I remember vividly the nerves as I sat in that darkened room, waiting for five Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPA) judges to critique my prints for the first time. [AIPP Featured Article by Shireen Hammond]


It was 2005. Encouraged by my husband, and by the AIPP president, I’d finally worked up the courage to enter the awards.

‘Next print please.’ My heart dropped. It was my first print ““  presented anonymously as are all APPA prints ““ and there it was, sitting in front of five industry heavyweights. There was silence as they studied it. My heart was beating out of my chest and I was sure everyone in the room could hear it. I was trying to breathe as quietly as possible.

At the same time ““ although lacking faith in my own abilities ““ it felt I was now part of something big, something special, part of a family. It was almost as though ‘I had arrived’.

Jump forward to today and I can tell you that my heart thumped just as loudly and just as fast when an image of mine turned over at the latest APPAs.


Why enter APPA?

So why enter? Why become a judge for that matter? Why put yourself through the expense, time away from your family for the anxiety (and jubilation) of it all?

APPA, like any professional photography awards, can be frustrating and exhilarating all at the same, but the education if offers and the self-discovery that follows are priceless.

Working as a photographer can be a lonely, isolating journey. How do you determine how your work stacks up against that of other photographers, both in Australia and beyond? Is your work of ‘professional’ standard? Do you need to improve? How can you improve?

Entering APPA provides many answers. Through the judges’ critique you learn, grow and discover minor details you missed. By submitting images, you challenge yourself and receive independent, authoritative feedback about your work.

Pushing myself to enter both state and national awards every year has been instrumental in helping to increase skills and hone my craft. Each year I want to do better than the year before. I am competing not against my peers, but against myself.

And every year I am blown away by the talent we have in this country.  As I wander through the awards gallery and see the imagery that photographers have painstakingly created, I am in awe and inspired.

I find myself asking things like: ‘How did they achieve that lighting?’; ‘What inspired this idea?’; ‘Why did they choose this colour pallet’; ‘What made them think to crop the image this way’; ‘How the hell did they think of that?’

On seeing the images some of you might say: ‘I could never be as good as they are, I might as well give up now.’ And at first those thoughts crossed my mind too – but only for a fleeting moment. My curiosity kicked in and I wanted to become a better artist. Predominantly a wedding photographer, I wanted to create for my couples something more than just the ‘standard wedding photo.’ My aim was to create a little piece of art, a wow-factor ‘hero shot’, that they would not expect and would cherish. And I wanted to do it for every single couple at every single wedding ““ that was my challenge to myself.

If anyone had told me in the year 2000, as a 35-year-old student photographer, that by joining the AIPP I would: win countless awards nationally and internationally; become a Master of Photography with three Bars (M.Photog III); become a mentor to many upcoming photographers and be on the AIPP’s Victorian council for six years; interview legendary photographers and help create the inaugural event ‘Celebrating Women in Photography’; be published in numerous magazines nationally and internationally; have the great honour and responsibility of being asked to judge AIPP state and national awards; and now, be asked to write this article… Well I would have said, to quote Michael Caton in The Castle: ‘Ya Dreamin’!.’


Taking the ‘scary’ out of APPA: how it works

There are a panel of five judges in each room and there may be two to five rooms running at the same time with different categories. The judges are considered masters of their craft, experts in their field, and all have gone through extensive judges’ training.

Photographers are allowed to enter four images that they feel best reflect themselves and their work. There are 16 categories in total. (Albums and books are judged separately.) The categories were developed to represent the main genres of professional photography. These include: wedding; fashion; travel; sport; advertising; newborn; birth; landscape; portrait; pet and animal; science; wildlife and wild places; commercial; family; illustrative; documentary; alternative process; creative; overseas entrant; emerging; and student. Entry criteria vary depending on category.

How is an image judged?

The judges follow a strict and specific set of judging criteria, which includes: innovation, content, creativity, technical excellence and impact of the overall submission.

