If you looked at part one of this you’ll know that I’m rather keen on being qualified.

This post is intended more for photographers reading my blog and I’m not even going to add a photo to it! How mean of me. Why not? Well the photos are all in the other post already and I simply want to reflect on the process so you can see what’s what – it’s not intended to show any images.

I know it will be a ramble (as usual) and may say too much about the inner workings of my head, but there you go. Get a cuppa and read, or skip to the next page of the interweb.

Why do I even want to be qualified?

It’s a great question, with a long answer (at least if you ask me over a drink). Keeping it shorter, once upon a time (when I was 18) I met Joan Wakelin. I’d never heard of the RPS or knew what FRPS was. She told me that “anyone can do it if they try hard enough”. I wanted to be an FRPS. One day I shall be.

Fundamentally I’ve got a life-long ambition to get to that pinnacle.

But in reality… why?

It’s hard for me to articulate. My Nan (and I’m told someone I called “Uncle Lou” – a friend of my parents from the US) used to chant, “good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good is better, and the better best.” Mum and Dad never asked me to be “brilliant” – just to “do the best you can”. We say the same to our kids – and have probably damaged them for life as a result! 😀

Best. What does that mean?

It’s a silly ditty. My perfectionism feeds on it sometimes too eagerly. I confess it does drive me though. For example although I’d learned to drive I still wanted to be better – not to just assume I was a “good driver” (like we are all apt to do) but to find out if I was. That’s why I took (and passed) my advanced driving test.

In many ways my photography comes under the same control: to be the best I can be.

If that sounds familiar to you: if you want to be the best YOU that you can be… then qualification is for you too.

But my images won’t be of the right “style” to qualify.

It’s a common misconception that only certain “posed” images are good enough. Sure it’s going to be harder with purely reportage images because they will, naturally, have more flaws. But it’s not impossible. Actually my ABIPP panel had several 100% reportage images in it (which, for clarity, also had Photoshop work done afterwards but were utterly unposed at capture, not even “directed”!).

Your “style” isn’t what’s stopping you.

What’s involved?

Prepare yourself for pain.

Not physical pain. Mental pain. You need to understand that if you’re going to get better an ANYTHING you’re going to be told that you’re not as good as you thought you were.

You think you can speak French but want to get better? Off you go on holiday to France. Natives politely listen to you and tolerate your errors. They will correct you if you ask but otherwise they will just let you get on with it. Slowly. Then they’ll rattle along talking to one another at a speed that you can hardly detect the different words and you realise how much that you have to learn still. Your talking is, to them, like that of a child. Imperfect. Slow. Often just wrong. In the words of Allo-Allo, “Good Moaning!”

A few years ago (here goes that perfection again) I wrote something to my wife and she struggled to read it. Ouch. She was a primary school teacher, used to reading the scrawl of four year olds and couldn’t work out what word I wrote! Off  went to Amazon to get myself a book to learn to write again and I practiced page upon page upon page of letter formation until my handwriting was fair. I’m no caligrapher. I am better than I was.

Your photogarphy is just the same. Friends say they love your images. Clients love them. If you share them on Facebook you get hundreds of “likes”. Your colleagues say that the judges can be wrong, that the clients “paying the bills” is all that matters (mostly true!).

So you’re a good photographer! No?

Sadly – you may be: or you may just suck!

Have you ever looked back at work from years ago and pondered quite how much better you are now than you were then? Of course you have. We all do.

My first foray into being mentored was about a decade ago.

I’d collected my “best” work my best “pro” work – the stuff I’d done for people that I didn’t know and that had paid me actual money. I sent a set of images in for some free mentoring from the Master Photographers Association. I think it was about 20 images. One was a cute child resting her chin on her hands. A high-key shot, toned in brown. Her parents loved it. The MPA assessor was brutal. It was described as a child resting her chin on “two stumps of meat”. I kid you not. Other images were described as “snapshots” and “pedestrian”. Brutal.

Blunt is not the word for that assessment.

Having come from a corporate background, and in a learning design environment, I was familiar with the “Sh*t Sandwich” approach to feedback: tell them something you liked, something that didn’t work for you, and something that could be improved. The smelly stuff is sandwiched in between nicer stuff.

Here I was getting no bread – just filling.

My next foray was little better.

I’d joined the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers. Now the SWPP had a course laid on by Martin Grahame-Dunn. He warned the handful of us on the course that he wouldn’t pull punches and would rip our work apart. This time I was prepared for it. Martin reviewed many of my images – and I mean hundreds. He ripped them apart. Held back no punches. I listened. I went away. I practiced. I came back and he ripped me apart again.

Eventually I got my “L” with the SWPP. I was overjoyed. I knew the “A” was now grinning at me. Waiting.

The A leered at me for ages.

Actually the A looked so hard by comparison to the L that I tried to pretend it didn’t exist. I told myself I was “consolidating” my learning. And that’s what I did for some years.

As you might have gathered if you’ve read this far – it was an itch that I couldn’t help but scratch.

Print handling was a revelation.

You see the problem was that I helped out at the SWPP convention. Print handling. For those of you that haven’t done it the job is simple – judges need to see images. The print handling team moves batches of images in and out of the judging. Which means when you’re handling prints you hear the comments on them from the judges.

