I bought my first camera when I was 18. Photography is in my blood, from both sides of the family, and it was the most natural thing in the world to do. That was back in the age of analog photography: cameras didn’t have an automatic setting, and there was no instant feedback on your shot. Later, breathing the chemical fumes of the darkroom, I would watch in dismay as my perfect shot turned out to be over- or underexposed, or poorly focused. It was a challenge to get a decent photo, let alone a superb photo, like those of my idol Ansel Adams.
My work wasn’t bad; I had an innate sense of composition and a desire to share my love of nature and the state of society through evocative images. But I was untrained and surrounded by photographers with much more training and experience than I had. So, gradually, I turned into the sort of person who makes good travel and family albums. Until my retirement a few years ago, when I rediscovered my old passion and started expressing my love of nature through photos.
In the meantime, digital photography and other technological developments have made good photography widely accessible to anyone who has the money and interest to buy decent equipment. Even mobile phones produce images I would have been jealous of 50 years ago. Nature photography has become an immensely popular hobby. I prefer calling it an art and a passion to calling it a hobby, however.
And what I have observed, both in myself and others, is the difficulty to keep a healthy balance between three distinct aspects of the art, which I will call Stuff, Skills, and Soul.
‘Stuff’: the seduction of more and better equipment
Let me be very clear about this. Using good equipment makes a difference. Recently I rented a professional-grade telephoto lens (‘big glass’) for a day of bird photography. I immediately noticed the difference in clarity and that lovely, buttery background blur we refer to as ‘bokeh.’ And the tempter whispered in my ear, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a lens like this?” It might be… if I were a dedicated specialist in bird and wildlife photography.
Ten years ago, I was still using 300 – 400 euro cameras. Gradually, I grew dissatisfied and traded them in for higher speed, higher resolution, more color dynamics, finer optics, etc. My hunger grew. I did notice the difference, and my work showed the difference. But do I have the will-power to confine my hunger to that which matches my specific needs and my level of skill?
What distresses me is that I often encounter photographers in the field carrying professional-grade equipment who still use the automatic settings on their cameras. Or who ask the most experienced member of the group what settings he uses and duplicates those. Good photography is not just a matter of buying the right equipment and going to the right locations.
Skills: levels of competence
Many of the great nature and wildlife photographers I admire will say that technique is highly overvalued. And, in a way, they’re right. A technically perfect photo isn’t necessarily a good photo and a technically imperfect photo of the right subject at the right moment can take your breath away. But these photographers have developed their skills to the point that they’re no longer aware of how technically competent they are.
In my last blog I mentioned the four levels of competence: unconsciously incompetent – consciously incompetent – consciously competent – and unconsciously competent.
Last year, I became painfully aware that I was making mistakes that could be avoided if I were willing to get some proper training. In that stage of conscious incompetence, photography became a struggle, and all I could see was that my photos weren’t good enough. So I started working with professional photographers, learning from them and listening to what they thought was important to the art.
The learning curve has been high, and I’m happy I’ve had enough time to absorb and put into practice everything I learn. Gradually, I’m becoming consciously competent.
Soul: what do you photograph and why?
My first instructor in this new learning spree of mine was the American wildlife photographer Melissa Groo. Like her Dutch colleague, Jasper Doest, Melissa is a conservationist photographer. Her work is about making people aware of birds and wildlife and the need to protect them against an increasingly invasive human environment. To her, the most important thing about wildlife photography is to learn about one’s subject and treat the wildlife you photograph ethically, with respect and dignity
I also wanted beautiful, evocative images of wildlife. Last fall I longed for the perfect shot of a rutting stag against the early morning mists… until I saw hundreds of photographers lined up, ready to take the exact same shot. I went to the Dutch dunes to catch sight of the beautiful red fox, only to see a horde of photographers literally chasing a fox who had come begging for food.
These images are touted as wildlife photography, as are images of baited raptors and kingfishers. Is baiting wildlife for a photo ethical? The arguments for and against this practice are heated. But many top wildlife photographers announce with pride that their images are not baited. And, in the meantime, images of rutting stags and sniffing foxes flood the internet. Is this what I want with my photography?
One of my most successful images of the past year is this compelling portrait of a lynx. I’m very proud of it. However, it was not taken in the wild; I did not have to stalk the lynx for hours (though I did have to trudge through deep snow) to get the photo. It was taken at Polar Park Wildlife Sanctuary in Norway, and the lynx was accustomed to the presence of humans. I would not be allowed to use it in many competitions that do permit the use of baited images.
Authenticity is one of my core values. I will (and have done so in the past) walk away from things that I feel no longer reflect what I believe. My photography, if it is to be a creative reflection of my love of nature, must be a unique and authentic reflection of that love. And so slowly, with the help of photographers like Theo Bosboom and Bob Luijks, I’ve started exploring what drives me as a photographer and where my unique, authentic voice is in all this.
So this article, at the end of a year of learning and developing as a nature photographer, expresses my thoughts on photography and photographers today. I see a lot of photographers carrying Stuff, who either neglect the development of their Skills or photograph without Soul (or both). For myself, I wish to achieve a balance between all three.
I’m sorry the article turned out as long as it did. I guess I’m making up for the fact that I will be absent for the next month or so. So this is the last blog posting of 2016. I will be back in 2017.