Reflex Open Competition Round 4 last meeting and congratulations to the award winners and I hope everyone took something away from the evening. Our judge was Roger Mallinson, the man to go to if you want to know about making audio visual presentations and a returnee to judge at Reflex and many thanks to him for his time and effort. As usual the winners will appear on the club website in due course.
“There is no special way a photograph should look“ – Garry Winogrand.
Even a themed competition will tell you that and whereas there are things that work as a general rule, the tools of composition, and sharpness, as we have quoted before, is a “Bourgeoise concept” (maybe). It does rather make you wonder what club competitions are for.
Well the first two clues are in the name club competition. It is about members of the club, first and foremost. Members having a framework into which they can receive feedback. And it is about competition, that is to say a test of skill and ability against other like minded individuals. They coexist but, depending on our choices and personalities, one side will be more important than the other. Recognition is both a middle point and the backbone that connects the two extremes.
If no two pictures are the same how do we differentiate between two pictures on merit? The tools of composition give us a clue, more particularly how they are used and abused, but there is no one accepted system, though some sort of system is required to be consistent.
No two judges are the same and that is a good thing. All our judges are fellow photographers and have their own development route. OK we have all sat there and thought, on occasion, what are they on and where do I get some? when our carefully crafted images totally fail to convey their message. The fault does not lie with the viewer. It is still a good thing if that failure comes with an explanation. Better yet one that we can apply to the next similar situation.
If we don’t fail, at least occasionally, and have an inkling of why we fail then we will not learn. It all comes back to that word “Because”. There is no way a photograph should look. There are individual tastes and opinions and that will apply to any judge the same as to the rest of us.
Lets come back to that idea of sharpness and its evil twin blur as one example. Generally, when looking at a photograph, one of the first things that strike us is can we see it clearly. It is important because I, for one, can see blurry things just by taking my glasses off. Rather like a number of my fellow club members, I paid rather a lot of money specifically to do the opposite and see things in focus. Focus is a thing and having something sharp within our depth of focus is generally desirable.
If there was a single way of producing an acceptable image all images must either be all in or all out of focus. We would then be free to challenge this convention or rule in the pursuit of artistic interpretation. Hold on. Wait one. That’s exacly what we do on occasion. It is one of the most popular nights we have for practicals on the calendar. It’s called light-painting.
Blur can be creative when it is deliberate and controlled (or we can pass it off as that). We generally differentiate blur from focus as one is produced by movement and one by mechanical physics. Ultra wide and expensive prime lenses producing very limited acceptable focus and blury (often sold as dreamy) backgrounds are all the rage. Bokeh is a thing too and now deemed as a selling point in a lens. Figure to ground is an established art principle of grouping things together visually (visited recently in our tour around Gestalt theory) where the subject is seperated from but relational to the background (and or foreground).
Creative blur is an accepted technique. That is it is deliberate and measured in its application to a suitable subject. The idea of photo-dynamism is over a century old and is linked to a wider art movement known as Italian Futurism, though photography was initially rejected by the Futurists for being static.
It has several variants we might use. First up we have the deliberate de-focusing effect. Bokeh originated from this in Japan and became a form all of its own but was always an incidental to taking photographs with points of light in the background. Defocusing works best in colour, with large blocks of identifiable shapes such as flowers, people, painted walls etc. It also works well when shooting against a bright background. Where to stop defocusing is a personal call, again there is no fixed point, but it’s fun to do.
Next up we have panning. We talked last week about taking panoramas, basically a linked series of photographs of something from a fixed point that usually extends beyond the horizontal field of focus of our lenses regardless of there orientation. This uses the same movement idea but within the same period of exposure. By necessity this involves longer shutter speeds but doesn’t have to be on a tripod,.though a pair of steady hands is useful. Keeping the focus and speed in synch on the subject is one option, but the other is to slowly follow the subject through keeping it identifiable but blurred.
Thirdly we have the deliberate shake of the camera during the exposure, up and down or left to right. This doesn’t have to be violent to give an effect but it is best if slightly exaggerated. A fourth variation is to rotate the camera during the exposure around a fixed point.
So five variations that we can try and combine into a little project and maybe use to generate entries in the next round of ROC.
