• Ben

Perfection is a personal challenge

I haven't written a blog for a while, my thoughts have been pretty scattered for a while. I've been struggling to focus on one thing for a while, but with the warmer weather comes opportunities for outdoor macro photography - absolutely my favourite genre of photography.

I find my thought process really hard to explain though, without sounding like a total arse. I love all wildlife, and bird watching and photography is great fun too, but it has become so competitive that I find it really hollow. If you see something good and share an image, it's immediately swamped by people trying to get the best image, with the most expensive camera, and the longest lens. The joy of seeing something diminishes very quickly. At this time of year I really prefer walking around with a macro lens looking for all wildlife, and quietly being quite pleased when I see something great that would require a 400mm lens to capture - because I can just enjoy seeing or hearing it without the pressure.

Macro photography suits my mindset, because it's a quest for perfection, an impossible unreachable perfection. It's far more of a personal challenge to me than a competition with others. I entered a few of my macro images into competitions last year and they all did really badly - and while that's largely because they aren't very good, it's also because they are competing against the above-mentioned bird and animal photos, where winning is the prime motivation for so many people.

Emerald Damselfly - my favourite macro shot of 2018 - and a flop in all competitions

Part of me wants to stop entering competitions at all, but as president and competition secretary of a camera club, I feel obliged to enter competition, both at the club and on behalf of the club where I can help push the club forwards. I put a hell of a lot of time and effort into the club, so perhaps I really shouldn't feel like that. I do feel like i was rather catapulted into a position where people look up to me for advice, inspiration and support, when ultimately I'm just a beginner who wants to learn.

I find it very difficult to gauge if I'm getting anything right at all to be honest. On a number of occasions I've taken an image I'm really proud of, only for it to do really badly in competitions, and as someone who doesn't really have the most stable state of mind at the best of times, I find it impossible to filter out negativity, and seem to be constantly deaf to praise. Sometimes I really wonder if photography is a beneficial thing to do when suffering from mental health problems - but it's not the photography, it's the fact that everything in life has become competitive, to the point that we don't even recognise that it's competitive anymore. I post photos online because I want people to enjoy them, and because I'm proud of making them, but it becomes too quickly about the number of likes on social media, and the praise from peers. I frequently delete my entire photography catalogue from social media, because it feels like it's tarnished though some sort of begging for recognition - but it's not the photography, it's social media and the way the world works these days.

I always strive to keep my website up to date, because it's my collection of my favourite images, and a place where I can rant like this, and I know that only about 8 folk will ever look at it, so that's kind of fine. It ceases to be competitive in that respect. It's just a website, and photographs, that I made myself, and can be proud of at any point in time.

Perfectionism though - in photography - is subjective, and that creates a new dilemma. My interpretation of perfection changes as I learn and get better at making photographs. I've definitely improved since I first set out with a macro lens last year, but I still look in awe at other people's images.

When I talk about macro photography, I very much mean out in the natural world macro photography. Photographing static objects with highly technical equipment certainly takes great skill, and photographing trapped moths for example, that have been in a fridge for a while, is fun and brings it's own challenges, but not what I find particularly rewarding.

Large Red damselfly - recently emerged

With macro photography the margins for error are definitely smaller, but they are also more defined. Yes, I need a decent camera and a macro lens, and in a lot of circumstances a flashgun too, but the implementation of a great image takes nothing else other than determination, practice, hard work and skill. This is why it is rewarding.

I've written about butterflies before, but I've continued to learn more about them. There's so much more to learn too, and getting to know some real enthusiasts has been a huge benefit to me - not only from gleaning knowledge from them, but knowing I'm not alone in my obsession with photographing them! The bottom line is that they are just fascinating creatures, and hugely photogenic - and really hard to photograph well! The fact that my images always do really badly in competitions has actually helped, because it really focuses me into it as a personal quest for perfection, regardless of what other people think. It's really helped me not to care so much, and keep on doing what I enjoy doing.

It took a LONG time to get this image - and it's not perfect - yet

Take this Speckled Wood image as an example. They are very pretty butterflies with their wings open, but for me their beauty - and their character - lies in the wings closed pose. The subtle colours enable them to almost disappear on the forest floor. I was pretty close to this one - it knew I was there, and is in a fully alert pose, threatening me somewhat with his eye on the fore wing (they tend to tuck their fore wings behind the hind wings when relaxed). It's a static shot but it has a hint of anticipation that it's about to fly away. The mission to get the whole butterfly in sharp focus is a never ending challenge - and the closer I get to it the more that shortfall becomes an issue. The bottom of it's hind wing, and both antenna are out of focus still.

