Competition Levels

Three Levels for Competitions!

NAPfS is an inclusive club with members of a wide range of skill levels.

The NAPfS competitions have three skill-based levels (the old term was classes) in order to put club members on a level playing field and to make each level internally competitive. The judges are able to provide useful critiques to the photographs in each level, providing education and inspiration to all participants.

The competition coordinator controls each member's level.  However, any member can request to change levels by sending a request to the competition coordinator (Mark Laussade).

The Levels

Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone advances at a different speed. We all have different amounts of time, mental energy and money to devote to photography and that makes a difference.

The levels are not about the length of time you’ve been a photographer.

The levels are not professional vs. amateur. Earning money or doing it purely for the love of it has very little to do with skill and quality of the resulting images.

Being in one level vs. another is not a sign of status

Which level a photographer belongs in is their decision based on their self-perceived experience level and skills. Below are guidelines relative to a photographer’s main focus when creating images. Hopefully everyone feels comfortable selecting a level individually. If you are unsure, feel free to ask us (competition@napfs.club) and we will determine the appropriate class for maximum learning and fun. You can change your class during the year as you improve your skills as well.  If you’ve been winning competitions in "basic" or "intermediate", the competition coordinator can move you up a level.

Level Definitions

Basic (was class 1) is for photographers that are focusing primarily on getting the technical pieces of a photo to come together. They may have a vision but still need to consciously focus on the nuts and bolts of making the photo: focus length, focus point, exposure, exposure settings, or post processing. A "basic" photographer will find, however good their vision, that they sometimes struggle to realize it due to technical limitations such as improper exposure, missed focus, less than ideal composition, not being sure what focus length to use, or how to achieve an interesting perspective. Technical details like focus, exposure and framing will often be the key to separating images that receive an award from those that do not.

Intermediate (was class 2) is for photographers who have a solid handle on fundamental technical elements of their photography. Achieving sharp (or otherwise vision-appropriate) focus and proper exposure happen subconsciously. Critiques in "intermediate" should focus on the impact of the image. Images in "intermediate" should generally be free of straight forward technical mistakes (e.g., missed focus) but "intermediate" photographers break “rules” relative to technical details and have learned to do it in a way that works. The judge should be able to focus on the message the image presents, how it speaks to them, and how compelling the photo is in general.

Advanced (was class 3) is for expert-level photographers who are no longer focusing on technical issues at all. They have a high level of mastery in a number of genres. "Advanced" photographers are almost solely worried about vision and message. They often “swing for the fences” and make images that illicit strong reactions. People either love them or hate them but are rarely ambivalent to them. Theme interpretation, technical execution, and creative expression should be sharp, clearly on point, and implemented with both skill and a certain je ne sais quoi (i.e., describing something that’s hard to put into words). “Rules,” or not, are consciously bent with a command of purpose that culminates in an exquisite image.

Andrew Fritz’s Level Examples

The remainder of this post (and most of the post above) was written by Andrew Fritz.  Thus, the first person (“I”) refers to Andrew.   Unfortunately, Andrew is no longer with us, but his words still ring true.

Choosing Levels Based on Examples

Obviously "basic", "intermediate", and "advanced" can overlap in many ways. Just because someone is very comfortable with the technical aspects of one type of photography (say, landscape) doesn’t mean they will be as comfortable in another (say, studio photography). The decision to choose the level is about your general comfort level and about receiving meaningful critiques.

Great photos in either class will be recognized (note that two of the three Critic’s Choice winners were Class 1 ("basic") in 2018). A photo with high impact that is missing some technical aspects (see the example below) could win in whichever class. Winning in "intermediate" or "advanced" is not better or worse than winning in "basic". A great photo is a great photo.

Here are some examples that demonstrate the differences between what an "advanced" photographer may submit for competitions and what a "basic photographer may have done with a similar photo. With those two extremes, you’ll have a good idea of what would be "intermediate (somewhere in the middle).

Example 1 – Flawed but Good

                                      Honor Flight by Andrew Fritz, Honorable Mention, Jan 2016

This image is an example of a photo by an "advanced" photographer. It is far from technically perfect and I realized that when I submitted it. I was on location shooting as a photojournalist with no ability to control things like the crowd or lighting. Despite the flaws: busy background, distractions on the frame edge, and overexposed foreground soldiers, this image has an extremely high impact.