The third round of the ROC, congratulations to the winners, thanks to Peter Weaver for his work as the judge, and it is good to see that the overall level of technical achievement is going in the right direction. To those members who are convincing themselves that their work isn’t good enough to show, I have to say you are probably wrong about that. The competitive element aside, and the importance of that will be personal to each entrant, getting feedback from experienced judges is a good way to look to our personal development as photographers.
It comes back to that word “Because”. I agree with the judge, because … I disagree with the judge, because … are two great places to start. Personal development involves reflecting on the work we produce and putting it forward in the first place is a great way to see things differently. Seeing things differently, trying things differently is the deliberate act that fires that improvement.
As I said in the closing remarks, £2.95 for a re-usable 40 x 50 cm (20 x 16 inch ) mount to fit a 16 x 12 inch (40.6 x 30.5 cm) aperture from The Range (cheaper on line, but make sure you know what you are buying first) and £1.82 for a 16 x 12 gloss or lustre print from Keynsham Photographic Centre and we are in business. Give it a go.
It is, after all, about perception. The whole conceive, frame, light, shoot thing is to capture a perception of something we saw, no matter how real that actually was. The camera may never lie but photographs do, because they are about slices of reality, selected contexts and an impression of a thing. If the camera thinks 18% Gray is half way between black and white we are starting from something of a skewed perspective anyway (here for the science of it).
The danger, at least to posterity, lies in what we perceive as a photograph. It used to be a lot narrower than it is today. A photograph was the finished product held in the hand, hung on the wall, or mounted in the family album. Today we stop a step short of that. What we have with digital technology – and I speak here as a fan – is a computer file as a “finished” article.
Unfortunately these files we keep on computers and so need complex and expensive technology to view them.
The files themselves are subject to physical loss (hence the need for back up), damage (hence the need for back up), infection by malicious code (hence the need for back up), and eventually and probably sooner than you think, redundancy (hence the need for back up in more than one file type if you are being particularly cautious). The back ups are also prone to all of the above.
Keeping your treasured images on the Cloud is one answer to this. Except it isn’t. They are still computer files and still need expensive technology to view them. “The Cloud” is a fluffy marketing term for someone else’s computers. Someone else’s very, very, very expensive computers.
These very, very, very expensive computers are mostly under someone else’s legal jurisdiction, are only going to operate as long as someone, the people who own and maintain those very, very, very expensive computers will only do so as long as they can make a profit from those very, very, very expensive computers. They also makes you images easier to steal, but that isn’t their purpose.
Yes this also applies to “Free” services. “Free” is another fluffy marketing term which means “You pay for this another way” usually by your personal data, which you give access to in the terms and conditions (EULA’s as they are technically called, End User Licensing Agreements), and everyone you interact with which, they do not, necessarily. This as far away as it can be from the harmless fair trade it sounds and it massively profits the collectors of such data.
After all, these very, very, very expensive computers are run for profit and not for the well-being of their users, who, by and large, are well and truly in the dark as to the real value of what they like, share and post and whereas buying that data is relatively inexpensive the worth to end users is far, far, far higher than what is paid to collect. Allegedly, it has been used to select governments and policies.
The cost of storing and displaying our jpegs is far higher than we may have thought and there are important political issues surrounding our ability to do so, but there are also aesthetic considerations. Looking at a print is an altogether different experience than looking at an image on a computer screen. I find that, probably because of their relative scarcity compared to screen images, that looking at prints invites an altogether slower, more absorbing process.
The same goes for making prints, whether we do them ourselves or have them done commercially. Again this something connected to the print process. We are saying that this particular image has some more than usual significance for us, that we want to spend more time on and with it and that, maybe, we want to display it – on the wall at home or in the club competitions or even in an exhibition – but above all we want to keep it.
So, why not leaf through your favourites and select half a dozen for printing and mounting? Then choose your best three and enter them for the ROC round 4. If you need help members can us the Facebook page or have a talk with someone at the next club meeting. You will have something to keep and you will have some constructive criticism which you can apply to your photography and that then becomes a strong base for improving your photography over all.
Last meeting was our annual thumbing of the collective nose to Cartier-Bresson’s fear of the contrived, the Creative Round. In that all of photography, from one point of view, is contrived, we can take comfort in a Sontagian view that Photography is a “Promiscuous way of seeing” and here are we. It is also another way to open the arguments between the Get-it-right-in-the-camera-ista’s and Ye-accolytes-of-photoshop, but we won’t.
