Professional qualifications ~ pros and cons

Aug 24, 2009 | Business | 15 comments

A wedding photographer is a person first and foremost, one that a bride and groom would be happy to have at their wedding. Their photographic ability is important for certain but not necessarily the most important aspect of their professionalism. How can you test and measure the ‘lovely person’ factor. You can’t.

I am often asked by delegates why don’t I provide certificates. My view is that attending one of my workshops is no guarantee of being able to take great pictures. Not everybody leaves the same workshop at the same level. I do my best to ensure that the workshop content is delivered in a way that everyone can understand but still some delegates fly while others are carried.

For some photographers, having milestones to achieve and to celebrate are vital steps on the path to reaching their potential. For those shooters, the qualification path of Licentiate, Associate and Fellow are the route to self fulfillment and a feeling of self worth. After all, there’s nothing wrong with feeling great about what fellow photographers think of your work. My advice is to put it all into context. Leaving university with a degree in biology is not going to make you employable, being a wonderful person is, and there is far more to being a top photographer than creating a panel of 20 pictures that judges love.

My advice on an artistic level is to look from within your own group of trusted friends. What do you and they feel about your work? Does it communicate, resonate, drive emotion or stimulate thought?

On a professional level you can question the value your clients put on your work. The hugs, the tears and the moments of sheer delight when they see the images you have captured for them all speak louder than the approving nod of a fellow.

Competition and assessment will always be a part of our industry and a very important part too. Perhaps the most valuable part of the qualification programmes offered by the institutions are the mentoring sessions with fellows. Having regular critiques can do us all good and help us advance our style and craft. Often though I’m left picking up the pieces. Only today one of my delegates prints was judged ‘U’ Ungraded, and I have other delegates whose wonderful work has been slated by so called professional mentors. The qualification process can be demoralising and accepting defeat might just be the ruin of a promising talent.

If gaining qualifications is the right thing for you then be tough and be ready to accept a few knock backs along the way. The standard of photography needed to succeed to the top level is high and it often takes several attempts to make the grade.

It will be of no surprise to some of you that I have not sought to join the ‘F’ club. The band of ‘fellows’ that form the core of the professional institutions of the BIPP, MPA and SWPP. My reasons for not seeking acceptance into this elite group by means of submitting a panel of 20 pictures that please the judges, are because a fellowship assessment is no test of professionalism and I have a fear of failure. There is surprisingly no assessment of customer experience, business acumen, or personal flair, all of which are important attributes of the top professionals in our industry today. I am however a member of the BIPP and the SWPP and Julie is a member of the MPA and the SWPP. Our memberships are for business reasons, cheaper insurance and merchant services etc. One of the obvious troubles with the ‘F’ system is that many fellows peaked on film. It’s as if achieving a fellowship is the cue to stop pursuing new goals and leading the industry from the front. Of course there are some fellows whom I respect and are happy to call friends. Photographers who keep setting new standards, winning competitions and are the ambassadors of our industry.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a classical education as a lighting director and cameraman at the BBC, and although this was a long time ago I do use snippets of knowledge and experience gained at that time in my current work. I’ve never felt the need to prove to myself or my photographic ability by seeking the nod of other ‘F’ rated professionals, instead I sought the council and approval of my clients.

Perhaps pursuit of perfection is an honorable thing that drives a continual improvement in ones ability but what happens when you reach the top – An FBIPP after your name. Does it all need to stop? Where’s the next peak? Salvador Dali once said “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” I prefer to think of a photographers true measure of professionalism and worth as that measured by his or her last client. Once that feeling ‘I’ve not yet taken my best picture’ dies is when I’ll know I’ve peaked.

This then is my own test and measure process and one I can rely on much more than what qualifications I may have attained or competitions I won 10 years ago. Professionalism and worth is all about the present and not about the past. I let my clients decide how good I am and how much they are prepared to pay for my work. In essence I let my clients be the judges.


  1. damien

    I think as Karl says, the ‘topic is hot’ so I’m going to close comments here and let Karl have the last word. He is a photographer I have great respect for and an excellent ambassador for our industry. Thanks for your contributions.


  2. KarlB

    I had just wrote over 200 words in response to some of these comments, which i deleted as this topic is to hot, all i will say is each to there own, and i am proud to belong to the BIPP of which i am an Associate qualified member and hopefully a Fellow soon, my work was judged by five of the finest photographers in the country and i was honored for the comments and prasie and will walk with pride to accept my certifiacte at the awrads dinner in September, and you never know i may even get the Peter Grugeon award for which i have been nominated. The qualifications of the last few years were probably lack lustre but since the bipp has gone it alone, as the standard of the joint boards had seemed to gone wayward, things are know on the up. Remember you only get out what you put in….

