• Ben

What photography means to me (and what it doesn't mean to me)

This photo really irritates me - let me explain why...

I've been taking photographs as a serious hobby for almost exactly 3 years now. On the 1st September 2015 I joined Brechin Photographic Society, armed with a Canon 600D, a couple of kit lenses and zero knowledge. It was Hayley's idea to join a club, as she'd been going to one in Stourbridge before moving up to Scotland in late 2014. I suppose it completely changed my life, as I can only really be described as completely obsessed by the hobby now.

It's about much more than photography though. For far far too long I had been stuck in a rut that involved little if any contact with the outside world, exercise, enjoyment of the outdoors or really anything positive at all. Overweight, unfit, depressed, shackled by crushing anxiety, basically just miserable - something had to change.

It was the following week, the 8th September, where I had a 15 minute crash course in the exposure triangle and the settings on my 600D from Ken Ness, that got me hooked. I'd always thought that using manual camera settings was just a smart arse way of taking the same pictures as you could on auto mode - but that realisation that there were basically infinite possibilities was like an epiphany. Photography has also got me out of the house - a lot - to the point where I feel utterly trapped if I have to stay in for a whole day. It's got me fit, lost a bunch of weight and started to chip away the anxiety too.

But above all, photography has unlocked a fascination in the world around me, from landscapes to history and in particular wildlife. I used to care what people thought of me, but I work in an office where people work their fingers to the bone to buy a bigger TV, and suffer weeks in the office to spend weekends in drunken nightclubs, or a week on a cruise ship eating posh food. They see me as the weird guy who gets up at 4am to chase sunrises, or climb a big hill before work in the chance of seeing a ring ouzel or a hen harrier, and then heads off into the bushes at lunch time to photograph creepy crawlies that would make them run a mile.

Kill it, squash it, destroy it - or take photos of it and marvel at how stunning it is close up...

I don't care what they think of me. I threw my TV away 3 years ago. I guess I view their endless analysis of Game of Thrones and Love Island in exactly the same way that they see my interest in dragonflies and migrant waders!

Our living room is basically a studio for photo editing, painting, music production and any other form of creativity that either Hayley or I have going on. I'm living the dream really. It would be great to win the lottery so I could do it full time, but sadly I still have to suffer the work bits in-between!

I think the key thing is that it really isn't all about photography for me, it's about all the things I've discovered to take photographs of. Some people I speak to only seem to be bothered about the photographs, and the goal is just getting a better picture than the next guy. Others go a step further and just try to copy the so called experts verbatim, and are willing to go to great lengths and expense to do so.

When I started off with photography, particularly wildlife, I marvelled at shots that I saw, wondering how on earth people achieved them. Kingfishers underwater catching a fish, ospreys taking off with a fish heading straight towards the camera, a pine marten with an egg in it's mouth in the dark, perfectly illuminated with multiple flashes. How on earth do people get these shots?

They pay money to sit in a hide where the whole shot is set up for them. Kingfishers diving into a glass tank stocked with fish, osprey hides set up where they are almost guaranteed to fish in front of. Eggs left out as bait for pine martens with lighting rigs set up to capture the perfect shot. Only this year a major international wildlife photography competition resulted in chaos when the winning photo of an anteater was discovered to be a stuffed animal positioned in the shot. None of this is really about the subject at all. Interest in the natural world is lost in the pursuit of the winning shot.

It's not for me at all.

That's why the kingfisher shot at the start of this blog annoys me. I spent a LOT of time watching kingfishers and their movements around Montrose Basin. I've seen numerous birds in flight, and perched a distance away. Sometimes I've seen them perched close by but couldn't get a photo without disturbing them. So one day last winter i popped into the RBS hide at the visitor centre, and took shots of a female kingfisher that visited the salt pans every single day and perched on a stick that was probably placed there by hand to look nice (at least it wasn't the 'no fishing' sign that people usually try to get them to perch on). I didn't pay to use the hide, it's free, and I didn't personally influence the behaviour of the bird, but it still doesn't feel authentic to me. I love the composition, and the bird is quite stunning, but it doesn't do anything for me. I'd rather watch a blue flash pass me at a million miles an hour, laughing at me with it's high pitched 'peep peep peep' as I fail spectacularly to get a sharp shot.

