Wednesday, August 10

A wild affair: developing a passion for photography and nature | Photography

HEnri Cartier-Bresson had a simple maxim about the craft that she had so thoroughly mastered. “Your first 10,000 photos are the worst,” he would tell the novice snappers. And as the years have passed, I have begun to find comfort in his advice. I started holding a camera a long time ago and I think now I’m getting close to the magic Cartier-Bresson quota. Based on your arithmetic, I will soon come off the lowest rung on the photography ladder and advance to the worst ranking. Things can only get better.

And I can’t deny that I’ve shot a lot of poorly focused and awkwardly framed images in my time. The fuzzy negatives in my files confirm that sad fact. However, as the years have passed, I have also produced some decent photographs that have given me a sense of fulfillment and, at times, the satisfaction of seeing my efforts in print. I have found that mastering an acceptable image is a nice business.

Two puffins in the Inner Hebrides.
Feathered Friends … Robin’s photo of the puffins in the Inner Hebrides. Photography: Robin McKie

Photography brings other rewards, of course. To begin with, I now have records of so many episodes in my life: from my first days as a mountaineer in Scotland, to the birth of my children and my travels to distant lands in Scotland. Observer assignments. It is a treasure trove of images that make my memories tangible, a pleasure that can now be achieved by anyone with a decent camera on their smartphone. These have simplified the business of sharing records.

However, photography is more than simply documenting the passage of life. First of all, there’s the simple physical satisfaction you get from learning to master your camera – learning to balance film speed, aperture, and shutter speed, for example. In this way, you can tailor the needs of your subject, whether it is a fast-moving animal or a moody lighting portrait or landscape full of detail, to produce a striking image – one that is more than just a record of an event. Understanding these basic concepts is essential and mastering them brings its own fulfillment.

a cheetah.
Well seen … a cheetah in South Africa. Photography: Robin McKie

The search for better and better images also brings momentum and purpose to the way you spend your free time. This has been particularly true in recent years, as I have become increasingly interested in photographing UK wildlife, an impulse that has taken me to parts of the British Isles that I would have never otherwise visited.

My efforts to photograph the otter are a good example. Frustrated by every attempt to get close to one in England, I decided to visit a place that is remarkably teeming with species: Shetland. And after a long, initially frustrating day with a wildlife guide, I was rewarded with the sight of a lone female frolicking near me on the seashore for over half an hour. It was glorious.

Then I had time to look at Shetland, a hauntingly beautiful place, I discovered, and found the Broch of Mousa, one of the most remarkable buildings in Britain. Built 2,000 years ago, this imposing Iron Age round house, whose double-clad stone walls contain an internal curved stone staircase, is among the best-preserved ancient buildings in Europe – a beautifully constructed, low-rise monument, that rises out of the mist and whose purpose defies precise historical facts. Explanation.

By far, the island of Mousa has one of the world’s largest colonies of European storm petrels and their screeching and choppy adds an eerie soundtrack to my visit. If I hadn’t chosen to tackle my first photographic lens, I wouldn’t have been through this dazzling experience, and that’s the real satisfaction I get from photography. It drives me.

Robin McKie and pals hill walking in Meall Glas, Perthshire, in 1976.
Frozen in time … Robin McKie and friends walking down the hill at Meall Glas, Perthshire, in 1976. Photography: Robin McKie

Capturing wildlife in action is especially satisfying. Your subjects are completely unpredictable, often infuriatingly, but occasionally rewarding, when a recalcitrant bird of prey or elusive dragonfly flits into your viewfinder at the right time. From this perspective, photography is therapy, right down to capturing the South London herons and cormorants in Brockwell Park and the woodpeckers that visited my garden in Brixton at the close of last year.

However, I should add a coda to this photo eulogy. There are times when you have to ignore the camera around your neck and just watch what unfolds in front of you. I had the privilege of witnessing the rocket launches in Florida, Kazakhstan and French Guiana and every time I photographed each spacecraft, from lift-off to its disappearance into the upper atmosphere, in a shooting frenzy. I have some satisfying footage, but only now do I realize that, for once, I simply should have seen the entire impressive experience of humanity moving towards the skies without attempting to capture it on film.

So yes, take many, many pictures, but sometimes pause and just look. Rest is worth it, once in a while.

How to do it

The range of photography lessons available online is now so wide that it can be taught by people like Vanity fair portrait photographer Annie leibovitz or fashion cover photographer Tyler mitchell without leaving your sofa. Master class it has a lot to answer for. If you want a less star-studded teacher, there are courses available at London University of the Arts Y the photographer’s gallery. Also look at the The Royal Photographic Society website that has a lot of information on qualifications and training. Red eye is a non-profit society that offers advice and information to photographers around the world.

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