Congratulations to the winners, (Check out the Facebook page or the website) this in some ways is the hardest round of all to to enter, not least because the definition of what we mean by creative is quite fluid. It stems from an original thought or vision. This gives us less chance to take the image we want by accident, the surrealist streak in photography if you will, as it tends to involve a lot of planning and preparation. The flip side of this is that the deliberation it involves is good for us in all the other forms of photography, because it is a productive habit.
“A skilful photographer can photograph anything well” according to John Szarkowski. So that doesn’t mean just slapping on a filter over an existing photograph and calling it creative, though there is nothing to say that you cannot. Passing a superficial inspection is one thing but the photographs that hold the attention are rarely going to be constructed that way. Skill in photography is as much about practice and deliberation and attitude as it is in any other form. The trick for the hobbyist is not to make it a burden, but to enjoy and enjoy learning.
It’s why having a theme works for our development. Yes it is fun (for us, the rest of the family can feel a little left out) to take a camera everywhere and photograph what takes our fancy or arrests our attention, but when we narrow ourselves down we concentrate on looking, and looking for associations with this idea, which we are using to organise our output. A photograph.
It brings us back to that deliberate frame of mind again. This is also something that helps when we feel that we have plateaued in our development. It can be frustrating to not quite get what we visualised, but also it can be the brain’s way of telling us time to try something different. To create a random element in that, basically to set the challenge, use the theme link above and use this preset random number generator to pick a topic from those 328 themes; get a camera; your least used lens or least used camera even, and get right on it.
There is something to be said in rekindling the simple pleasure of just taking a photograph in a spare five minutes. It can be as simple as arranging things to hand on a desk or a table and practising the basics of composition, because nowhere is boring when you have a camera in your hand.
To give a couple of examples:
Whilst waiting for the potatos to boil I took about four frames of a satsuma and a couple of apples, altered saturation and played a bit with curves and made them presentable if not earth shattering images. Of course, if I wanted to become rich I should have taken photographs of the spuds.
Waiting for a relative to get ready I was struck by the incidental arrangement of my Works ID badge and glasses on a side table. Nudged things around very slightly, took it, cropped it square, painted a bit of blur on it. Quite like it. Doubt I will see it hanging in the Royal Society of Arts any time soon, but hey, I got a small sense of achievement out of it.
Same occasion at the other end of the trip, I was waiting in a coffee shop and set myself the challenge of getting the branded coffee cup and the illuminated sign in the window. A bit of cup shuffling, bit of Dutching (avidly watching all those 60’s Batman shows as a kid finally paying off), applied a saturated, bluish, filter to tone down the harsh lighting, job done. No need to buy a new dickie bow for any award ceremony on its account, but that’s fine. I had observed, visualised, framed, captured and post processed in under two minutes, made a photograph that gave me a small sense of having done something, enjoyed doing it and the result. All this by taking a camera to (some) things that make you go Hmmm.
All these were shot and processed and uploaded to Flickr via my decidedly mid-range mobile phone, which has three times as many pixels as my first digital camera had, two very capable editing apps and a link to the internet, all in something that fits in the palm of my hand. The fact is, for a very high percentage of the day I have access to a camera. Yes I prefer to shoot with my camera body and detachable lenses, yes I can potentially do more with it, but the equipment isn’t the point, making the image is. And no one knows what camera was used and very few actually care.
Restriction is as much an opportunity as a wealth of opportunity. This can be shooting with a different lens or one you don’t use very often, a different camera (including your phone camera if you don’t use it very often) close ups (not necessarily macro), wide angles (making sure to include something in the foreground) there are plenty of variations. A simple one is to deliberately frame a portrait and a landscape version of the same image, being careful to compose the best image in each.
As we gave him the first word we will give him the last, in the interests of symmetry, a noble subject for an image. Henri Cartier-Bresson said of taking a photograph that the thinking should be done before and after the taking of a photograph. Make that gap your Zen Moment. Take that time just to enjoy being a photographer.
