Royal Photographic Society Distinctions

October 01, 2011


I wanted to write an article on my experience with my ARPS panel exam at the R.P.S.

The Royal Photographic Society has been around since 1852.  It exists today with a Royal Charter and is massively respected throughout the world. From a personal point of view its a great resource for photographers with news and articles in their regular magazine and workshops around the country. Its a good way to gain recognition if you haven’t studied photography and therefore perfect for me. There are three levels of qualification, or as the society says, Distinctions.  They are:



The Licentiateship (LRPS) is normally the entry level Distinction and is awarded for a good level of basic skill and competence.


The Associateship (ARPS) is awarded for a high standard of technical competence and individual creative ability.

The Fellowship:

The Fellowship (FRPS) is awarded for exceptional standards of excellence and distinguished ability.

There are various training days around the country where you can go to get advice on your images and what the judges are looking for.  The distinctions handbook gives more detailed information which you can download from their website


The normal route is to apply for your LRPS first and then progress to ARPS and FRPS.

I went along to a training day as an observer and watched as various passing LRPS and ARPS panels where shown.

Once that is done and there is some general talk on what judges are looking for, and then attendants are invited to show their own work.  You have to book a place to show work and come ready with a panel.  For LRPS you need a panel of 10 images.  For the ARPS you need 15 images.  Images must be mounted and presented with a hanging plan.  The overall arrangement of your panel has a big impact on the work  and how it is judged.  For the ARPS you have to supply a statement of intent and there are various categories that you can apply for.

At the end of the day I left thinking that my level was more advanced than the basic qualification.  It’s unusual to go straight for the ARPS but it is allowed.  With this in mind I read through the Distinctions Handbook and decided that the category of Professional Applied – Documentary  best suited me for the work I wanted to show.  I think it is a very important part of the process to narrow down what you are doing for the panel.  There are so many options that it is counter productive to try to include too many themes, or themes that are not clear.

Once you have decided its best to stick to it and seek particular advice on your subject.  The training days for the ARPS are split into themes so if you are showing work you have to pick a day that your category is being advised upon.  The same applies to the final exam, as different days relate to certain categories.

On the advice days where you are showing work its best to bring 5 extra prints so that the judges can mix an match if required.  As mentioned before the way the whole panel looks is as important as the individual images.  If they don’t sit together well they won’t pass.  Once your work is up the panel of judges assess your work, pointing out any particular technical problems, then going on to talk about the images themselves and the arrangement.

There is something quite magical about seeing your panel printed in large with mounts.  If you have not exhibited before then this is as close as it gets to that feeling with the added pressure it will be judged by experts.  Every print has to be perfect, no spots, blemishes, scratches or kinks.  This is harder to achieve than it sounds and calls for lots of patience when mounting the prints.  I would advise investing in some white cotton gloves and some high quality acid free mounting tape.  This makes the job much easier.  I also used an air cleaner to remove dust and spots.  I personally ruined at least 10 prints by trying to gently wipe spots of with a cloth.  They just ended up scratching the surface and leaving marks.  Another ten prints were ruined by my print shop in small ways but my prints were very prone to marking as they were mainly black.

I went for the advice day with high hopes for positive feedback, and although I did get positive feedback, 5 prints out of 20 were rejected.  Two were rejected for technical problems (point of focus), 2 were rejected for being ordinary, and 1 more was rejected for distracting lights in the background that could have easily been photo shopped out.  Any image that is not up to standard can fail the whole panel, regardless of the quality of the other work.

I went away both pleased and upset.  I had to find 4 new prints and fix the back light shot.  Sounds easy but it was an involved process.  The stumbling block was always how the photos go together.  Finding shots that were of the required standard and that fitted into the panel was a real challenge.  I almost gave up my theme then and there so I would have more work to choose from but I had already been advised against this at the training day.  Many panels are made up from work that takes place over a number of months or even years so I had really set myself a challenge by working on photos from one night.  In a way though this focused me and eventually I made my decisions and attended the actual assessment day.

You don’t have to attend the assessment day, although if you do you get to see first hand the process and I would recommend that it is worth seeing.  If a panel fails then it remains anonymous and the next panel goes up.  If it passes, then the chairperson asks if the photographer is in the audience and they are congratulated. There is always a brief synopsis by one of the judges as to why something passed or failed.

On my assessment day I decided to attend and my heart did not stop beating fast until my panel was reviewed and passed.  That was about two hours into the day and I had seen several panels failed.

Overall I would say that it is a very worth while experience for any photographer.  It is something that requires a lot of effort and time, as it should do.  Ultimately it boosts confidence and brings you into contact with many other experienced photographers.

Click The photo to see my panel.