  3. Conor Heffernan

    I agree with your thoughts on these “qualifications” . I am in a camera club and am constantly being pushed to persue my “L” or “A” but the fact is, that they hold no ineterest for me.I find the criteria for achieving them very formulaic and some of the L members work is not up to a very high standard. And i doubt very much that prospective clients give a toss whether you have L,A or any other letter after your name. Your photographs are what count, the emotion they evoke and the response they elicit are your greatest advertisemnet possible,not to mention the reward as you see the reactions of your subjects as they view the final product.
    No judge,on any panel , anywhere, could be more critical of my work than I am, and it is that constant belief that i CAN do better that drives me, motivates me, depresses me and thrills me and causes those myriad of feelings within me that got me hooked on photography in the first place. We should shoot for ourselves.If we need someone elses approval and praise, as in all other aspects of life, we will be photographing and living for something we can never achieve. Shoot for yourself,enjoy the process and revel in the fact that you have a passion in life that will always provide you with more to learn.

  4. Stuart

    “Have you benefited from the qualification or competition process or been frustrated by it? Share your thoughts and experiences by commenting below.”

    A mixed bag I suppose but one of my images made it in the top 10 from 300 + submissions. I guess I was happy but on further investigation became a little frustrated by the images that were rated higher than mine :(.

    This did not stop me submitting images and have managed to get through to the second round of POTY for practical photography mag. Now this is a huge boost for my confidence and like Ghionis says “You don’t have to be the best, Just be better than last week” I strive to achieve this.

    BTW I enjoyed the article.

  5. Paul Hurst

    I have been battling the decision about whether to remain in my chosen organisation for the last 18 months before jsut recently deciding to step away.

    I have been mostly uninspired by my experiences as a member and found myself increasingly looking at alternatives internet sources for inspiration and knowledge.

    There are some fantastic people around who will freely share their knowledge and experience for the good of all, not at all like some esteemed members of certain organisations (from my experience). And these ‘professional qualifications’ are only valid whilst you continue to pay your subscription fees. Hardly a qualification.

    Great blog Damien !

  6. Cai


    Your recent post came at a very opportune moment for me – and for that I thank you.

    I have recently had a number of great comments from satisfied clients, which has provided a huge boost for me.
    BUT I have found myself dwelling on some rather luke warm comments made to me following my latest Mentoring submission ( on a couple of the images which sold well ! )

    I must remember the reasons why I went into photography – to please myself and my clients. That’s what I am achieving – so for me – that should be enough.

    It is for now !

    Thank you.

  7. Tom Chapman

    There are a number of points in this article, but in some ways I am more curious about the underlying reasons for writing it in the first place. I have quite a few qualifications and letters I can put after my name but none related to photography

    “Leaving university with a degree in biology is not going to make you employable”, I absolutely agree. But I prefer my doctor, airline pilot etc to have qualifications and to that end many business degrees involve employment skills as well as academic tests but I dont know if becoming a doctor has “people skill” elements to it.

    So in essence it may depend on the reason behind the qualification. If its social acceptance within a peer group then fine. If you think that being an L etc will drive custom then quite frankly forget it, as the qualification is not marketed at the client.

    Damien, I personally think in your case that your pictures show more than any F or other letter of the alphabet. Best steer clear even if you wanted to from a business perspective; for the same reason that Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver do not appear on the the Great British Menu as the win would be expected an to lose could negative affect their brand.

    If the Professional Bodies had any sense they would give you an honorary F as the association has value to them (if you accepted).

    Isn’t that why a delegate wants a certificate from you in the first place?

  8. DaveT

    What an interesting post and follow up comments.

    I think area of qualification is actually quite complex. In the context of academic understanding of a subject then degrees have a certain standing. As such, it may mean the difference between being invited for interview or not. It’s sometimes used as a separator to reduce the number of applicants for a job.

    However, as has been so rightly pointed out it doesn’t necessarily translate to competence. The concept of NVQ’s is that it is more practically based, encompassing theoretical understanding, which is translated into demonstration of ability to perform a range of tasks in differing circumstances, which when done satisfactorily, leads to being deemed competent. Significantly, nearly all this competence has to be demonstrated in real life working circumstances.

    And then, as has been discussed, there are the affiliation qualifications of varying photographic bodies.

    Photography is not, as far as I know, an area where the practitioner can join a governing body. Maybe if there was such a thing then it might have some standing that the client can relate to. For example when I want a gas fitter, I go for one who is CORGI registered. My rationale is that the fitter is up to date with current practice and if things go wrong I have a route for getting the job sorted.

    But as Damien eludes to qualifications in the world of running a photographic business, may well be superfluous, As he rightly points out, they need to have a wide gamut of skills, both photographic and business related. There are great photographers around who aren’t necessarily good business people and equally the reverse is also true. The bottom line is making a profit and growth.

