Since I announced my photographic certification this fall, I have received lots of questions about the process so I thought it might be helpful to share my story here.

What is my background?  How did I become a photographer?

I have had a camera of some sort in my hand since I was 6 years old.  I was always “the one with the camera” documenting friends, family, parties, vacations, etc.  I got my first SLR in 1984 when I was in junior high school.  I went to a small private all-girls high school and even though I was the photo editor of the yearbook for 3 years, we did not have a darkroom at school so we sent our film out for processing.  Although I was winning local photojournalism awards in high school, it just never really occurred to me to consider photography as a career.  I am not sure exactly why that was.  I excelled in science and math and therefore went on to engineering school.  I have a bachelors degree in biomedical engineering, a masters in mechanical engineering, and I worked as a engineer for 7 years before changing careers and becoming a photographer.  Even while working as an engineer, I couldn’t shake the photography bug!  I was taking photography classes at community college, attending photography workshops and seminars, and photographing friends’ children.  One of the night classes I took utilized the darkroom at a large local public high school.  I was in awe of the equipment there and thought to myself, “If I had been exposed to this as a teenager, this is the path I would have been on all along.”  It was the birth of my first child in 2002 that was the catalyst for me to quit my corporate job and pursue my photographic passion as a business.

Why did I choose to become certified?

In other industries mechanics, accountants, attorneys, plumbers, electricians, etc. are required to be certified in their field.  Obtaining certification affirms that the individual has passed a comprehensive exam as well as met other requirements, and possesses knowledge, extensive experience, and is appropriately skilled in that particular field.  But what about the photography industry?  These days it seems that anyone who gets a new dSLR camera prints up some business cards and markets themselves as a professional photographer.  Whether or not they actually know the basic elements of exposure, composition, or color – in truth anyone can call themselves a professional photographer.  When I looked at the saturation of photographers the marketplace, I felt that I needed to do something to differentiate myself from the pack.    So although anyone can call themselves a photographer, very few can call themselves Certified Professional Photographers.

I live just outside the city limits of Chicago.  When I look on the PPA website and search for Certified Professional Photographers 20 miles from the city’s center, seven photographers come up.  Seven certified photographers in the city of Chicago??  If I removed the “certified photographer” criteria from the search then 151 photographers come up on PPA’s webpage.  That’s only 4% of the Chicago area PPA photographers, and it’s important to remember that there are hundreds more that are not PPA members in the Chicago area as well.

Who grants certification?

Certification is granted by the Professional Photographic Certification Commission (an affiliate of PPA).

What does it take to get certified?

There are two parts of the certification process:  a written exam and a portfolio submission.

I had to submit a portfolio of 20 images which met the following criteria:

  1. Shot within the past 24 months.
  2. 20 different jobs.
  3. No self-assignments (So basically client jobs only.  No personal pictures, pictures of my own kids, self portraits, etc).
  4. No two images of the same subject.
  5. Submissions reflect the proportion of the types of photography applicant provides (example: 50% portraits, 50% weddings).
  6. No indentifying marks (such as studio logo or watermark) visible.
  7. Images prepared as if they are for a client (as opposed to for print competition).

The 2-hour written exam is offered periodically throughout the year.  Mine was offered this year at a 2-day meeting hosted by my area’s local PPA chapter.  The exam covers many topics and is offered in 3 formats:  Portrait, Commercial, and Sports.  In percentages the topics covered as well as example concepts are:

  1. Camera, lenses, and attachments (15%) – selecting the appropriate lens based on subject size, distance, and desired perspective.
  2. Composition and design (17%) – subject placement within image, props, location, posing, color harmony, coordination of subject and background.
  3. Digital post production (13%) – color space, file formats, resolution, calibration, manipulation of digital images in Photoshop.
  4. Exposure and meters (20%) – how to meter for correct exposure, the relationship between shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, and how to verify proper exposure (histograms).
  5. Film, digital capture and output (15%) – selection of appropriate film based on lighting conditions and final product needed, identify and correct problems in both negative printing and digital image printing.
  6. Lighting (20%) – to how best light a subject, types of lighting, lighting equipment, lighting ratios, lighting usage (main vs. fill), selection of appropriate filter to color correct a light source, inverse square law.

Photographers who are certified must recertify every 5 years.  Recertification can happen in one of three ways.  One option is to retake the exam.  Another option is to obtain 25 education units.  The last option is to obtain 10 education units and resubmit 20 new images for review.  Details about what counts toward education units can be found on the Certified Photographer website.

How did I pick my images?

I am lucky that I had enough client images to pull from over the past 24 months, as self-assignments are not allowed.  I am not sure if anyone at the Professional Photographic Certification Commission digs deep enough to confirm this but it was not worth the risk so although I loved some of the images from my self-assignments, I stuck with client images.  I wanted to show that I knew how to light things differently to achieve different results, so I made sure I included examples of  varying light ratios.  My client work is pretty much only portraits (no weddings or commercial work), and mostly babies and kids.  I chose the bulk of my 20 images to be babies and kids, but threw in an example maternity portrait and professional headshot since I also do several of those sessions each year.

How did I prepare for the exam?

I was really lucky to undertake this effort at the same time Sandy Puc was running the “Certify With Sandy” campaign.  Sandy Puc committed to helping 1000 photographers become certified by making educational resources such as webinars and forums available.  It was so great to have those extra resources available while studying.  I also used the book recommended by the Professional Photographic Certification Commission as a  study guide.  The book is “Photography” by London and Upton.  It turns out that I already had this book in my personal collection, but I have an older edition than the current test is based upon.  Fortunately there in an online companion website for the newer edition of the London and Upton book so I was able to use that online site along with my older hard copy of the book.

Was the test hard?

Yes, I thought it was.  I thought there were several questions that had more than one answer that could be correct, so it was tough to think through which one was the “most correct.”  It’s embarrassing to admit that I did not leave the exam feeling very confident.  Because of  the Certify with Sandy program, the exam is being offered more frequently this year than it normally is.  When I got home from the exam, I was looking at where else in the Midwest the exam was being offered this year just in case I needed to retake it.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to get that blue envelope in the mail with my passing test score inside.  If you ask my mom, she will tell you that is just part of my personality and has been for my entire life – that I always stress out thinking I did bad on a test but then do fine on it.  Right again, Mom!

So what has really changed?

A lot!  I am so honored to be part of the elite percentage of CPPs in the world today.  I hope this designation will help distinguish me from my competition and assure my clients they are in good hands.

It’s almost the end of 2010.  If you are a photographer looking for a professional goal to set for yourself for 2011, I think getting certified is a great one!