Henri Cartier-Bresson had a simple maxim about the trade that he mastered so completely. “Your first 10,000 photographs are the worst,” he would say to the young snappers. And over the years, I began to find solace in his advice. I started wielding a camera a very long time ago and I think I am now approaching the magic quota of Cartier-Bresson. By its arithmetic, I will soon descend from the lowest rung of the photography ladder and progress to the second-worst ranking. Things can only get better.
And I can’t deny that I took a lot of poorly focused and poorly framed images in my day. The fuzzy negatives in my files confirm this sad fact. However, over the years I have also pulled off a few decent photographs that have given me a sense of fulfillment and, at times, the satisfaction of seeing my efforts on paper. Mastering an acceptable image is a pleasant business, I have found.
Photography brings other rewards, of course. For starters, I now have the archives of so many episodes in my life: from my early days as a hiker in Scotland, to the birth of my children and my travels to distant lands on Observer assignments. It’s 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 made it easier to share the recordings.
However, photography is not limited to documenting the passage of his life. First off, there’s the simple physical satisfaction you get from learning to master your camera – learning how to balance film speed, aperture, and shutter speed, for example. This way you can tailor your subject’s needs – whether it’s a fast-moving animal, a portrait in subdued light, or a landscape teeming with detail – to produce a striking image, which is more than a simple recording of an event. Understanding these fundamentals is essential and mastering them brings its own development.
Looking for better and better images also brings motivation and purpose to the way you use your free time. This has been especially true in recent years when I have become more and more keen on photographing British wildlife, an urge that has taken me to parts of the British Isles that I might never have visited otherwise.
My efforts to photograph the otter are a good example. Frustrated with each attempt to approach one in England, I decided to visit a place that is particularly teeming with the species: the Shetlands. And after an initially frustrating long day with an animal guide, I was rewarded with the sight of a solitary female frolicking near me by the sea for over half an hour. It was glorious.
Then I had time to look at Shetland, a place of haunting beauty, I discovered and stumbled upon the Broch of Mousa, one of Britain’s most remarkable buildings. Built 2,000 years ago, this imposing Iron Age rotunda – whose double-walled stone walls contain curved stone staircases inside – is among the best-preserved ancient buildings in Europe: a beautifully constructed monument that rises from the mist and whose purpose defies historical explanation.
For good measure, Mousa Island is home to one of the largest colonies of European Storm Oceanites in the world and their choppy, choppy calls added an eerie soundtrack to my visit. If I hadn’t chosen to tackle my first photographic lens, I wouldn’t have had this dazzling experience – and that’s the real satisfaction that photography gives me. It pushes me.
Capturing wildlife in action is particularly satisfying. Your subjects are utterly unpredictable, often maddening, but sometimes rewarding – when a recalcitrant bird of prey or an elusive dragonfly flies through your sights at the right time. From that perspective, photography is therapy, right down to capturing the herons and cormorants of South London – at Brockwell Park – and the woodpeckers that visited my garden in Brixton during the lockdown last year.
However, I should add a coda to this photographic eulogy. There are times when you should ignore the camera around your neck and just watch what’s going on in front of you. I have had the privilege of witnessing rocket launches in Florida, Kazakhstan and French Guiana and each time I have photographed every spacecraft – from takeoff to its disappearance in the upper atmosphere – in a frenzy of shutter clicks. I have some satisfying footage but it’s only now that I realize that for once I just should have watched the whole mind-blowing experience of humanity soar into the skies without trying to capture it on film. .
So yeah, take lots and lots of pictures, but sometimes pause and watch. The break is worth it – every now and then.
How to do
The range of photography courses available online is now so vast that you can be taught by people like Vanity Fair portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz or Vogue cover photographer Tyler Mitchell without leaving your couch. Master class has a lot to answer. If you want a less starred teacher, there are courses available from London University of the Arts and the photographers gallery. Also look at the The Royal Society of Photography website which has a lot of information on qualifications and training. Red eyes is a non-profit company that provides advice and information to photographers around the world.