Month: October 2015

A level Playing Field?

The local camera club has an annual Youth Photography Competition.

This year there were prizes for First, Second and Third place, with four Highly Commended photos.  Over twenty young people entered the competition, including five of my pupils.

My pupils entered ten photographs, and got two prizes and all four Highly Commended.

That’s pretty good.  To reiterate – they won all but one of the prizes – six out of a possible seven.

The same thing happened last year, where they won five out of a possible six prizes.

I’ve written before about how we tackle competitions (A Winning Formula) and if you’ve read that blog you’ll know that the point I wrote it  we did not know the final outcome of the competition I was referring to. It was, in fact, the Amnesty International Youth Awards, and my pupil came second. This year, two more of my pupils entered, and were short-listed to the final ten.

We’re pretty good at this.


The prize my pupils failed to win this year, and last year, in the local camera club competition was the top prize. Last year we put it down to bad judging (well, we would, wouldn’t we!). This year, well that was different. The winning shot was very, very good. So, where’s the problem?

As a brief aside, here’s a quote from Portfolio 24 of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

“You can tell the animal’s feelings from the look in the eye, the way the fur lies and ears move” The photo, by Leon Petrinos, is a low angle portrait of a cheetah, taken  on a Nikon D800 plus a 200-400 F4 lens. Leon’s camera and lens cost around £4000.

At the time the photo was taken, Leon was eight years old!

Take an eight year old child on an expensive photo safari to the Masai Mara, let him use one of the best DSLR cameras on the market, and see the prizes mount up.

The local camera club recently had a club evening demonstrating a SplashArt Water Drop Photography Kit. This a great bit of kit that allows the user to photograph splashes and water collisions by controlling both the water droplets and the camera. Set it up correctly and it simply is just a matter of time before you produce something very, very good. If you’ve got a use for one, they cost around £180 – they really are fun, but a bit out of the price range of my pupils.

After the competition judging, I casually asked the name of the kit the winning photographer had used to take his winning photo of water droplets. Curiously, he couldn’t remember.

So, two obvious points can be made. Firstly technology can make a huge difference. Secondly, in youth competitions, particularly, other people’s knowledge, experience and equipment can be used to obtain a result that the young person could not have achieved alone.

For my pupil who came third, I can honestly say that I’d never seen the photo before the competition, but it was well executed and had a comedic element that the pupil is developing very well. In the case of my pupil who came second, I had seen the image, because I was there when she took the photograph. She saw it before me, and got the image before I’d realised how good it would look, to my initial annoyance.  With her eight year old camera worth £100, she nailed the shot.

I once saw a brilliant shot of an otter by the wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. Taken in light rain, but good lighting, the otter was running towards the camera across vivid green grass. At the point the image was made all four of his feet were off the ground, but his running had caused a spray of droplets to each side of him. It was quite simple the best photo of an otter I’d ever seen.

A few months later I thought I’d seen the same shot in a photographic competition, but it wasn’t – not quite. It was the same otter, the same lighting, the same spray, but taken from a different angle, and of course, Rouse had not taken it. The judge enthused about the photograph, pointing out how difficult it would have been to take a shot of such a rare animal. He applauded the use of light, the use of angle, the timing. He loved it, and it won the competition.

Knowing exactly where these photographs were taken, I can image Rouse telling the people on his photography course, ‘Wait, wait, wait ….. now!’ as the captive animal is allowed to run to its fish prize.

When I teach my pupils to write essays, I stress the importance of not plagiarising other people’s work. In an academic essay it is very simply cheating to steal the thoughts of another and pass them off as your own. In photography, it’s fine to be inspired by someone else’s work. We all learn by copying to some extent. I’ve learnt a huge amount by looking at exhibitions, attending to talks, and paying close attention to the feedback of judges. Having learnt by observing, I try it myself; to learn by doing.

On the blog below, ‘Girl on Fire!’ the pupils had to have guidance on exposure and safety, but other than that they worked independently, choosing their own angles and framing, varying their initial exposures to get different effects; learning in a experiential way. This seems to me the natural way to learn the craft of photography.

Learn as much as you can. Take from every photographic experience everything you can to make yourself a better photographer. Hang on every word and gesture of those who are teaching you, but if you’re going to enter competitions, own the work. Anyone can press a button on an expensive (or indeed any) camera. Anyone can eventually get a great image when the kit you don’t know how to use does the job for you. Anyone standing next to a great photographer, in an artificial and repeatable setting can produce something that they would not be able to do on their own.

But to actually own it, to be able to say, hand on heart, ‘I did this. This is my work’, well; that is something a bit different. Something a bit more valuable.

Girl On Fire!

‘What would you normally be doing now?’

‘Sitting in my bedroom looking at Youtube or playing Minecraft.’

‘Would you rather be doing that?’

‘No, I’d rather be here.’

In this case ‘here’ was at the top of Coombe Hill in Buckinghamshire at the monument to commemorate the Buckinghamshire soldiers who were killed in the Second Boer War. In was dark. It was raining. It was mild, but getting colder.

Four pupils, an art teacher, assorted parents (some with dogs), and me.

We played music. We danced with sparklers. We burnt wire wool. We photographed the lights of the town below us. I lost my car keys!

Then we tried something new.

The purpose of all the photographs we’d taken to that point was to sort out the technical issues as we’d only get one chance.

