“To write a great novel, you need a really expensive pen, right?”
I’ll always remember David Perry saying this as he began his talk to a group of garden writers who were keen to become better photographers.
I noted how well he grabbed our attention from the start by expressing his ideas in a way we could immediately relate to. Writers and bloggers know that opening proposition isn’t true – if only! – so why would so many of us imagine an expensive camera will magically transform us into master photographers?
I confess to odd fits of camera envy myself when I see outstanding nature and garden images photographers have taken with high end macro lenses. My own trusty camera has served me well, but it can’t create the very shallowest depth of field that gives pictures the buttery, luminous effect I sometimes crave. But there’s far more to a professional’s art than his or her choice of equipment.
At the time I listened to David’s talk, I was barely aware of owning a camera, though I knew there was an old film SLR tucked away in a cupboard. He told us some brutal facts: that the camera probably wasn’t to blame when our images disappoint us.
Yet his overarching message was liberating and empowering. It was in our own hands, eyes and imaginations to take photographs we could only dream of, providing we had the commitment and a little patience. We might not become the greatest photographers ever, but we could be good enough.
David told us that if we were looking for better images to illustrate articles and blog posts, we should worry less about our equipment & spend more time thinking about the art of photography as storytelling. He encouraged us to step back and ask why we wanted to take the picture – what we felt about our subject and what we wanted to convey. If we felt nothing – not even joy at the colour or the texture – why take the image? By expecting more from ourselves, setting our natural creativity free, and learning to appreciate whatever model of camera we had, our photography would start to reward us.
He showed us a series of stunning pictures of landscapes and plants he’d taken the day before during one of our group visits to a garden. He’d used a relatively early iPhone to show us what it could do. All of a sudden the power to become a better photographer was in my own hands: I had an iPhone too. From the excited chatter as we left the room, I could see that I was not the only person he’d inspired to try again.
Going back to the subject of this series of posts: how can storytelling help us take better pictures of roses?
David would explain his approach in his own way, but in my very simple terms, it’s the difference between taking all our shots straight on – as if the roses were being held captive as prisoners and we were taking mugshots purely for identification purposes – and trying a more creative, even experimental approach. Trying new angles and viewpoints. Experimenting with light. Finding ways to harness the emotive power of a rose.
Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate a beautiful mugshot of a rose more than most. And I imagine I will always enjoy the challenge of capturing the petal patterns in a perfect English rose bloom.
But by thinking beyond the bloom itself, letting the brightness of the garden provide a perspective in the background; by focusing on a few dancing blooms from a climbing rose as they cascade down from the corner of your shot; or capturing the lonely beauty of a straggly wild rose against faded paintwork, you’ll convey a better impression of what it feels like to be in a fragrant rose garden – or outside a deserted cabin where people once made their home. And you’ll start to tell a story.
Almost every amateur photographer can benefit from taking a course from an expert, or listening to talks on different techniques or genres of photography. David holds courses and gives talks in the US on various aspects of photography including, of course, iPhone photography. I imagine the new features on the most recent models have strengthened his conviction that we massively underrate the potential of this ‘free’ camera so many of us carry around. Photographers who live further afield can arrange for a one to one critique of a selection of their best images over the internet.
He’s a creative, observant photographer, a lovely guy and a natural teacher.
Some photographers make a point of getting their image exactly as they want it in camera. David has the knowledge and skill to do this, but reserves the right to use filters and other post production techniques in his own photography to help him share a glimpse, weighted with emotion and frozen in time, of an ongoing story.
Of course, you’ll find other talented photographers who offer courses too. I’m highlighting David Perry because he, more than anyone else, gave me permission and confidence to try to take pictures myself. I’ll always be grateful to him.
Although I had an iPhone, David’s talk had made me long for a decent digital camera. He gave me scrap of paper containing a scribbled list of good beginners’ cameras that would allow me some control and set me free to explore photography again – I remember there were a few novels to read on there too!
I hope one day he’ll get around to writing a novel himself: he decorates his images with such radiant, truthful, twisted, poetic prose.
If you’d like to see what David’s up to, here’s a link to his Twitter account