Never Stop Learning – Preparing for WPPI Las Vegas

Since I started learning photography 7 years ago, I’ve been on a quasi-obsessive quest to grow, improve my skills and “up my game” in general. This constant sense of dissatisfaction with my work and need to better myself is not comfortable; images I was thrilled with five years ago make me cringe today, and I’m sure the pictures I took this year will horrify me next year. I imagine this feeling to be a bit like attempting the Andes by foot. As you progress, you get fitter and fitter, but on reaching the peak of one mountain, a range of higher ones come into view. You reach the top of the next, feeling stronger and faster, only to see more mountains, even bigger ones, stretching before you. The ups and downs of the business can feel like a journey across a mountain range, too; one day flying high with creative ideas, excitement at booking a new client or delivering a set of images I have worked on for weeks and am so proud of, followed by the flat despair and certainty that I’ll never make it, I’ll never be satisfied with my work, that I’ll never reach the standards of xxx or yyy. I’m told this feeling is not uncommon and comes with the territory, which is reassuring :-).

Which brings to me my next journey in a few days time. Not across the Andes, but from Italy across the Atlantic to Las Vegas, USA to attend WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International). This is arguably the biggest and most important exhibition, conference and training event in the world for wedding and portrait photographers. This year, thanks to my amazing and ever patient husband who will be holding the fort, the children and the dogs while I am away… I. Am. Attending.

It’s hard to describe how important this event is to a photographer like me. As a member of WPPI, I get to attend not only the expo, but I’ll have access to five solid days of critique, training and classes from the best photographers in the world. The best. In the world. Photographers who have taken boring old wedding and portrait photography and turned it into an art form, photographers I have admired for years. The names might mean nothing to you, but I will mention them anyway. Joe McNally, Susan Stripling, Keda Z, Bob and Dawn Davis, Bambi Cantrell, Sue Bryce, Jerry Ghionis, Yervant, Cliff Mautner, Jose Villa, Roberto Valenzuela are just a few off the top of my head. The level of expertise and experience of these people, all under one roof and all teaching and demonstrating and sharing, is just astounding. As well as the free platform classes, I have booked in-depth classes with Keda Z, fine art wedding photography wunderkind from Malaysia, Vicky Papas Vergara, outstanding beauty and fine art photographer from Australia, “photo walks” with Joe McNally (Joe McNally!) and fellow Italian photographer David Bastianoni, whose work manages to inspire me and make me feel inadequate at the same time. Another highlight I can’t wait for is Sue Bryce’s keynote speech. I’ve been following Sue Bryce’s inspirational portrait classes for the last five years and if I get to meet her I might burst into tears, I love her that much.

And – dun dun dun – there is the WPPI annual competition. Seven years after first picking up a DSLR with a semi-serious intent to learn photography, I finally plucked up the courage to submit to a photography competition. I’m too old to waste time, so I went straight to the most respected competition I could find, and that, in my opinion, is WPPI. The standard of work is exceptional and intimidating. I felt I had reached a level where I was pleased with my work, liked my work and knew my clients liked my work, but I needed to take that step further and risk technical and professional critique. Serious print competitions are a sometimes brutal way of facing and understanding one’s true level and positioning in the market, and I was ready. Ready to receive critique, ready to accept that I have not yet reached the level I want and need to be at, but ready to find out exactly where I stand so I can figure out which step to take next on my path upwards.

I tested the waters with the mid-year round of competitions of WPPI, the second half of 2016, which is the digital, online version of the competition. The results weren’t what I expected. Images I loved scored lower than images I liked less. But I learned very quickly, thanks to the succinct, on point and very helpful judge’s remarks, the difference between photography that is fashionable and photography that is timeless and technically good work (and what is not). I can now spot an image that would be impressive in a fashion magazine but considered substandard by judges. Images that I and my clients adore may be unsuitable for competition. It was both humbling and encouraging, because all my images received scores that WPPI judges consider to be of a good professional standard, but two received Silver awards (score of 80-84), which means those images stand out above and beyond being of a good professional standard, and are moving up towards the realms of “excellence”. I achieved scores of 80 and 81 for two images, which sent me screaming in joy for my credit card to book my flight to Las Vegas so I could watch the judging of the annual Print Competition live and in person.

In the few months that have passed since then, I have studied the past winners of WPPI and their work carefully. In just two months I have learned so much that I find myself critiquing every image I see (most savagely my own of course), deducting points in my head for composition, tonal range, impact, and the other criteria I have learned that “matter”.

When Melissa Ghionis, wife and business partner of renowned wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis and organiser of the WPPI competition and live judging at Las Vegas, put out a call on Facebook for volunteer print handlers, I emailed her immediately and practically begged for the job. This is the point at which my husband (not a photographer) declared me an official nut job. For the two days of judging, I’ll be on my feet for 12 hours a day in a dark room wearing gloves, sorting prints and marking down scores, and presenting the prints before the judges. But. But…I get to see each and every print up close, and be right next to the judges as they discuss, critique and score each print. This is a learning opportunity that I could not let pass me by.

And YES, I am entering the print competition. It’s very scary. You can get away with a lot in a digital image. High quality prints are less forgiving; in fact, they can be brutal. When printed properly, good images look wonderful, but there is nowhere for a bad image to hide. Poor focus, incorrect white balance and shoddy post production scream for mercy in a high quality print.

Although I own a very good professional printer, I decided to put myself in the hands of the printing professionals. I contacted Graphistudio (my favourite album maker) and asked them to produce fine art prints using their Canon Dreamlabo HD printer, one of only four such printers in the world. In short, their HD prints on fine art paper are like nothing I have seen before. With the right image, they look 3D. I did some test prints with them earlier in the year and, having seen the results and realising how I needed to adjust my post production and retouching for the level of detail these prints provide, Graphi did something truly amazing, turning around my prints in a matter of days for me so I could get them matted and mounted and ready to send to Las Vegas in time for the deadline. They also provided me with some precious feedback and suggestions on my images. Their level of service and quality of product is simply outstanding.

Luckily, I won’t be volunteering in the room where my prints will be judged; Melissa wisely put me in another category. Because I will cry, scream, faint or have to retire to the restroom for some solitary heartbreak when the results come through (yes I can be a bit dramatic). But most importantly, as a print handler I will have the opportunity to ask the judges personally for feedback once judging is over, and that is worth the cost of the entire trip to me. If any of my prints score 80 or above, they will be displayed in the winner’s gallery. And I will sob like a baby. If they don’t, I admit I will be devastated. I am hoping for a couple of images to score 80-81. But if they don’t, I will take the information I learned from watching the judging up close and handling hundreds of prints, and prepare myself next year to take WPPI by the throat.

So when you next hear from me, I’ll have my results and wounded pride under one arm and a huge bag of tricks for next year’s wedding season under the other.

Bring it on.


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