FRPS Distinction – a time for courage?

Photography distinctions are not for everyone but personally I find they provide motivation to improve my photography, offer challenge and a focus and ensure I commit time to my hobby.

Back in 2015, when I achieved my ARPS in Natural History Photography, the idea of working towards an FRPS seemed a distant dream.  Over the next few years my focus shifted to PAGB awards which have quite a different set of criteria.  In parallel with this, two FRPS panel ideas began to formulate in my mind, one around Raptors with Prey and the other Predators of Africa and I worked on building those portfolios at every opportunity.

In 2020 the pandemic meant planned trips to photograph Raptors were not possible and, as my existing pool of images had insufficient variety, that option was eliminated.  Over several years and more than 10 weeks of photographic safaris I had accumulated around 20,000 big cat images suitable for the Predators of Africa idea but it is not just about having a large pool of images.  What was the story I wanted to tell, what was my statement of intent (SOI)?

I had been formulating ideas for my SOI for some time and wanted it to be more than just about predation, I wanted it to be about survival, family bonds, interactions and tell the story of the predators I had seen in Africa.  It was at that point I realised that 20 or 21 images is quite a small number when you are trying to tell a story about multiple species, so I decided to concentrate on a single species.

With my choice narrowed to either lions or cheetahs was my idea even feasible?  Some trusted photography friends even suggested that a single species study would never be acceptable for an FRPS, as there would be insufficient variety.  Doubts began to surface but I pushed them to one side.

Against this backdrop I assessed my cheetah options and soon realised that sufficient variety would be a challenge with them.  You rarely see adult male and female cheetahs together and they do not form prides in the way that lions do; males and females look remarkably similar and cute cheetah cubs and dramatic kills can only get you so far.

Down to my last option I waded through my thousands of lion images numerous times, identifying those that addressed the points in my draft SOI.  Some choices were easy, images that had performed well in competition, whereas others were more difficult, using images that had never been seen outside of my computer.

Then my next challenge began to dawn on me.  In wildlife photography you need to work with the available light, you are not in control of it in the way you are with studio photography.  Trying to put together a cohesive yet distinctive panel of colour images with everything from early morning golden light through to rainstorms on dull days was not working.  Yes, it was distinctive but unfortunately for the wrong reasons.

I studied various successful FRPS panels and pulled out the aspects that appealed to me.  Soft, muted colours or monochrome stood out.  In a natural history submission, your images need to reflect reality, changing the colour palette to anything other than monochrome was unlikely to be acceptable.

I selected a pool of around 100 images and did a quick conversion to monochrome to see which images worked.  I then printed these off as small A7 sized prints and shuffled them around on a table until I found a layout I was happy with.  I returned to my draft SOI and checked it against my panel and vice versa.  Confirming that your SOI clearly explains your panel and your choices is extremely important.

Now it was time to work on my monochrome conversions.  I am not known for my monochrome work and in pre-covid times I would have attended a monochrome processing workshop but 2020 was not a normal year.  Instead, I developed my skills through online research, YouTube videos, webinars and scrutinising successful images from monochrome competitions.

The pandemic has changed a lot of things in the world of photography and one positive is the vast improvement in online resources being offered by the RPS Distinctions Group and the RPS Nature Group.  Additionally, formal and informal online discussion groups have been set up, providing a forum to share progress and receive peer feedback in a supportive environment.

Eventually I felt ready to take advantage of the advice options available through the RPS Distinctions process and booked a 1:1 portfolio review in October 2020 and an Advisory in November.  It was worth taking full advantage of these options.  Review sessions offer the opportunity to receive feedback on whether your panel is shaping up to meet the criteria and gave me a timeline to work to, a set of fixed deadlines.

The 1:1 was extremely helpful and identified two main areas requiring further work; my monochrome conversions lacked full tonal range and my panel was borderline in terms of variety.  The SOI was deemed in keeping with the panel.  Several images were changed, monochromes were reprocessed and then it was time for the Advisory.

Normally at this stage prints would be assessed but, once again, lockdown thwarted plans.  The advisory was held online over Zoom and only digital versions of the images could be reviewed.  The feedback was very encouraging on technical competence, monochrome processing and panel layout but again more variety was called for.  There was one comment made that will probably stay with me for a very long time: “ … to attempt a panel of one species is a very courageous thing to do …. to come up with a panel in monochrome is an even braver thing to do”.  Was I being brave or was I simply being foolish?

After the advisory I pushed ahead and applied for the April 2021 assessment, I had come too far to give up now.  By this time I was beginning to feel the pressure; going through this process can consume far more time than you might realise.  Images were changed and processed, endlessly printed and reprinted at 15”x10” on Hahnemühle Baryta FB paper (fortunately the paper was a prize in the 2019 PAGB Masters of Print, so at least I was able to save some money there).  The prints were then mounted using 50x40cm White Core Single Mounts in Ice White and hand delivered to RPS House.

This time lockdown did not thwart us.  The session was run over Zoom, the panel chair read out my SOI and panel members viewed and commented on digital versions of my images. The prints were then examined by a print specialist at RPS House, his role was to comment on print quality and answer questions posed by the panel.  It was all run very efficiently.

The actual event was nerve racking to say the least but for me the outcome was positive and rewarding in so many ways.  An experience to be recommended.