The subject, the WWII veteran, is dead center, in sharp focus, and properly exposed. Shallow depth of field helps isolate him somewhat. There is no glaring technical flaw with the subject and that is what matters in this case. Many viewers feel strongly engaged with him and his expression, his rheumy yet intense eyes are powerful. The photographer positioned himself to be directly in the subject’s gaze. Regardless of intention, the photo is as it is: the veteran stares directly through the soldiers into the camera.

The judge, while pointing out technical flaw, choked up. I (as the photographer) have the same reaction and cannot stop looking into the vet’s eyes. After I lock eyes with him, I’m literally unable to see anything else in the photo without a head shake. The technical problems, although not irrelevant, fade to trivial. A Class 3 photographer sets out to make images like this and recognizes the result’s impact despite the flaws and broken “rules.” They are willing to present it but not another superficially similar image lacking the key element: the subject’s engagement.

A "basic" photographer, on the other hand, may have had the veteran’s eyes out of focus, had the entire image in focus, had too light or dark of an exposure, or cropped loosely, showing several distractions around the action and emotion demonstrated in this photo.

Example 2 – No Margin

      Najatt in Gold by Joshua Baker, 2nd Place, Jan 2016

This image is an example of an exercise in technical perfection. Pose, framing, lighting, and exposure all had to be nearly perfect for this image to work at all. If any one element was less than perfect, the image would fail despite no easily-identifiable technical mistake.

While this type of image looks simple, it is an all or nothing proposition. It requires a diverse skill set to consistently execute. While a "basic" photographer could attempt and even succeed at this image, an "advanced" photographer can confidently attempt images like this knowing they have a fair chance of success, and knowing they can determine the successes from the failures. The hard part of this image for an "advanced" photographer is coming up with the vision and realizing the elements in the photo (makeup, model, pose) to fulfill that vision.

Like the previous example, the "advanced" photographer recognizes this image as the best from probably 10s or 100s of similar images that all differ slightly in pose, framing and lighting.

A "basic" photographer would most likely struggle with creating this image, taking a lot of time to set it up and figure out the proper lighting, exposure, and contrast. There would be a lack of confidence when creating this photo (although it would be fun to try it!).

Example 3 – Time is Not the Issue

     Proud Fella by Travis Johnson, 3rd Place, Jan 2016

This image, by Travis Johnson, is an example of a great image from a fairly new photographer. I suspect that Travis belongs in "advanced" despite being active at photography for less than a year. As noted above, we all learn at different rates for many reasons. The level is not about how long you’ve been a photographer.

Wildlife photography can seem accidental to many, but to consistently produce great results requires great technical skill, persistence, and (quite frankly) luck (the sort you make by yourself from missing sleep to get a good shot). Working with animals in the wild (whether in Africa or your back yard) is probably one of the least controlled situations possible. Where Josh had absolute control over the environment, model, lighting, room temp, camera position, food supply, and just about every other variable in his photo above, Travis (and any other wildlife photographer) has almost none.

The light is what you find. If you want something else you have to wait for the weather to change or come back at a different time of day. The background is also out of direct control normally. If you don’t like it you have to move somewhere else. The behavior of your subject is (nearly) totally out of your control. You can’t ask the lizard to do anything. Even approaching this closely often results in your subject running away.

So, when a photographer nails the technical aspects, not easy given the lack of control and especially the close focus distance and long focus length this image used, and manages to grab a great expression with clean backgrounds, the image is good. Whether it receives an award will depend on how the judge feels about it and what it is competing against.

A "basic" photographer may have had a busy background, distracting the viewer from the main subject of the photo, or may have placed the subject in the middle of the photo, which is not as pleasing to the eye.

The key to what level Travis chooses is really about his own knowledge. If he made this image intentionally, finding (or recognizing after the fact) a clean non-distracting background, and releasing the shutter at the right moment (or again, recognizing it after the fact), then I’d suggest he is a good candidate for "advanced". Of course, it is his call.



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