2018 and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
From a photography perspective, 2018 didn't turn out to be anything like I expected. I ended 2017 on a real high, having been to Rattray Head Lighthouse on the 27th December, and witnessed the most dramatic sunrise I've ever seen. The photo that day produced won me Colour Print of the Year at Brechin, and then Landscape Print of the Year at the Scottish Photographic Federation's annual Portfolios. The realisation was really that success with photography is about LUCK. We lucked out with the light that day, and I guess I lucked out that the judges at the Portfolios liked it. Gary Player famously said 'the harder I practice, the luckier I get'. That was my motivation as a golfer in my youth, and it applies just as much to almost anything we do.
At the start of December 2017, I became the proud owner of a Canon 7D mkII camera, to add to the 100-400mm lens I had acquired in August. Wildlife photography was my calling - or so I thought....
The first big trip of 2018 was to Argaty to see the Red Kites. Not normally a fan of photo hides, this seemed like a reasonable exception, as the kites congregated there for feeding. Naturally communal birds outwith the breeding season, it doesn't seem quite as artificial as some wildlife hide setups. That was the first time I filled a memory card in one shoot. 1300 photos in an hour. Almost every one crap, and only a few mediocre ones. The stand out memory from that day was a woman who was already in the hide before we got there, waiting by the door to ensure nobody else could stand there. Turns out she's normally there, hogging the best spot so nobody else can get clear views. You see the hide has been designed for people who are EXACTLY 4 foot 8 and a quarter. Any taller or shorter and you simply CANNOT see out of the windows clearly designed for medieval archery rather than photography. The answer? Don't rely on photography hides unless you are an absolute prat, because they are always ruined by the absolute prat.
The rest of January was quite uneventful. Looking back on my photos they are sparse, so I guess the weather must have been miserable. I did go to the last official outing of the Granite City Photography Group, with Ian Cairns on pyrotechnics. That was brilliant fun, and something we plan to repeat at Brechin in the new year.
I had been feeding the birds at work too, just outside my office window, and we had some great visitors, including a gang of nine long tailed tits, three tree creepers and two goldcrests. I even had one coal tit so tame that he came and sat on my window sill and asked for peanuts.
Sod's law dictated that I saw very little wildlife over the next few weeks. Some very tolerant stonechats aside, I really struggled. A lot of time was taken up with end of season camera club stuff, and preparing club entries to national and international competitions. I'd challenged the club to try and make it into the top 10 clubs in Scotland, and people responded with our biggest ever entry - brilliant, but hard work! The great news is that we managed it in both the Scottish Salon and the Portfolios Colour Print category.
I even dragged myself back into a bird hide in March, to photograph the local kingfisher. Didn't enjoy it much. Hides just aren't really my thing at all.
The 'Beast From the East' and the creatively titled 'Mini Beast' hit us in March. It was pretty brutal for east coast wildlife. I spent a day on Montrose beach trying to rescue stranded guillemots, but sadly found many more corpses than I did live birds. I was able to escort a few from the water's edge to safe dry land, and I hope they had the sense to stay there until things were calmer.
In late March, a trip to Fowlsheugh included sightings of Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar and Puffins, but it seems this early appearance was an anomaly for the puffins, and the breeding season was badly hampered by the impacts of the earlier storms. My first trip to the Isle of May on the 19th April was bereft of puffins, bar a few at sea, but as per my previous blog posts, it is an incredible place.
The puffins were back at Fowlsheugh the following week though, and some precarious cliff balancing rewarded me with a few pics.
The swallows FINALLY returned too, my first sighting was on the 28th April, but finally Spring had sprung.
So the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What's that all about then? Well the boost to confidence that comes from a little success can be very misleading. Photography is a bit like music in the way that our ability to see or listen grows at a different rate to our ability to snap pictures or play an instrument, at least initially.
The peak of Mt Stupid was, for me, the image of Rattray Head lighthouse that did so well. It was 90% luck, 9% effort and 1% skill. My great fear is that I will spend an eternity in the Valley of Despair, because self-confidence has never really been my strongest point. Through the rather grim winter and spring I really saw the lack of skills I had.