We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
Slight change this week. We are introducing an occasional feature of blog postings from members, which though they will go through myself as editor are their own reflections on the art and how they go about it. To kick this off we have Alison Davies talking about her winning ways with national photography competitions. Copyright text and Photo’s Alison Davies, please respect that.
So, Alison, over to you …..
External Competition – Have a Go?
Seeing as I have been invited to do a guest blog on any subject, I thought it might be of interest to fellow club members to write a little about entering external photograph competitions. I am not talking salons and prestigious photography competitions for amateurs and professionals which are usually known by a series of letters, BPWA, TPOTY etc., I did look at these once but I really don’t the like thought of paying to enter.
I find external competitions to be very different to that of club competitions, far less stress involved, simply upload a photo to a website and forget it, as long as you have taken all of the terms and conditions into account – but more about that in a bit. They could be in magazines, newspapers, displayed in public buildings, on leaflets and online.
Of course, with an external competition you don’t get to see the panel reviewing images, their likes, dislikes, what’s good, what’s bad and often they will be selecting images from a commercial angle, but not always. I for one although having many years entering club competitions, can honestly say I am still uncomfortable sitting whilst a judge praises or gives a damning report on my efforts. I think that’s why, I am easier with entering online competitions and in doing so, I am entering photos I regard as fitting the bill of the brief or images I am happy with, in the knowledge that I won’t be pulled up publicly for a bit of burn out (sometimes it’s intentional), or not obeying the rule of thirds (some subjects are so strong they just have to be placed central) or other such critique which I will be aware of in advance but chose to display my image that particular way, as quite simply, I like it like that. Incidentally, no criticism of most judges intended, they have a job to do and we have all learned from the good ones in the past, however there are a few doing the rounds who in my opinion, should stay at home.
It’s pretty widely known, I have 2 dogs, Otis and Bazil, who are very much adored and it’s fair to say I spend lots of hours out with them in some very beautiful places. This is a win, win, situation for me due to my love of being outdoors and seeing my dogs enjoying themselves running, swimming and more often than not, getting mucked up – ‘the mucked’ up has proved advantageous in competitions.
Probably the same as most of you, when I am out, I always have a camera to hand and something that truly excites me is getting to see every season and what it brings. Each year I look forward to snowdrops, followed by the wild primroses, then bluebells. Shortly after I am eagerly awaiting the lighter evenings when I can once again walk in wild flower meadows, where if I didn’t have the dogs with me, would be a great opportunity to photograph butterflies, birds and insects. I have long given up on little creatures now, so many times with camera perfectly aligned ready to snap, one of the dogs comes bounding over and winged thing takes off! So cut a long story short, I have quite an extensive stock of photos of nature, wild flowers, trees and of course dogs – but a slim range of insects and birds.
My first competitions wins were very surprising, I never entered expecting to win anything, a friend said, “Here’s a competition you should enter”, so I did. The Orivs company runs a competition to find an image for their Dog Book cover each year, and I won with a photo of Otis. This was really exciting as Orvis told me they have a huge amount of entries and the photo was on their catalogues in UK and the US – my little Otis was their cover dog for 2014. The prize was a £500 Orvis voucher.
The same year, I came runner up with 2 photos in the top 10 in a Crufts photo competition with one of their main sponsors winning a camera phone but much to my horror had to attend a prize giving with celebrity and press (not that I knew who the celebrity was). The following year, I was runner up again with an image in the Crufts competition and with another dog company for another. It is a great feeling to see your photos displayed large on light box panels at such a prestigious event. Some of these companies have huge exhibition budgets and really do spend on their display graphics.
Since then I have had an article with photo published in the Crufts magazine, as runner up once again and won in other photo competitions which most of which are dog related, 2 pairs of top of the range boots in separate competitions which I wear all of the time and really wouldn’t have spent that much money on myself. 2 Barbour jackets and bags, really thinking hard about what I have been lucky enough to win. I have won hampers and other dog related products, which I donate to a local dog charity in order to boost their fund raising efforts – nice prizes can mean people attending events will spend more of raffle tickets if there is a decent prize on the table.
During 2015, a photo of Otis and Bazil on a beach won a place in a country style magazine’s calendar for 2016, winning, ‘Pet’s in the Countryside” category, 1 of 12 overall (1 from each category) to get a photo against a month and more prizes.
