Recap – Bri Thatcher On PPA

Bri Thatcher

Bri Thatcher was our featured speaker on Thursday, September 19, 2019. She spoke about the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) and why it is a good organization to join. 16 people attended this meeting. To see the original announcement for her talk, click here. See her wonderful work at her web site at .

PPA has three levels of guilds which are appropriate for Central Texans to join (click on the organization below to see the web site):

  • Austin PPA – Meets monthly at Precision Camera. Different speakers every month on a wide variety of topics. Monthly competitions are held. (Tax ID needed to join)
  • Texas PPA – Organizers of Texas School – the largest educational week in photography in the nation, held each spring in the Dallas area. More information at .
  • National PPA – Lots of educational resources, photographer listings, competition information, and more.
Preparing for the talk

The way to become involved is to join the local guild, which will prepare you for the state and national levels. The local guild has a monthly competition where photos are submitted at . At the Texas level, the annual competition is held in Dallas during the summer. The national level has two parts – the district competition and the national competition. All competitors have the same goal for submitting images – to work for merits and achieve Master level.

There are various categories into which a photo can be submitted:

  • Photographic Open
    • Portrait
    • Illustrative
    • Creative Open (can use images that you don’t own)
    • Album
  • Master Artist
    • Creative
    • Artistic Restoration
  • Wedding

Judges are PPA members who have achieved their Masters and have gone to judging school. There are over 80 judges in PPA. You watch image judging online or go see it in person.

The process of judging results in a score for each photo; the scores are:

  • 95-100 – Exceptional
  • 90-94 – Superior
  • 85-89 – Excellent
  • 80-84 – Deserving of a Merit
  • 75-79 – Above Average
  • 70-74 – Average
  • 65-69 – Below Exhibition Standards

To earn a merit distinction, the image’s score must be 80 or above. If a photo is judged to be exceptional, it is automatically included in the Loan Collection. Bri brought several Loan Collection books which contain the exceptional photos. It is called Loan Collection from a time when everyone had to submit physical prints, and those prints would go to the national collection “on loan.” Even though a photo is judged to be Excellent or above, it still must compete for the Loan Collection in a separate judging.

After a photo is judged to be “100,” there is a mandatory ten minute break in the judging because “You don’t want to be the image after 100,” says Bri.

The score is based on the “12 Elements of a Merit Image” which are shown later in this post or in the link earlier in this paragraph. But almost everyone agrees that the most important element is Impact; what impact does the image have on the judge? Other merit elements include: Technical Excellence, Creativity, Style, Composition, Presentation, Color Balance, Center of Interest, Lighting, Subject Matter, Technique, and Story Telling. The image’s title can also be quite important to judges’ reactions.

Mind Map illustration of the 12 Elements in Relation to Impact

The judging is done in a room with three monitors and five judges who are all sitting a certain distance from the calibrated monitors. The judges can’t get any farther from the monitors, but they can go right up to the monitor to look for features or defects. The judges enter their scores on a keypad and the monitor announces the final score. After an image has been scored, a judge can point out things that he/she thinks the other judges should consider. The judges can then re-score, and a photo’s score can either increase or decrease. Bri showed several judging videos, one of which had a photo originally scored in the 80’s, but after a judge challenged it was reconsidered; the score was raised to a 100!

So what’s the point of these competitions? To win merits! Merits earn the photographer the titles of photographic craftsman, master photographer, etc. The merits also earn lanyards and gold clips which can be worn at conferences to show off one’s photographic skills. Merits might be help to justify higher professional rates with clients. Another great reason is just to learn how to take excellent photos.

Bri highly recommends going to Texas School; the next session is April 26 – May 1, 2020 in Addison, Texas. Registration opens on January 3 at 11:00 PM CST. The web site has a countdown to registration. The classes sell out very quickly but you don’t need to be a member to participate. There are classes on many useful photographic subjects. Enrollment in Texas School also gives you an automatic membership in Texas PPA.

