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The Power of Print Competition - This is Why you MUST Compete

Nikki HarrisonComment

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Esteemed Judge and PPA Educator-Mentor Jeff Dachowski

M. Photog. Cr.,CPP ,C. ph

I have been an approved juror for about 8 years now. For me it all started with PPA’s Certification.  I was taking the test at a state convention and had a bit of time to kill before the exam.  I was invited to watch the judging live. I sat in the back of the room mesmerized by all of the different styles of imagery and content. So much of what I saw was not what I was producing professionally at the time. In many cases it was better than my work! After seeing the process for the first time I decided to engage in the world of image evaluation.  I entered my first IPC {International Print Competition} shortly after knowing nothing about the 12 elements!  I did well but had so much to learn.  Once I started, I just couldn’t stop.  I became friends with  Keith Howe, and he helped make the 12 elements real to me.  I thought I should take the judges class thinking that I would invest the time to get better at my craft.  I didn’t really think too much about becoming a judge at that point.  Randy McNeilly and Dave Hunstmen taught the class and really lit a fire in me to be involved in the process I had recently found.  A year or so later I qualified to apply to be a juror.  I was notified that I was accepted and 8 years later here I am!

There are many reasons photographers choose to compete, however for me it all comes down to have an unemotional set of eyes review your work. I joke that people buy my portraits because someone they love is in them. People don’t buy portraits of families they don’t know.  By opening yourself up to an evaluation (score) you receive feedback from a group trained to evaluate the image in front of them. There are no excuses. There is no….”you don’t understand” in image competition. Unless you can convey your visual message through your image and your title, your chances of being successful can be greatly diminished.


Competition has helped me develop techniques that put my client in the best light. In my style of work, my clients are want to look their best.  I produce classic portraits for my family and commercial clients.  They want to appear their best via clothing, expression, emotion, gesture, posing and beauty. Competing has refined my creative eye, it instilled in me an ability that enables me to look at my image right before capture and refine it before I even take it.  I notice small details that would have rendered a capture unusable years ago. This helps me to be more confident of my art, and due to this my clients are more trusting of my suggestions.  Because I have practiced getting the little things correct, I have more time to focus on the big things in my portraits.  Most clients do not notice if I do well in competition. Accolades and merits will not pay your mortgage, and your clients might not comment on them, but they do read about them.  Those merit images, if marketed well help to reinforce that they made the right choice in choosing you as their photographer.  Strangely enough I know of many times a client bragged about an award I won to a friend, but never mentioned it to me.  In the end….competition has paid for itself both financially and artistically.

This isn't "everyone gets an award" kind of competition. This is difficult, but while it is a competition among your peers, you are truly competing with yourself. Refining and honing your personal skillset for your business. For a photographer to receive their Master of Photography degree, they must obtain 25 Merits, of which 13 need to be exhibition merits and the balance can be exhibition merits, speaker merits or service merits. Exhibition merits are earned only at IPC in the Photographic Open Competition. Each entry that is deemed “deserving of a merit” receives one merit towards your degree. Photographers can earn their degree as quickly as 2 years. The really cool thing about it is that it is YOUR game to play.  You may choose a theme, all client images, all landscape images, a mixture of all three. You might choose to wait to receive your degree until you have 25 exhibition merits.  Its totally up to you!!


I think a common misconception is that judges sit in a panel and are looking a certain image type.  Or that they are looking for imagery that looks like the work they do. A juror today is called to reward meritorious execution. We are looking for impact, for something different. We are looking for boundaries to be pushed. All of that is true of course…..but we are also looking for simple clean well executed imagery. A lot of folks think that images need to be composited to be merit images today. That is so far from the truth. I can think of a lot of different imagery types that are well received in image competition. Ultimately the image is measured up to the 12 elements of a merit image. Lastly, the jurors do not have a set amount of points to give out during a competition. They are not looking to hold those back in reserve for another entry.  They place the image in the category they think it belongs. They are not looking for ways to hold art down. On the contrary, they are looking for ways to reward the maker wherever they can.

PPA is the worlds oldest and largest photographic association.  Everything we do as an association is measured up to the phrase..”will it benefit our members”?  PPA is a non profit.  Our goal is not to make money. We dream of a day when all photographers can earn a living making imagery for their clients.  Todays PPA is very different than it was 30 years ago. 

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During competition, you can watch the judging live, you may even get a notification via email or text that your entry is entering the judging room, so you can hurry to your computer to watch. You can also purchase an image critique when you are entering your image, getting focused critique from a juror, who might have sat on the panel to weigh in on their mindset when approaching where the image might fall in a category is a fantastic resource. Usually the critiques are 3-6 minutes in length and gives the juror ample time to discuss what they see, how to remedy issues, or in some cases suggest that an entry might not ever make it into the merit category. I have learned a lot from folks who gave me some helpful CC….the most learning I was able to accomplish though was when I realised an image would never cross that threshold. Learning to let those images go can be huge!! A critique can help you dial in what the jurors are looking for and help you to start seeing that in your own work. Keep in mind…..a critique is just one person’s opinion. 

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Scoring of images ranges from 65-100. Yes, there are many images that score 100! The closer you get to that number, the more exciting it becomes. Watching judging, we see a lot of images scoring between 70 and 80, very few if any score below that.  Is there a reason for this or are there truly no images entered that are that low in the scoring system?  A score of 65-69 means “ Below Exhibition Standards”  This translates to not being shown in a display of professional photography.  It is not a punishment, just simply an evaluative score.   I believe that you tend to see a lot of images in the 76-79 range simply because people tend to enter their best work.  The category for that range is above average.  This makes sense to me because people self evaluate and look at the imagery they produce and pick images that are close to the merit level. Rarely do competitors pick an entry they think is a 67.  Jurors are asked to use the range of scoring that is available to them.  We start with the category first though… Below Exhibition Standards, Average, Above average, Deserving of Merit, Excellent, Superior and Exceptional.  These words have meaning.  They help us to determine how we fee about an entry. We then use the score to illustrate to our jurors where we fall in the category, high or low. 

Jeff has attained his Master of Photography Degree, Photographic Craftsman Degree and is a Certified Professional Photographer.  In 2018 he was awarded the Imaging Excellence award from PPA. He was a director for two years and has fulfilled his terms through the Executive chairs within the New Hampshire Professional Photographers Association.
Jeff has 13 images in the PPA Loan collection, 11 Kodak Gallery, 2 Lexjet  Awards ,2 Fuji Masterpiece, 2 Polaroid Prestige, 11 Court of honors, 5 Album of the Year, and an ASP Regional Medallion. He has been a PPA Elite member since inception. Jeff is a member of PPA’s Board of Directors, a PPA International Approved Juror, Certification Judge, and a Vatican Approved Photographer. Jeff is the President of the Society of XXV.