Then more recently, I got an email saying that I was a runner up in the RSBP calendar competition for 2017. Only a little while after, I had another email saying I was the winner which was totally unexpected as it was a wildlife photo competition, I know that there are some brilliant wildlife photographers about who are very passionate and extremely good, in fact we have some in Reflex. The prize for this one was £500 worth of Canon product, a VCR and a compact, they will shortly send through some other bits of merchandise which will feature my photo as they prepare stock for 2017 in their shops. It was lovely to win this competition as I know my photo will be working for the RSBP to make money for their charity on calendars and merchandise.
The RSPB leads me on to a few hints and tips to hopefully get some of you looking out for competitions and submitting some entries. My first tip would be to imagine you are back at school entering your exams, read the rules and terms and conditions, then read them again. If you don’t take on board exactly what they are requesting, that’s your photo binned before it’s got anywhere. It could be orientation, size – anything and everything.
Next, I would say, remove club competitions from your head completely, take time to think about the brief and think what it means to you. Remember, think about the company or charity and what it represents and make a photo choice to complement this. Think more commercially, what type of photo represents the brief and would it look good advertising their product? Does it have a wide appeal?
Now for the really important part, within the terms and conditions, there will be text stating what the company will / can do with your image. Careful, as this (and here’s the really cheeky part) can mean that it doesn’t matter if you have an image placed or not, by entering a photo, you are agreeing to the company using that photo for anything they choose, having automatic rights (and sometimes editing) and reproducing without credit to the photographer. They usually state an amount of time, for example a 3 year period. Not all companies do this but some do, therefore it is really important before you hand over your work that you know what you are signing up to. Often it is asked that the photos you enter are exclusive and not entered into any other competition or have not won other competitions. Bear this in mind if you can enter 3, this may exclude you from entering them into another better competition which comes up later!
It can be said that this is a cheap way of companies gaining extra advertising and cheap images although if you win, some prizes can be quite high value and of course it’s fun. I try and weigh up if I submit an image, it’s worth it – would I want this photo for anything else in the future? Most of us have stacks of images just sitting on hard drives, so often giving it over isn’t overly important, but think about it first.
Watch out for photo thieves too, upload images (unless otherwise instructed) as small as you can get away with, ensuring the screen version still looks good – unless the rules stipulate a set size.
Competitions which offer good prizes can specify professional photographers are not permitted to enter, when they do, they will usually offer their interpretation of this so that it is clear. Generally, the ones that I have entered stating that more than half of income/earnings must not come from photography, but this is individual to each competition.
Keep a file with your entries in, something I now do, earlier in the year I was contacted as a runner up and asked for a large file, all a bit embarrassing as I really didn’t know what photo I had entered and had to ask! This also stops you entering the same photo in different competitions, which is fine once the competition has ended and you have not been placed (subject to T & C’s mentioned above).
Finally, If you enter and at a later stage receive an email stating you are a runner up and requesting the large size image prior to the final judging, in my experience, it’s good news.
I hope this has inspired some of you to have a go, it’s fun, free and couldn’t be easier these days being able to upload online.
To start you off, there should be a category of interest for most people in the club, why not try this one, it was the competition I got a placed in with the photo of my dogs on the beach 2016. I have already entered for 2017, but there is still time to get some photos in and look at that lovely prize.
OK, so I am going to be honest, I am quite shallow regarding this, I don’t do it for the recognition, I really hate presentations and getting up in front of people – I am in it for the love of the prizes but of course it is very nice to be told you photo is valued.
©Alison Davies 17.6.2016
Thanks Alison that was really very illuminating. If you are willing to give the blog a go contact me at the meeting, I am almost always to be found there.
N E X T M E E T I N G
23 June 2016 19:30 Speaker: Peter Phillips: “A Photographic Journey” From Image Scientist to Photographer
Our thanks to David Southwell not only for a sterling job in judging the Hankin and Scantlebury Trophies round but for doing so at short notice. Always a model when it comes to his consideration and feedback. Our continued run of no shows, reasons aside, continued as the 2015-2016 season goes down as “The year the Judges didn’t”. Results will be posted on the club website made available and the awards made at the end of year bash.
