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Becoming a Certified Photographer- The “How” and “Why”

Making a living as a professional photographer is tough.

Especially these past few years.  With the relatively low-cost of entry into our profession, thousands are picking up cheap DSLRs, turning them to P-mode, and calling themselves professional photographers.

The low-end and middle-markets have been hit hard for the past few years, with the new photographers pumping out action-covered sub-par work and undercutting the long-time professional photographers on price, and giving it all away for nothing.  The high-end market has not escaped this either.  Even the five-star hotels are giving deals on weddings now, if that tells you anything!

So what sets you apart from the influx of new and “faux” photographers?  How does a client know you are legitimate?

Obviously client testimonials, longevity in business, and a solid body of work are all good ways to show your skill, talent, artistry, and professionalism.  But if you want to take it a step further, Go Get Certified!!

The Professional Photographic Certification Commission regulates who can become a Certified Professional Photographer (CPP).  They follow the standards established by the Institute of Credentialing Excellence (ICE) – the same organization that is responsible for regulating agencies that certify medical professionals, therapists, home builders, and financial professionals.

In Layman’s terms, CPP is to photographers what CPA is to accountants.

If you’re a designated CPP, the client knows you’re legitimate.  Similarly, if you want to be sure your accountant knows their stuff and is up to speed with the knowledge and skill necessary to do your taxes and reporting correctly, you hire an accountant who is a CPA (Certified Public Accountant).

So why is it necessary to know about guide-numbers, viewfinder cameras, understanding the anatomy of film, and how to print from color negatives in this age of digital photography?

Gary Meek, who taught the CPP review course that I took in August, put it in a way that really makes sense.  He said  “I had heart surgery and of course my surgeon had gone through years and years of medical school and is Board Certified.  Do you think his teachers let him skip the parts about how to deliver a baby, and learning the anatomy of the lungs and feet and eyes and how to do many different operations – just because he’s focusing on the heart?  No!!  What happens if there are complications during surgery?  What happens if he’s the only doctor in a restaurant when someone collapses?  Isn’t it important for him to have a full working knowledge of the body, just as it’s important for us to have full working knowledge of photography, even though we may specialize in one style, using one tool?”

So how do you become a CPP?

The process is three-fold .  You declare your candidacy.  Then you submit and pass a 20-image portfolio review.  Last, you must pass a rigorous written exam with at least a 70 out of 100 score.  Steps 2 & 3 can be done in any order.

The process is not quite as simple as it sounds.  The images you submit must be a proper representation of your work.  No one subject can be the same and they must be from 20 different paid jobs within the past two years.  They must show proper lighting, posing, and composition.  They should be presented as they would be for a client.  The images need to represent a proper ratio of what you actually shoot.  For example, I shoot mainly weddings and some portraits.  Therefore, a majority of my images were from weddings, and a few portraits were added as well to show the proper representation of my portfolio.

Submitting is pretty easy once you’ve decided on what images to submit.  Everything can be done online now so it took a matter of minutes for me to upload and write descriptions each image.  Then it’s waiting time.  A few weeks later I received notification via mail that my portfolio had been reviewed by the panel and passed the review!

The exam portion of the CPP certification process was even more difficult.  Mainly, my issue is that I can understand and have complete knowledge on a topic, but when it comes to taking tests I simply don’t do well.  I’ve never been a good test-taker.  The test is written by people who write tests – so it can be tricky and often ambiguous.

The test covers:
– composition and design (17%)
– cameras, lenses, and attachments (15%)
– digital post production (13%)
– exposure and meters (20%)
– film, digital capture, and output (15%)
– lighting (20%)

I personally went through two years of full-time photography training at a technical college and have a Certification in Commercial Photography Technology.  I learned everything from rolling my own film, developing, traditional portrait and commercial lighting techniques… to using large format cameras and printing from color negatives and transparencies.  The nuances of lighting, color, inverse-square-law, and color correcting have been ingrained into my brain for over a decade now.

I decided, since it’s been nearly a decade since I went through proper schooling on this, to take a CPP review course before taking the exam.

We spent 3 days in late August, at PPA headquarters in Atlanta, going over just about everything there is to know about photography basics.  It was everything I learned in two years of photography school, everything I’d learned in addition by trial and error throughout a 10+ year career — crammed into 3 days!

A photographer who started with a digital camera on P would be in shock at such a large amount of information in a short amount of time!  I honestly would be surprised if anyone could go through a review course without previous working knowledge and experience and pass this exam.   This stuff is tough!   It’s a LOT of math and science, and knowledge from practice.

A few days after completing the exam, I received my score in the mail.  I honestly didn’t know if I’d passed or not.  Again, I knew the information inside and out, but the test was not easy!!  My husband retrieved the mail and brought it upstairs, waving the blue envelope in his hand, taunting me.  My heart leapt up into my throat and I got that same familiar feeling of nausea mixed with excitement… just like back in the days before opening a college acceptance letter.  I passed!!  Phew!

Soon thereafter, I received notification from the Certification Commission that I’m officially a CPP.  I am now one of only 8% of Professional Photographers (less than 1,800 in the world) who have attained this title.

For me, this has been a very fulfilling process.  It’s been an education all over again.

In a world where everyone and their brother, sister, mother, cousin, and friend’s friend is a photographer… I can honestly say I know my s!#$.  I’m not the photographer who picked up a DSLR and went to town with it, set on P.  I’m not your average “professional photographer.”  I know the rules, and I choose when to break them.

Will this help my career and business?

I honestly do not know.  I’d like to believe it would.  Evidence shows that it’s helped those who have been CPPs for years.

I did this as a challenge to myself and out of respect for those I photograph and teach.

How could I possibly teach business to dozens, sometimes hundreds and thousands, of photographers each year, many whom are CPPs already, without going through the trouble to prove I know what I’m talking about – not just in business but in photography too?  Plus, this adds an added layer of trust for my wedding and portrait clients.

I’m happy I went through this process.  If anything, I wish I had gone through it sooner.  It takes an investment in time and focus, but I believe it’s worth it.

So whether you are a photographer like me, 10+ years in business with a formal education, or the photographer who picked up a DSLR yesterday and is shooting in P, I dare you to get certified!  I dare you to practice, practice, practice, learn, learn, learn.  I dare you to know so much about your craft that it becomes intuitive and second nature.

Additional Resources

Certify With Sandy – Forum created by Sandy Puc for support and educational resources while going through the Certification process.
Photography (10th Edition) Book – This book is considered THE book that covers everything you need to study.  It’s quite pricey but very much worth the investment.  It has a lot of color pictures, diagrams, and helpful examples.  There is a study guide online and sample tests you can take after reviewing each chapter.
Certification Prep Course at ImagingUSA 2011 – This class is taught by Gary Meek, who taught the class I took here in Atlanta.  At the end of the three-day class you can choose to take the exam right there at ImagingUSA.
CertifiedPhotographer.com – The official site for Certification.  You can register here and get all the information you need in order to submit your images and take the exam.

Written by Liana Lehman Hall

Liana’s main job is to photograph Atlanta and Destination WeddingsBut, in the winter months Liana can also be found speaking at major industry events and teaching Photo Biz Boot Camps throughout the US and abroad.  Liana is one of the only professional wedding photographers who is accredited and actively teaching managerial accounting, finance, and business planning to other professional photography studios.

Liana will be speaking at PartnerCon 2010 on the topic “Work Smarter Not Harder”, addressing the photographer’s workflow. Learn more about her presentation and about the rest of the action packed program here.

The following photos are courtesy of Liana Lehman Hall and passed the image portfolio review in the CPP process.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!