WEX Photographic. NB

I’ve recently started contributing articles to the UK’s leading online photographic retailer, WEX Photographic (formerly Warehouse Express), for their blog. So if you’ve come from there, welcome! Three posts on the field studio technique have just gone up today. And, wow, that site gets some traffic! This is the first retailer I’ve contacted about cooperation who have had the courtesy to reply; good on them.

Newly leafed out beech - but it won't look this way for long this year.

Newly leafed out beech – but it won’t look this way for long this year. Incidentally this isn’t a field studio shot – it’s made with daylight only.

It continues to be a wretched spring here is east central Scotland: we’ve had one “hot”(15 degrees) day so far this spring but single figures with strong winds are the norm. Any more wind and we’ll see the bad leaf burn that was so prevalent two years ago. No wonder I make so many “optimistic” pictures against white…

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Hands-Off. Hearts-Off. CB

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At the conclusion of a recent talk on Meet Your Neighbours a member of the audience shared his view that, when it comes to photographing wildlife, species should only be handled by trained biologists; that animals and plants should be “left alone” by the layperson. I have to admit that I was rather taken off-guard by his comment. After all, the entire purpose of MYN is to help connect people with the wildlife in their own community and a roomful of supportive attendees seemed to agree that this was important. I reiterated to the commentator that our photographers work with licensed biologists when dealing with endangered or protected species but that for others, we work within a code of ethics that puts the well-being of the subject first. Yet, afterwards, I couldn’t help but dwell on his words. Why does this “hands-off” mentality exist?

Certainly a connection with nature doesn’t always have to come in the form of physical touch, but in my heart, I believe that an actual “touch-connection” with a species can be powerful. In particular, when it comes to a child’s connection with nature. Humans are a tactile species. Sure, you can see a butterfly in a field-guide, but nothing beats the elation that comes from the moment when a swallowtail perches on your fingertip for the first time or the experience of actually touching the soft silky texture of a snake’s scales with your own fingertips. This makes nature real to us and this participant’s reservation –admonition even– is a well-meaning symptom, I believe, of mankind’s growing separation from the natural world. We are part of nature just the same as the fly that lands on our arm to lap salt from our skin, or the phoebe that returns each year to built its nest under the eaves of my home. And yet, some still subscribe to the idea that it all comes down to us against them, which equates to nothing more than a divorce from our heritage and an unintentional arrogance that somehow we’ve moved past all that.

Of course, my sarcastic side wanted to ask whether or not he had checked the radiator grill of his car lately for six-legged corpses, or whether or not he had been careful to watch his feet while walking into the event hall in case a poor, passing ant happened to be crossing his path. But, of course, that would do no good. I recognize this.

What it all boils down to, in my thinking, is that we can take two approaches:

1.) Make nature separate, something somewhere else that is above mankind and unaccessible. In the end, I believe that this will ultimately not only result in more species preserved behind glass in a museum somewhere, but that it will also rob our own species of ever being able to return back to our true home. We’ve strayed so far and we desperately need to return to “the garden” as it were. Have we evolved so much that we are somehow beyond all that now?

2.) Begin to recognize (remember) that all species interact in various ways. That the eco-systems consist of chains of organisms that interact on a daily basis. We are not exempt from this. The difference is that we can use the knowledge that we have, and the consciousness that we have, to be good stewards, to love our fellow creature and promote their continued protection. Yes, this can all be taken too far. I realize that if there is a way for a humanity to abuse a privilege, it will be done, but this isn’t what I’m talking about and hopefully you as the reader will understand this. 

In short, I believe that cutting ourselves off from contact with nature will ultimately mean a death sentence for all of us.  I understand that my opinions in this piece may not sound politically correct. So, what do you think? Has an actual, physical connection with the wildlife where you live made a difference in your own lives?

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Scottish Speakers. NB

I’ve recently been recruited by the Edinburgh-based bureau, Scottish Speakers, who will now handle bookings for presentations I give in the UK. I will continue to offer the same format, of day long workshop (free to the club) and evening presentation, as before.

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Thumping versus tickling. NB

Anyone who has experience of defiant children will know that there are two ways to get them to stop doing something they shouldn’t.  If you’re so disposed (and I don’t endorse this) you can thump them until they desist. On a societal level, this is the equivalent of trying to bring about behavioural change through legislation and sanctions – a top down approach. If you’re smart, you will tickle them instead until they give up. The end result is the same but the legacies of these two approaches are profoundly different.

I saw parallels in this way of thinking when I came across nudge theory for the first time and the way various administrations are trying to use it to change behaviours in society.