As ever, the last two rounds of the ROC have shown that the interests, eyes for an opportunity and styles of club members are very different. They are, if we let them be, calls to go out and do some things afresh, to get better. In the final analysis the only person we are competing against is our self. We have visited this improvement theme more than a few times but that does not alter the fact that it is our own experience and limitations that go into taking the next frame. It maybe a little dispiriting when people/clients are name-checking a 9 year old over you, or when the fourteenth consecutive judge has failed to notice your genius, but that doesn’t matter because you are following your passion.
Except it does matter.
It matters because you don’t need to let your passion get in the way of your passion for. Passion here, we could also read as ego, passion for as motivation. I am not going to launch into a Freudian lecture on Id Ego and Super Ego, but the point was made on Petapixel this week in an article built around a Mike Rowe video entitled “Don’t follow your passion“. Essentially it is about blinkering ourselves to opportunity by focusing on what we desire, or think desirable, or think we should think desirable.
Someone, actually it was Ralph Waldo Emerson and in answer to your next question, yes I do know where he is, said that life is a journey not a destination. Well thinking about it he might be right but actually that doesn’t actually mean anything nor does it indicate what we should do next. Let’s put this into photographic terms. Your eye sight is fading, it was always better in the days of film, you were once the proud owner of an Austin Allegro and your favourite colour is beige. Conclusion? Go and judge some club competitions, who will then marvel at your beige enhanced, photochemical scented nostalgia and razor perception of the necessary width of a border. A fairly accurate description of the judge who doesn’t pick your photo for at least a commendation, obviously.
What we have here is not so much a matter of perspective as a matter of investment. The landscaper who hacks across perilous marshlands in the dark in order to get that glorious sunrise, slightly over exposed, but that can be “fixed in post”, with the horizon bang in the middle, but that can be cropped out, the dynamic range in the frame more than JPEG can handle, did that for effect, and with the tips of branches intruding from one side, strong vignette will sort that out, is left with a sense of achievement imbued by the difficulty of the journey and the glory of the post shoot slap up breakfast. The journey becomes the point and the spectacles distinctly rose hewed because of it. Along comes the judge, who has trekked that very path, taken that very scene, made it part of their successful RPS panel and basically says “Should have gone to Specsavers”. If a good ‘un their feed back will provide a map to get them there. Obviously, our landscaper is the victim of myopia, poor taste, jealousy, misunderstanding etc etc. Yet, following their passion, and as we seem to be in the middle of a quote-fest, they have fulfilled the Yogi Berra observation that “If you don’t know where you are going you might find yourself someplace else”.
It’s not the trek over the perilous path that the judge is judging, it’s the image that resulted and it is being judged against the other entries in that part of the competition. Yes, it is all relative, and if the competition regularly shoots for and is commissioned by National Geographic then the standard you have to hit to be good enough to reward is going to be far, far higher. In this rather extreme case you have a decision to make. Buckle or learn? If you are following your passion then the former is easier, eventually than the latter. If you bring your passion with you, as Rowe points out, then the latter becomes a lot easier – if you have a system for and a willingness to put it into operation.
There is a negative side that can raise its head here and that is to do with confidence. Lack of confidence is, I would speculate, the number one reason members don’t enter club competitions and whereas it is true, or maybe, it can also come across as a bit glib to say, nothing ventured nothing gained. The essential truth doesn’t take the sting out of failure. Experience has taught me that if you don’t “fail” (come up to expectation, yours or someone else’s) you cannot learn. Fail is just an acronym. First Action In Learning. Don’t fail, can’t learn, can’t learn won’t improve. Enter the competitions not to win but to learn. That is where the judge’s feedback is so very important. If you have a system for and a willingness to put it into operation. Simply put, take what the judge said could be improved, go take two similar shots, one with those sins included and one with them omitted. Which seems better? Make a note, as in write it down in a note book. Practice the better outcome. Read your notes often.
All of which takes motivation. Actually two things it takes, the first I have just mentioned, repetition, the second is the spur to action. The pattern for most people who are not obsessive/compulsive is to have a whole lot of enthusiasm at the beginning which tales off to mild interest and finally redundancy over time. In that way motivation carries the seeds of its own destruction. The key is to vary. Not one technique done to death but two or three practiced together, and always with a critical eye, a positively critical eye. Technique is more important 99 times out of a hundred, than gear, but that is not to diminish the role that gear can play. It’s just better to invest in it gradually and purposefully. Know why and what you are going to achieve by investing in it. What it isn’t is a crutch for bad technique. Which brings us back to the top of the page.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Practical outdoors, bring your cameras. If weather inclement then we will be indoors.
