Worth grousing about

As the lekking season draws nearer, Mark Hamblin talks about his long-term love affair with black grouse.

I have a love-hate relationship with black grouse. Mostly, I love them. The hate bit comes in when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and drive for an hour and stomp across a wet moorland in the dark to sit in a cold hide. Continue reading “Worth grousing about”

“A retrenchment to core activities”

August 1998. It was a nervous morning as Mark Hamblin and I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee like it was going out of fashion, awaiting the arrival of our first guest on our first photo tour in our first year of collaboration. We had no track record, no model on which to base the tour content and no idea how we would be received. By late afternoon the now familiar Wing-and-a-Prayer approach kicked in and somehow we seemed to pull it off. Continue reading ““A retrenchment to core activities””

Why do we take pictures?

One way or another it seems we’re all battling to have our voices heard – or images seen – amongst a growing hubbub, a throng of vulturine media. Competition is taking its toll on many established pros. New ideas don’t stay new for very long; fresh approaches aren’t fresh at all once you start digging and conservation photography, that very laudable idea that visual imagery can contribute to societal values, has in some cases, become the latest photographic bandwagon: a trendy claim to justify self-indulgence. It’s all so damned difficult.

So where is professional nature photography heading? Well, that’s probably a subject for a six-part blockbuster blog, and even if I knew the answer – which I don’t – I’m not sure it addresses my current thought processes. So let’s just stop and think and strip it all back to basics.

Reading David Noton’s piece in a recent edition of Outdoor Photography, I was struck by the simple truth that our pursuit of photographic trophies – those images you can hold aloft and shout about – really isn’t the end in itself but the means to the end. Without the drive that all photographers have to some degree, to secure the images we want, in all likelihood we wouldn’t find ourselves stood on a coastal headland at daft o’clock or freezing your wotsits off in a Scottish blizzard or being so close to a bear that you can smell its rancid breath. These experiences are the real trophies; these are the memories that will etch themselves on your soul for ever – the camera is just the excuse for being there.

So is it just about having fun? In some cases most definitely but I’m not yet 100% sold on that notion – perhaps I just don’t wear frivolity very comfortably. That said, my perspective has changed in recent years. Photography allows us, perhaps forces us, to see the world differently and certainly the experiences I’ve been afforded from standing behind a camera, have shaped what I think, what I feel, what I am. As I reluctantly approach the half-century mark, I’ve learned that the most valuable asset I own is not my image archive but my memory archive, the one stored in my minds eye.

The face of change.

A meeting with colleagues this last week proved to be a tad dispiriting with talk of rapid and widespread change within the business of nature photography. Stock sales are in massive decline, tours are more difficult to sell and print sales are almost non-existent – all traditional revenue streams. There is undoubtedly increased demand for nature imagery but this is countered by the massive upsurge in supply over recent years. Everyone it seems, wants to be a nature photographer (who can blame them) and the market is knocking at the door of saturation. The spectre of image fatigue also hangs in the air – it’s simply more challenging than ever to elicit a reaction from an audience perpetually bombarded with top-class material. Factor in economic uncertainty and I’d like to meet the photographer who disagrees that times are tough.

So what of the future? What of the keen young fellow I met recently who was desperate to give up his (well paid) day job to follow his dream of becoming a photographer? Two years ago I’d have had a good stab at answering these questions – I’m less sure now.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Think Harry Potter. No, I tell you what, think Billy Elliott or Bridget Jones. All great films. All absorbing entertainment. The former perhaps relies on outrageous budgets but the latter two are just simple tales: stories. We love stories – as a species I mean. We’re hard-wired for stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re in book form or in 3D wraparound film format. A good story is always in demand – always will be (think Jackanory if you’re old enough).

And let’s face it, nature offers story-telling photographers untold material – we just have to package that material and importantly, make sure our stories are told. And therein lies the future I think. There are plenty of photographers who have something to say and then there are the few who know how to say it. In a volatile marketplace that’s perhaps the crux of it, and I for one, retain my optimism for a future that might look very different but will still welcome the modern-day yarn-spinner.

Juggling the kitchenware.

Plate-spinning is a clever thing. When done well it looks easy. But it’s not just a question of calculating speed and angles, it’s the ability to focus intently on several events running simultaneously. I plate spin every day and every day there is more ceramic set in motion and consequently more potential for a major calamity.

It’s been a hugely busy period with the (almost) completion of the Caledonia book, researching and designing new photo-tours, commissioning a major web site update and coordinating the not insignificant 2020VISION project. Oh, and trying to make the most of the fantastic weather with my camera!

So what’s my point? Well the other day I was checking some of our photo-tour brochures and I came across our Career Counselling service ( I say ‘our’; it was designed and is delivered by Niall Benvie) and was wondering what sort of advice we should offer to the aspiring photographer. Well certainly dedication; without doubt resolve, and perhaps the ability to accept rejection…repeatedly. But perhaps more than anything – and this doesn’t just apply to nature photography – we need to learn to plate spin; to keep lots of different facets of our lives on the boil. You need to be good at different things – and all at the same time. I admire great plate spinners and have to admit to a bit of the green-eyed monster as I don’t do it nearly as well as many. I have long concluded however, that successful (and I’m never quite sure how that is defined) nature photography has got less and less to do with your ability behind the camera. So don’t be tempted to put all your eggs in that particular basket…or on that plate. Have to be off now – a bit of a mess to sweep up off the kitchen floor.

Sex on 4 legs…or 2 wings.

I know I’m not alone in search of the holy grail that is mainstream acceptance of the natural history image. Yes I know that conservation is more ‘popular’ than ever and that greetings cards of robins sell by the truckload. I’ve even noticed the trend for well established camera operators to become presenters, such is the appetite of a growing audience for contact with nature – virtual or otherwise.

But let’s be honest: it’s not mainstream, not really. Very little of what I or my contemporaries do, ever gets noticed beyond a very small niche audience. We’re simply not sexy enough. And so it was with great surprise (and cautious delight) that I picked up a copy of HELLO magazine recently (left at our holiday cottage I’ll have you know). Amongst all the glitz and the obscene conspicuous consumerism of the great and the good, an image from the Wild Wonders of Europe collection – yes, a natural history photograph in HELLO magazine! Right in there alongside a more than generous serving of designer-clad celebs sporting the latest shade of orange skin pigment.

So my quest for 2011 is to give thought (or should I say ‘more thought’) into translating this faint ember of hope into a raging inferno. Conservation has been historically conservative in its quest to sell itself. Perhaps 2011 is the year for nature photographers to prostitute ourselves; to do whatever it takes to be seen; to be conspicuous; to be less worthy; to make our subjects sexy.

Any ideas? A very safe and contented New Year to one and all.

At a crossroads?

Niall Benvie’s blog is always a thought-provoking retreat (click here to read) and often allows me a cup of tea, a digestive and 5 mins. of escapism along an interesting road of parallel thinking.  In his latest post he discusses the ever-changing definition of ‘nature photography’.

The range of responses underlines our need to pigeon-hole this particular genre of imagery, something that both bemuses and frustrates me personally.

More and more photographers are thinking not about what they shoot and how they shoot it, but about what they DO with their images; how they package their product. I’m not convinced of the need to define nature photography, but of the need for it to work on behalf of its subjects. Let’s not get too hung up about what it is, let’s channel our energies into exposing our work to our audience. If in doing so we move them on an emotional level, I for one don’t care what we call it.