2020 was a challenging year for all of us, so Mike Hall – now LRPS – decided to test his photographic skills to make it a memorable year for all the right reasons! Here’s Mike’s story of becoming a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society…

I’ve been a photographer of one sort or another for a good twenty years now, and it’s fair to say for a good 15 years of those, I was an amateur. I bought a nice SLR, and then a really nice full frame one – but as they say, I had all the gear and no idea. I didn’t really understand the mechanics: aperture, shutter speed, or depth of field.

What I did have was a sense of composition. I understood light, shadow and contrast, and I knew that I loved photography, and that I wanted to get better. I took some good images, but there was huge room for improvement.

In 2015 I bought my first modern Olympus camera (the venerable EM-5) which was a fantastic change for me. Suddenly, my kit was lighter, I had Image Stabilisation, I had a macro lens, and I could visualise shots more easily through an electronic viewfinder. As an adult, I was diagnosed with ADHD and concentration and decision-making are not my strongest suits, so anything that can help me work quickly is a good thing. Mirrorless photography has worked so well for me.

Over the next couple of years I really started to improve. I went out on shoots – I tried different approaches, and I started to put myself in positions where my images would be used. I volunteered for a number of groups to photograph for them, and I learned the technical part through self learning, and occasionally photographing with friends. I upgraded my gear from that EM-5, to the E-M5 Mark II, then to the Mark II, and now the Mark III. 

Fast forward to 2020: like most people, I haven’t found this year easy, and for good chunks of it going out with a camera has been impossible. I needed to find another challenge to push myself. A confidence boost came when one of my images made the shortlist for Landscape Photographer of the Year. I was really pleased – and I thought I might be onto something.

I agreed to run an online exhibition of my photography as part of the Heritage Open Days festival in 2020. My virtual exhibition, Hidden Winchester, was very well received in September and it gave me a real boost in confidence. 

I decided to try for an RPS Distinction. I’d mulled it over many times before, but hadn’t really had the confidence to do so – but now I felt the time was right. 

Over the past couple of years I’d built a solid portfolio of images, including everything from studio portraits to some travel images from trips to Hong Kong and China, but I’d never really tested myself. So, in a moment of impulse in September, I checked out the criteria, found spaces, and booked myself a slot on the Licentiate Distinction Assessment day for December 2020. 

There are 3 levels of Distinction within the RPS. The first level, Licentiate, requires a high standard in itself, but as the RPS themselves say, it’s achievable for dedicated photographers. The Licentiate Distinction requires you to submit ten images – in my case, prints – with a hanging plan. They’re assessed against:

  • Camera work and technical quality
  • Visual awareness
  • Communication
  • Overall impression

Here’s how I prepared. Firstly, there’s a lot to be said for “the eleventh image”. The assessors are looking for a set of images which are technically strong but that also work together as a set. The RPS have example panels you can see on their website to get an idea of what works.

I dug through my archive, choosing images from 2016 – 2020, and picked a mix of black and white and colour photography – but what is incredibly important is to present a group of images which show off different aspects of your work. I chose a studio shoot, shots from my work as a volunteer photographer, a street shot, some of my landscape photos – and figured out a way of making them work together.

My advice is to think beyond the shot you’re proudest of because it was so hard to get. I have a fantastic shot that I took 12,500ft up a mountain in December 2017 – but is it my best shot? No. Did I find a better one from that shoot? Yes! Did I remember I had that second photo? No! You’ll be amazed by the great images you’ve forgotten about in your catalogue. Go and dig.

Be critical. Ask yourself, “Does this fit?” “Is it too similar to other images?” “Have I missed anything technically?”

The deadline was looming large. A friendly word with the Distinctions team at the RPS told me I had until the 19th November to get prints to them. I lined up a local framer to get my mounts ordered.

Another thing that matters for printing is colour management. If you take printing seriously, you need to calibrate your screen against test prints, so when they print, they look as close to your intended image as possible. If you’re going for a print submission, you need to make sure this is right too. Colour management can be the difference between passing and not!

With time pressures, I decided to get my prints done by a professional lab. I chose four portrait format prints for the corners of my panel, and six landscape format prints for the middle: a combination of six colour and four black and white for balance.

Everything arrived with the RPS safe and sound and on schedule, though my advice is to give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to allow yourself to recover from mistakes if they happen. I was ten minutes away from deferring for another date – but I held firm.

The next two weeks were spent pacing around a little, and then the big day came. Just after midday, I got a brief but very welcome email informing me that my panel had been successful. A wave of joy, and I must say, some relief was felt! 

As a member of the Society, I can now use the letters LRPS after my name – and I’m very proud to!

Here’s my panel of 10 images, all taken with Olympus cameras and lenses, and the story behind each.

1. Andrew McCormack

Andrew is a terrific British Jazz pianist, and this image was used in his 2019 album release, Graviton: The Calling. I chose it because it’s a strong portrait, showed off an understanding of depth of field, and focusing on his eye was really difficult! I used an Olympus 25mm PRO lens at f1.2 for this image in a studio. The original choice was 4×3 format, so I chose this replacement in 3 x 2 to make it work.

2. Comrades

Taken on Utah Beach, in France in 2019, as part of D-Day 75 – there were some Romanian re-enactors sitting on the sand dunes taking part in the memorial and their poses tell a great story alone. I used a 12-100mm F4 PRO lens for this.

3. The Cobb

I took this in August 2020 as part of an early morning shoot when I was staying down by the coast with my family. I’d always wanted to photograph these steps, so headed down early one Monday morning when no one was about. I used a 12-40 F2.8 PRO and the ND Live function of my E-M1 Mark III.

4. Worthing Winter Storm

Worthing Winter Storm – I took this in February 2020 during the middle of Storm Denis on Worthing Pier. A long exposure using my E–M1 Mark II and a ND filter using a 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens. I’m just about dried out after this shoot…

5. Queer Cupcakes

I am a volunteer photographer for a number of organisations, including Hampshire Pride, and in 2018, this chap posed for me before the main parade, with the offer as he put it, of a “Queer Cupcake” – so I named the print after that. I used the 25mm Pro F1.2 for this.

6. See the Light

Taken in an incredible church in Poitiers, France – the Église Notre-Dame La Grande in 2016. This was a late addition to my panel. E–M5 Mark II with 12-40mm F2.8 PRO

7. Mirror Image

This abstract shot of a building on London Wall in the City of London was taken in early 2018. I was working up there at the time – I used the 12-100 F4 PRO for this. I looked up!

8. Sir Walter

A photoshoot for 2Time Theatre company, taken in the Great Hall, Winchester in May 2018 – I used the 12-40 F2.8 PRO for this along with some portable Rotolights to add to the shot.

9. Precarious

Taken in December 2017, in Chamonix, France, I found this shot in my archive and it was too good to miss out. It just jumped out at me. I used the 12-100mm F4 PRO for this I think.

10. Red Dress

This was taken at the Tate Modern in London, March 2017– it’s of an unknown family, but I’ve always loved this shot: it’s telling a very simple story just through their poses. Taken with the 12-40mm F2.8 PRO – I let them and the natural light do the work.

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