The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
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.
An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.
Given the travails that we went through to get last meeting off the ground, loosing not one but two judges at very short notice, then Bristol traffic conspiring to wedge the prints in an immovable traffic jam on the other side of town, just when things looked like they might be going right leads one to wonder just what the universe was telling us. Absolute sterling work from the Competition Secretary, Mark O’Grady, frustrated by circumstance. Big thanks from all of us Mark, for going above and beyond. Then – and British readers of this blog will want to make sure that they are resolutely braced before taking this bit in – the tea urn went missing. Still we got somewhere in the end.
So, why does a club have competitions? There are, of course as many reasons for that as there are club members. Recognition, acclamation, ideas, feedback, discussion something to fill a hole in the calendar, are just a few of the headlines you could write a whole blog and more on each. No, don’t panic, I am not going to. When children draw they don’t have a concept of consequences, is this good or is this bad? Right colours? Does it look like it should? and so on. What they produce is intensely personal and very honest. As we grow older we learn notions of correctness and benefit and we unlearn the naiveté that made making pictures fun. Even of the abstract we come to demand technical proficiency. We corral our imagination.
In time we improve or abandon the pursuit according to circumstances and according to what we want. We buy a camera because we want to record a special occasion, a holiday or maybe our own children or children we are close to, a few of us because we are curious about pictures and want to get better at making them. Now- a-days, rather than buy a camera specifically we are much more likely to turn to our phones. The pictures we want to make are generally those we can create without the many hours and mess involved in painting, never mind the fine motor skills, which some turn into is photography art debates (Yes move on). Cameras and pictures are so much a part of society these days that picture making is pretty much second nature.
Most of those pictures being taken at this very moment are dull, boring, technically flawed and mean something only to the person who will forget they took it by tomorrow. They are constructed for different purposes. We decide to get better at this sort of thing and, suddenly, (nearly) everyone else’s pictures look better than ours. That can be a spur or it can put us off. Access to the ways of doing things is a lot easier now than it was, there are blogs and video channels aplenty as well as the more traditional routes through books and courses galore that blend all these. That, however, can make matters confusing rather than easier. So we know about the tools of odds, of thirds, of lead lines and negative space, symmetry, foreground interest and the effect of focal length, and the importance of balance and we know all about the exposure triangle. In fact we can know a lot about a lot and can still make pictures that lack impact.
The problem, at least in part, is that we have all these tools and rules but they are tools and rules of thumb. Certainly they exaggerate elements of the arrangement of the objects in the frame and hold others back but we keep coming up against the idea of technically proficient but subject deficient – and other people’s photographs still look better than ours. It is self doubt that becomes, once one has learned the basics, the biggest drag on learning. Sometimes we cannot see for looking. Sure, we need a mind open to development, open to seeing other people’s work, looking at other pictures in that picture but the frame of mind has to be positive and the habit has to be always looking for the picture – even when you can’t carry a camera. The habit is the thing that enables everything else, the letting go of the half-expectation of finding something to photograph and replacing it with the opportunities to see something to photograph.
That can be where club competitions come in. Yes we want to test our metal against others, but we also need feedback. No we don’t always agree with the judge, but we need to be able to say why. Yes the judging is subjective, yes its structure does mean certain types of photography may not fare as well, but it is a structured feedback on pictures that are anonimised and it is something that you can work with if you choose. The more experienced judges should come with a wider perspective anyway and whereas they will have their likes and dislikes – some of them strong – the perspective they are showing is a start.
If we can get into the habit of the feedforward loop we will do ourselves an enormous favour. Feedforward is when we take the experience of a previous occasion and use it to improve (control) a future event. Learning from the future ” Images of adaptive future behaviour, hitherto not mastered” (Wikipedia) or in our case getting the picture we see in our head as a Jpeg by design not accident, is something we can only do as design.
Next session is a 10 by 10 (or there abouts) where members talk about their own images, what they got from them, what they would do differently (among other things). Open to all members, bring some along and join in, especially our newer members, as we are all interested in photography and this is a good opportunity to share it.
Lyn James LRPS was our speaker, on the general theme of people and places. Lyn is a dyed in the wool lover of film. Not that he dismisses digital, but he loves the look and the workflow that goes with using acetate and gelatine based chemical medium to produce, eventually, a physical image, something that you can hold, in a process that we would call analogue in these digital times.
