Are qualifications relevant in today’s marketplace? Let’s take a look…
“I don’t see the point of pro photography qualifications. I don’t need them and clients don’t expect them, so why should I?”
This is a common sentiment I encounter when I chat with other photographers. I believe they are only partly right. Do most of my clients scan through my website to find my qualifications before getting in contact? I doubt it. Still, the qualifications I’ve achieved have been instrumental in shaping the photographer I am that I cannot conceive where I’d be without them.
In 2008 I left a well-paying job in the city to become a full-time photographer. I’d earned some money on the side before, but knew my photography wasn’t at the standard it needed to be to compete in the marketplace. At that year’s trade show, I decided to join the Master Photographers Association (MPA). It was exclusively for full-time pro photographers at that time, which I thought would give me a bit of prestige.
A few weeks later I went along for an induction day, where I met an outstanding photographer, Kevin Wilson. I asked him if he’d look through my portfolio and he agreed to. We sat down and Kevin looked through my portfolio, chatting through each image. Half an hour later we were still talking.
There are three qualification levels in the MPA: Licentiate, Associate and Fellow. Kevin suggested I submit my panel of images for the Licentiate level straight away. I did as he suggested, and not only achieved my Licentiate qualification but also won an award in the MPA’s national competition that year. I felt like a better photographer, and that my decision to pursue this career had been validated.
The next level
In 2009 I drove down to see Kevin with a new panel of images, hoping for his input before I submitted for my Associate qualification. He went quiet as he looked through my work, then sighed.
“Frankly,” he told me, “this is far worse than anything you’ve produced to date.” I listened to his critique, headed home and quietly had a meltdown. I thought I was blazing a new creative trail. Now I wondered if my previous success had just been a fluke. After battling with my demons for a few months, I decided to use Kevin’s feedback to drive forward.
I spent that year creating new images, developing my style and increasing the quality of my output. In 2010 I achieved my Associate qualification, and was just a few marks away from being upgraded to a Fellowship. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t achieve the upgrade, as it meant I spent the next year pushing forward again, until I became a Fellow in 2011.
It’s quite rare to go from unqualified to Fellow in three years, but I wanted to see if I had it in me. Each qualification gave our studio some good news to talk about with our clients, just as we do when we win an award. But more than anything, the qualifications gave me confidence. In a lot of beginners’ photography, if you look into the subject’s eyes you can see doubt. I think this doubt is the photographer’s lack of confidence echoing in the subject. The subject picks up on the photographer’s fear and tension and questions whether he or she knows what they’re doing.
When you’re creating portraits, you need to position people, constantly talk to them and keep them engaged. All of that takes confidence. Each time I achieved a qualification, I felt more confident in my own abilities and that made the people sitting for me feel more confident in me, too. I felt more justified in pushing to perfect an image, or trying something new and different. As a result, my pictures became better.
There have also been a handful of times when the awards and qualifications won us the work. The buyer who wants to commission us values and appreciates good photography. But sometimes their attempt to book us is blocked by the person or department who holds the purse strings. In the accounting department, photography might be considered a commodity – why pay extra for me when there’s someone cheaper down the road? The buyer justifies the extra expense using something that finance people understand and value: my credentials.
After all, people commission portrait photographers to create something that they won’t see until the end of the transaction. That requires trust from them and confidence from you. You need to believe that you can deliver. Qualifications offer objective, third-party validation that reassures you both.
So, when all said and done, do you need qualifications? No, of course not. But trust me: they are a perfect way to develop your skills, gain confidence and improve your craft. And who would or could turn that down?
This article is adapted from my article in issue 108 of N-Photo Magazine,
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