For that reason I think this remains my favourite kingfisher shot to date. It epitomises the effort and success rate of watching and photographing these wonderful little birds.

The Blue Flash

The same can apply to landscape photography. I found a website today that identifies the locations of 24 fixed photography posts within the Cairngorms National Park. You can collect them all, and replicate 24 images chosen for you by someone else - - and not really have to think, or even look. I wonder if there are many more beautiful places in the UK than the Cairngorms, and yet there is a genuine demand for people to be given the photographs they are told are reflective of the place. Some of them are really really awful compositions too! A landscape photographer could spend a lifetime creating stunning and original photos in the national park, and yet you can 'bag the set' by following the instructions. I don't get it.

Photographing wildlife is, for me, a learning experience. Discovering species I maybe haven't seen before, learning about behaviours, observing, and trying to capture a snapshot of that. Like seeking out where butterflies roost and then going out at five in the morning to capture naturally lit shots of them just waking up.

Female Common Blue butterfly - taken at 5:30am

Or watching stonechats building a nest, feeding young, the young fledging and then maturing into adult birds over the summer months.

Adult male (TL), adult female (TR), fledgling (BL) and young male getting his full adult plumage (BR) - taken over four months at St Cyrus NNR.

There's so much more than just 'birds on sticks' - as nice as that might be sometimes - but to see seabirds pairing up for breeding season, as they do year after year in the same nesting spots is far more important to me than just seeing the birds themselves.

Fulmars pair up for life and nest in the same place for decades, maybe even 40 years +

Gannets appear to be great romantics, bringing each other gifts and constantly preening each other's feathers.

All of this gets me out of the house, where I spent so many years staring at the TV screen. Summertime is great for macro photography, when insects are plentiful and birds are less so. I've learned a massive amount about insects this year, and spent numerous hours crawling around the ground, looking like an absolute idiot, often using every minute of my lunch break to get out into the local fields and woods to look for butterflies and dragonflies. The margin for error in creating photographs is intensified as the subject gets smaller, so the challenge to capture the tiny world successfully is never ending.

I must have taken a thousand images of emerald damselflies this summer - finally getting a composition I like!

These shots might not be prizewinners, they might not have the drama of a kingfisher underwater (in a fish tank) or an osprey taking a fish (taken from a hide that costs £130 an hour to go in), but they all MEAN something to me, and they all come with a memory of the effort I made to get that picture, and what I learned along the way about the subject and the techniques of photography.

A lot of them bring memories of a day out with friends (friends I would never have met were it not for joining the camera club), or seeing a bird or an insect for the first time.

That kingfisher shot at the top reminds me of sitting in a hide rather uncomfortably with three strangers (albeit very nice people it turned out), taking the exact same photos as they were taking, and a thousand people before me had taken. The fulmar pair above reminds me of my first experience of the Isle of May with Hayley and Ian, when despite there being no puffins on the island, in April this year, the whole place just blew me away, and we had a genuinely brilliant day out.

The best photo, in my opinion, that I have taken to date, of Rattray Head lighthouse, recently won best landscape print in a national competition. Way beyond that though, it will always remind me of that sunrise on the beach on the 27th of December when Ian and I experienced the best light that may ever have graced that scene, between bitter snow storms. It also reminds me of my first attempts at printing on textured art paper and seeing an image come to life through the choice of paper - another eureka moment on the journey (albeit an expensive one at £56 for a box of 25 sheets!!)

Rattray Head Dawn

I suppose I've ranted and waffled for about a million words to say it's not about just the photo, it's about experience, discovery, learning, enjoying, marvelling and a life that's a million miles from the one I was trapped in for so long. The photo is just a tiny part of the whole thing.

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