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My first-time experience with the AIPP Qld Epson Professional Photography Awards

It was July 2007. Armed with laminated A4 prints, shiny new business cards and a promotional banner, I first launched my new dog photography business at a local pet event on the Gold Coast. At the time, I had big dreams and high hopes, but no idea my business would grow to the extent it has, nearly 11 years later!

To celebrate 10 years of business and push my business and my work further through the many opportunities on offer, I thought it was high time to join the ranks of Australia’s professional photographers. Just before Christmas in 2017 I submitted my application to be an Accredited Professional Photographer with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP). I settled down to wait for the result and much to my surprise, received the acceptance email just three days later. It was official!

Entering the Awards

Each year, the AIPP run professional photography awards in each state. Later in the year, the Australia-wide APPAs – Australian Professional Photography Awards – are run.

To ease into this big new world, in March I decided to enter a set of prints into the AIPP Queensland Epson Professional Photography Awards in the Pet/Animal category.

But first, I needed some guidance!

The AIPP reportedly put on some great events and workshops and I was keen to attend my first one. I rocked up at the first print critique night, armed with 4 of my best prints, to see what sort of reception they would receive. It was so interesting sitting there anonymously and listening to people critique my work – I have never really had this opportunity before – and I received a very helpful insight into what the judges were thinking and looking for when it came to scoring prints.

After another online critique session (such a great option for those not close by) and some excellent advice from an AIPP judge who was more than happy to help me out (thanks Melinda Comerford!) I finally settled on the four prints I was going to enter. I was seriously apprehensive about the images I’d chosen – I’d not seen any dog action photos – taken outdoors with natural light – in any previous year’s awards.

If I was going to enter though, I was adamant I would not be changing my style to suit what I thought would do well – rather – I wanted to enter with images that were quintessentially my own unique style.

I had the images printed, labelled and sent off by the super helpful Andrew at Living Image Fine Art Print. His help with selection the perfect paper and exploring mounting options was invaluable and I’ll definitely be taking advantage of his expert advice and services in the future.

Judgement day

On the day of the judging, I turned up to Mount Gravatt TAFE feeling apprehensive but excited. My new found friend and fellow AIPP member Allira Batstone came along to watch and offer moral support (unfortunately she wasn’t able to enter herself) which was amazing. Together we sat and watched as each new print was presented before the judges in the Pet/Animal category.

For those not familiar with the AIPP awards judging process and criteria, here’s a basic rundown.

You can skip this bit if you already know all this!

Each print is placed in front of a panel of five judges, who then give a single score, between 50 and 100, based on a number of criteria including Impact, Creativity & Style, Composition, Image or Print Presentation, Centre of Interest, Lighting, Colour Balance, Technical excellence, Photographic Technique and finally Story Telling & Subject Matter.

Most prints seem to score above 70 (professional practice – what you’d expect from a professional photographer), with 80 and higher being “Award-level”.

Here’s the criteria for the Award-level scores:

80-84 – Silver Award – Exceeds normal professional practice, with high levels of communication, imagination, craft and skill.
85-89 – Silver with Distinction – Professional excellence. Superior visual communication, imagination, craft and skill.
90-94 – Gold Award – Outstanding visual communication, interpretation and emotional impact. Remarkable technique.
95-100 – Gold with Distinction – Exceptional vision, creativity and innovation. Remarkable technique. Encompasses excellence in all assessment criteria.

After each judge gives their score, the scores are averaged to obtain the final print score. But often, that’s not the end of the process! If one judge’s score is 5 points above or below the average, they are eligible to “challenge” the score. During this challenge process, the judge talks about why they think the print should have scored higher, and at the end of the discussion (which can be quite lengthy) all judges must re-score the image.

Sometimes this results in print score being changed to a different award, while in other cases, the print remains in the same scoring range.

I find the back and forth discussion between judges so interesting and educational, it’s really great to be able to hear their thought processes behind their scoring decisions.

My prints are judged!

You can watch the judging of the Pet/Animal category here. I’ll provide time codes for the judging of my images below.