Analogue as a word goes back about two centuries to describe certain physical chemical processes, but the general use of the word expanded in the 1980’s with the invention of the digital (i.e. with numbers only) watch and was used to differentiate these from the traditional watch faces with hands. Basically it was a marketing term. Moving from there and with the expansion of computer science as a discipline, gradually out of a description of physical properties and into the binary world of the computer and everything associated with it into the general vocabulary has taken a little over two decades.
Film is of the analogue variety of image production. Whereas the production of cameras and camera sensors is a microscopic industrial miracle of the digital age as the production of film was in its hay day (part 2 here), the end user experience is very different. The sensor is not consumed in the production of a digital image, even though it sits in what we still call the film plane. The two processes are, very obviously, very different. The film until about ten years ago was the main stream medium. As such it was produced on a vast industrial scale using vast machinery.
After around 2007, when digital started to outsell film cameras, what was left was an industrial over capacity requiring specialist machinery built to individual specifications, was simply not sustainable on a commercial basis. Professionals, by far the biggest users, moved to digital. Some for reasons of novelty, some for more practical reasons. Sentiment doesn’t play much of a part when money is at stake and the digital medium was easily and rapidly distributable, suiting the photo agencies and news outlets better. Film availability went into decline as stocks and production lines were run down. But it never went away.
There is more of a craft element to film. Or more faff, depending upon your point of view. For this I am not talking about the actual manufacture of film I am talking of the perspective of the end user. It is far more hands on, is made up of more and elemental. There isn’t just one process to film photography just as there isn’t one sort of commercial film process, Kodachrome (K14 process) is different to E6 (process) slide films. By craft I mean the physical production of an image, starting with the limits of the medium. The need for dark room equipment and space, developing chemicals and washes, enlargers, photo sensitive papers stacks the costs up. You can’t do film cheaply, and not all films are capable of being home processed (Kodachrome for instance was not).
But ….. and there is a but for anyone who has done any amount of film photography, there is a magic, and that is the right word, involved when you see the image developing on the paper. You are more involved. Dodging and burning are about the only tools you have to hand readily and retouching is an art all in itself. Even so, every hand produced print is different.
Film also has its own look and it is a popular one. Lyn’s favourite slide (positive) stock was Kodachrome. There are different qualities to each brand of film and there is an irony in that so much of applications like Instagram seems dedicated to a filmic look. Although out of production these last seven years, there is a possibility of Kodachrome being brought back, though no time scale has been announced, nor anything beyond a feasibility study announced. However, it is part of a movement. One which, at the right scale will be able to sustain a profitable niche market.
There is a question of posterity in the dominance of the digital medium. Simply put viewing digital images is entirely technology dependent. In a pure volume sense more photographs are taken, fewer are printed. Once committed to print the image is no longer dependent on technology to be viewed. In itself this might not look to be a serious problem, but within the format of the image lies the seeds of its own destruction. Unless backward compatibility is built into future platforms the range of today’s formats will become unreadable. Redundancy is a problem for computers too. Formats but no pictures. Even then there is the possibility of corrupt files.
There are claims for the superiority of sharpness, resolution, dynamic range made for film, but frankly if they were that critical at least one of Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, Olympus or Pentax would make a film camera. They don’t. The market at large is for digital images as mentioned above. Mixed lighting looks horrible, mind. Low light is very difficult to handle with a fixed 25, 50, 64 or 100 ISO slide film. Even Ilford XP-1, the most flexible of film stocks doesn’t help a great deal. Look is the main reason I would venture, look and working with 24 or 36 comparatively expensive shots and you are done. Basically work flow.
Having the limitation of a low, fixed number, of goes at getting something right, something worthwhile, concentrates the mind. At a cost. Per frame the cost is higher. It pays to be more deliberate, more critical than with the very low marginal costs of an additional digital frame. Not necessarily a bad thing. The initial cost for the camera body is lower being second hand. The lenses can come cheaper but if they also fit your digital system (assuming you have one) then there is a saving there to be had. The camera bodies also tend to be smaller and lighter and, of course, simpler.