After a while you start to anticipate the comments. You wonder when they’re going to mention the “huge issue” with an image that you’ve (smugly) spotted. Usually they do. But sometimes they instead talk about some other “problem” that you’ve not even spotted until it’s pointed out.

Then, of course, you can not help but see that thing.

You start to mentally score the images and see if you can get close to what the judges are actually scoring images.

When you get home you start to score your own images: and never want to send one in to a competition because you know it would SUCK.

Yup you’ll get even more critical of your own work than you are now!!!

For a few years I did print handling. I learned much. Or so I thought.

One of the benefits of print handling is you get to go to seminars at the convention. It was one such seminar that really sealed my fate and had me wondering how good I could be, again.

Enter stage left, Kevin Wilson, fellow of fellows, a man with a good soul.

Kevin was the last seminar I went to that year. He’d just been doing his “100” project, photographing centenarians. I was tired (one has to do a lot of drinking at conventions – it’s the law). It was dark. I’d been to many dull seminars and could have fallen asleep. I was intrigued as Kevin has such a wonderful reputation and I’d never seen him talk. I’d seen him in the judging room. But as a presenter? Never.

The images were special. I mean really beautiful. That light. Oh my. I only hoped that one day I might get to be that good. Joan Wakelin’s words to me echoed down the years, “anyone can do it if they try hard enough”. Good better best, never let it rest…

Captivated by Kevin’s images and his speech I looked through his material keenly.

After an illness that temporarily made me see light differently (I won’t bore you with details) a good friend of mine, who had heard me rave about Kevin’s work, told me that Kevin was doing a workshop not far from me.

I signed up.

About a dozen of us listened to Kevin’s wise words. He mentioned mentoring at the end. I had to ask for more information.

I can’t say this stuff is cheap.

Actually I was all for doing just one session with Kevin. I couldn’t justify more to myself. It was Sheila who said I should do more with him. As we have this unwritten (but oft spoken) rule that Sheila is always right… who was I to argue?

And then we moved house.

Suddenly I was six miles from Kevin. I hesitated to ask about mentoring but he was such a gent and told me we should both go over.

My print handling learning was about to be remarked on.

Kevin asked me to bring all my work. So I did. One USB drive with my archive of every wedding I’d ever shot. Kevin looked through. His critique was thorough. He looked at everything. Commented on the lot. His critique was also… well… honest. From the heart. There was no “beating me up”. Yup it was frank, but it was really fair. We looked through everything – the duff shots as well as the good ones.

Then we looked through the work of other people that he had mentored. We discussed their work (as I’m sure if you meet him you will discuss mine).

At one point I remember distinctly him turning to Sheila and saying something like, “well he knows all this stuff, why doesn’t he do it in his own work?!”

The penny dropped.

I was my own worst critic but wasn’t implementing my learning nearly as much as I thought I was.

For the coming year I was sent away with things to do. I was lucky enough to assist Kevin on a few weddings and I had my own to incorporate my learning on too.

I thought I’d got enough images. I gathered 100 of my best images. I printed them all out at 6×4 and took them to see Kevin. He flicked through them in short order and most were discarded.

Shampoo – because you’re worth it.

You know the instructions: rinse and repeat.

Eventually I got to the point where it wasn’t Kevin whittling down the images. I had them on my whiteboard, pinned there. I was taking an image off every now and then as it wasn’t strong enough

When it came to the final selection I printed them up at 9×6″ and we went through them. Even at this point I could see that some that felt like good candidates shouldn’t be in the final mix.

I ended up with 30 images.

Good friends have told me that my work is intangiably different than what I’d done before – better, but different, they just couldn’t say how.

I had joined the British Institute of Professional Photography and the plan was to submit for my Licentiate with them and then see where it went.

Exam rules: answer the question.

Do you remember that exam question? The one where you wrote what you though they had asked about but didn’t actually answer the question and scored badly?

The British Institute of Professional Photography have a guide to qualification. It tells you exactly what information they want. So I read it. Very carefully. I wrote a document, that I presented as a Bob Books copy. It had everything that was asked for. It was presented to the best of my ability. My prints weren’t printed by one of the labs but by a specialist printer. They were in a good portfolio.

My assessment for L went well. I was awarded an A. Actually on the day I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I was going to be because I was thoroughly prepared.

Because you’re worth it – and so are your clients.

I said this wasn’t cheap as a thing to do. I’m talking well into four figures if I add up the mentoring, the prints, the albums, the portfolio, the hours (and hours and hours) spent on it. Oh and the wine and cakes needed to fuel my thinking.

Was it worth it?

Certainly.

I have nothing but admiration for Kevin in the way he has guided me forwards. If you ever want to do the same I really can’t speak highly enough of him. Here’s a link to his website for mentoring.

The next rung of the ladder looms ahead.

I know that I can be better. Fellowship is tantalisingly waiting for me to attack it and I won’t leave it as long as I did for going for an Associate level.

My “A” matters to me. A lot.

The letters are lovely, for me, but the journey has been the big driver. I know how much better I am now than I was before. I know that my business has got better, and stronger.

I know that my clients are getting a better result because of it too.

If you want to push yourself to do better – don’t wait. Do something about it. Remember, “anyone can do it if they try hard enough”. Talk to a mentor – I can’t tell you how much Kevin helped me.