Strength in Numbers

Though, as freelances, we may relish being in control of our own destinies, self-employment can be a lonely and insular business at times, from which mixing with your peers can come as a welcome relief. In addition, if you choose your associates wisely, it can be both creatively rewarding and financially profitable.

Over and above feeling part of a group, joining a professional trade association and putting your portfolio forward for one of its qualifications can also provide validity-bestowing letters after your name, which can be very useful as a marketing tool. Being judged favourably by your peers provides a personal confidence boost too, while helping you up your game. It’s further worth noting that, by becoming a member of a photographic organisation, you will have someone to call on in the event of a crisis, such as a dispute or a non-payment, and you’ll gain access to the equally invaluable collective expertise of its members. To quote the old adage, there is strength in numbers.


Wants and needs

There is a plethora of organisations that might be suited to your particular skill set, specialist area or genre, and the first thing to do is match a society or association to your particular wants and needs.

Familiar names include the Association of Photographers, the British Institute of Professional Photography, the Event Photographer Society, the Master Photographers Association, The Royal Photographic Society, the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers, and the Wedding Photojournalist Association, while for f2 readers further afield, there’s the American Society of Media Photographers, a leader in promoting photographers' rights, providing education in better business practices, producing publications for photographers, and helping to connect purchasers with professional photographers. Founded in 1944, it has getting on for 7000 members, and 39 chapters.


British Institute of Professional Photography

Founded over a century ago, and with over 3000 members worldwide, the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) is one of the longest established photographic organisations, providing legal advice and insurance discounts, and also education and training.

Membership costs £150 + VAT per annum. Every photographic discipline is covered, from fashion, marine, forensic, wedding and portraiture, to architectural and advertising.

According to its Portfolio Administrator Rachel Madden-Jones, the core aim of the BIPP is to train, qualify and support professional photographers. “We offer a challenging qualifications structure in order to do this”, she says, “as well as a full programme of courses, regional and national awards and events, and preferential deals on products and services.

“The BIPP works with colleges, including the Defence School of Photography and the National Policing Improvements Agency, and we represent professional photography to government and industry. This is one of the key areas of our work.”

To join the BIPP, you need to be earning an income from photography, and also be properly insured, with indemnity and liability cover. You should submit a copy of your insurance documentation, plus a CD showcasing 30 images. If these are judged to be of sufficient standard, you become a qualifying member. You then have 12 months to become fully qualified. During this period, there is a requirement to put together a portfolio of commissioned work, upon successful completion of which you will be awarded at Licentiate, Associate or Fellowship level.

If you’re not sure whether you stand a chance of getting a foot in the door, you may be interested in BIPP portfolio reviews, which are  open to non-members. These provide face-to-face advice from one of the BIPP’s approved assessors. Incidentally, its training courses are also open to non-members.

Portrait photographer Saraya Cortaville was enticed to join the BIPP due to its professional qualifications, and holds a Fellowship. “Another reason I joined was to meet other professionals and go to workshops”, she says. “Being a photographer can be quite lonely. Plus you get recommendations, and I will also recommend people for jobs if I can’t do them.”

Like others canvassed here, Cortaville notes that working toward qualifications can drive your work and career forward. “It’s otherwise very easy to get stuck in a rut”, she says. “If you push yourself for a qualification, it drives your work in a certain direction, which is good.

“My Fellowship took two or three years of hard work, but it was worth it to get the letters after my name. Clients don’t always know what it means, but if you explain it, they understand. Personally, it was a great achievement as well.”


Association of Photographers

By comparison with the BIPP, the Association of Photographers (AOP) is a veritable teenager, but with a membership numbering 1600 photographers, agents, assistants, students and affiliated companies, it campaigns for photographers, supports and promotes talent, and is a source of latest industry info and codes of practice. Those who have been working for two years can apply for full membership, with a fee £315 + VAT per annum. Benefits include the ability to showcase up to 12 images on the AOP’s website, with full contact details; being featured in promotional newsletters; gaining access to business and legal support; discounts, and a magazine subscription.

A photographer with less than two years’ experience who is nonetheless professional can apply for provisional photographer membership. This is £240 + VAT, upgraded to full membership after two years.

“We provide access to lifelong learning”, says the AOP’s Senior Manager for Education and Business, Ella Leonard. “Through our literature, our workshops, and our talks and advice, we show photographers how to protect their rights and businesses.”

The AOP is probably best known for its 30-year programme of awards, which showcase members’ work at all levels. “They are considered by many to be the most important competitions to win”, says Leonard.

AOP member commercial and advertising photographer Nick Dunmur sits on its board. “It’s an unpaid position”, he says, “which gives you some indication of the level of members’ commitment.”

Dunmur adds that he was attracted to join the AOP by its professionalism, and the fact that it seemed to represent the best among commercial and advertising photogaphers. “I selfishly wanted to rub shoulders with the best”, he says, “so that hopefully some of that would rub off on me.

“Its Awards provide an opportunity to network with top end advertising clients and buyers, who are not only invited to the awards ceremony, but are also provided with the awards book. It’s a good way of getting your work in front of the sort of people who are probably the last bastion of reasonably decent budget holders. Things have tightened up so much for freelances these days that, if you’re trying to make it alone without any other method of marketing, it is very difficult.”

