Last Updated: 10-3-2021 21:08

Documentary photography: Not a competition image, but it made it made the national news.
Documentary photography: Not a competition image, but it made it made the national news.

Between July and December of 2020, Lightroom tells me that I took 448 photos. The actual number might be slightly higher as there will have been deletions, but this is still fewer than three images a day on average, and this total includes quick snapshots taken on my phone.

Over 400 images in six months might sound like quite a few, but almost a third of them come from less than a half dozen events, meaning that the rest of the time I’ve captured fewer than two images a day, and indeed I’ve sometimes gone over a week at a time without using my camera.

In some parts of the world, it would be possible to write off my lack of photographic motivation as being a consequence of Covid-19, but here in NZ, it’s a bit harder to justify, as lockdown came and went long before this time period. What Covid-19 did change for me, was my perspective on why and what I want to photograph.

Finding your photographic niche

Club photography tends to revolve quite a lot around creative effects both in-camera and via post-processing with Photoshop or other software. As I mentioned in my previous President’s Blog, I’ve been drawn increasingly to documentary photography, with the end result being that I’ve found creative fine-art photography less and less appealing to me. I still really appreciate a well executed creative image by someone else, but with the occasional exception, I find myself getting less and less enjoyment out of creating this kind of image myself.

I first got interested in photography as a teenager, and in my final year at Marlborough Boys’ College, I spent quite a bit of time photographing school events, in addition to providing written contributions to the school annual, the Marlburian. The reality is my interest in combining written commentary and imagery hasn’t changed since I was a teenager, but it’s taken a while to realise that this is where my true passion lies.

I’ve been a member of the camera club continuously since 2012, (I was also a member very briefly way back in the 1990s), and I’ve worked my way up from C grade to A grade in that time, with a noticeable improvement in my photographic skills over that time. Over the last couple of years though, my photography has stagnated a bit even though I have far more capable equipment now than when I first joined the club, partly because of my responsibilities as a member of the committee, but also because although I know the kind of images that will earn honours or merits from judges, increasingly, these aren’t actually the kind of images that I want to create. I’ve spoken to at least one other experienced club member who’s expressed similar frustration, although what they enjoy creating is something completely different to me. I think this does highlight an issue of how to keep photographers with such a wide range of interests and skill levels engaged. I don’t think anyone can expect to get everything their own way, and there needs to be a bit of give and take by all members. If there’s too much of a focus on beginners, experienced photographers will get bored and leave, but if there’s too much of a focus on advanced photography, beginners will be overwhelmed and leave. The monthly set subjects are certainly a good way to take yourself out of your comfort zone, which is also why set subject images, (with the exception of natural history and landscape, which earn no points), gain more points than open images. The issue for me isn’t so much being taken out of my comfort zone, as I had to do this to advance through the grades, but now that I’ve proven that I can do it, the excitement has worn off. What do you do to keep yourself motivated with your photography? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

The value of a good critique

Over the time I’ve been a club member, I’ve never been mentored by anyone else in the club, and I’ve figured out camera functions for myself. What I have found incredibly valuable has been the critique of images, both my own and other people’s. Sometimes I’ve vehemently disagreed with judges’ opinions, but thinking about why I agree or disagree has helped me develop a better sense of how to make a pleasing image.

I think most members would agree that image critiques are really useful, however if the number of images submitted in a month grows, then judges can get unhappy, and club nights can drag on too late for many people, so the club needs to find a way to keep photo critiques sustainable.

The pros and cons of peer review

I participate in some web based photo forums that offer a similar format to the club’s monthly competitions, however I’ve noticed when people are judging their peers, often they’re cautious about offering any constructive criticism, and tend to praise an image they like, but say nothing about images that have room for improvement.

If the club keeps growing and members want to keep submitting images in the volumes there have been lately, it may become necessary to consider some sort of peer based critique of at least some member images. Back when I was competition secretary for six years, I got to see all the member entries before they went off to judges, and although I never dared say anything, it was always fun to do a mental critique myself, and then find out later whether that was in agreement with the judge or not. Peer review could be a mixed bag. Comments like ‘I love it’, with no explanation, or ‘This is a piece of #@!@’ with no explanation would be totally unhelpful, but if members give at least one thing they like about an image and one area for improvement, it could be a great way for collaborative learning. As someone who’s become a bit jaded about the whole competition thing, even if I’m not so enthusiastic about actually entering any more, at least this would provide something fun and interactive, that could also benefit other members.

Just to be clear, the committee hasn’t made any definite decisions around how competitions might change yet, as if there are six of us in a meeting, there are probably seven opinions, however something needs to change, otherwise members will drop off either at the experienced or beginner level or both, neither of which is good for the club.

And now for something completely different...

The absurdities of Monty Python might actually make quite a good theme for a monthly competition, but that’s not actually what I had in mind here. Instead I thought I’d mention some fun I’ve been having with a new software tool I purchased late last year.

Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that photography revolves around Canon, Nikon, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. While these might be dominant players in the photography industry, they’re certainly not the only ones. Towards the end of last year, on the recommendation of a friend, I took advantage of a promotion, and purchased a license to DxO Photolab (link). Photolab is a raw processor along the lines of Lightroom, but in some respects leaves Lightroom for dead. Anyone who’s worked with Nik plugins will be familiar with control points, and Photolab brings these to raw processing. It also includes a killer noise reduction algorithm that though painfully slow, can clean up high ISO noise spectacularly. For less than the cost of a cheap lens for a perpetual license (not subscription) to the software, the noise reduction alone is like upgrading to a more capable camera body. Metadata capabilities are no match for Lightroom, so if like me, you like to add extensive keywords, captions, and location data to your images, Lightroom still has its place, however Lightroom can embed this metadata in DNG files which Photolab can read, so I’ve found my workflow tends to be import images in Lightroom, add metadata, then synchronise the metadata to the DNG files before opening them in Photolab to perform the actual raw adjustments. That way I get the best of both apps.

Maybe you have no interest in trying Photolab, maybe you have some other software that you love to use. It doesn’t matter. The key is that just as lots of different camera makes and models can all produce great images, so can different software, and don’t be afraid to experiment. With the range of choices on the market, you won’t necessarily always find someone else in the club who’s using the same apps as you, and I guess that’s why Photoshop and Lightroom get a lot of coverage, however there are lots of other options, both free and paid, and it is the end result that ultimately matters, rather than how you get there.

Do you have some favourite software that other members might not know about? Feel free to share in the comments.

Chris Cookson

MCC President

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