Certified professional photographer credential speaks volumes

If there’s a single credential that’s nearly universally understood by consumers as a professional stamp of approval, it’s certification. Certification exists across many industries and professions—accounting, medicine, and education, among others. While they may not have an appreciation for the specific criteria that must be met for certification in any given market segment, the public instinctively understands that certification connotes competence. They know that an individual who holds a certification has undergone an educational process in which they’ve applied skills and knowledge to demonstrate a level of competence.

Because it’s trusted by consumers, certification can be a delineating criterion for people seeking a professional. It helps them select from often countless choices. If all other factors are even, who wouldn’t choose a certified over a non-certified professional?

Certification is also profitable for the professional. A study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that having a credential adds an average 25 percent to a professional’s earnings.


PPA’s certified professional photographer program was created in 1977 to address these opportunities. The CPP designation assures consumers that a professional photographer has technical competence. The process of earning the CPP is also a learning opportunity for many photographers, who must pass both a written exam and photographic evaluation to be awarded the certification.

The CPP written exam is updated on a regular basis to account for changes in technology as well as for continuous improvement of the exam overall. More dramatic have been changes to the CPP image evaluation process, which has gone from prints to digital images, from a single photograph to a large portfolio, and more. On Jan. 1, a new evaluation process was implemented for the program that aims to be less subjective than ever before.

© Jamie Hayes


The catalyst for these recent changes is the American Society of Association Executives’ definition of credentialing: “a process whereby individuals who meet an objective standard of competency receive recognition by designation and/or certificate.” When the PPA Board of Directors and certification staff reviewed the image evaluation process in 2017, their consensus was that, no, it couldn’t be described as objective.

The Board listened to the many CPPs, CPP candidates, and Certification Committee members who struggled with the subjectivity of the old process. In July 2017, the Board tasked an action team with redesigning CPP image evaluation. Their goal: Remove subjectivity. Through the work of this team, the image submission process was ultimately retired and a technical image evaluation was born.

The new technical image evaluation is cemented in objectivity based on the old photographic model of the “Shirley” card. The Shirley card was used by photo labs in the 1950s to calibrate skin tones, shadows, and light during the printing process. Similar to guide prints, Shirley was the standard.

The evaluation requires that all candidates submit three specified photographs using a standardized image kit. The kits were designed specifically for the PPA certification program and are widely available for ordering online through Blick Art Materials. Not only will all candidates submit the same three images, but they’ll do so using the same materials to create the images. No post-processing is done, which is why images are submitted as raw files. The result is an objective process that allows photographs to be reviewed according to defined standards.

The kit consists of five items: a posing manikin, crayons, three large sheets of gray card stock, a textured white polystyrene ball, and a large marker pen. While these items appear mundane, each was chosen to demonstrate key photographic skills and concepts. “The ball, for example, was selected as a white object that has texture to make sure the details are not blown out in the candidate’s images,” explains Pete Rezac, M.Photog.Cr., CPP. Rezac, who is currently a member of the PPA Board of Directors, was part of the action team that developed the new evaluation process.

The image set includes a straight-on composition, an overhead composition with minimum depth of field, and an overhead composition with a maximum depth of field. Each image must satisfy 10 known criteria, and all three must meet all 10 criteria to pass the evaluation. The 10 criteria consist of composition and design elements, camera angles, white balance, exposure, sharpness, and focal length, and candidates must match stated camera settings. Candidates can choose from three different lighting scenarios (electronic flash, continuous light, and natural light) to create their image set. They also have access to setup guides, sample images, lighting diagrams, checklists, educational videos, and more on the PPA website.

“The new image evaluation process removes the subjectivity the previous processes had,” Rezac says. “What one judge may have objected to, another may have been fine with. Depending on the outcome of the judging panel, the ultimate decision may have had to go to the Certification Committee for a final review. That was not only inefficient but also inconsistent. The new process removes the subjectivity by comparing submissions to a set of control values that can be measured with digital tools. Essentially, the submission either meets the requirements or it doesn’t. Additionally, the new image evaluation opens
the opportunity for those members who are not portrait-centric to earn the CPP credential—those who may be commercial or landscape photographers, as an example.”

Why be certified?

  • To demonstrate your knowledge to consumers
  • To differentiate yourself from competitors
  • To gain professional credibility
  • To increase your earning potential
  • To demonstrate commitment to your profession
  • To build self-confidence in your skills
  • To show willingness to invest in your professional development

The CPP program is designed to empower photographers to be more knowledgeable, successful, and technically equipped professionals. It’s a program focused on foundational education and applied skills. Any photographer, regardless of their specialty or their time in the industry, can become certified.

Certification is a valuable tool that allows photographers to distinguish themselves from competitors as well as to build self-confidence by putting their knowledge into practice. “Skills that will help a candidate be successful will be paying attention to details, using knowledge learned from the written exam, using a light meter to arrive at the requested exposures, and looking through the viewfinder of the camera to get the compositions requested,” says Rezac. “Those fundamentals translate into skills that are used every day.”  

Julia Boyd is the director of certification at PPA.