Spanish Inquisition with the Royal Photographic Society

On 19 June this year in Fuengirola, Southern Spain an ‘inquisition’ took place. It wasn’t the first inquisition in Spain as historians and fans of Monty Python will know, but it was the first Advisory Day held in Spain by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS). The Society’s Advisory Days are part of the process that leads to the award of a Distinction. More about that in a moment but first a little history about the RPS.

The Royal Photographic Society is the oldest society of its type in the world. Founded in the UK in 1853 its aim was “promoting the art and science of photography”. The inaugural meeting was held on 20 January, 1853 in London, it was open to “ladies and gentlemen interested in photography”. The first proper meeting was held on 3 February 1853 and in addition to the usual administrative business, photographs “chiefly of wood scenery” were exhibited. Another important historical milestone was the decision in 1853 to publish the proceedings of meetings under the title of ‘The Journal of the Photographic Society’, a journal that is still produced today although the content has evolved to reflect today’s world. The Council of the Society felt it was very important for the Society to have royal patronage and on 30 May 1853 a letter was received from Buckingham Palace stating, “I am commanded to inform you that the Queen (Victoria) and Prince will willingly give their patronage to the Photographic Society”. Eventually, in 1894 the name of the society was changed to the ‘Royal Photographic Society’ to reflect the royal patronage. This seems like a long delay but I guess it isn’t very British to seem too keen about these things!

The RPS  has a General Council in overall control of the Society’s work and is also organised at the geographical level into Chapters (there is an Iberian chapter that covers Portugal and Spain); and at a specialist interest level through groups (SIGs) such as Digital Imaging, Nature, Contemporary, Travel photography etc.

Although I have characterised RPS Advisory Days as ‘inquisitions’ and there is an element of that feeling if you are presenting your images, they are intended to be helpful. An opportunity for prospective candidates for the award of a RPS distinction to have their images reviewed by RPS assessors. The Fuengirola event was organised by ‘The Image Group’ (TIG) – www.imagegroupspain – and candidates interested in submitting images to the RPS for a Distinction award were asked to bring around 15 images for review. I decided to submit a set of images for assessment, one of those ‘it felt like a good idea at the time’ moments but nothing ventured, nothing gained and it turned out to be a valuable experience.

RPS Distinction Programme

The Society awards three levels of distinction, in ascending order:

  • Licentiate (LRPS)
  • Associate (ARPS)
  • Fellow (FRPS)

The distinctions are normally awarded after an assessment of a number of images known as a Panel although there are exemptions that allow Distinctions to be awarded without a portfolio assessment through recognition of an approved programme of education such as the Open College of Arts (OCA) Photography programme. For example, students undertaking the OCA degree programme and with passes in two Level 2 modules or above can apply for the LRPS Distinction (Licentiateship). Completion of the OCA BA (Hons) degree in photography equates to an exemption for the ARPS Distinction(Associateship).

For the LRPS, 10 images are required for a portfolio assessment. The 19 June Advisory Day I attended reviewed seven potential LRPS Panels and one potential ARPS Travel Photography Panel. ARPS Panels have to be submitted for a specific genre and require 15 images, whereas LRPS Panels have to be visually coherent but can include different genres. Image dimensions must be no more than 1400 pixels wide and 1050 pixels high. The longest edge sets the maximum dimension. This means a landscape image must be 1400 pixels wide up to a maximum of 1050 pixels high. A portrait image must be 1050 pixels high and up to 1050 pixels wide.  Images must be submitted in the sRGB colour space as jpegs at maximum resolution/quality.

RPS assessors and assessment criteria

The assessment panel was very experienced and consisted of Leo Palmer FRPS (the overall Chairman of the LRPS award process and Chairman of the ARPS Travel Photography distinction), Robert Gates ARPS (a member of the General Council and a regular chairman of LRPS assessment days) and Carol Palmer ARPS Travel (a well known judge of photographic competitions in the North of England).

The LRPS assessment criteria are shown below and can be found in the RPS Distinction Handbook available through the RPS web site.

LRPS Assessment Criteria

“Photography is a classic combination of art and science, involving a four stage process of Seeing, Taking, Making and Presenting.

Seeing: This stage involves both imagination and creativity, ‘an eye for a picture’ and encompasses:

  • An understanding of light and effect on mood and texture as well as good use of colour.
  • Composition or image design.
  • Correct viewpoint to eliminate distractions and capture the image simply and at its best.
  • Personal input to pictures is very important. It is an opportunity to show imagination and creativity. It can perhaps best be described as seeing rather than just looking; then making a selection, using the tools and techniques at your disposal, to eliminate distractions in order to let your subject dominate the picture. The resulting image will then be your picture, your interpretation and not simply a snapshot.

Taking: In the “Taking” stage all aspects of camera craft come into play.

  • A sound understanding of the camera controls of aperture and shutter speed to produce an exposure and depth of field appropriate for the subject is essential;
  • Equally important is an understanding of lighting, that evanescent entity which can change a reasonable picture into a great one.
  • One of the great curses of digital photography – and one of the major reasons for failure – is blown highlights. Capturing highlight detail at the taking stage is essential.

Making: The “Making” stage, once restricted to the production of darkroom prints and art work on transparencies, now has virtually endless possibilities through digital imaging software.