Image 1 – Rogue at the Beach

I was feeling totally fine – until my first image swung around in front of the judges (at 10:56 in the video). At that point, the butterflies well and truly made an appearance!

This was one of the images I had taken along to the first print critique evening and on the night received some feedback about the crop, and some ideas to tidy the image up a little. I took this advice on board and made a few changes to the image before having it printed for the awards.

The average score for this print was 81 resulting in a Silver Award and since all the judges were on the same page, there was no challenge issued. One judge was invited to comment, and spoke about the sharpness and colour scheme, saying it was a “very pleasing image”. Lovely to hear!

A little background on this shot…

This is Rogue the blue merle Border Collie photographed at Red Beach on Bribie Island. This session was actually filmed by videographers and made into the very first episode of my RealShoots series – a ten episode series of pet photography shooting and editing video tutorials. I loved this image so much, I chose it to record a complete start-to-finish edit on for a post-processing tutorial also included in Episode 1 of RealShoots.

So not only can you watch the image being taken in the shooting tutorial, you can also watch the complete editing process as I bring the RAW file to life!

Want to see a cool interactive before and after slider of this shot? Check it out on my learning website.

Image 2 – Dutchie the Cavoodle Puppy

I didn’t have to wait long for my next image to swing around in front of the judges (19:00 in the video).

This was another image that I had presented at the first print critique night. Originally I had presented it as a landscape crop, but after hearing feedback from the judges, I decided to re-crop it to square instead. When cropping, I paid special attention to the diagonal going from top left to bottom right, which the judges actually picked up on.

With individual scores ranging from 77 to 88, the initial average score was 82, resulting in a challenge from the judge who scored 88. He spoke about how the pleasing colour palette and level of detail captivated him. He said it was very nicely put together from a lighting and technical perspective with a good use of depth of field, and that he found it hard to fault the image.

Next the judge who had scored 77 was invited to speak. He said that while the image had impact, he felt the bold colour shift in the background was distracting.

Finally, one of the judges who scored 84 spoke about the visual communication, as evidenced by the tilt of the dog’s head and eye contact resulting in a high level of engagement with the photographer.

The discussion then continued back and forth for a while, touching on the lines in the background and the storytelling component created by the sense of the dog being at a particular location.

All super interesting stuff! I was so excited to hear the judges discussing aspects such as the composition, colour palette and especially the engaging expression of the pup – as these were all aspects of the shot I personally love.

The image was re-scored by all judges, resulting in a final score of 85 – my first Silver with Distinction!

A little background on this shot…

At the time of this client session in Wynnum, Dutchie the Cavoodle was just 4 months old. Her mum Liesbeth recently moved to Australia from Belgium, and like most natives of that country, speaks multiple languages! Dutchie was named as such because she has been spoken to and trained in the Dutch language. On the day, I had to learn the words for “sit” and “stay” (among others – don’t ask me to repeat them today as I have an awful memory for languages!) to help me communicate with this gorgeous little gal during the session.

The fact that the judges commented on the dog’s connection and communication with the photographer was awesome, as that was the most challenging aspect of creating this image!

Image 3 – Storm the Border Collie

Next up was an image I had presented at the online print critique in regular landscape format. During the critique, the judges discussed the crop extensively. They liked the old wheel on the left but felt there was too many distractions above and below the dog. I ended up re-cropping the image in extreme panorama to help tighten up the composition, while also doing some general tidying up and removal of distracting elements.

At the awards, the original average score was 85 – no challenges on this one!

When asked to comment (listen in at 31:08 in the video), the judges spoke about the super shallow depth of field, the sharp focus on the speeding dog and the setting which helps to tell a story. She suggested that the image could do better with a touch more black on the dog. At this moment I wanted to stand up and say “but he’s a blue and white Border Collie, not black!” – haha! But this was a good lesson to make that more obvious in future. Blue fur is very difficult to colour balance, I should know, I had a blue Great Dane!

In the end, I was very happy with a Silver with Distinction for this image.

