Such a panel is very different to the L, A or FAPS panels system as it must be a coherent body of work. MAPS by Panel is very similar to MFIAP or FRPS and any applicants who have reached that level will not need to read this article.
I find that part of the trick of getting others to like your images is to select the 'right' photos for their intended purpose. I have supplied images for calendars, books and magazines for decades and I provide different images for each use. Yes, occasionally one image might work across all types of use but that is the exception. Generally, quite different images are selected according to what the photograph must illustrate, after all, each image in a publication is part of a story. An image for publication is often selected according to its potential and will normally be given further work to prepare it for printing. Shading, dodging, cropping, sharpening etc will all be done before it gets printed.
Exhibition photography is different to magazines, calendars and books. As an example, I have 15 books in print, only three images out of the approximately 1900 images in those books have exhibition acceptances and none of those three is in the 160 that have received awards. The same applies to my images that have been used in magazines; none of them has been used for exhibitions. Simply put, exhibitions and published images are different! There are separate awards in the publishing industry for book covers, books of photographs etc.
Digital has raised standards and from personal experience, what was an exhibition award winner 20 years ago (multiple best in show), is now just an occasional acceptance and is not up to current standards. Standards will continue to rise further as other photographers learn from their experiences and today's acceptances will become tomorrow’s rejects. For applicants, submitting a Panel for an honour that might have made the grade a few years back might now be rejected as not being up to current standards.
It is important to realise that an image is judged for exhibition according to what is presented, not by its potential. Each image must stand alone, it must be complete and finished, if it requires cropping, shading, dodging, colour balance changes, sharpening etc. – the photographer must do all these before submitting it. As other exhibitors have done these tasks, your images will do poorly if such tasks have not been done well. Even traditional subjects such as nature, travel and journalism, which do not allow cloning or merging of images need some processing before submission. Also, images do not have to fill the screen, verticals do just as well as horizontals so crop your images, I test all my images for cropping by masking off bits, some are improved by cropping while others don’t require it.
All readers must be aware that digital has dramatically changed photography. Cameras and software are steadily improving and perfectly exposed images with beautiful colours are now easy to obtain. For current exhibitions, almost every image that is presented is perfectly exposed, has a lovely colour and has been polished with Photoshop or similar programs. Today you could produce a fine exhibition for the public from the best of the rejects! On the other end, it is not easy to win awards, typically, international exhibitions will have around 3,000 and sometimes up to 10,000 entries per section and usually between 17 and 20 awards are given out. Much less than 1% gain awards! It is very competitive and your images must stand out above others.
With so few awards being given out there will usually only be one or two of each photo style chosen for an award. If you take popular subjects such as landscapes, sunsets, birds, street photography etc, realise that often only one or two of the maybe 500 images of that subject type will win an award. Of course, the other 499 are considered by their maker to also be great images and are perfectly exposed, have beautiful colour etc. It can be tough but is not impossible, it is definitely not easy and with so much competition, your image has to be perfect to win.
When judging a Panel for honours, the images are judged against current exhibitions. From my experience, APS runs it like a mini-exhibition. The Panel members are independently asked to judge if each image would be an acceptance, then go through, and consider if each image was capable of being a possible award winner. As judges can have different opinions, you do not have to get a 100% acceptance level. Panel members are never told who the applicant is and the panel chair, who does know who the applicant is, does not take part in the discussion or decision. This is a very fair and unbiased system. For rejected Panels, a second Panel may be convened to repeat the process to ensure that the Panels were assessed fairly and correctly. In some ways, it would be fairer if all Panels were also reconsidered to make sure they met the standard. However, APS is looking for reasons to pass applicants rather reasons to than fail anyone so, if anything, the system is biased towards an applicants success.
If you have had a rejected Panel or are unsure as to what standard is required then one suggestion is to have your Panel looked at by others. While everyone will have an opinion, I would suggest it is most effective if you have access to an experienced international exhibitor, preferably one who has gained awards and understands current standards. Mentors work well as long as the mentor has the required skills.
The alternative is to do a proper study yourself of what is being accepted and awarded in international exhibitions before applying. Most exhibitions have used the web for several years now and a large number of them post their catalogues online. These are free to download and only require an internet connection. As volunteers run the exhibitions, catalogues vary wildly; some are just text-based with lists of names and acceptances/awards while others produce multiple page coffee style books. Many of the European, Middle East and Asian catalogues are excellent. In addition, well worth downloading. To find current exhibition sites, most of the web links to them are found at the PSA (Photographic Society of America) and FIAP websites. Some have both text lists and full catalogues, when given a choice download the largest PDF on the site, which is usually the full catalogue with all images.