We chucked a few things around to make sure that our ‘safe zone’ was really safe, then we moved back some more and zoomed in, focussing on a torch left lying on the ground.

So, all the kid’s cameras were sorted out. They were bolted to a variety of tripods. At 400 ISO, we’d found that about 4 seconds at F11 gave us the exposure, and more importantly the ‘look’, that we were after.

The new thing that we were photographing was someone (the art teacher) skipping. Just that, a long exposure shot of someone skipping. Of course, the skipping rope was unlikely to show up in the dark, so we doused it in paraffin and set fire to it with a blow torch. (Perhaps a strange Christmas present for a fourteen year old boy, but as that’s what his mum bought him, we fired it up.)

The resulting shot – Girl On Fire!

Photographing skipping at night.

Photographing skipping at night.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

My last blog was on the state of photographic education in schools compared to attending workshops.

It received about 300 views in 24 hours and generated a large number of comments.

Teachers whinged and whined that I clearly do not understand photography. It doesn’t matter how the image’s produced, it’s the image that counts. Use a ‘phone, steal an image, collage other people’s work. It’s all good. Camera controls? They’re for the anally retentive  train-spotters who believe that craft is superior to taking short cuts.

Equally, ‘photographers’ whinged and whined that as ‘creatives’, photographers were somehow exempt from the requirements of true occupations. Rattle off a bunch of images on high speed then play with them on the computer. White balance? Who needs to understand that stuff when you’ve got photoshop.

Modern cameras are very, very good. In real terms photography has never been cheaper.

This has led in schools to the idea that grades can be improved by taking pupils with limited talent and letting them loose with some really quite good technology.

As great cameras have got cheaper and easier, photography as a hobby has been opened up to a whole tranche of people who simply would not have had the ability or patience to learn how to use a camera half a century ago.

And yet, despite all this, I see the’ straight out of camera’ masterpieces of  Bruce Smith. The Yerbury’s continue to produce, on a variety of equipment including large format film, utterly stunning work. And Damian McGillicuddy continues to amaze me with images produced with incredible technology.

And then I look at the kids I teach. Those amazing young minds full of ideas, who stop me in the corridor to ask the most random, yet insightful questions. Can we fire a flare in school? (No). Can we freeze  movement to a fraction of the highest shutter speed of our cameras? (Yes). Can we try the Brenizer method? (Maybe – if the school computers can handle it).

Around me I see photography teachers who can’t take photographs, and photographers who know nothing about photography.

But I also see inspiring artists who really know what they are doing. Artists, who have the craft of photography in their very DNA.

More importantly, for me, I see a bunch of kids who really inspire me and make it worthwhile turning up for school in the morning. OK, we have a budget of zero, and no-one gets what we’re doing most of the time, and yes, we’re let down time after time, but these kids are learning about the world around them in a unique way.

So frankly, I’m trying to stop caring about the things I can’t change.  I’ll let the art, media and English teachers convince themselves that by knowing nothing about a camera, they’re experts on photography. Likewise, I’ll try to ignore the sense of entitlement that last year’s hobbyists have acquired through ‘likes’ on facebook and instagram. I’ll continue to learn from those that truly know what they’re doing, and I’ll continue to teach those kids that  truly want to learn.

A education in Photography?

I’ve just been given a ‘head’s up’ about a photography talk.

In this talk, among other things, the speaker will attack teaching photography in schools, colleges and universities, advocating instead the use of youtube and, of course, expensive workshops.

My first reaction to this can be summed up in one word – rage!

I simply cannot see that workshops are equivalent to actual education. Monkey see, monkey do, monkey shell out a lot of cash to someone whose only motivation is profit.

I rage because I see it as another example of the devaluing of education, and the practise of teaching. I seethe because many of these ‘university of life’ photographers actually consider themselves to be ‘professional’ without any understanding of what real professionals have to go through to achieve that status.

But on the other hand I have students who come to me and say that they are not actually learning photography in their schools and colleges at all. They’re learning art, but with a ‘camera’. The speech marks are there because not even having a camera is acceptable. as long as you have a ‘phone.

GCSE and A level specifications are, in fact Art and Design specifications. But this is a ‘painting by numbers’ type of art where understanding of the medium runs a very poor second to getting a pleasing image. And it has to be this way, because their art (sorry, photography) teachers aren’t photographers, haven’t ever shot a commercial job, and would be very hard pushed to even know there was a difference between depth of field and depth of focus, let alone explain it.

Now, of course, this is a generalisation and over-simplification. There are some very knowledgeable teachers of photography who understand the technology and the maths involved in making images.

My point, however, is that photography as a subject (at least to A level) has been stripped of technical content to the point that is no longer worthy of the name. Teachers do not have to be photographers to get students to pass, and many students that do pass, have no skills that would be useful as working photographers.

These things play into the hands of the ‘workshop’ operators. There is only so much that you can learn in a day (or even three). Yes, they’re fun and you can come away with a memory card of lovely images, but they lead to inevitable conclusions.

Firstly, you do not have to study – you just attend a workshop. Secondly, and following – photographic education is a waste of time. Thirdly, photographic teachers are useless.

I can’t blame any school which wishes to raise its exam pass rate. I can’t blame any teacher who is made to teach a subject that they know little (or nothing) about. I do have serious doubts about creating specifications that are so dumb-down that make these scenarios possible, however.

My real rage, however, is directed to anyone and everyone who does not immediately recognise the significance of √2.