The first round of awards judging is based purely on digital entries. Those who make it to the second stage are then invited to submit prints, “… as we still recognise that online is not where photographs are always designed to be seen”, says Dunmur.

Dunmur singles out the AOP members’ forum as being ‘more than good’ with regard to keeping in touch with peers. “We’re all sat in front of computers in our offices or studios, and it would be quite lonely without that contact and sense of community”, he says.


The Royal Photographic Society

One of the longest established and most prestigious organisations in the photographic world, the RPS’ mission statement is to promote the art and science of photography. Members can join one or more specialist groups, while events are organised by local regions. Director General Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS puts current membership at 10,400.

Membership, open to all, is £102 for under 65s, £75 for those aged 65+, while foreign membership is £90. Based on Guernsey, wedding photographer Nick Després is an RPS Fellow, while his wife, who works with him as a photographer, is an Associate member. “We’ve been members for quite a long time”, he says. “I gained my Fellowship way back in 1993, and it has been very worthwhile. It brought me some good local publicity when I got it, which led to several years of providing a local company with calendar images. And it gives me a certain level of legitimacy - if something is difficult to get, it’s more valued. I’m proud of it, and it’s something I try and emphasise.

“It’s difficult to bring home to people how good you are, but some people take note of qualifications. Photography is an industry where you can put a sign up on your door, and suddenly you’re a world famous photographer. There are people whose work I’ve been judging in local camera club competitions, and suddenly, according to their website, they’re the world’s best photographer - and people aren’t going to know any different. Having some sort of distinction from a recognised organisation is an important way of differentiating yourself from these people.”

In addition to the RPS, Després is a member of the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP), which he joined to achieve a discount on insurance. “It was my insurance broker who recommended I join the SWPP”, he says. “The cost of membership is more than offset by the discount I receive on my insurance.

“Living on an island, it’s difficult to take advantages of some of the other benefits, like trade shows, that membership of an organisation can afford, although the RPS did hold a distinctions workshop on Guernsey early in 2011, and there was one in Jersey a few years ago. They were well attended and very useful.”

Després sits on the RPS Travel Distinctions panel. “That’s a source of pride to me”, he says. “You’re sitting there adjudicating on worldwide applicants for Fellowships and Associateships. It is an important job, and it takes a fair bit of your time, because you go up to Bath once or twice a year for meetings. But it’s a great way to meet other good people on the panel, and you see a huge variety of work. It’s a difficult job, and we all take it very seriously. People get upset if they don’t get the distinction, but you go back to the fact that if it’s too easy, it’s not going to be that valued.”

Making the majority of his income from wedding photography, Després is a member of the Wedding Photojournalist Association (WPJA). “To me, that’s quite important”, he says. “My membership illustrates not just the quality of my work, but also the journalistic aspect of it, because it’s quite strict on its guidelines. You’re not admitted if there are too many non-journalistic type pictures in your online portfolio.

“Wedding photography means one thing to some people and something else to others. I’m not the traditional type of wedding photographer who takes ages to set things up, posing and directing people. Being a member of the WPJA allows me to reinforce that to my clients.”


Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers

The Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP) claims to be the fastest growing association for pros across Europe, with membership currently standing at 7500. It’s a respected body, which can offer many benefits, including a a major trade convention in London’s Hammersmith every January, access to an online photographic forum, reduced insurance rates, members’ listing on the website with contact details, a monthly image competition, and a bi-monthly magazine.

“We’re the most proactive, in offering training days, hosting our annual show, and introducing lots of other benefits”, says MD Juliet Jones. At £99 per annum, or £10 per month, membership is open to full time pros, semi professionals and serious enthusiasts.

The SWPP offers Licentiate, Craftsman (available to wedding photographers only), Associate and Fellowship distinctions. To gain an Associate, photographers are invited to upload a selection of 20 Jpegs for judgement, with a selection of prints being the alternative submission option.

If you aren’t sure if the standard of your work will ensure a pass - in short, it has to be of ‘marketable quality’ - the SWPP also has a mentoring programme, which can provide useful feedback.

Wedding and portrait specialist Aled Oldfield is Wales’ first photographer to be awarded Master of the SWPP, held in higher esteem than even the Fellowship. “What appeals is the camaraderie of meeting people at the coalface”, he says, “speaking to them on a business level, finding out what they’re doing to survive in this economic climate, and how we’re holding our own and going forward. There’s no hierarchy, and we’re all quite approachable.”

Although Oldfield has held an SWPP Fellowship for a number of years, it’s only recently that he has begun to push his distinction in his marketing. “As to whether customers come running because of that, there’s still a lot of education needed”, he says. “But what it does do is encourage you to push your personal standards, and then look for a better clientele. Unless you’re pushing your boundaries all the time, it’s easy to get left behind.”


Master Photographers Association

You may also like to investigate the Darlington-based Master Photographers Association (MPA). Established in 1952, it offers three distinctions: Licentiate, Associate and Fellowship. Of course, it’s also a route via which to learn from the experience of others - some 1700 members at last count -and share tips and leads. To join, you need to be a full time professional, membership costing £195 yearly.