Film is certainly a choice (Glitches at 48:35 for about 2 minutes but this is a good intro to where film is and why), and it looks to be expanding. It’s worth giving it a go if you haven’t and if you havent got a film body and don’t have a beer can or 32,000 straws hanging around (OK they expose straight on to photosensitive paper) how about shelling out £14.99 to build your own?
N E X T M E E T I N G
Creative Round of the ROC.
Sid Jones, a member of the Dorchester Camera Club took us through a compact history of photography last meeting, which was well received by club members. Sid’s approach was to look at the key moments through technical advances in the chemical medium from Nicéphore Niépce and his associate Louis Daguerre, Fox Talbot and the gradual increase in the speed of exposure from 8 hours to, eventually, fractions of a second. He then explored some of the key figures behind the lens before giving us a selection of his most influential Twentieth Century Photographers: Ansel Adams, Eliot Erwit, Henri Cartier-Bresson to name but three. There are of course thousands of photographs that could make it onto anyone’s shortlist. So this weeks blog is a more leisurely look at the time line of the development of photographic processing from chemical to digital mainly with the help of the George Eastman House Foundation YouTube Channel.
Photography as we know it starts with the fixing of a photograph to give it a lifespan beyond the immediate. That was Niépce’s achievement, though light had been used to paint for centuries before that. So, although our hobby as we know it is barely 150 years old, it origins go back to ancient Greece and Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC). Dageurre, though, was the person who produced the first useable, mass production method for producing photographs. Henry Fox-Talbot produced the first paper negative and then developed the negative positive process so many of us started out with, around the same time (calotype). Photography as a sharable medium over time was born in 1839. But it wouldn’t have got far without Sir John Herschel who not only invented hypo (“fix” for the image so that it didn’t immediately start to fade) but also came up with an iron salt based system with a predominantly blue tint known as a cyanotype. You probably know it in its engineering form, the blueprint.
The Albumen print came about in 1850 and is a version of Fox Talbot’s paper based process using egg whites, the invention of Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, a Lille Cloth merchant it was probably the most popular form of print in the Nineteenth Century, not least because of the rise of the “Carte de Visit” which we looked at consequent to this seasons Chair’s Evening. Fredrick Scott Archer, butcher, silversmith, sculptor, inventor and photographer is next up with the invention of the Collodion in 1851, more precisely the Wet Plate Collodion. More viable than the Dageurreotype but it necessitated a portable dark room, the wet plate being the clue here, when the photographer was out and about. It was the process Roger Fenton recorded his Crimean War images on. As the Albumen print democratised photograph so the Platinum print, invented in 1873 by Willis and Clements and perfected over the next seven years, platinum printing, or the Platinotype, was an attempt to promote photography as a fine art. Platinum has never been a cheap way to do anything.
In the last quarter of the C19th, the so called pigment processes (Carbon Print Process, Gum Bichromate) where gelatine coatings to a paper base allowed for images to be reproduced in continuous tones with the excess being washed away to create highlights and the darker, hardened gelatine that remained formed the dark areas, came to wide use among the art school photographers still burdened by the doubts cast by their painterly cousins on the artistic value of a photograph. 1864 saw the invention of the Woodburytype, remarkable for the fact that it was a relief image that covered with pigmented gelatine could yield a mould that many thousands of copies could be run from. They look like photographs but they were actually made on a press, the gelatin covering hardening in relation to the amount of light it received.
The real mass market, the one that stands both sides of the camera, came fully into life with the Gelatin Silver Process. A late C19th century process, it was the first that didn’t really require you to carry your darkroom with you. It dominated C20th photography, it was the motor of George Eastman’s Kodak company, “You press the button and we do the rest” (1892). Colour, as we have seen elsewhere, had a long gestation. It all really changed around 2004 when the sales of digital cameras first exceeded the sales of film cameras. The digital age was truly upon us and Kodak didn’t move with the times quick enough. In 2012 they filed for bankruptcy.
It is all about the image in the end and the stories we attach to them – more of that next meeting. For the first time in Human history a true likeness could be taken of an individual, place or thing and, given the right process mass produced. Or put on the wall and treasured. Or left in the back of a draw to be discovered. We have had several conversations on the blog about notions of truth and photography and it is a continuing and evolving argument.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Critiquing your images – Ian Gearing.
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.