  • Don’t underestimate the creative potential of this stage; it not only refers to the creation of psychedelic “masterpieces” but the subtle adjustments of tone, luminance and sharpness which can make all the difference.
  • Describing quality in an image is difficult to put into words but instantly recognisable when it is seen. Generally, a full tonal range with highlights and shadows well recorded is a good starting point. That said high and low key images which rely on a limited tonal range can be acceptable and quite stunning.
  • Accurate colour management to produce true colours is also essential, along with appropriate contrast and sharpness. Be very careful with the latter; over-sharpening is another of the great curses of digital imaging producing pixel and artefact problems and giving images an unreal look.
  • Final prints should be free from dust spots and digital artefacts. When printing, carefully check for print quality, including banding, usually the result of blocked heads on the printer and another potential reason for failure.

Presenting: Selection, variety, cohesion (panelling or sequencing) and quality of presentation can make a portfolio stand out.

  • The overall impression of your portfolio should communicate variety, not necessarily of subject, but certainly of approach, technique and lighting. One of the main reasons for failure is repetition; if images, no matter how good they are, display the same subject matter, technique and lighting, they are, in essence the same picture.
  • Mixing monochrome and colour prints in a submission is acceptable, providing you have given careful consideration as to why you wish to do so. There are no rights or wrongs here, but if an image has been converted to monochrome, ensure that value has been added and you are not just presenting an image with its colour removed.
  • You should ensure that the image quality is consistent throughout the submission; this adds to the cohesiveness of the set.
  • Cutting and mounting must be immaculate. The colour of mounts also needs careful consideration; although this is a very personal decision, it is best to avoid coloured mounts which clash with the images. Regardless of the actual size of the prints it is generally recommended that the mounts should be 20”x16” or 50×40 cm and of the same neutral colour.
  • Projected images: It is generally better to avoid sudden changes from very bright images to very dark images. It can help to have some link from one image to the next such as subject matter, colour, tone, etc.
  • Body of work: When putting a portfolio together, consider it as a whole as well as each individual image. Do the prints look good as a set? Do the CD images flow easily in the sequence?

Finally, remember that by creating a good initial impression, you are immediately encouraging a positive response from the Panel members.”

Another source of information about the assessment criteria comes from the feedback sheets sent to people who have submitted images for the LRPS Distinction but failed. The assessment categories differ a little from the LRPS Handbook categories of ‘Seeing – Taking – Making – Presenting’, but I think this is because the feedback sheet splits ‘Taking’ into two categories – Technique: Camera work and Technique: Technical quality. The way the feedback form works is to list the potential reasons why a Panel could fail with the criteria that apply to that particular Panel underlined. It is therefore a list of negative criteria indicating the reason for failure.

Presentation

  • Overall impression of Panel – not coherent
  • Insufficient variety of approach
  • Insufficient variety in subject matter
  • Appropriate selection, editing of pictures
  • Repetition

Technique – Camera work

  • Suitable depth of field
  • Shutter speed
  • Point of focus
  • Sharpness
  • Management of lighting (artificial or natural)

Technique – Technical quality

  • Digital defects – post processing problems – over sharpening
  • Contrast and tonal control
  • Highlight detail
  • Shadow detail

Seeing – Visual awareness

  • Composition and design
  • Intrusive/inappropriate backgrounds
  • Use of colour
  • Understanding of light and effect on mood and texture
  • Viewpoint for effect

Thinking – Communication

  • Lack of imagination/creativity
  • Too little evidence of personal input
  • Clarity of intent
  • Understanding and empathy with the subject. ‘Decisive moment’ not well captured.

The Advisory Day Process – A personal perspective

Images were not allowed to have captions and had to be numbered sequentially in the order you wanted them viewed. This gave me an interesting insight of the complexity of curating a set of images for public display and assessment. It wasn’t as easy as I thought but I went with the black and white images first with a transition via a colour image that was still graphic in its design but with the introduction of some colour. Links between images using colours and/or subject type were also part of my curating decisions. The restriction on captions raised an interesting point for critiquing images. The images have to stand on their own visual merit rather than being reinforced by a caption to give them a context or increase their impact. At the ARPS level a statement of artistic intent is required to set the overall context for the 15 images and forms part of the assessment process – did the photographer achieve their stated intent?.

With an audience of about 30 people each of my images was displayed on screen for about 7 seconds followed by a repeat showing before comments were made. Each image is then presented on screen for the length of time required for the assessment to be delivered. The process is challenging, direct and public but it was an extremely valuable experience to have such direct feedback from an assessment panel of experienced photographers. At times it was uncomfortable in front of the audience but one thing I learned from watching the other 7 Panels assessed during the day was to take it on the chin and decide how you are going to use the feedback. We make a personal and emotional investment in the images we present in this type of event and it can be very tempting to try and justify why their opinion is wrong. Fortunately my Panel wasn’t overly criticised although I was surprised that some of my favourite images didn’t get the seal of approval but the reasons given (eg, the image is too busy, not sure where to look etc) were relevant to the ‘reasons for failure’ listed above.

The assessment process had a formality about it even though the day felt informal with opportunities to ask questions and have discussions with the assessors. The sort of feedback I received was better than I was expecting, falling into three categories – not up to the standard required (said as bluntly as that!), suitable for submission for the LRPS and for some images I was told they were so strong they should be placed in the critical positions in my prospective Panel.

Of the 16 images I presented, 10 were deemed as good enough for inclusion in a LRPS Panel. It takes some time for the feedback to sink in as you are actively trying to deal with the ‘emotion’ depending on the comments, whilst remembering what was said and scribbling notes on key points. After digesting the notes I had scribbled and discussing my images with other people in the audience I started to get a clearer sense of how successful the images had been and what I need to do next to prepare for a LRPS submission.

Panel approved images

These are the ten images the assessors said were LRPS standard.

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