A little background on this shot…

Every year I support the RSPCA Million Paws Walk by holding a stall at the Samford walk and donating a complimentary photo session to their raffle prize pool. Last year, the winner of the session was Trent and his beloved Border Collie, Storm – who actually regularly performs at the Samford walk as part of Bonnie’s Canine All Sorts Demo team. At Storm’s photo session, dragging myself out of bed early to catch those first golden rays of the day was well worthwhile!

Image 4 – Niku the Siberian Husky

This image was my “wildcard” entry. I’d not shown it at either of the critiques, but did show it to an AIPP member and judge when speaking with her after the online critique. After absorbing her feedback like a sponge, I applied a panorama crop and performed some additional work to the background and subject to make the dog stand out more. I entered it in the awards, totally not knowing what to expect.

Would the judges hate it? Love it? I was so excited to find out! You can listen in on the judging in this video (at 41:20).

My image had appeared and it was scoring time. As I watched the individual scores pop up on the screen, I was astounded to see a 96 from one judge! My first thought was that it was a mistake, and I peered at the screen, expecting to see the number change as the judge realised their error. But no, the 96 was soon joined by a range of scores going all the way down to 78. I couldn’t help but laugh, this was going to be a fun discussion to listen to!

With an average score of 86, an automatic challenge applied due to the score of 96 being 10 points away from the average.

The judge who had scored 96 was invited to speak first. Her reasoning for scoring this in the Gold with Distinction range was the image being “absolutely a decisive moment” – the splash, the expression of the dog, the excitement being “just magical”. Said you really feel “the energy, the emotion, the excitement” – wow! You’ll have to listen to the video (at 41:20) to hear all the comments but it’s well worth listening to. I had the hugest grin on my face while she was speaking – I was so happy and thankful to hear the thoughts of someone who really “gets” dog photography and understands what I constantly strive to create in my work!

Next up, the judge who scored 78 was invited to comment. He spoke about the background mainly – that it doesn’t add anything to the image and that if anything – it actually detracts from the foreground and the subject.

The judge who scored right in the middle at 87 was invited to comment next. He said he went straight to the dog’s eyes and mouth and that the impact was very high. The centered composition and panoramic crop was praised, as was the background, which he felt enhances the image due to the dark tones and the way it facilitates separation between the subject, water droplets and background.

The discussion continued, with topics such as the dog’s expression, ear position and handling techniques talked about in detail.

It was time for re-scoring.

All the judges re-scored higher (aside from the top challenge score) and the score went up to 89 – just 1 point shy of a Gold Award!

I was still absolutely stoked with a Silver with Distinction for this image though – especially considering it was my wildcard entry. The fact that the judges recognised the technical skill and handling skills it took to get this shot was awesome and really made me feel as though they understood what goes into creating an image like this.

A little background on this shot…

Ahhh – Niku! That crazy blue-eyed Siberian Husky rescue dog. I first met Niku through Brisbane rescue group Shamroq (Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute Rescue of Queensland) when she came into their care at 4 months old. I regularly donate my time to Shamroq, photographing dogs in foster care to help promote them and find them new homes through sharing of their images and stories through social media.

Turns out, my good friend Kay ended up adopting Niku!

When I needed a young highly distracted dog to demonstrate techniques for working with such a dog for my next RealShoots teaching video, I decided to film a session with Niku at Shorncliffe. It was a completely hilarious session as Niku spent most of the time trying to chase the resident population of bush turkeys. Don’t worry, she was on-leash the entire time and no bush turkeys were harmed in the filming process!

Niku has two main modes – completely serious and intense – then the less frequent crazy, maniacal zoomy mode. Flipping her switch to enter zoomy mode, while on a long leash and at just the right time and place so I could capture it, took some serious handling and the complete process was captured as part of the shooting tutorial in Episode 6 of RealShoots.

The AIPP Queensland Epson State Awards presentation evening

The awards presentation night was held on the Monday evening after the awards weekend. I was feeling under the weather but decided to head along anyway. As I remarked to my husband (who I dragged along for company), it was strange to be in a whole room full of professional photographers for what must have been the first time in my life!

