Pigeonholes

When I first joined a camera club it took me a good year to realize that it existed within its own environment. The world of camera club photography is vast, but specialized. It comes with its own language, culture, principles, rules and ideals and these differ wildly from other photography environments. A successful camera club picture is usually totally different to a successful commercial picture, which differs again from a successful gallery picture.

To demonstrate the point I thought it might be interesting to look at different types of portraits, all successful in their own right but in different spheres.

This image by Claudio Rasano won the Taylor Wessing Portrait Photography Prize in 2016. The TWP is considered the leading British portrait competition which aims to find the very best in contemporary portrait photography in the country. The photographer was awarded £15,000 and the image was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery.

Call me a philistine, but this image reminds me of a school photograph of the kind your parents felt compelled to buy each Christmas. Without meaning to be unkind to the author, for me this is soul-less, emotion-less and isn’t even technically a good picture. If this were entered in a camera club competition it would be lucky to score 13 points out of 20.

This is a studio portrait of Fiona Shaw taken by royal photographer Lord Snowdon and which was exhibited at Christies.

I can’t believe I’m now going to critique Lord Snowdon’s photograph and will probably end up in shackles in the Tower of London, but if this were entered in a camera club competition the comments would probably be that it was well lit and sharp but the red chair is distracting and the picture lacks imagination. Score would probably be 18 out of 20.

This is one of my own portraits called Ophelia, which has won 2 gold medals and done stupendously well in camera club competitions both in the UK and internationally.

A camera club judge would probably say that this image is innovative, visually captivating and technically perfect and it would score maximum marks of 20 points.

Conversely, I’ve entered this image in well known national competitions and it has gotten nowhere. The creativity so rewarded in the international camera club world simply isn’t coveted or recognized in other spheres of photography. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

You have to pick your pigeonhole. If you like taking record shots and doing very little editing, the camera club world probably isn’t your best choice and you would do much better feathering another nest. Commercial pictures which sell well, particularly studio based work, also probably aren’t going to be as successful in a camera club environment which is looking for originality, technical perfection and innovation. Galleries on the other hand look for bodies of work. A series of images with a common theme, as against camera clubs which look at individual images in isolation. So if you want to make a political statement or highlight an issue camera clubs probably aren’t the way to go.

The one genre which bucks the trend is nature and wildlife photography. Very little editing of nature photographs is allowed in the camera club world and the emphasis is on capturing behaviour. This much more readily transcends pigeonholes and I know of camera club members who have done really well in national and international nature competitions.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choice. Each sphere of photography is simply different and you just have to decide which is the best fit for you.

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