While just looking at the catalogues is free and very instructive, it does not always push us to improve our own photography. Most of us find it difficult to be a good critic of our work and the best way to encourage improvement is to actually enter a small number of exhibitions to see how your work compares. To save costs, do not enter prints; enter digital files as most exhibitions are digital-based. The ones to enter are those that provide magnificently printed catalogues that reproduce a large number of the acceptances as well as all awards. It is normal to initially win very few acceptances but as you improve your work that should change. Once you understand the standard and are sure you have reached or exceeded it, you then need to make a decision, continue exhibiting and improving further as you gain the next award by exhibition or try through the Panel system.
Be aware that not all exhibitions are equal. Some are not traditional photographic exhibitions as they offer attractive cash prizes but are really about stealing photographers images as the entry conditions specify that all copyright of all submitted work is permanently transferred to the organizer. The international bodies of PSA (Photographic Society of America) and FIAP (Federation of Artiste Photographers) have strict rules and only approve exhibitions that do not steal your images. Sure, the exhibition is given a right to reproduce the image in the catalogue but the photographer retains full copyright. I suggest only entering exhibitions approved on the websites of PSA, FIAP and our own APS.
Suggested exhibitions to enter are Trierenberg Super Circuit, any from the UAE (example Al-Thani), any of the PCA (Photo Club Arizona) in Serbia, and most from Hong Kong and Singapore. There are many others as well, any active exhibitor can give you a long list. For most of these, you will get a multiple page A4 or larger book. While you might not like some of the work selected as an exhibition covers all styles of work, look at the ones in your area of photography and look at why the image was selected for an award or just acceptance. We have all done that and it gives new ideas and an incentive to improve our own work. This is a continual process and standards will continue to slowly rise as cameras and software gets better and easier to use.
A common problem for those starting out is that they do not have the required image editing skills. In film days, to obtain exhibition success, we had to be experts with cameras and have excellent darkroom skills. However, cameras have improved to the point where we can often trust auto-focus, auto-exposure etc and instead we now have to be experts with software. Today, software skills have replaced the darkroom and are an important part of modern photography. It is essential to have good software skills if you want to gain honours.
There are many examples of great work with Photoshop, and other image editing software, but many of the techniques are often not clearly explained and can be difficult to understand and master. Photoshop was designed more for artistic use for Graphic Artists rather than photography so many of the techniques are for cutting and merging images together rather than for improving a single existing image. For many years, I lectured in Computer Graphics and researched some of the ideas that became part of Photoshop and understand the design ideas behind the program. Many of the tools are there for photography but often it is not obvious how to use them well. The emphasis on Graphic Arts explains why there has been a proliferation of plugins. If Photoshop was aimed purely at photography some of the plugins would never have been created.
One of the best examples I have seen for using Photoshop to improve a single image is the work of Peter Easton, a renowned landscape photographer. While he is creating images for wall-sized prints, many of his ideas and techniques are very appropriate for anyone using Photoshop for single images. He takes the approach of doing small multiple changes using multiple layers. The masks are usually made by using a wide feathered brush so you get a soft transition. This is very similar to the traditional way dodging and masking was done in the darkroom to make prints for the previous 160 years. There were many good reasons why, overall, this approach was the most successful method for improving prints and the same applies to many digital images. It does not require precise selection and is like painting with light, which is more of a photography approach. For those doing creative images combining multiple images then the Photoshop emphasis on Graphic Arts is ideal and they will use different techniques.
While Peter Easton’s website has some inspiring images, it is not where you find a how-to-do-it manual as he likes to sell attendance at his workshops (I have heard it is worthwhile if you can afford it). A very instructive tutorial is on the web about one of his images, look at https://luminous-landscape.com/the-making-of-the-pilbara-storm/ and you will see how he has taken an ordinary-looking image, which he knows has an interesting but not obvious focal point, and makes it into something dramatic by multiple small changes using masks. Most images should not require as many layers and steps as he uses but it does show a good process which is to do small changes at each step and build up your image slowly to be what you would like it to be. It is also easy to turn layers on and off to see what the changes actually do and hence experiment to perfect the image. For the Pilbara Storm image, Peter did an experiment but the tutorial only shows the layers actually used for the final image. Trying to do such changes in one step rarely works and is why many find it hard to get good results with Photoshop. You can copy the smaller base images from the article on the web and try the steps yourself, a great way to learn how to use the tools. Once you have a good idea of what can be done (and what cannot be done) and roughly how to achieve it you are well on the way to improving your own images.
Applications through the Panel system must meet the same current standards as the exhibition system and over time, the standard keeps rising. There really is no real shortcut to honours, one way or the other you must both gain and show that you have the required skills to produce photographs of national or international exhibition standards. It is no longer sufficient to just have camera skills, it is also essential to have software skills in the lightroom to improve your images.