Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Print Competition - or Print Education?

It's that time of year when photographers everywhere are preparing images for Print Competition. It's really a lot less about "competing" with others, however. It is a lot more about the inner challenges you make with yourself and the educational value it holds for you in your photographic career.

When I entered my first competition nearly 30 years ago, I picked my 4 best selling images from that year, made 4 16x20 prints and sent them off to PPA. I even included the extra fee so they would send me the critique; I wanted to hear how good I was.

When I received the case back from them some months later, I was shocked to learn that my highest scoring print was a 68. 68!?!? (Remember, you're shooting for 80 and above; anything below 70 gets put back in the case and doesn't even get displayed!)

I wasn't very happy. I popped the tape into the player to hear the critique and the judge's voice said something about "I'm not sure how much experience you have in this . . . while these are probably images the clients enjoyed, they're not at all what we are looking for in professional competition."

I was PISSED. "Screw them. The first ribbons I want are green ones with dead presidents on them. Who cares about print comp, anyway."

Fast forward to a year from then. A friend of mine drops by the studio because he had invited me to go along to the meeting of the local PPA Affilliate. "Oh, and it's print competition; bring some prints!" he says (as he's pulling prints out of frames on my wall.)

So . . . I go along to watch this. As I'm watching, one of the judges says to the others "If we're just handing out ribbons, we're doing ok, but if we're trying to help the makers prepare for PPA competition, we're not helping anyone by being lenient with our scoring."

Guess whose prints came up next? Yup - mine. 73, 71, 70. I listened to the comments, but knew I was done entering. Forever. This print comp thing sucked.

The next day I'm putting my prints back on the wall and the judges' remarks are still going through my head.

"The lighting is too flat and broad."
"Her hand looks like a claw."
"Cropping on this is too tight."

I had a session that afternoon, so I loaded a 220 roll instead of a 120. (For those of you who never shot film, that means I used a 2g card instead of a 1g. )

I used the first 10 frames to do the session the way I normally would have and the second 10 frames to do what the judges said (mostly just to prove those bastards wrong.) When the film came back from the lab later that week, I looked through the images and was stunned . . . the second set looked so remarkably different, I never even showed the client any of the first 10.

It completely changed how I handled every session. My old "style" was no longer . . . it just didn't have the same impact. Images I would have shown the client in the past were now ending up in the reject pile . . .their only purpose was to show me what I'd done wrong and how to correct it.

Take the time to look at the work of others who have been successful in print competition. The link below will take you to a few galleries of various makers' work that did well in competition.


As Travis Gugelman says "If you want to be fat, eat what fat people eat. If you want to be successful, do what successful people do."

Good luck!

(BTW - I lied when I said I was done entering . . . I received my Master of Photography Degree in 1998.)

- David Grupa


  1. Nice informative post, and something that we all need to remember. It's not easy taking criticism!

  2. Constructive criticism can really impact your photography as long as you are willing to ask, listen and learn from it. Asking is the first step!

  3. What a great and timely blog post! I've been a PPA member for four years and a member of my state affiliate as well. I definitely want to enter print competition. Last year I sat in on judging and this year I had some of my images looked at before the judging. I didn't get to enter our state comp, but learned so much from the critique from a master photog. I'm going to definitely be applying it to what I shoot this year and be ready to enter next year. Thanks for sharing your experience. If we're not willing to open ourselves up for constructive critique, we won't continue to grow.

  4. I love this, David! This is very invaluable to someone like me who would like to enter a print comp in the near future!

  5. Great article David!! And thanks for sharing the link and the inspiration!

  6. I love this!!! Something to aspire to. I don't feel ready for competition (and am a long way from the coveted Master title), but studying & applying it now will definitely be a huge help. Thanks for the drop of inspiration, David!

  7. What a great message. And as hard as it is, be open to criticism (constructive of course) learn and grow from it! Thank you!

  8. What a great learning experience...even though it stung a little!

  9. Great post, David. This has definitely inspired me to learn more about how prints are judged and step up my game!

  10. Great post! Critique can be hard to take, but can lead to great improvements.

  11. Such a great post. Thank you so much for sharing this. You are an inspiration.

  12. Awesome post! I have a real fear of other photographers cratiquiting my work. My clients love what I give them, but I am self taught, and know I am not a strong technical shooter. I know I need to get over that to grow as a photographer, this post has inspired me to take a leap and enter a PPA print comp. Thanks!

  13. This is a great post David. Thanks for the information. It's something I'd love to participate in the next year!