QUALIFYING AS A MASTER PHOTOGRAPHER
I need to start with a confession. When I first became a photographer, I told myself that I didn’t need validation or approval from anybody, especially not an organisation or qualifying body. My time at university had left me feeling jaded, and I’d be damned if I was going to spend the rest of my life being judged by people who barely even knew me. The only thing that mattered to me was that I had a real passion for what I was doing, and that my clients loved their images as much as I loved creating them.
To be honest, I do still believe that. Nothing will ever be more important than my clients and my own drive and passion to create. But I was naive to assume that the only reason to join a professional organisation would be to seek approval from a group of people I’ve never met, or be judged by a set of criteria that I didn’t necessarily agree with. So last September I took something of a leap of faith, and joined the Master Photographers Association.
The MPA is one of the UK’s most well established qualifying bodies for professional photographers, with a three-tier qualification system that helps photographers progress from certification as a professional business, all the way through to mastering their craft and achieving their Fellowship qualification (often taking years of hard work and dedication).
The past few months have been a huge learning curve for me, and a real eye-opener. I spent months watching critiques and learning what the judges would look for in my work. It was frustrating at first, especially when I didn’t necessarily ‘agree’ with some of the critiques. It felt somewhat stifling. These were considerations I never really cared much for, because I was so wrapped up in my own creative ideas. How could I shoot with my signature shallow depth of field but still keep a dog’s nose as sharp as its eyes? Why should I?
But I came to understand that these ‘rules’ that I always loathed are actually there for a reason. It’s just not the reason I thought. Instead of stifling creativity, they actually encourage a consistency and core foundation that gives you a platform to make your images even greater. They also make you think, and realise things that you might not have seen before. They’re more of a set of skills to understand and master before taking things to the next level. I realised that if I could learn to shoot within these ‘rules’ then I’d be even more empowered to get creative – building on what I already know. And that could never be a bad thing!
Of course, I’m not going to go through an entire session making sure that every single shot is perfectly composed for competition or qualification – that’s not how it works. Sometimes I just want to capture a special moment or something fun on the fly. But having those skills and the knowledge to know what to look for, so that I can achieve it when the time is right, is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve learned since I started out as a photographer.
So, back to my experience with the MPA. At the end of 2018 I qualified as a ‘Certified’ professional photographer, and began working towards my very first qualification as a ‘Licentiate’ – demonstrating sound technical competence in areas like composition, control, and lighting of subjects. I worked with my mentor over Christmas to put together a panel of 20 images, ready to be assessed by a panel of judges on qualification day, which happened to be on 18th March. At The Photography Show. At the NEC. In front of everyone. No pressure!
The day arrived so suddenly, it’s still a bit of a blur! I’d done so much prep work – ordering test prints and presentation boxes, agonising over writing my Creative Profile (a document that accompanies my panel and explains the creative process behind each image). So you can imagine how I felt when I missed my train… I hadn’t even arrived at the NEC and I was already messing things up! Luckily, Northampton is only an hour’s drive from Birmingham, so we hopped in the car (my awesome other half came with me, mainly to stop me from freaking out!) and got back on track.
We arrived just in time, and I nervously handed my panel over to the MPA team. All that was left to do was to stand sheepishly in the corner while the judges laid out my images, and got to work…
So many thoughts were racing through my mind – what had I forgotten? What were they talking about? Don’t forget to breathe. Why was it taking so long? When they finally called me over I was a bit of a nervous wreck. And then they broke the news.
As it turned out, the reason they were taking so long judging my panel was because they had to re-score it. They liked my photos so much that they decided to upgrade me from Licentiate to the next tier: Associate! I couldn’t believe it (I’m pretty sure the first words that came out of my mouth were ‘are you sure?‘). Here I was, brand new to all things MPA, and suddenly I was being awarded a qualification that takes some people years to achieve! It was incredibly overwhelming, and I’m not even sure it’s fully sunk in yet…
I know for certain that I couldn’t have done any of this alone – I’m lucky to have so much support from friends and family as well as the brilliant MPA team, including my fantastic mentor, and the community that always rally together for one another. Being part of an organisation like this has meant so much more to me than the chance to learn new skills. It’s opened my eyes to new ways of thinking, and introduced me to some of the most wonderful, talented people.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, the images featured in this post are those that made up my panel. I couldn’t possibly ignore the fact that these gorgeous dogs, and their amazing owners, are the whole reason that I get to do what I love. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I want to take a moment to say a huge thank you to them, and everyone who’s ever supported me – I definitely wouldn’t be here without you!
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading (or maybe you just skimmed it to look that photos – I don’t blame you). I’ll leave you with my finished panel, and a photo of me looking more than a little stunned while receiving my qualification – just remember how much I’d been freaking out at the time!
PS. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’m holding a ‘Licentiate’ certificate – they weren’t expecting an upgrade that day so didn’t have an ‘Associate’ copy to hand! 😛