Picture This

Some years ago a brief flirtation with golf ended with the realisation that I simply didn’t have the time or motivation to become good enough at the game to make it anything other than a source of frustration. Putting that realisation aside along with my clubs it did plant a seed in my mind – that maybe once in a round of 18 holes I could hit a shot as perfectly as any professional, and I could do so on the same greens they play on using the same equipment if I so chose. In that way at least it has to be said that golf is a true meritocracy.

And so it is with photography. From its infancy photography progressed from science to profession and then with the advent of the box camera it gradually became accessible to hobbyists (or hobbits if you prefer my spell checker). Even so up until relatively recently you still needed to be reasonably well off to afford the kit that would enable you to compete technically with a professional photographer, but now all of that has changed.

Paparazzi stalking Queen Victoria circa 1870
Paparazzi stalking Queen Victoria circa 1870

The digital photography revolution has brought quality entry level equipment within reach of the masses while the increasingly media rich social and technical landscape we occupy has resulted in an exponential upsurge of people actively taking and sharing photos – many of whom would not necessarily think of themselves as photography enthusiasts. Which leads me back to the golf analogy – now anybody can pick up a camera, point it at something and (potentially) capture a picture of “professional” quality. Better still you can take photographs at almost any time or place and the results are almost instant so if you mess up the shot you just make adjustments and take it again. No penalty, no stigma and no need to dress like a clown.

Tees of a clown
Tees of a clown
(thanks to the highly enjoyable Disseminated Thought)

A number of my amateur photography friends regularly produce and share fantastic pictures composed and executed to a very high quality and I have certainly seen inferior work from people who sell their services as professionals. There are of course be a great many more people who like to take pictures but, regardless of kit, really aren’t very good at it. That includes me, and I really don’t like it.

A much-abused companion. I once dropped it off the OXO tower
A much-abused companion. I once dropped it off the OXO tower

In the pre-digital days of photography I would InterRail for a month with my modest Olympus OM10 35mm and a decidedly generous 3 pack of 36 shot colour films (yes – colour vs B&W was still a choice!). That meant I could about take 3 photos per day and it would be weeks before they came back from the developers and I knew how they would come out. Looking back now I realise that despite my general lack of skills and experience I did at least recognise the need to think carefully about when to take a precious photo and as such some rudimentary evaluation of picture composition was going on in my head. Now the temptation is to snap away like some gattling gun in the knowledge that I have no limit on image quantity, only to later discover that I have dozens of equally ill-thought out snaps.

Athens 1990 - Now you need instagram to get this faded effect
Athens 1990 – Now you need instagram to get this faded effect

For more embarrassment (and hair) I’ve scanned libraries of InterRail photos from 1990, 1991 and 1992 as a personal reminder of how photography used to be.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m swept up by the month-long Format 11 international photography festival here in my home town of Derby. It’s fun, friendly and helpfully accessible so I become a regular face at Derby’s Quad and other venues across the city. The underlying theme of the 2011 festival was Street Photography and under the tutelage of luminaries such as Bruce Gilden and Brian Griffin swathes of people prowled the streets on the lookout for people or situations worthy of capture. I gave it a go and – well, it was hard. Here’s the problem – if you hang around wielding a camera in Derby pedestrians politely stop and stay out of shot until you are done, ignorant of the fact that they were meant to be the subject.

Taking Street  Photography too literally
Taking Street Photography too literally

Since Format 11 I have only headed out with Street Photography in mind on a couple of occasions and found it hard work, until I became a regular visitor to Edinburgh which by comparison is like shooting fish in a barrel. The city has one of the most architecturally distinctive centres in Britain and attracts millions of tourists to any number of festivals across the year. In other words you have a target rich environment in which you can point a camera without arousing so much as the blink of an eye.

Auld reekie
Auld reekie

I don’t think I had realised quite how high profile this event was until I attended a Format 11 talk on Photography For The Internet and discovered myself in a room seemingly full of professional photographers with a variety of international accents. The presentation was engaging but as it went on the subject matter became more technical as was to be expected given the fact a room full of “serious” photographers had travelled from afar to be here. That’s one of the stand-out characteristics of Derby’s Format Festival – it caters for a wide spectrum of people; career photographers, amateurs, occasional snappers and people who just like to look at pictures. The event also reaches out to so many local people through the number of different venues used.

Format 13 kicks off this week with an opening ceremony and I’m looking forward to that and then the month of events that follow. With such a diverse range of activities I know there’s going to be inspiration and entertainment along the way. As ever there’s an overwhelming selection of exhibitions, talks and workshops. My pen is already circling the likes of Pictures From The Real World (David Moore), Notes Home & Blind Boys – based on the festival programme notes at least. Of course, a picture says a thousand words.

A picture of Derby?
A picture of Derby?

However, there’s one workshop I’m still waiting for, and maybe it’s something you just can’t be taught? I want a course that teaches “how to see a picture” prior to activating the shutter. I envy those with a natural ability to view a real life scene, confidently “see” the picture and then capture it, having retained and accentuated the characteristics that bring it to life. Format 15, are you listening?

7 thoughts on “Picture This

  1. Great post- sums up well the feeling of “almost” being able to take photos and that wonderful feeling you get when you take one that works! (As many of yours do…..)

    1. Thank you! Yes that’s it – the feeling of “almost” being able to take a photo as you say. I suspect there’s a lot of skill and experience in being able to consistently fill that gap.

  2. Great post Tim.

    I’ve been taking photography seriously for a while now but have struggled balancing knowing the technical background and actually just getting out there and taking the photos.

    A colleague at work also started about a year ago and has produced some stunning images. When asked about settings/ISO/f Stops etc his reply was “I haven’t really got a clue what you are on about”. Beginners luck? No, he just keeps creating superb shots time and time again.

    I’m going to concentrate on a smaller range of styles from the gammut of topics/styles/approaches there are, I like portraits so I’m doing more of these now.


  3. Thanks Phil. You take a fine photo yourself and it’s interesting to hear about your colleagues approach. It should also be a good sign when people are more interested in the subject than the kit! Always good to talk to fellow photographers though.

    1. I am in awe of some of his shots, I wish I could “let go and use the force” rather than overthinking the shot.

      I’m about to Flckr my best shots from Tenerife, but for now here’s some of my colleagues work:


      Perhaps we can meet up and some of the industrial heritage in Derby City Centre?


  4. Funnily enough Nick was one of a number of guys I was thinking of when it comes to talented amateur photographers that I know.

    As for looking like a gondolier I can honestly say it had never occurred to me, but you have a point! Definitely too scruffy for a gondolier I can assure you!

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