I do enjoy reading certain Photography Magazines. One of my favourites is Outdoor Photography which features a combination of landscape, nature and wildlife themes. It's a magazine really focused on photographic practitioners, meaning photographers who spend a lot of time in the field. So it's less gear review orientated and tends to focus on craft and the experience of its featured photographers. That's why I like it.
Reading a readers letter in the November 2015 edition struck a chord.
The letter was entitled "Workshops - do your research!".
The opening sentence stated "I am getting really annoyed about the lack of support on photo workshops". It went on "After I returned home from one (a workshop) a couple of years ago, during which I had no support, I spotted some photos in a national newspaper taken by the workshop leader, which I know were taken on the same trip - I was mad!".
So having read this letter it struck a chord given a recent experience I had online. I have to be careful how I write this because I don't want this blog to become an exercise in finger pointing. That is not the point (quite literally). Since I started wildlife photography I have engaged online with a very supportive wildlife photography community. It wasn't easy at first because as you start to put yourself out there, you invariable start to put your work out there too. And as a consequence better photographers than you, will be viewing, judging and commenting on your work. I've had nothing but constructive and positive engagement. It doesn't have to be like this. But it is better because it is like this. You see many wildlife photographers are also photo guides or run workshops. So it wouldn't be a smart business move to criticise peoples wildlife images online would it? After all some of us, people like me, are potential clients/customers.
Prior to booking your workshop or photo tour/safari, did you discuss with your selected guide your photographic objectives?
So does the writer of the letter have a point? Should we as wildlife photographers expect that our guides and workshop leaders not take their own images? Is that a reasonable expectation?
The answer for me is "it depends".
I think if a photo guide or workshop leader takes the approach that his photography comes before those of paying guests then there is a serious issue with his business approach and I would question very much becoming a client of such a guide. Now of course these types of guides aren't going to openly declare they are in the business for their own portfolio work. But there are tell tale signs, which is why endorsements and advocacy from photographers that have attended photo safaris or workshops is so important.
The online world is a very small one indeed. Especially if you are following some of the most well known wildlife photographers and photographic guides. This is why this letter struck a chord. You see I regularly take part in an online wildlife photography submission challenge. It is run by a specialist guiding company to promote sharing and photographic inspiration. I am an advocate of that company as I've experienced them. This blog is not about them. And as such I won't name them as a result. But on a recent occasion I saw a fellow photographer submit an image to the challenge. The image looked very familiar to me. I looked long and hard at this image trying to work out where I'd seen it before.
It took me a few minutes to realise I had seen the exact same image, or I should say scene, shortlisted in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The image I was viewing on line was slightly different in the detail; some of the colours were not as strong as the WPY image, the framing was slightly different with a wider angle. But for all intensive purposes, same scene, same sighting, more/less the same image.
Is the photo guide truly guiding you? Is he engaging in your photographic journey and enhancing it?
If you've been on a photo safari or a workshop, the chances of this happening are quite high, especially if the photo guide is doing his/her job in guiding you on how to shoot the scene you are presented with. My experience to date has been nothing but positive. The photo guide I chose put the clients first, engaged and taught them, and picked up his camera only when needed. He took images to show examples, skills and techniques to the clients/guests.
The shortlisted image was submitted by a well known photographer who I understand also works as a guide. I therefore can only assume the online submitted image was coming from a client on a photo safari and the WPY shortlisted image was coming from the guide.
Here I will pause. I could be wrong. And if I am, my apologies up front.
However, seeing these two images, one submitted online to a community challenge, the other shortlisted in WPY, made me ask the question: how would I feel if I'd paid good money to go on a photo safari, and my guide got the same image as me and was shortlisted in WPY? Would I be "mad"?
I wouldn't be "mad", no.
I'd be dissatisfied with the service I paid for. The guide has every right to take his own images. He also has every right to do what he wants with them. The good news in this example is that it appears the client was getting similar quality images as a WPY shortlisted finalist. But it does raise questions to me about the principle motivation of the guide as a result of this example. And for me, I think the instant a guides work from a photo safari is shortlisted in the most prestigious photographic competition in wildlife photography, it raises doubts that the principle focus is on the client and their images.
The photo safari experience should be all encompassing, the experience should deliver. Photo guiding should be about sitting with guests during the down time and listening and engaging. It is as much about hospitality as it is about the camera craft itself.
At the end of the day, there are a myriad of photo safaris and workshops available out there. It's horses for courses. Before you chose an operator do your homework. If, like the readers letter, you would feel mad if the guides work was showcased at the expense of your own learning experience, then it pays to research who you want to go with before you drop the cash. Having been in wildlife photography now for just over 3 years, I'm still very much a new kid on the block (despite a few grey hairs!) but I've done my homework and I have a network of contacts and photographers I am in touch with. I've heard some great stories and recommendations. I've also heard some real shockers, most notably the photo guide that shouts off the camera settings to his clients as he fires away his shots. This is why it is better to solicit a number of different opinions than a few. Don't be afraid to ask for client testimonials. Any reputable photo guide worth his salt will be able to give you client references.
My advice - like the letter says "Do your research!"