Isn’t it funny, I’ve been a professional photographer for quite a few years now, but sometimes, I still get shy and a bit inhibited when taking photographs. It depends on the situation. If I’m clearly in a professional capacity, I have no problem. I will switch into professional work mode and become absolutely single minded about getting the shot or shots that I want. If however, like the other day, things were not so clear-cut, I can find myself strangely reticent and therefore unfocused.
It was my six-year-old sons Halloween do, at the small village school he attends in the South of France, only thirty or so children in the whole school. Can you believe it! I hadn’t been able to make the last one, so this time I wanted to take some pictures that I would later print and give to the school for their events notice board. It’s a very pleasant affair. The children parade around the village, all done up in their Halloween fancy dress. All, apart from my son, who had managed to loose his costume, which had been rather hastily thrown together the previous evening. Anyway, never mind, he was having a wail of a time as they knocked on the doors of houses in the village and receiving bag after bag of sweets. My main concerns were for his teeth and on what level, on the Richter scale of tantrums, we would have to endure later that evening, as pure sugar coursed through his veins. One local had prepared a real feast with cakes, pancakes and fizzy drinks (Oh my god more sugar). We even had a donkey arrive that the children could sit on. So there I was, the light was quite nice, early evening. There was so much going on I didn’t know where to point my camera, but I felt strangely unmotivated and unsure.
One of the reasons for this is something that I’ve suffered from many times before. I’m not naturally a show off and like it or not when you start wielding one or two huge 1 series Canons about, you get noticed. They are not exactly discreet, which is often why I will take the 5d out, which is a tiddler by comparison. When your pull your 1ds mark III, with a big L series lens screwed on, you scream professional, or ridiculous poser with more money than sense. Thankfully ninety percent of my work is done at times of day when there aren’t many people around, so I don’ have such distractions. But when I am working among the crowds you get used to looks and comments. Often people go a bit ‘Carry On’, ” Ooh, he has got a big one”, or “ You see, you’ll always come across someone who’s got a bigger one than you” I usually smile limply, or bury my hear in camera bag, appearing to be very busy.
Another reason I was a bit half hearted, was that I was knackered. I’d been up that morning before 5.00 am shooting in two locations. Due to the nature of the locations I’d been able to stay out working until about 10.30 am, until the light became too strong. The first location was a view of a chateaux, side lit and was an out and out dawn shot. Once the first rays of the sun cleared the hill and struck the chateaux, you had thirty minutes max before the light became too strong. My second location was a shaded steam that has to have a bit more light, so it’s not a dawn shot. You need a bit of diffuse light filtering through the trees to lift the shot, but not too much otherwise the contrast between the bright sun a the dark of the shaded areas is too great and generally, scenes like this are very difficult to filter. A polarizer can help reduce glare but won’t balance the light and dark within the frame. So you really rely upon timing and exactly the right lighting conditions to make it work. By the time I was home and had breakfast, time was pushing on. I was tired, but buzzing from what had been a very successful mornings shoot. You’re never a 100% sure what you’ve got, but you get a feeling. I had someone coming round early afternoon with a view to buying some of my photographs for postcards, but I still had time to catch a bit of shuteye. Then my ink delivery arrived along with a couple of much needed spare parts for my Epson 7880.
Lately my printer had not been behaving its self and it always happens at the wrong time. I had just begun a large print run of some twelve hundred images, in preparation for Christmas, which is a very busy time for me in terms of print sales. I was mainly printing in three sizes, A1, A3 plus and A4, some in canvas but the majority in satin photo paper. I had started the whole process a bit late due to work commitments and time was running out to get the problem sorted. To say I was a little bit stressed about the situation would be an understatement. My idea of a sleep became a distant memory as screwdrivers came out, parts replaced, ink cartridges changed and test prints done. Happiness is a perfect is a perfect nozzle check! I don’t why people spend so long in search of it! In fact as I’m writing this, my Epson is whirring away in the background, once again producing perfect prints, as it should.
I grabbed some lunch and then the postcard guy came round. We spent an hour or so going through some images on my Mac and he ended up buying the rights to fifteen images, which didn’t hurt the bank balance. By the time he had gone, there was time for a quick shower and off to my sons school. Even though I felt quite half hearted I persevered and quickly filled up a four-gig memory card, not that difficult with a twenty-one million-mega pixel camera in raw mode, about a hundred and thirty shots. I went through the motions. When I got home and viewed the images on my computer I was struck by how rubbish they were. I’d still be able to get some prints that I’m sure the school will be grateful for but that’s not the point. I love children. Shooting images of them was my first photographic love and one of the ways that I initially made the transition from amateur to professional photography work. On an average shoot of this nature I would expect to have a few images that I would be really happy with, some would be average and the some would be definite rejects, through poor composition or focusing issues. But here, most were in the second two categories, with very few that would rise above average. After some reflection, it became clear that the cause of the problem was general half-heartedness. There’s a Japanese proverb that says ‘ A person at cross-purposes will achieve nothing remarkable’, and that’s exactly what I had been, at cross-purposes with myself, or in two minds. I’d wanted to get some really great pictures for the school, but hadn’t been in the right frame of mind to let go of my inhibitions and tiredness and really go for it. It not only affected me mentally, but physically as well. I seemed strangely locked at the knees. I know, of course, that it’s generally a good idea to get level with your subject (though not always). How many pictures have we seen of children, neck craning backwards to look at the camera, face distorted by staring directly at the bright sun as the adult refuses to make any effort to get to the child’s level. So when shooting children a lot of knee bending is obligatory. I did of course get on my knees, but it didn’t feel natural and so when I did finally creak into a good position, the moment had gone. Children playing don’t wait for anyone, let alone photographers. Either move at their pace or be left behind. You have to be mentally very sharp and anticipate the moment, simply reacting to events, is often too late.
It really reminded me how committed and determined you have to be to create anything of worth, in a photographic sense, though I think the same applies to all fields of human endeavour. You have to continually challenge yourself not to be lazy, not to take the easy option, not to let fear restrict you and constantly push at your boundaries. When working on landscapes, it can take months, if not years sometimes, for one shot to come together. At first I will develop an idea about an image I would like to capture. I might visit the location one or two times before attempting a dawn or evening shot. When you do get out there in earnest it’s quite likely that the conditions won’t be great. It may take several visits until you get a shot your happy with and even then, quite often, there’s still a nagging feeling, ‘ I wonder if I could get it better given slightly different conditions’. And other times it all comes together relatively easily, first attempt, done and dusted. At times though, it can be quite discouraging and I find various ways to motivate myself. I try to always learn from the times when it doesn’t work and I often learn more from these occasions than when it all goes right. You begin to see how very slightly differing lighting and atmospheric conditions can make or break a shot. For me photography is very practical. The more you get out there and practice the better you will become. We might theoretically understand why a scene, side lit by the low contrast light of dawn will produce a more pleasing image, but until we’ve actually seen it, and seen it quite a few times, it largely remains just theory. So my advice is, just get out there and go for it. Be determined to get the shots you want and don’t stop until you do. Oh, and don’t forget to bend your knees.