Green NGOs, as I described in my document Framing a Green Communications Strategy for the Real World, share the same problems as governments when it comes to persuading people to change their behaviour, in this case, for the good of the planet. Few have figured out any ways to tickle people into behavioural change, but one outstanding exception is RARE. Check out their site and compare that approach to the baffling new, ill-disguised fundraiser by the RSPB: Pioneers: New Solutions to Nature’s Greatest Threats. I’m not sure if this means Big Avocet is going to protect us from floods, tsunamis and hurricanes but when we are told that “when it comes to choosing who best to meet the needs of threatened wildlife in the twenty-first century … you can put your trust in us” I hear the same corporate voice that has got us into this mess: Big Conservation knows best and all we need to do is give it our money. It’s just another item of discretionary spending. Oh come on, tickle me instead.

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PhotoTrap triggering system for sale. NB

My almost unused PhotoTrap gear is up for sale for £230 plus VAT and shipping. If you’re looking for a versatile and accurate beam system in its own hard case, then this American design is the business. Here’s Paul’s assessment of it. All is working fine.

If you’re interested, just email me at niall@niallbenvie.com . I can take payment by Paypal (or credit card, via Paypal, if you don’t have a Paypal account)

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Meet Your Neighbours technical standards. NB

Shoulders-back-chest-out-chin-in-head-up, I need to lay the law down here!  When it comes to the technical specifications for Meet Your Neighbours pictures, we’re needing uniformity so that ALL the attention is on the subject rather than the prowess of the photographer. We want a picture of a broad-hipped danglefly from Australia to have just the same look as that of a hare-lipped hoghopper from Florida so the pictures are only about the the animals portrayed.

Since the start of the project, we’ve shifted the goalposts slightly (to make your life and ours simpler) but one thing that has not changed is our requirement for a background that is 255 in each channel: pure white. It is this that makes MYN pictures so useful to designers as they can lay the image straight out on a page without having to do any cutting out. This also allows us to create the species composite panels that are gaining popularity as a way to illustrate biodiversity (not least through David Liittschwager’s One Cubic Foot project). It’s also vital to get the balance of front and back lighting right: enough back light to show translucence, enough front to fill shadows but not overwhelm the backlight. Noticeable shadows ruin the atmosphere of the picture and the front light must be diffused: twin undiffused flashes are too harsh.

Now, I confess that there is a little divergence of opinion between Clay and me about the necessity of shoot bugs on a transparent set held at a distance from the backlit white background. He has produced many great pictures with the animal sitting directly on a piece of white acrylic whereas I, and others, have made just as many spoiled by over-lighting from underneath. This is the second most common problem I see when editing MYN submissions, easily solved if the subject is placed on a transparent set and held at some distance from the white background. I address this issue on page 25 of my ebook.

The most common problem however, is framing. In short, the more “unconcluded elements” present in the picture, the more limited its uses. Unconcluded elements arise when things in the picture are cut off: part of the animal, the branch it’s sitting on, stems and other plant parts, you name it. One delicate plant stem meeting the edge of the frame is fine. But if there are a lot then it can’t just be placed on a white page without putting a frame around it: it looks weird otherwise (page 38 of the ebook). If you’ve cropped in tightly to boot then you’re sunk because a frame is going to look like it’s crowding the subject. Please, keep things as simple as possible within the frame: we’re trying to photograph specimens rather than make regular photos that just happen to have a white background.

So, here’s a quick rundown of the technical specifications we need:

• 8 bit, Adobe RGB ,JPEG saved at “Maximum” quality or “12″.

• Keywords and description need to be applied in the appropriate fields (this is most easily done in the Library module if you’re using Lightroom.)

• Files should  be named using this protocol: your name, the country the images were shot in then the file number.

• Backlit pure white background, 255 in each channel, to each corner of the picture with diffused front fill.

Easy! We’re happy to look at submissions from anywhere in the world not already covered or species groups not covered in the geographical areas with an existing photographer .

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Meet Your Neighbours enters a new phase. NB

I’ve long bemoaned the fact that none of the major nature photo competitions admit anything but standard images and bar “radical” (that is, imaginative) representations such as multi-image panels or, heaven forbid, field studio photographs. Well that has just changed. Fellow blogger, Paul Harcourt Davies has won the portfolio category in the International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition with a collection entitled, “A hidden world within 20 metres of home” – all shot in the field studio for Meet Your Neighbours. Congratulations to Paul – and to the competition organisers whose framing of the rules provides a platform for genuine creativity in the representation of plants and garden wildlife.