There were a few familiar faces though – William Long, who I had actually completed a week’s worth of work experience with back in 2000 as part of my photography studies at Toowoomba TAFE (under another AIPP member, Doug Spowart) and also Selena Rollason who had sat down in the empty chair next to me where I was sitting alone at the first print critique. She introduced herself and made me feel very welcome at my first ever AIPP event, which I will always be very grateful for. Though I didn’t get to meet her in person until later on, I also spotted the lovely Melinda Comerford who had provided some excellent guidance via online chat after the online critique night.

The awards rolled on and we sat and stood around, sipping wine, eating canapés and watching the awards being presented for all the categories. I was so impressed with the quality of all the work of the winners that was flashing up on screen. Along with the seriously beautiful but more classic style images that I would expect to see, there were many super innovative and creative images on display. The fact that they’d been so well received made me realise what a progressive organisation the AIPP is – it was very inspirational!

I found myself holding my breath when the Pet/Animal category came around. I thought I may be a finalist, but when my name was read out as the winner of the category, I think I may have actually blanked out a little in shock. What?! I made my way up the front and was presented with the certificate, trophy and…. microphone. Oh, man. An acceptance speech?

Photo courtesy of Jon Wright / Blank Canvas Photography

My heart was racing a mile a minute – which I believe I helpfully informed the crowd at the start of my speech. I looked around the room at all those unfamiliar faces as they looked back and probably wondered who on earth I was as well. I’d vaguely fantasised about what I would say if I ever won, so stumbled awkwardly through my poor recollection of that, then had my photo taken and headed back to sit down. My husband said I did well – until I reminded him I’d forgotten to thank him in my speech. I still haven’t heard the end of that one.

If I had to replay that moment, I would say my thanks properly!

“Firstly, congratulations to the other finalists in this category – there was some seriously amazing shots! I’d like to thank, first and foremost, the sponsor Epson, for making an event like this possible in the first place. I’d like to thank all the volunteers who selflessly donate their time and talents both behind the scenes and in management and judging roles. I’d like to thank my husband Martyn for always believing in me and constantly pushing me beyond my comfort zone, to bigger and better things. And finally, I’d like to thank my wonderful clients (and their awesome dogs) for believing in me and my work enough to invest in their dog photography experience, making it possible for me to hone my craft, develop my style and push beyond the ordinary.”

That’s what I should have said anyway. Better late than never, right?

With things still feeling rather unreal, I headed over to the Epson photo booth to have the official award image taken with AIPP Queensland President, Mel Sinclair and award presenter, Mark Schoeman.

Photo courtesy of Jon Wright / Blank Canvas Photography

I floated around for the rest of the night in a bit of a daze. It was wonderful to see Selena Rollason take out the highest award of the night – 2018 AIPP Queensland Epson Professional Photographer of the Year, and William Long awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Final thoughts on the AIPP, the awards and the future

Though it’s something I seriously considered at various points in my career, joining the AIPP took me quite some time to get around to. I always had in the back of my mind that my work was not the kind of work that other professional photographers would “get”. Specialising in pet photography (more specifically, dog photography) is somewhat of a novelty to most people, and even more so since my work is not studio work and I shoot with natural light outdoors. I always had in the back of my mind, that I would have to somehow change my style to suit if I wanted to compete in any sort of awards.

I still remember having a rather eye-opening discussion with a member of the PPA (Professional Photographers of America) in a Facebook group one day a few years ago, where he helpfully informed me that because I shoot with natural light only, I’m not a “real” professional photographer.

I’ve since discovered that his opinion is not representative of the PPA, or really any professional photographic community, especially not the AIPP!

Entering these awards has really opened my eyes to how progressive, innovative and inclusive the AIPP is, both in the Pet/Animal category and across the board in all the categories. I’m really looking forward to continuing my involvement, entering more awards and getting to know some more fellow members in the process.

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1 Comment
  • Karlie Morris

    18 August, 2018 at 7:04 pm Reply

    Hi i would like to organise a photo shoot with you for my smooth hairex mini daschund. What are the costs and availability.

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