Originally written as a column for Outdoor Photography magazine (UK) © Niall Benvie 2010
Photos and Families
Let’s be clear about one thing from the start: creativity is an inherently selfish, self-absorbing, introspective process and if you’re not careful it will take over your life. If you’re young and single, that’s all well and good but as soon we have others to think about, particularly children, the creativity drive can start to become a big problem and needs to be managed adeptly. If you don’t, you’ll drive yourself, those round about you, or more likely both, crazy.
I used to travel a lot, and during my trips abroad made most of my new pictures and satisfied the creative urge in the process. It was relatively easy to separate creative time from office and family time. For most recreational photographers, however, this isn’t an option and indeed, as time goes on I prefer to have more rather than less time with my children. But photographing from home is doomed to fail if you think you can do it the same way as when you travel. Shooting dawn and dusk, for example, may not be an option if you have to fit in school runs. If you are a wildlife photographer, it’s likely you’ll have to work much harder to build a body of work than you would in a well-known photo-tourist location overseas. And with the clamour of domestic life ringing in your ears, it is much harder to enter that creative stream of thought where new ideas are conceived. But there are ways round all these issues; part of creativity, after all, is finding new solutions to old problems.
• Agree with your family set times when everyone knows you will be doing your photography; spontaneity doesn’t induce harmony. If there are extraordinary conditions such as snowfall, an eclipse or northern lights, get everyone out to see them: these are of interest to non-photographers too.
• Don’t grieve over squandered sunsets. I’ve often looked at a dark sky with red light gushing over the town and wished I was on the west coast or in the Highlands instead of stuck at home. The practical response to this urge is to know locally where to go to make great pictures when the light turns sweet: sooner or later the day will come when you have the chance to shoot it. Figure out in advance where to go when a storm is brewing. What if you waken up one day and it’s foggy; where will you go? Come to accept (and this is hard for colour landscape workers) that it is entirely possible to make all sorts of wonderful images during the day too. You may need to learn some new lighting techniques – I often mix daylight with that from a large softbox – or resort more often to monochrome, but it is entirely possible to keep the creative beast at bay with a little imagination. Field studio work, where the subject is photographed in situ against a backlit white background, isn’t for everyone, but it allows me to remain productive irrespective of the light and whether or not the wind is blowing.
• If children are hampering your photography, find ways to involve them. Young ones may be happy just to be out with you (with the promise of ice cream in summer and hot chocolate in winter) but when they are older give them the chance to earn their pocket money by assisting or appearing in the pictures. My own children have featured quite heavily in the Rewilding Childhood project, avoiding difficulties around model releases and giving them the pleasure of seeing the pictures they’ve helped with, in print. Listen to their ideas and shoot them too. Perhaps older children’s computing time can be diverted from games to creative activities like sound and movie editing – more and more still cameras can do this now – and making short av’s, with the incentive of knowing that their work can be seen and shared on the Web.
• Be prepared to put yourself out. No one said that reaching an accommodation between family and creativity was going to be easy. I have a Spanish friend who regularly survives on 3 or 4 hours sleep a night: he makes time for his children, is a highly productive shooter and runs his office alone. I regularly rise at five am to write for a couple of hours before people start to appear for breakfast. In the spring and summer, that could be time out on your local patch with a camera.
• Look at working locally as an advantage rather than a drawback. Now, “locally” in Speyside is likely to be a lot more exciting than “locally” in central London. But everyone knows about the wildlife of the Highlands, whereas very little good urban wildlife work exists. The point is that your locale is what you make of it. And unlike a short trip to a distant location, you can build familiarity. You are also limited to the amount of gear you can take when you travel and it is generally harder to do more complex work that may involve camera traps, hides, elaborate lighting, overseas.
• Have a big idea. Most of us operate on the basis of going out in the field –to shoot either casually or for a project – and working jolly hard to make as many great pictures as we can. Sometimes we are extra lucky and make an iconic image along the way. There are many, many photographers who work this way and if you visit the same locations as others, the chances of getting your – admittedly very good – work seen are quite slim, even if there is a lot of it. So, instead of aiming to make 1000 very good, if replicable, new images a year why not concentrate in producing perhaps six unique, quite new images instead? Michael “Nick” Nichols’ extraordinary composite of a giant redwood that featured as a fold-out in the October 2009 National Geographic is one such picture but journey to make these images is more one of imagination than miles. And that is something you can be doing at home while everyone else thinks you are actually there with them!