Beyond Paul’s success, interest in MYN is growing steadily. New photographers contact us each week about joining and the list of publication credits is beginning to increase. Clay enjoyed a great response recently when he spoke about the project at NANPA  as did Dutch photographer Joris van Alphen when he addressed the 2013 sell-out PIXperience conference in Amsterdam last week. I will be making a presentation about field studio photography and Meet Your Neighbours at WildPhotos in London this October.

As time has gone on, the role of MYN has become ever clearer in our minds. Quite simply, field studio photography is the most versatile, detailed and engaging way to represent overlooked species of animals and plants: to record biodiversity beyond the ranks of penguins, polar bears and elephants. Composite species panels communicate the variety of life in a defined area better than any traditional photographic method can.

The usefulness of the field studio technique as a way to record overlooked species has been acknowledged in National Geographic’s return invitation to MYN to shoot on its forthcoming bioblitz (my apologies to German readers for this baffling “English” term) in Louisiana, my participation in one in England last year and Joris’s recent work on a scientific expedition in Borneo. We are very keen that more scientists recognise the vital role that MYN can play in communicating their findings and that they link up with our network of over 50 photographers worldwide. If you’re one of those scientists, please contact either Clay or me through the Meet Your Neighbours site.

 

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Field studio birds, 3. NB

How hard can it be to get the 4 metres from my office to the hide in my garden to photograph small birds in the field studio? Much harder than it reasonably should be if the last 3 weeks of intensive proposal writing, meetings, applications and other “work to get work” are any indication.

Still, technically, things are sorted now. One Ranger Quadra head lights the background from behind but because of the sight line I need to connect a second head to the pack with its receiver facing the Skyport trigger to fire the first flash.  Front fill is provided by an old SB26 Speedlight (with built-in IR trigger) firing through those sheets of Flyweight (aka Corlite) envelope stiffener on the right.

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Pretty much all the small birds coming to the set are very picky about where they will perch. The robin (above) perches on nothing but this piece of gutter and normally refuses to leave “the ground” (the turfs I have elevated for a better shooting angle) while the tree sparrows cannot be tempted onto anything more alluring than a piece of barbed wire. If the goldfinches ever come back, I may have more luck with them.

For those of you interested in the technical details…these pictures were shot with a (13 year old) AFS Nikkor 500mm f4 with x 1.4 converter on a D700 from 5.5 metres. A D800 would offer a lot of advantages, not least by having focus points near the edge of the frame in DX crop mode.

 

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Green communications for the real world. NB

Ever since I was invited to deliver a keynote at last October’s Europarc conference, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how the green community speaks to society. This essay is a synthesis of ideas that went into that presentation, subsequent feedback and further research.

“What problems can you solve? Whose problems are these? Answer these two questions convincingly and the conservationist’s work is half done.”

 

Cassandra no mates.

By now, the green movement must be asking itself what other compromises it has to make to be accepted. Like an ageing, over-eager social misfit, it has adjusted its rhetoric and agendas over the years in an effort to fit in, to be accepted by a culture profoundly, if passively, opposed to many of its core principles. The emphasis today, with talk of ecosystem services and engagement with nature, is on making conservation primarily for the benefit of people, yet the majority of those same people are as indifferent to the fate of the natural world as they ever were. Poll-ratings may suggest widespread support for “the environment” but, as Derrick Jensen puts it in his essay, ”Democracy of Destruction”, “If people collectively had to choose between iPods and mountain gorillas, we know which they would (and do) choose.” Conservation, for all except the “nature smart”, is a nice idea so long as it doesn’t impact on our material standard of living. If so, it can go hang, especially when it is presented as a choice between jobs and newts. Some green organisations have even recruited executives with no background in the natural sciences whose expertise in other fields, they hope, will bring transformation and acceptance. In reality, this may just as likely lead to these agencies aping the very corporatism whose consequences they were founded to mitigate.
Continue reading

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Imacon Flextight 646 scanner for sale. NB

I spent about £1500 3 years ago to get my Flextight scanner repaired – but the good thing was that it acquired a new CCD sensor and was as good as new.  The bad thing is that I have had very little use for it since so, along with a wide range of holders (4×5, 24×65, 35mm, 6×7,  57×171, and 2 1/4 square) I am now selling it for £2100 plus VAT. If you want to buy the new equivalent (the X1) you’ll not get any change from £10 000. I used it last week and everything works fine.

I’d suggest that the potential buyer comes to my office near Brechin to collect it (although it can be shipped) so that I can give them a tutorial on how to get the best out of it, if they’re not an existing Imacon user. This is paid £500 for when I bought the machine in 2005.

If you’re interested, please call me on 01356 626 768 or e-mail niall@niallbenvie.com.

If you have a back catalogue of unscanned images, they’re never going to be seen if they’re not scanned – and this is the best way to do the job.

 

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