Managing the unmanageable?

Expectations that is. I’ve been around long enough to remember when a crested tit momentarily alighting on a branch was enough to justify a week-long investment in one of our photo-tours. In what seems like just a few short years, such a fleeting opportunity is no longer enough. In fact, it’s nowhere near enough. We live in an age where expectations have changed beyond recognition, and I hear lots of photographers and workshop providers – and I guess I include myself here – bemoaning the demands placed upon them to deliver fulfilling experiences to their paying guests. But you know, we only have ourselves to blame.

We flaunt our best images across the internet like designer labels and of course in these days of instant communication they get seen. And once seen the race is on to replicate. Any shot of a sea eagle ten years ago would have been a major scoop, but now most – in spite of their technical brilliance – are met with apathy. So those photographers who have paraded their stunning images of sea eagles, red kites and grey seals – they’re to blame for cranking up expectations. And I’m one of them.

But something else has changed, something a tad more worrying in my book. Unrealistic expectations can easily be fuelled by shortcomings in subject knowledge. I’ve been asked more than once by tour guests about photographing ospreys in February (they spend the winter in West Africa), and many other occasions where a lack of understanding of the difficulties in photographing wildlife in northern Europe has lead to disappointment as expectations inevitably go unfulfilled. So perhaps in addition to putting people in front of wildlife subjects as best we can; in addition to talking them through the technical and aesthetic approach to wildlife photography, we should be working harder to provide a broader knowledge base which will create a new generation of not only top-notch photographers but of top-notch nature advocates. To me the two things are inseparable but I may well be in the minority.

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7 thoughts on “Managing the unmanageable?

  1. Peter, what a great blog post and one which addresses the issues many of us face who provide photo opportunity workshops for photographers of wildlife. I’m actually quite appalled by the general lack of natural history knowledge for dare I say it a large percentage of my workshop participants (that’s 10 less bookings instantly for me this year) but a hard fact. The old adage is true “become a better nature photographer, firstly become a better naturalist.”

    WOW! Amazing Osprey image….. one of the best.

    Regards, Geoff Simpson

  2. Peter,

    I would have thought that the main reason that people take up wildlife photography was due to their love of nature (it was for me!) and would know a bit about the animals before they photographed them?
    Surely the first thing one should do is research a bit about your subject; You wouldn’t catch a sports photographer turning up at Old Trafford at 09:00 on a Monday morning expecting to recreate a photo they’d seen in the papers at the weekend!

    I think one of the reasons that people pay to go on photography tours is the opportunity to learn from an expert , and not just how to use their cameras and compose photographs, but also to be shown good locations and get insider tips (all things that you have accumulated over the years that you have been doing this.). Nowadays access to information is instant and people want to be told these things without putting the effort/time in, and expect to come away with an award winning shot as well.

    I am studying for a MA in wildlife documentary production at the moment and our first semester mainly consisted with learning about biodiversity and animal behaviour, as well as research skills and storytelling. The degree is basically teaching us the skills to enable us to produce films about whatever we want, rather than spoonfeeding us a list of camera settings to use, and great locations to film.

    It may be worth sending out a “suggested reading” list to people who enroll on your tours and point out that a good knowledge of their behaviour will improve their chances of getting good photographs. Perhaps people don’t realise that it may have taken you months of searching to find the perfect grouse lek, or weeks of observation and a lot of luck to be in the right position for the osprey shot. Maybe you should emphasise that alongside technique and gear, there is also a lot of dedication and fieldcraft required if you are to be a good wildlife photographer.

    Cheers, Ben

  3. Nail hit firmly on the head!
    The ability to travel anywhere in the world,a wide array of companies offering an exotic range of species, all you need is the money and bang your a wildlife photographer! You can photographic pretty much anything these days and not need any knowledge of the subject or the fieldcraft to approach it without disturbance, its a double edged sword, yes the pros can put the time in and get the shots but in publishing them they are showing what can be achieved and this is what the paying customer will come to expect, would the customer be prepared to pay for a course that includes fieldcraft skils / use of hides / subject knowledge
    etc, I for one would like to think so but out of choice how many people take the easy option?

  4. Spot on Peter.
    I spent 40 years exploring the Highlands and watching wildlife before I picked up a camera seriously. (You may remember when!!) Potential clients are inspired by images from the pros and ” imitation is the sincerest …etc. etc”. We live in a time of seeking instant gratification and that is what many expect (although they wouldn’t always admit it). My best pictures have usually come from hours outdoors either in Scotland or on extended periods abroad getting to know subjects’ behaviour and environment. However, tours and courses offer an opportunity to educate clients and to wean them from false expectations; and business is business!

  5. Thanks Guys,
    It’s now struck me that this post might come across as a criticism of tour guests in general – that wasn’t my intention. I really wanted to make the point that for our community, subject knowledge provides the foundation for realistic expectations and is therefore a valuable asset.
    I really do hope that contrary to Craig’s perceptions, personal affluence doesn’t become the criteria for the next generation of image makers – that’s surely not good for nature photography and it’s not good for society at large.

    Challenging times!

  6. Hi Guys

    Derek I think you’ve hit the spot with the instant gratification comment,Pete I for one hope that your right , I just hope that the next generation of photographers understand that you don’t need to spend lots of money on overseas travel and foreign subjects and that we have a huge range of under photographed species right here in the UK I, think your mountain yomps hit the mark with the difficulty and unpredicatability of the subject matter and on every visit nothing is guaranteed, its a case of what do the guests expect from a tour/workshop and does knowledge / experience matter , I know that hide etiquette is a big thing and has been discussed before, should you let people who have no experience for sitting for long periods of time in a bear/wolf hide at the risk of others not getting the shot?
    A difficult one I know and not one I have an answer for!

  7. “would the customer be prepared to pay for a course that includes fieldcraft skils / use of hides / subject knowledge?”

    As a customer (I have been for dutch nature photographers): yes I would and yes I will. I have taken one-one workshops and I took those to lean about fieldcraft, learn how to shoot from a hide, how to set-up a hide.
    Subject knowledge I usually find in a book or online. Knowing your subject will help getting good shots. I learned that a while ago, luckily early on, and I have seen that understanding an animal aids to my photography.
    But even I, as a non professional can see what you mean. A lot of people shoot to score or to increase their list. I go to a few lecture each year, to hear professionals talk about their way of photography, what drives them. I like hearing them speak about their work with passion, it is much better than just watching a slideshow on their webpage.
    The number one question that is always asked to them at the end: “what kind of gear do you use” keeps amazing me. The man just stood there and talked about passion, feeling and seeing the shot before making it. The new large group of nature photographers does not think like the professionals. Maybe that is not so bad, this differences between you and them makes sure you can make a living out of photography.

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