    So I am with Damien on his thinking. The energy and time is best channelled into activities that will lead to making the business more successful. And I doubt if gaining a ’F’ is going to tip the balance sheet the right way.

  9. Darren Bell

    Great article, i’ve been looking at joining one of these “clubs” properly…. and have been to a few meetings…. they actually put me off going any further with them…. stuffy old men and women looking down on everyone and they genuinely believe no one is quite good enough.

    I have found the best criticisms, positives and comments come from friends, family, clients, my partner etc… they can be harsh and i will listen and take it in a positive light… when these guys at “institutions” criticise its just plain rude and hardly constructive! :-)

  10. Kevin Moore

    Well Well Damien good on you.
    The good news is this debate is not just restricted to photography.
    How many of us have sat in a reception area surrounded by certificates telling who’s done what. Only to be receiving the poorest of customer experiences. As someone said to me during an awful experience “they must have seen the light and left!!!” These in turn have become some of my most valuable lessons.

    Qualifications state you have attained a level not that you can do the job. This I don’t have a problem with. My problem is as Damien mentions qualifications by mentoring. If I was an engineer and repaired a broken item I surely must have passed, well depending on timeframe. My problem is how can a mentor stop you from becoming a clone or is that how you get an F a certain number of clones.

  11. Ross MacLennan

    re post:
    Hornets nest

    re awards and qualifications:
    Motives are everything.

    If your criteria for success is revenue then it is fair to say that peers are not a target market. In addition, we all know that in many cases we educate our clients on photography. So as analysts of the art rather than the emotionally involved commissioner of the work, we know that clients are often not the best informed judges. (As it happens I have never met a client yet who understood the qualification, even when explained at length, let alone asked to see it.)

    As you say – continuous improvement is one of the deep addictions of any art form. But should that not be against a common standard or set of criteria? I believe that all qualifications are established with good intent – to create a deep knowledge of the rules thereby enabling photographers to break them on purpose.

    Your observation about the mind-set of mentors is fairly common – ‘are they evaluating my picture as good or bad against an objective standard or against a lifetime of experience and subjective preference’.

    In balance, the mind-set of those looking for evaluation is often ‘ give me the good news and ****** off’

    So if you want your work to improve, as Damien observes, submit it to a person or institution whose integrity you believe in and whose motives you trust.

    But most of alI, I would humbly suggest, know your own motives for wanting to hear how you are doing.

  12. Chris

    I’m with you on the F club front, and all the other panel stuff.
    However there are two types of qualifications available.
    My early career path took me from the picture desk of a national newspaper to being a photographer for a big international company who insisted I had to have pro qualifications. I spent three years gaining a city and guilds distinction in pro photography, which covered everything from understanding exposure, technical skills in all camera formats, how to set up a studio, lighting techniques, business skills etc.

    The point I’m making is there are two types of qualifications………..fluffy approval from peers via a panel of “experts” or solid academic photography qualifications. Neither will get you a job, or make you the best photographer ever, but academia might give you a better start in the quest for your best picture yet? Especially if you have only ever experienced digital, because by understanding old fashioned film principles, you will certainly understand how to break “all the rules”
    So if you really feel the need for qualifications perhaps
    Night school or college plus a few workshops with the doyens of our industry is the way to go :)

  13. David Lowerson

    Good Morning Damien,

    As always an excellent article to get people thinking.

    Qualification is seen by many photographers as the norm and how your fellow peers judge you. If you don’t have letters after your name you can’t be professional, or your work is below par!

    I on the other hand would like to be judged not by my fellow peers / professionals / professional societies but by the people paying for my time and experience i.e. the client. I have never been paid by a judge for winning a competition nor has a judge put work my way due to a fab image.

    BUT I have received lots of recommendations for a job well done which has led to further work.

    I now work on this principle, shoot for the client first and always, shoot for me second, and always last – a judge. Clients pay the mortgage not a judge.


  14. Martin

    I got my licentiate in the BIPP in 2000, I was only 20 or so at the time and was pleased as punch, then I dropped out of the BIPP.

    Partly because I joined V*nture and partly because I became embaressed by the LBIPP title as it seemed it was given out to anyone. I’m sure we have all seen some truly appaling work by “licenced” members of the societies.

    But, I have recently gone solo again and reinstated my membership of the BIPP, at Licentiatelevel, for the reasons of cheaper insurance etc… and also to feel part of something bigger. Being a one man band can be lonely at times and knowing you have something in common with another ‘tog, even if it is just letters after your name can make you feel a little bit better.

    I intend to progrees to Associate as quickly as possible, just to get out of the mire of having the same label as some tog’s who’s work I find appalling.

    Another consideration is that the general public,probably doesnt have a clue what L,A or F actually means…….

    Sorry, more of an essay, rather than a comment, but I can get much work done at the moment as I’m resting a broken foot.

  15. AdriAN YcL

    I totally agreed with what you said.