We went back to Rattray Head, and I had my new 24-105mm lens with me, excited to get some good shots.
So, in typical Ben style, I tackled a COMPLETELY new type of photography with 100% commitment and effort. The 24-105mm lens was almost immediately swapped for a 105mm macro lens. The 24-105 was rubbish anyway!! (excuses excuses excuses). If my luck has run out with lighthouses and wildlife, maybe insects are more my thing.
To be honest, I think I just shifted myself back to the start of the Dunning-Kruger Effect graph. Early excitement became disgruntlement and then a slow process of learning what the hell I was doing.
Flash - well that's a fun new variable to add into the equation. I spent all summer learning how to best use on and off camera flash, diffusion, manual settings, which slowly led to using less and less powerful flash, or none at all, to try and capture natural shots rather than just 'striking' shots like the Elephant Hawk Moth above.
My summer long obsession with dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies was a very serious learning curve, and certainly whet my appetite for more. For me, despite my very limited skills thus far, it feels more authentic than wildlife photography. I absolutely love walking and photographing wildlife, but being involved in running a camera club and entering competitions galore, it is apparent that any wildlife work is competing directly with people who are only too happy to pay through the nose for exclusive hide experiences where perfect photos are dealt up on a plate. The photos take skill (more than I have), no question, but the subject matter requires money or having the right friends rather than effort. That just leaves me cold every time, especially seeing people enter competitions claiming that animals are 'wild', when you recognise the stick they are sitting on from a hundred other pictures. I entered a picture of a Lesser Redpoll into a competition last year, and someone asked me if it was from Montreathmont hide because they recognised the perch. I intend never to have that asked of me again, ha ha!
For these reasons, I really enjoy seabirds and insects much much more.
I'd never seen a common blue butterfly until this summer. Now I think I know about 200 of them personally! These amazing little butterflies are enormous fun to photograph, but also very small and fast. I did a lot of reading and watching videos, and set out to find out where they roosted, and then to seek them out at first light to photograph them before they warmed up. I can't wait to do this more in 2019. The female above was photographed at about 5am at St Cyrus, and you can see the water droplets on her antennae and eyes from the dew. This was taken with a tiny bit of fill flash (1/64 power), on a tripod, at a relatively slow shutter speed (about 1/10th second I think). It is by far the most natural close up shot of a common blue I have though.
The challenge of depth of field is incredible at this distance. I spent months trying to photograph emerald damselflies, after finding a large number of them on a tiny pond within a 5 minute walk of my office. Lunchtimes were spent crawling around trying everything to get the 'perfect' shot of these amazing insects. I think the bottom line is that there is no such thing, without focus stacking, which requires very specific conditions that are almost impossible to find in the wild.
The above image was the 'holy grail' for me for a while, having seen similar in books. It's a unique pose to the emerald damselfly species as they sit at rest with their wings at 45 degrees. A judge said it was a pity the wings were out of focus, and gave it 13/20. In my opinion, it would have looked utterly ridiculous if the wings were in focus! I was about 4 inches away from a live insect, with a focal plane of around 2-3mm, even at f10. Ah well, what do I know, as I crash back into the Valley of Despair again.
My favourite damselfly image of the year is below. The tail of the damselfly is out of focus, but his eye is pin sharp, and the focal plane means his closest wing is also sharp. In my view this image shows off a fabulous (and tiny) insect that most people would never even see as they walked by, in his PERFECT habitat of bull rush leaves. This is my first of three entries to 2018/19 'Print of the Year'. I don't care what score it gets, it's in MY top three for the year. This picture for me is the result of three months of hard work, research, practice and about 2000 cleg bites.
The possibilities of macro insect photography are seemingly endless. So many species to discover and then the challenge of learning enough about them to be able to photograph them reasonably well. Butterflies in particular fascinate me, and I look forward to seeking out new species in 2019, with Green Hairstreak and Small Blue being top of the list of 'must see'.