The photographer should be able to show communication and narrative skills, allowing the judges to understand the story (if there is one). They should demonstrate imagination and innovation, and the image should have a strong visual and emotional impact if it is to score highly. Technique, lighting, composition and image design come into consideration. Timing and anticipation can also play a big part.

To win an award, images must be of a professional standard when it comes to exposure, focus and colour. They need to demonstrate an entrant’s solid understanding of lighting and, where applicable, a knowledge of posing and styling. Attention to detail in post-production, printing and presentation all play their parts too.

And of course the final part of the APPAs involves determining the overall winner ““  Australia’s top professional photographer of the year. In looking at the 18 category winners ““ over several hours ““ the judges compare and debate all categories and decide whose portfolio best meets the criteria. Whose portfolio contains images that connect/communicate best with each other to tell a bigger story, to convey an idea, a message from the creator?

It is not easy to win an award and every year I hear, ‘Oh the judges were hard this time’, but to be frank, they have always been hard ““  as they should be. After all, this is the Australian Professional Photography Awards.  

I take the view that if I win an award and the standard has been extremely high, then I can be proud of myself and feel confident that it was deserved. Similarly, if I don’t win an award, or if some of my images do better than others, then I will seek out the judges who were involved and ask them how I could have improved to take my images into the award range. If you listen carefully to their advice, well once again, it’s priceless.


The APPA Scoring System

Judges are encouraged to use the full scoring range:

50-59 points More work is required.

60-69 points Approaching Professional Standard.

70-77 points Average to very good professional practice, but does not meet AIPP Award Criteria.

78-79 points Professional Standard/Approaching Award Level.

80-84 points Silver Award ““ exceeds normal professional practice, with high levels of communication, imagination, craft and skill.

85-89 points Silver with Distinction ““ Professional excellence. Superior visual communication, imagination, craft and skill.

90-94 points Gold Award ““ Outstanding visual communication, interpretation and emotional impact. Remarkable technique.

95-100 points Gold with Distinction ““ Exceptional vision, creativity and innovation. Remarkable technique. Encompasses excellence in all assessment criteria.

Do you have to be a member to enter?

You don’t have to be an AIPP member to enter the state professional photography awards and qualify for APPA.

If you didn’t enter the state awards prior ““ which is the more common and recommended route ““ you may still be eligible to enter APPA, if you meet the following criteria: you must, as a minimum, for the last two years, have invested time and resources into developing your photography business whilst at the same time consistently earning a professional level income from that photography business.

You are also able to enter as an overseas professional photographer, or a member of the NZIPP (you can find more details on the AIPP website).

And there is a ‘Wildcard’ entry ““ a route which allows any professional photographer to enter APPA directly.

Why become a part of the AIPP?

Speaking from 15 years’ experience, I’ve gained personally and professionally from being a part of a community of creatives, all of whom are striving to make a living out of something for which they have a deep-seated passion.

Sometimes being a photographer is a lonely business, so feeling you’re in a ‘safe’ environment, where like-minded people have your back and are willing to share their knowledge to help get you started (even if you are a beginner), well, again, that’s priceless.  

Having other professionals – who started out just like you and are now happy to divulge their business ‘secrets to success,’ sometimes at a cost, sometimes free, sometimes just to pay it forward (myself included), all because someone in the AIPP did that for them.

Being able to call for help from your community when you have no idea where to start and then to be pointed in the right direction by people in the know.

Belonging to an institute, where you can learn as much or as little as you wish, where you can rub shoulders with the ‘legends of the industry’, be inspired by incredible talent and make some of the longest standing friends you will ever have with people just as passionate, nervous, ‘out there’ and creative (or learning to be creative) as you.

I would encourage you with all of my heart to get involved, give it a go, stretch yourself, join in and be a part of a nationwide community of professional ‘creatives’ who wish to better themselves in the craft they love.

Happy Shooting!


Article by Shireen Hammond APP.L  M.Photog III
Triple Master of Photography
2016 AIPP Australian Family Photographer of the Year
2015 AIPP Victorian Wedding Photographer of the Year
2014 AIPP Victorian Family Photographer of the Year  

Article photos by David Simmonds