As your photography skills improve, you may want to consider joining a professional group for your specific genre or a more general national/international photographic society.
These groups aren’t cheap, so let’s take a look at what some of the larger ones in the UK have to offer.
The Royal Photographic Society (RPS)
While some may argue that this is not a professional photographic organization, it does have a large number of professional photographers who belong to it.
The opportunity to earn an RPS distinction, which gives you internationally recognized letters after your name, is the main reason to join.
The highest honor is that of a Fellow, which is notoriously difficult to obtain but will undoubtedly give you kudos if you are a pro, as well as an advantage over your competitors. After passing the Licentiate level, you can earn distinctions in specific genres and styles (e.g. Travel, Contemporary).
Many other photographic societies have adopted the RPS distinction process, which is well-structured and fair, with the opportunity to receive valuable feedback along the way – even if you don’t pass.
Another compelling reason to join the RPS is the excellent monthly magazine (I must admit that I write for it, but I’d read it anyway) and the extensive range of training courses, workshops, and special interest groups.
There are numerous international RPS chapters as well. If you’re a professional photographer, you’ll be mixing with amateurs, but if that’s not a problem, the RPS is well worth considering. The standard membership fee is £116 per year, but there are a variety of packages available.
The Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP)
The Societies is an umbrella group for a bewildering number of special interest groups, but the SWPP is the most visible. You can try for an SWPP distinction once you join, and the process is very similar in terms of skill levels, image submission, and assessment.
There’s also a thick magazine that comes through the letterbox once a month; while it doesn’t have the high production values or breadth of topics that the RPS Journal does. They provide some pretty good tutorials and interviews to help you towards your creative juices flowing.
Wedding and portrait photographers can also get free listings in a photographer directory online, which can generate leads.
The SWPP annual convention in London has grown from a minor event to a major event in the UK photography calendar, and the society hosts a variety of training and workshops. You can join for a reasonable £99 per year – more information here.
The Association of Photographers (AOP)
The Association of Photographers was founded in 1968 as the Association of Fashion and Advertising Photographers, but it is now open to all professional photographers, assistants, agents, colleges, students, and “those with an interest in professional photography.”
It, like the BIPP and RPS, is a lobbying organization. Full membership as a professional photographer necessitates prior scrutiny of your work, and while there is no monthly print magazine, you do gain access to a member-to-member forum, the ability to enter AOP competitions, and other benefits.
The training calendar does not appear to be as extensive as that of other groups, but there are some useful downloads available on the website. Membership costs £315 plus VAT, making it the most expensive organization in our comparison. Complete information here.
Royal Photographic Society
The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, also known as the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), is one of the oldest photographic societies in the world. It was founded as the Photographic Society of London in 1853 in London, England, with the goal of promoting the art and science of photography, and it received royal patronage from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1853.
However, changing the society’s name to reflect the patronage was not deemed necessary at the time. It was renamed the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1874, and it wasn’t until 1894 that it was renamed the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, a title it still uses today.
Since 1962, the society has been a registered charity, and in July 2004, it was granted a royal charter recognizing its eminence in the field of photography as a learned society. For the majority of its history, the Society was based in various locations in London; however, as of 2019, its headquarters and gallery are located in Bristol, England. Membership is still international and open to anyone with a passion for photography.
In addition to ordinary membership, the Society offers three levels of distinction – Licentiate, Associate, and Fellow – which set internationally recognized standards of achievement in all aspects of photography and vocational qualifications in the creative industries and imaging science, and can be applied for by both members and non-members.
The Society organizes events in the United Kingdom and abroad through local groups and special interest groups. The Society serves as a national voice for photographers and photography in general, representing these interests on a variety of governmental and national bodies concerned with issues such as copyright and photographers’ rights.
British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP)
Although it is not as old as the RPS, the BIPP was founded in 1901. The BIPP is a non-profit organization dedicated to education, certification, and professional development. As with other national groups, there is a structured and rigorous distinctions program, as well as numerous training courses, events, and preferential deals on useful products and services.
The BIPP also collaborates with a number of colleges, including the Defence School of Photography and the College of Policing, and advocates for professional photography in government and industry.
Other benefits of membership include the opportunity to study for a BA (Hons.) Photography degree at the Open College of the Arts (OCA) over the course of a year. Although there is no member magazine, the website has a blog and an active community.
Membership costs £195 but you can’t just become a full member without your work being assessed first (you need to send in 30-40 lo res images). Full details here.
THE BRITISH PHOTOGRAPHIC COUNCIL
The British Photographic Council exists to protect, develop, and promote the rights and interests of photographers and the organizations that represent them in the United Kingdom.
The Council represents these views to the Government, the European commission, and other relevant bodies, either directly or through or in collaboration with other organizations with similar goals.
It also exists to improve and encourage best practice nationally and internationally on matters relating to the use of photography, and the employment and commissioning of photographic image-makers and the use of their work.
Because all of these organizations are well-established and run for the benefit of their members, it’s difficult to provide a “one size fits all” solution. It all depends on what kind of photographer you are and why you want to join. If you want to join an internationally recognized body and pursue prestigious distinctions, the RPS is still a good option.
If you are more interested in obtaining distinctions in a specific genre and networking with other professionals, a more specialized professional group may be more suitable for your needs. Due to space constraints, I am unable to cover every photography/pro photography body in the UK, so please let me know if you are a member of any other organizations and how you are getting on.