Would-be MPA members need to submit two references on application, upon acceptance of which you become a probationary member. The next step is to achieve the Association’s Licentiate, before being accepted for full membership and the ability to advertise as an MPA member with requisite letters and logo.

Commercial and social photographer Paul Cooper has been awarded Fellowships of both the MPA and the BIPP. “I was initially attracted by the qualifications”, recalls Cooper, whose wife and business partner Kate has been identically accredited by both organisations. “When we started our business 16 years ago, I noticed that photographers who had been out there for a while seemed to have some form of qualification. They’re important for two reasons: they push you to improve your own work, and as a marketing tool to tell your clients that you really are a professional.”

Having said that, Cooper is candid enough to admit that the public often don’t have a clue as to what terms such as Fellowship mean until they’re told. “Then suddenly it clicks, and they realise that it might be important”, he adds. “But there is great misunderstanding among the public about what all these societies and associations mean. The attraction of the MPA was that it will only take on full time photographers. When I was part time, it wouldn’t let me join, so joining became a goal in itself.”

Another major benefit of bodies like the MPA and BIPP is, says Cooper,  the regional meetings. “The people who make the effort to attend find they’re networking with other photographers, and business comes out of it as a result. If a photographer can’t do a job, they will pass it to someone they met at an MPA meeting - they know they can pass it on with confidence.”

Cooper mentions that the MPA’s forum also provides a section that will provide cover if you’re ill on the day you’re booked to shoot a wedding. “Another facility”, he adds, “which thankfully I haven't had to use, is that if you have a client making a complaint, the MPA will handle it objectively and adjudicate.

“I got my credit card machine in a special deal through the MPA. It more than repays my membership fee - it would cost more than that to rent one from the bank.”


The Event Photographer Society

The Event Photographer Society (EPS) is a new kid on the photographic associations block. “The EPS is unlike other organisations, in that it wasn’t formed to recognise the ability of photographers”, explains Mike Weeks, its founder. “It was formed so photographers could share experience and knowledge, as the only people who truly understand event photography.

“The key to the event photography business is workflow, something which cannot be seen in the image, and hence our different approach to membership and what we wish to achieve.”

Weeks’ approach from the outset has been to use the internet to allow event photographers to network. “By helping each other raise our standards, we also help raise the possibilities of promoting what we do to clients”, he says. “We would rather have somebody join and learn from the collective knowledge, than exclude them via some barrier. However, we’re mindful that we must promote a professional way of working that protects and aids clients.”

With a current membership of 400, the society’s online forum is the hub of its activity. The basic membership fee is £10 per year. This allows access to the forum and other site sections that are not publicly viewable. Affiliate membership, which provides access to other useful resources, including discounts on insurance and marquee hire, plus the ability to be listed on the front page of the site, is £40.

“As well as the forum, we aim to have major meets each year to develop skills and business practice”, continues Weeks. “These typically happen in the Coventry area, because of its centrality. One of the best things I heard a member say about the EPS was that, via our collective help and advice, he’d avoided purchasing the wrong things, developed a good workflow, and was able to become profitable that much sooner.”

Says IT software developer turned pro Simon Coates, who covers a lot of sports events, “The EPS launched at the same time as I began my events business three years ago -  I’m member number nine. Since I was new to events, I thought it would make sense to hang around with people who knew what they were doing, so I could glean useful bits of information. It’s been an incredible resource.”

Coates adds that he has called upon the services of fellow EPS members when he has had larger, more prestigious, events to cover, and that they have been generous with their time and expertise. “I’ve found second shooters to work with, and it’s a great networking tool”, he continues. “It allows individuals to operate as if they were a much larger concern.”

Coates is very enthusiastic about EPS events. “The incredible thing is you get 30 or 40 events photographers who come into a room and leave their egos behind”, he says. “People are willing to share information and talk about how best to improve standards. ‘Eventers’ sometime get treated as the poorer cousins of ‘real’ photographers, but achieving the best image that you possibly can, even when you can’t control the light, such as at a sporting event, has always got to be the starting point for having something to sell. While we remain competitors in the EPS, we are also colleagues, and there’s a great camaraderie.”

And, while all photographers might be technically each other’s competitors, it appears that a need for support and validation through a recognised body is something that unites us all.                           




American Society of Media Photographers www.asmp.org

Association of Photographers www.the-aop.org

British Institute of Professional Photography www.bipp.com

Event Photographer Society www.eventphotographersociety.co.uk

Master Photographers Association www.thempa.com

The Royal Photographic Society www.rps.org

Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers www.swpp.co.uk

Wedding Photojournalist Association www.wpja.com


Simon Coates www.simoncoatesphotography.co.uk

Paul Cooper www.baileycooper.co.uk

Saraya Cortaville www.sarayacortaville.co.uk

Nick Després www.nickdespres.com

Nick Dunmur www.nickdunmur.com

Aled Oldfield www.aledoldfield.co.uk


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This article is taken from Vol 6 No 1. THE BUSINESS 20. Strength in Numbers.