One challenge of photographing butterflies is often finding them. Learning where and when is really the fist step, but I wasn't quite prepared for the challenge that faced me this day - too many butterflies. As soon as a butterfly settled, it was dive bombed by another (or several others) which made the photography lark rather a frantic chase. I was lucky to spend a few minutes with this one before it was ambushed.

As with bird photography, it is very easy to be drawn into getting as close as possible to the subject though. This is fun, and challenging, but almost more challenging is the creation of an image featuring a butterfly as the main focus. Something that tells a story about the situation, the habitat or the experience.

This male Common Blue was trying to warm up just as the sun was rising, ready for a busy day of eluding photographers

Trying really hard to compose an image in this chaotic scene to focus on this Small Copper butterfly in it's habitat

Are you still taking photos? Male Orange Tip

The best bit of the process is the chase though - the mission to find the right species in the right conditions to make a photograph. This needs a lot of effort, and in many ways sets the great images apart from the good ones. I often feel hamstrung by the need to be at work during the best bit of the day, especially in the Spring months. Green Hairstreak is a species with a relatively early adult life, and until last week I'd never seen one. In fact, until a few months ago I'd never heard of them, and certainly didn't know they were anywhere near where we live.

There are some good guides online about where to see butterflies. I am a member of Butterfly Conservation, a group run by some of the most enthusiastic people I've ever encountered. Their facebook group has been great for people sharing information - in a refreshingly non-competitive manner to boot! Through that I identified what I thought would be a likely location and went hunting - with success. It sounds ridiculous for a 40 year old fat guy in office attire chasing a butterfly the size of a 5p piece through a forest with a rush of adrenaline that nearly made him throw up. I only saw 4 butterflies that evening, and they were pretty tatty specimens too.

I had a hunch that I was just too late in the day though, and with Poets day for once coinciding with the sun shining, I made it back an hour earlier on the Friday, to find around 25 of them, with some tidier specimens among them. I also found a load of damselflies, spiders and solitary wasps, as well as lots of moths, including a male emperor that got away (no surprise there!)

Again it sounds pretty sad, but sitting in the heather and blaeberries, just watching these butterflies that I knew nothing about a few weeks ago fluttering about and sunning themselves is incredibly therapeutic, and trying to capture their character and beauty on camera is only part of the story.

Green Hairstreak on a blaeberry leaf

There's a lot to this, the thrill of the chase, the elation of finding something new - a new site, a new species - getting a photo that I'm proud of, that captures the butterfly and it's surroundings. Getting home and uploading them to the computer to find that even the one I thought was perfect has a flaw, and setting out to do it all over again. It's personal challenge. It's really struck me over the past few weeks that it isn't competitive, and that's what draws me to it magnetically.

While the weather turning might spell the chance of more Green Hairstreaks this year unlikely, there are many more species to look forward to. I thought I'd done pretty well with Common Blues towards the end of last summer, but I've learned so much since then that I can't wait to get out and photograph them too.

Female Common Blue taken at 5am at St Cyrus

Early morning trips to St Cyrus for sunrise, to try to capture exciting habitat shots while the butterflies are roosting. Small Heaths are already emerging, as are Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (not sure where to find these, as my site from last summer is now a building site). A trip to try and find Small Blue on the 1st June is exciting - another butterfly I've never seen - and then the potential to try to find one at St Cyrus (not recorded since 2011 there). Grayling is another species I've never seen, another that St Cyrus might throw up. In June a few stop-offs in Stonehaven will be necessary to try and get some nice shots of Northern Brown Argus. The list keeps growing and growing.

Female Orange Tip

With damselflies and dragonflies also emerging now in good numbers, the opportunities for creative and imaginative macro photography will intensify over the coming months. More afternoons in the office with muddy knees and wet feet to explain to colleagues, while trying to conceal the grin from my face from a lunch hour with my camera.

One thing I need to remember to do is to take a wide angle lens to capture some of the places that I photograph butterflies too. Next time I write a blog like this, I'd like to be able to set the scene a bit better. I've also agreed to do a talk at another camera club on butterfly photography in September, so I'd better get my finger out and learn how to do it a bit better!! I'll need some perfect pictures to complete my talk!!

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