Bri also recommends joining the national PPA, if, for nothing else, the insurance benefits. The insurance covers photographic equipment up to $15,000, which could be very expensive if you purchased it yourself.

Bri said our club North Austin Pfotographic Society is considered to be a sister organization to the Austin PPA. This means that NAPfS members can pay the member’s fees to take classes even if they are not yet a member of the Austin PPA.

The judges expect all photos to be matted; digital photos are matted using a photo editing program (e.g. Photoshop) or a specialty program for matting. Photos submitted without mats rarely merit. The mat should add to the image, not distract from it. For some reason, Bri thought the judges seem to really like portraits to have brown backgrounds.

Multiple photos with the same people (e.g. models) cannot be submitted unless the photos were taken in separate sessions. For example, multiple photos from a wedding may not usually be submitted at the same time.

Bri says that street photography and journalism generally don’t do very well in the competitions. [Editor’s note: I wonder how they would judge Vivian Maier‘s photos?]

So, when you submit your next photos for NAPfS competition consider the PPA 12 Elements of a Merit Image:

  • Impact – Viewing and image for the first time always evokes some kind of feeling. Sometimes they can make us sad, happy or angry. Sometimes they force us to look inward at ourselves. That’s called an impact, and the more powerful the image, the more powerful the emotional response of the viewer.
  • Technical Excellence – This is the print quality of the actual image itself as it’s presented for viewing. There are a lot of aspects that speak to the qualities of the physical print. These can include: retouching, manipulation, sharpness, exposure, printing, mounting, and color correction.
  • Creativity – Your point of view is exactly that – yours. And it’s unlikely anyone else’s. This element speaks directly to that perspective. It shows your imagination and how you used the medium to convey an idea, a message, or a thought to the viewer. This is how you differentiate yourself from others.
  • Style – There are many, many ways to apply this element to your work. Maybe you use light in a specific way on a subject, or maybe you make a technical decision for the express purpose of underscoring desired impact. When subject matter and style come together in an appropriate manner, the effects on an image can be spectacular. But remember, when subject matter and style don’t work together, the results can be, well, less-than-spectacular.
  • Composition – When all the visual element of an image come together to express intent, that’s when the magic of composition happens. Good composition captures a viewer’s attention and directs it where you, the artist, want it to be. Depending on your intent, you can make something that pleases the view – or disturbs them.
  • Presentation – How you showcase an image is just as important as how you compose it. Everything in the presentation should work to enhance your image and not distract from it. Keep this in mind when choosing mats, borders and everything in between.
  • Color Balance – Proper color balance can bring a sense of harmony to an image. When the tones all work together to support an image, the emotional appeal is that much greater. But color balance doesn’t have to be used to bring harmony to an image. You can use color balance to evoke any number of feelings from a viewer. The choice in how to take advantage is entirely up to you, but no matter what, be sure your choice enhances rather than distracts.
  • Center of Interest – This is where an image’s creator wants the viewer’s attention focused. Sometimes there can be a primary and secondary center of interest. Sometimes everything in an image will work together to create that center of interest. A good way to measure this is to turn your photo upside-down; if your eye still goes to the center of interest, then it is probably correct.
  • Lighting – The use and control of light has an effect on every aspect of an image. It informs dimensions and shape. It sets tone and mood, and, like every other technique, proper lighting can be used to enhance your image while improper lighting can distract from it.
  • Subject Matter – Even though it lacks words, your image is still telling a story, and your subject matter is central to that. So make sure your subject matter is right for the story that you’re trying to tell.
  • Technique – How you choose to execute your image is a key. It’s also a holistic decision. Technique informs everything in the creation of your image. From lighting and posing to printing and presentation, it all works to show off the techniques that you’ve mastered and applied to your craft.
  • Story Telling – What does you image evoke in a viewer’s imagination? What do you want your image to evoke in a view’s imagination? Your image is a story, and the one it tells your viewer may be one you never knew you were telling.