Rural Traffic Jam
My world is about as far removed from the latest celebrity, exotic location or glamorous film premiere as you can get with a camera. I’m a Rural Photographer; what I do is celebrate people and life; not for how much money or fame they have, but for who they are and what they do.
My remit covers everything from landscapes to portraiture and animal photography. When I say animal, I don’t necessarily mean someone’s pet cat or dog (although this does happen). I an talking about working with everything from a small lizard to a group of Clydesdale Heavy Horses and most things in between. I might be taking someone’s portrait in the morning and photographing a prize bull in the afternoon. No two days are the same.
Being a photographer in the countryside also means that you don’t need the latest most expensive camera or lens. Even wildlife photographers usually have a hide to shelter in. I don’t have this luxury. Part of my job entails being willing to work in all weathers, often meaning that the camera (or me) ends up very unclean. As long as the front of the lens is clear and the camera dry, I’m in “business”. Gaffer tape and a bin liner are a most useful addition to my camera bag.
Let me give you an example. A local vet asked me to photograph his beloved black gundogs. I did the usual “safety” photos of the dogs sitting with their owner on a local river bank; however the images didn’t look anything more than average. I needed something special. Being next to the river, I noticed how the dogs looked at the running water, so I decided to sit up to my armpits in the water with the vet standing behind me. I had him throw a practice dummy out into the flowing water. The gundogs thought it was just another “fun” training session and retrieved the dummy every time until we got the perfect action shot. Backlit by the warm evening sun and water droplets frozen by a fash shutter the images really stands out. Looking at the image today, what most people won’t realise is that November isn’t the best time to sit in a Scottish river. The viewfinder had misted up with condensation from my body heat and the cold air, so that when the dog came running towards me, all I could see was a black blurr!
Teal, Black Labrador Gundog emerging from river with practice dummy.
Sitting in rivers as dogs and horses splash past can be the norm rather than the exception. So I need a camera I can rely on and not have to worry about it getting dirty or damaged. I’d rather use a 30D and have to replace it than a 1DS MK4. Secondly I can afford several of the small cameras for the price of a single big one.
The best advice I can give anyone is not to treat the Countryside like a “theme park”; it’s a living landscape. To get the type of image in what I’m told is my recognisable “style”, I have to be willing to pitch in, often helping the person I am trying to photograph with what he or she is doing, but at the same time trying not to become part of the photograph. This is where having been raised in the country really helps. Sometimes you have to be able to “read” people and even animals. Talk to the person you’re photographing; learn about them, their job and their life. Once you do this your photographs will improve tenfold. Your subject becomes a real person, not a specimen.
Each year the arrival of Spring is usually heralded by newspapers and magazines printing a variation of the cute child holding a “new born” lamb photo on the front cover. The problem is that the lamb is usually a week old, it’s been cleaned up and the child is the farmer’s son or daughter done up in their casual “sunday best”. It’s pure fiction taken in a nice warm barn with flash lighting. This isn’t reality, it’s Disney! The reality is a much more messy affair; more often than not out in a field, probably in adverse weather. But it’s real! I had to wait 3 years to photograph a real lambing and it was all over in 10 minutes. Even so, I still had to commando-crawl from the edge of the field through yards of sheep dung to get in position, so that I didn’t stress the flock. The resulting image, taken with a basic dslr and 70-300 zoom, is one of my all-time favourites; the smile on the shepherd’s face crowns the image.
Shepherd Richard Colley with Ewe and new born lambs.
When you’re out with your camera, learn to travel down the less travelled country lanes and look over hedges. This can lead you to meeting some extraordinary people and take some great photographs which you might otherwise miss by travelling the main roads. One such trip I remember; I was taking the back route to town, down a road I had yet to explore. Passing a small farm I noticed the aforementioned Clydesdales up on a small hill behind a farmhouse. Unlike Shire horses, Clydesdales are a rare breed and always worth the time to photograph. I stopped the car and knocked on the farmer’s door. He was only too delighted to talk about his beloved horses and allowed me to photograph them. I made sure I took a portrait of him with them too. I gave him a small print; his family liked it so much they bought a larger copy and had it framed for him as a birthday present. The group shot of just the horses has recently been published in a book on rare breeds.
Three Clydesdales and their proud owner
Photoshop & Retouching Images?
You might think I have little need to retouch images, but you’d be wrong. I am a firm believer in moderation of photoshop. You never know where an image might be used, from a print on the owners wall to published in a magazine. You can’t photograph an excited stallion and leave its “fifth leg” showing for all to see. It has to be delicately retouched. One owner after reviewing my images of her show-jumping, asked me to retouch the frame where she and her horse were perfectly composed over a fence, in her words “the horse breathed out and looks fat”! Moderation also applies to portraits. As I said earlier in this piece, many of the people I photograph would not normally be considered models, so while I do my best to make them look their best, I won’t make then look unnatural by removing every wrinkle and imperfection. It wouldn’t be honest to them or me.
Watching the showjumping at the village Horse Show
Rural photography isn’t ever going to be glamorous. But then for me it has never been about glamour or status; it’s the finished image which counts. A good image will travel well and speak to many people. If it’s fun along the way too, all the better. Would I trade it for a fully equipped studio? No, not on your life!