Last meeting at Portishead Camera Club along with North West Bristol Camera Club for a thee way battle and I am glad to report that Reflex showed a strong foundation – we needed it to prop up the other two, higher scoring, clubs. That said it was very close, 6 points adrift and a tie break for the winner (Portishead), but we won the most raffle prizes! Victory!
Our thanks to Peter Weaver for his supportive judging, to Portishead our hosts, and to North West Bristol for a fine show. It was a high scoring event, the club’s been to other battles where our score would have been a winning one over the last couple of years. The number of members whose work was shown has grown beyond a small core and is gradually expanding. Our travelling support was just under half the room, so lots of signs of a healthy club. Long may it continue.
There were some particularly strong wild life pictures, as good as I have seen in any of the battles I have been to and a good deal stronger than some. Two outstanding shots from one of the NWB members took individual prizes, one for overall and one for digital. It’s not really an area our exhibiting members cover extensively, it is specialist in its devotion to time, its equipment demands and the ability to travel, not always huge distances to be sure, but Cheetahs aren’t in abundance here abouts, and for Egrets (Cattle, Small or Great White – yes I did have to look that up) you have to know where and when to look. You also have to develop the right habits and techniques. That said the overall winning image was a print was of an Exmoor pony, I’d say good enough for National Geographic (but that may be no recommendation at all), so not so inaccessible to a lot of people here in the West Country.
There are strict rules when it comes to wildlife photography and competitions. What is and what isn’t counted needs to be studied by would be entrants and there is a strong code of ethics (even if something is occasionally lost in translation) governing the acceptable face and reputation of the genre. The object is to record and preserve, some considerations that apply to our discussion on documentary photography last week and, just as in documentary, empathy with the subject goes a long way to getting the shot.
We all, though have to begin somewhere. Most of us will not start with the idea or the funds to kit ourselves out as wildlife photographers from the off and it can take some time to settle on a favourite genre. Even then it is likely to be one of several that we try out or practice. It also takes a lot of that practice thing, as does anything else to become good at it and as with every other genre in photography, the kit itself is not going to make you a photographer, it just helps those with the skill, time, patience, empathy (and money) get a small but slightly better chance of getting the shot and of the equipment surviving the experience. In wildlife photography those margins are often small.
But the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, at least according to Lau Zu, though he never picked a camera up in his life (they hadn’t been invented), and starting with what we have, then progressing as confidence and expertise grow into those areas where the margins make sense – photographically and financially. Lau Zu also had something to say about what he saw as hollow practices, those he though got in the way of spontaneity and true growth and in developing as a photographer there is some truth in that. All the gear and no idea is not new, it appears.
There are, of course, rules that port over from other areas of photography, such as: always focus on the eye from portraiture; dawn and dusk (though for different reasons in general) are the best shooting times from landscapers; be aware of the background from everybody. As always though, knowing your subject gets you a lot further than dumb luck. Starting with an interest in nature is the obvious, but that interest has to go beyond the pretty picture thing. All good pictures tell a story. That story may differ slightly (or even wildly) between viewers, but there has to be one to be extracted in the first place. You need to get beyond sticking the lens through the bars of the zoo to a point where you can anticipate your subjects next move. You don’t have to become a wildlife biologist to do this but you do need to learn the language and manners of your objective. You need field craft. You have to have the curiosity about it to develop the empathy we were talking about above.
OK that is the same for most types of photography. There is a field craft involved. With wildlife there is a more unpredictable element to account for and the more you know about it the more successful you are likely to be. That doesn’t mean that an intimate knowledge of sparrows transfers to the behaviour of grizzly bears. The differences are not only those in scale. The difference can be you removing a stain or being the stain. Outside of zoos and safari parks this isn’t a problem in the UK, of course and inside the environments are pretty controlled – but there are morons everywhere. The basic point is the same as the oath doctors take. First, do no harm. That takes knowledge too.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Robert Harvey: Landscapes for all seasons.