Out with the old and in with the new. Traditionally, this is a time to reflect, but more importantly to look ahead to what the next 12 months may hold. Whatever your level of skill or proficiency, take some time away from that umpteenth mince pie or turkey cold cut to ask yourself what you would most like to achieve in the year ahead to make a positive difference to your photography. Will entering a photo competition get you the recognition you think you deserve, or should you spend a day getting expert tuition at a workshop?
Perhaps there is a personal project you’d like to pursue or a location that you have always wanted to photograph? And what about all those images that you just don’t know what to do with? If you’re a budding photographer, chances are one of these questions applies to you. Of course, the first resolution we all need to uphold is to make time available for any photographic goals that we set for the year ahead.
IN IT TO WIN IT
Nothing galvanises better than setting a target or a deadline. Even better if there’s a motivating factor at play. Competitions are a great way to make you look at your images again, but this time within the parameters set by a competition theme and the accompanying rules. Success can lead to publication, worldwide media publicity as well as any prizes on offer. Then there’s the feel-good factor of having your photography acknowledged by a panel of experts who may not have seen your work before.
Some people rule themselves out of entering competitions because they don’t believe they have a chance of success, but even entering is beneficial as it helps you gain insight into the type of images judges choose, thereby helping you to evaluate your pictures from a different perspective. As the saying goes, you’ve got to be in it to win it.
In 2017, the British environmental photographer Aaron Gekoski won the photojournalist category of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It was the first time he had entered. Up to then, his attitude to entering competitions reflected that of many others who had never entered before. ‘I was always kind of sniffy about competitions for some very bizarre reason,’ he says. ‘I’d think, “no, I don’t need to enter, I know I’m doing good work out there’.’’ But Gekoski hadn’t bargained for the benefits of competition success. ‘I hadn’t anticipated how much recognition and more importantly how much coverage the competition would give for my subject, because I had emails from all over the world. So, I have made a very conscious effort to enter competitions from now on.’
Of course, not all competitions receive the same level of publicity as Wildlife Photographer of the Year, but there are numerous others, covering practically every aspect of nature and geography. Landscapes, gardens, the underwater world, mountains, mammals, birds, travel, British wildlife, European wildlife, even drones – each has their own dedicated contest. In fact, more than a hundred photo competitions can be found on the US website photocontestinsider.com. Then there are regular competitions run in photo magazines and online sharing platforms. By taking part you are doing more than just pitching your work against your peers; you are opening your eyes to the work of others and the approaches and techniques they employ.
‘It’s always about getting out of your comfort zone,’ says award-winning filmmaker Rob Whitworth. ‘If you’re just doing the same thing again and again and it’s getting easier, you’re probably doing something wrong and people aren’t going to be interested anymore.’ Whitworth specialises in making timelapse videos, admittedly not one of the most widely practised genres of image making, but one of the most thrilling and memorable. The BBC Natural History Unit describes him as ‘the most accomplished hyper-lapse cameraman of our day’, but less than ten years ago he was an unknown photographer, living off his girlfriend’s salary in Vietnam while devoting his time to perfecting this painstaking technique. ‘I spent a year experimenting and shooting time-lapse, deliberately not doing any other work and not posting anything online, just trying to refine my skills,’ he recalls. ‘At the end of that year I posted my first video online called Traffic Frenetic in Ho Chi Minh City. I had no following, yet within three days it got 700,000 plays and the attention of the world’s media. That encouraged me that I had made the right decision to focus on time-lapse.’
PLAYING THE FIELD
Whitworth’s experience is an example of why it’s important to specialise and devote your energies to improving technique through experimentation. Documentary photographer Jasper Doest is another who believes in the importance of experimenting, or ‘playing’ as he calls it, especially when you think you have exhausted all the creative possibilities. ‘When you get to the point of “now what?” just start playing,’ he says. ‘I think playing is very important even when 90 per cent of the time nothing comes out, but it helps for getting to know your tools and these tools are the only thing you have as a photographer.’
Both Doest and Gekoski devote a lot of their photography to long-term projects, often years in the making. In Doest’s case, it is about the relationship between humans and macaque monkeys in Japanese culture, while Gekoski continues to document the abuse of animals for entertainment in zoos and tourist resorts in Southeast Asia. What’s striking is the dedication required for these projects and the need to research and garner knowledge about a subject so that the resulting images convey an accurate and comprehensive depiction of the story being told.
Closer to home, Britain’s Andrew Parkinson has gained international renown for his ongoing work photographing mountain hares in the Cairngorms; Richard Peters specialises in urban wildlife, winning awards for his photos of foxes and badgers that make nightly visits to his back garden in Surrey and the landscape photographer Rachael Talibart drives to England’s south coast to photograph seascapes whenever there is a hint of stormy weather. Each of these photographers set themselves an on-going project featuring a subject or location they genuinely love and there is no set time limit. As Talibart says: ‘I think the simple advice is, shoot what you love. I love the coast so that’s what I’m going to do.’
Like many professional photographers, Talibart also runs one-day landscape photography courses, called f11 Workshops. These are not photo holidays, she stresses, but an opportunity to learn and develop skills first-hand on location. ‘We’ve got oodles of clients who just book, rebook, rebook, so we’re getting to know them,’ she says. The success of these workshops is down to the sense of community and shared learning among the participants. ‘I enjoy that and I learn from them just as much as they learn from me. Everyone sees differently.’
Seeing differently, gaining a fresh perspective, experimenting – these are all central to a photographer’s development and essential for finding that niche subject, theme or style. Expert one-on-one tuition is hard to beat for mastering the practical lessons of exposure, timing, filtration, lens choices and composition, but if that spare day out isn’t possible or the course is booked, there are other ways to hear experts’ words of wisdom.
When he’s not shooting commissions, signing prints or conducting his own one day workshops on London’s Hampstead Heath, Matthew Maran records podcasts which he shares freely on his website matthewmaran.com. So far, he has made ten with photographers (including Jasper Doest and Andrew Parkinson), picture editors, publishers and designers. ‘These conversations give an insight into the lives of creative professionals,’ he says. ‘I decided to set about interviewing these individuals, to shed new light on what goes on behind the scenes and what it means to be a creative freelancer and make it work as a career.’
Maran’s podcasts are packed with advice and first-hand experience. While there is a wide variety of ideas and experiences to draw upon, the need to find a specialist niche is a common recommendation, best expressed by the Bristol-based wildlife photographer Sam Hobson: ‘Don’t try to be a jack-of-all-trades with your photography. If you shoot everything you’ll end up having tons of mediocre pictures. If you do something really creative with one subject, you’ll get your images out all over the place.’
Of course, image sharing sites like Instagram, Flickr and 500px, as well as the ubiquitous Facebook, make it easy to get your images ‘all over the place’ and to build a following. In the best-case scenarios, this can be enough to launch a career, as it did with Rob Whitworth’s first time-lapse video. ‘Thanks to the online platforms you can just do your creative thing and put it out there and the audience will come to you if it’s good,’ he says. However, if success proves elusive, then expert feedback will have a greater value than any online audience. This is why submitting your work to picture editors on magazines and image libraries and seeking their opinion is so valuable. After all, they are choosing the images that their reputations and businesses depend upon. Editors can seem harsh but responding well is the key to publishing success.
Conservation photographer David Plummer puts it like this: ‘It’s a case of reading the feedback, so just go at it again and be persistent. When an editor turns you down, don’t give up. Just say, “well sod you, I’m going to produce the best work you ever saw!” I don’t think that learning process ever ends, unless you let it end.’
This was published in the January 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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