More dragonflies will certainly be sought out too. The pond at Montreathmont looks to be a great location, and demands visiting early in the day rather than at the hottest part of the afternoon. Maybe even with a pair of waders....
I think the thing that stands out to me most about my learning curve with macro photography, is the attention to tiny details. The margin for error is reduced to almost zero, and even when the technicalities of lighting and focus are spot on, the composition, background, surrounding colours and any kind of tiny distraction can become a deal breaker for a photo.
I was over the moon to see my first Comma butterfly in Banchory this Summer, but despite a technically sharp and well lit picture, it's sitting on a grotty footpath, and as such a nothing photo. Seeing this scene and capturing it just sets my brain going and imagining a picture of it perched on a bramble bush with a diffused green background...
It was a brilliant Summer for insects, and I hope I didn't waste it by making so many beginner's mistakes along the way. We might not get another Summer so good for butterflies for a decade.
But Summer soon ended, and Autumn proved to be a bit rubbish for wildlife, with a lack of waders around Montrose compared to previous years. Maybe it's the sheer number of dog owners who roam the beaches from dawn to dusk that send the birds elsewhere. The end of Autumn brought two new birds for me though, Waxwings and Bramblings - so very chuffed to see them.
Sadly in Autumn my boss left his job. He'd always been very supportive of my photography, and bought a couple of prints from me, so I decided I should travel to his favourite place on the Banffshire Coast and take a photo for him as a leaving gift. I got up at 3:30am to get there for sunrise. Sunrise didn't happen - it just rained. It was utterly miserable, the light never happened at all. I went to Bow Fiddle Rock at Portknockie to try and rescue something from the day, as I'd never been there before, but had seen dozens of great sunrise shots of it. I slept in the car for a bit, and at 9ish, the rain stopped for a bout 10 minutes. I wandered to the beach, and had a bit of a eureka moment. Many landscape photographers swear that you MUST shoot at sunrise and sunset, but on that miserable grey hopeless day I took my favourite photo to date. There's more to landscape photography than colourful skies - there's drama and atmosphere to be had in all sorts of conditions!
This photo got my landscape (well, seascape) mojo going again, and I've been really enjoying it again ever since. This photo is therefore my second of three entries to 'Print of the Year'. One of the things that I like so much about this image is that the print is exactly as I imaged it as I stood on the beach. The digital image looks very mediocre compared to the print - and for me producing a great looking print feels like completing the process successfully.
My third entry is the most recent one - again a seascape. Over Christmas I finally got round to going to Seaton Cliffs, and photographed the Deil's Heid, a sandstone sea stack. As with Rattray Head in 2017, I lucked out on conditions. I didn't know the site, and didn't even look up the tides before I went, but I arrived in great light, an hour before sunset, at the height of a spring tide. It's not even the Deil's Heid that make the picture work in my opinion, it's the square rock in the foreground that anchors the whole picture. I went back at lower tide and it's a nothing rock without the crashing waves around it. Being LUCKY is far better than being good, again! 5 minutes later the sun moved and the next cliff cast a shadow over the 'heid' and the scene was gone. Every other time I've been back, the scene has also been ruined by fishermen and rock climbers too - I guess the high tide and the wild swell was just enough to put even the most fearless fishermen off (or they'd already been washed out to sea).
In-between all this, I was elected as president of Brechin Photographic Society, when the previous president stood down. It's a great honour to lead one of the oldest camera clubs in the country, and a terrific group of photographers. Things have gone OK so far, and I hope they put up with me for a while longer. It's a lot of work juggling the president and competition secretary roles, but then the club only runs from September to April, when it gets dark early, so it's better than watching crap on TV or some other mind-numbing pastime.
So here's to 2019 and climbing out of the Valley of Despair, learning more, and practising hard enough to get lucky a bit more often! I think periodically looking at the Dunning-Kruger Effect graph is a way to sense check progress on the journey. It's a learning process, and I don't think anyone could ever claim to know it all. If they do, they are probably stuck somewhere on Mt Stupid.