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 https://bap2blog.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/a-winning-formula/ 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.

But…………

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.

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