The Challenges of Photography Mentoring – with Animals

As some of you will know, I am currently tasked with helping to choose the next Olympus protege, in the Animals category. I have a buoyant pet and animal side to the business which you can see here: pet and animal photography West Sussex. This is an area which many photographers either enjoy as a hobby, or wish to get into on a commercial level. I can say that pet photography is fantastically saleable, but when it comes to nature and wildlife photography of a more documentary nature this will very rarely (if ever) be commissioned and your sales will be based on the occasional print or usage license. Photographers engaging in most types of animal photography will invariably generate the main bulk of their income elsewhere. But I am a great believer in variety and personally I would go round the bend if I only photographed people every week. I do my best to get out and tackle a variety of subjects because this is so effective at honing your eye and broadening your compositional skills. That’s how I developed my animal photography, which has ended up being the subject of everything from distinction panels to major magazine features. In fact I gained two Fellowships (with the BIPP and The Societies) by presenting a panel of mixed animal portraits, which was risky but something the judges probably had never seen before.

There are four categories in the Olympus protege competition and my three colleagues – rock photographer Mick Hutson, fashion photographer Damian McGillicuddy, and landscape photographer Mark Cargill will also be trawling through the hundreds of entries which have flooded in. The challenges of photography mentoring are many and varied and it’s fair to say we all face quite different and unique challenges in making our choices and in how we will guide our trainees.

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Once my protege is chosen, my role will then evolve into that of trainer and mentor. This will span several weeks throughout which I will stay in touch with my protege via telephone or e-mail (they may live in an entirely different part of the United Kingdom). We will then go away for a few days to a suitable locality so that the protege can put their skills into practice with guidance should they need it. This will culminate in their own exhibition at the Olympus Gallery in central London. When you combine the value of the mentoring, a photographic trip away, and the new camera and lenses, you can start to see just how valuable this prize is. For this reason, and because I will be investing so much of my own time in the project, it’s absolutely vital that the shortlist ultimately put forward to the public vote contains only the most promising candidates.

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Choosing the shortlist is proving incredibly difficult. The competition brief required that applicants submit their best image and a statement as to why they should be the next Olympus protege. It’s remarkable how many people have simply not followed these basic instructions! It’s equally remarkable that so many have applied so little effort to their submission and it goes without saying that these applicants are discarded during the first run! We’re then left with a selection of promising photographs which are hopefully accompanied by strong personal statements. We’re looking for candidates with either outstanding raw talent (where we can refine the technical side of things) or else we’re looking for technically accomplished photographers who need a boost on the creative side. We are also looking for individuals who can demonstrate a genuine interest in the chosen genre, even if this is just as a hobby.

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We want this project to make a difference to the winner, rather than being seen as a fun exercise and an opportunity to get some new kit. It’s going to be hard work, after all. I know how difficult it is to come up with an exhibition following two years of graft, let alone just a few weeks! This is where commitment and hard work will come in. There are genres of photography where an individual can be taught certain formulae which they can replicate, to get them started. This is not the case when it comes to animal photography because we’re working with a generally uncontrolled subject often in its own environment. There is far more to the animal world than obedience trained domestic dogs (and I don’t meet too many of them, unfortunately). We may not be able to intervene at all and instead we rely on subject understanding, timing, composition and our own sense of narrative. It’s this which makes animal photography so very challenging.

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One of the key things I try to instil in new animal photographers is the requirement for subject engagement. This means that quite often you’ll need to elicit a particular reaction or posture, whatever that might be. Sorry, but there are no ‘trade secrets’ to getting interesting animal shots! We resort to simple measures such as making noises or possibly toys and food treats where domestic pets are involved. For the swan shot below, my assistant walked along a path not far from the bird and jangled his car keys (from a safe distance) resulting in a proud display from the animal. I had specifically chosen my vantage point because the foliage surrounding the bird complemented his feathers nicely. If you are not engaging with your subject, then the subject must instead engage with something else – another person, another animal or object, or simply its own environment (think of a swan stretching its wings or a stag tossing his head during the rut). This is where particular breed or species traits become important, particularly with respect to how a given animal stands, moves, or acts. In other words, we’re not looking for mugshots. We also need to understand when to include environmental elements and on what scale.  That’s not to say that we won’t look at static portraiture, this can have tremendous impact if done properly – but we are reliant on expression or/and shape or form, and this kind of work requires a great deal of precision.

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What about mentoring itself? Mentoring means different things to different people, I have realised that from the expectations of the many photographers who have contacted me for tuition. Expectations and goals need to be realistic. I saw several competition entries where the applicants clearly felt that the process would elevate them to becoming a specialist photographer of note. It won’t. Only you can do that, by building upon the basics and by practising at every opportunity, and constantly striving to improve for as many years as it takes.  Some people take direction better than others, and some people cannot take direction at all. I am certainly not going to tell someone to change their preferred personal style, because uniqueness is important, but I do need a candidate to understand good camera craft and the basics of composition.

Then there is the matter of ‘time’. I can choose an environment for my human subjects, and I can direct them and pose them, style them and tell them what to do. Imagine taking most of that away, which is what we face in many areas of animal photography. How much longer will it take you to gain good photographs of a self-ruling or shy animal? I remember one particular photo session with a gorgeous pet cat, one with bags of personality and unfortunately (for me) an awful lot of unabated energy. An hour into the shoot and I was starting to sweat – I really couldn’t come up with a way of getting not just the shots I wanted, but really good shots which would please the owner. It’s easy to start getting stressed when this happens, but you have to just keep going. I came away from that particular shoot with very few photographs I was happy with, but one of them hit the mark and was much published as a result. Sometimes you have to just go with the flow and eventually something will happen. Despite my years as a photographer, I know from my own experience that I can go out for two days running into the field and barely come back with any images that I’m happy with, for those very reasons. This is of course why so many people give up on photography in general and animal photography in particular. There is no magic bullet and you must rely on your own understanding and storytelling abilities. Can my protege do that, when they are revealed to me? I hope so, because those qualities cannot be taught easily, and often take many years to acquire. Looking at my shortlist, it appears that animal photography in the field is the polar opposite to what many of the entrants have been doing. This means they will either relish doing something different, or else they will give up quickly.

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Whoever my protege turns out to be, I ask that they put real effort into whatever takes place over the coming weeks and that they find the time in what is probably an already busy working day to complete the tasks or exercises which will no doubt be put to them. I want them to set personal goals not just for the project, but for the future. I want them to keep going when the creative juices and the weather are against us. I need them to be patient when things don’t go our way.  We’ll need patience, concentration, and above all enthusiasm and respect for the creatures in front of our lens.

Who knows where this journey will take my protege, and perhaps myself. I’m looking forward to finding out, and to revealing the winner here on the blog. For those of you interested in learning more about photographycompetitions and how submissions are judged, there is more here: What Makes a Winning Image

If you’d like to learn more about how I approach animal and pet photography, there are several published articles which can be referenced on our Press page.

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