The Secret of Happy Snaps

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 2nd January 2007.

My husband recently bought a digital camera of "semi-professional" quality. I was allowed to use it, but only on sufferance."It's intelligent," he remarked, with not-so-subtle over-emphasis, implying that there might be some difference between my photographic abilities and the camera's. "You can treat it as point-and-shoot camera, and it will turn out perfectly focused, accurately exposed shots. No need to fuss about with all those knobs and dials - they're far too complicated for you."

And the truth is, he was right: it bristled with bells and whistles so defiantly that I doubted, even if I read the daunting 185-page manual six times over, that I would ever get my head around them. I duly stuck to fully automatic mode, but even so my pictures were never short of disappointing. I had fondly thought that a good digital camera would mean brilliant results, but it was not, apparently, to be. "Never mind," said my husband, "treat it as a fashion accessory."

That did it. The camera is indeed a beautiful object, in a masculine way, but I wasn't going to be beaten. I needed professional help. Which is why I found myself on a dark December day at The Hare and Hounds in the Cotswolds, joining a digital photography course run by Andalucian Adventures, a specialist travel company that has been organising photography holidays in southern Spain for several years and now offers two-day breaks in the UK, with dates in January, February and early March for pleased but puzzled post-Christmas owners. Our tutor was Peter Netley, former head of graphics at BBC Bristol: a patient teacher and a highly talented photographer, whose joy in retirement is to travel the world and photograph it - with stunning results.

In general, his approach to digital photography gratifyingly contradicted my husband's. His first commandment: no point-and-shoot behaviour. Every photo, whatever the subject, deserved thoughtful framing and composing. "I'd rather see un-sharp, poorly exposed pictures with strong, organised visual elements than the other way round," he said. He explained that the edges of the camera's viewfinder, and their relationship to what's in the picture, are as critical as the picture itself. Also, the space between two objects in a photo should be regarded as an object in itself, and all three should be "in a relationship".

The second commandment: don't trust the fully automatic "intelligent" mode that does all your thinking for you, because it discourages creativity. Instead, get to grips with a select few of your digital camera's controls, especially the shutter and aperture priority modes. This means you can adjust the shutter speed and aperture to freeze action and control the depth of field. When you've done that, put the manual away for later.

To prove his point, Netley gave us his own version of a digital camera manual, distilled down to four pages of A4, and his elegantly designed 17-page notebook, containing almost as much step-by-step guidance and good advice as a full-length handbook. After lunch the heavens opened, so our by now homogenous group of six couldn't go out to put theory into practice. Instead, we studied Netley's own photographs on a computer monitor, while he gave us tips and hints on how he achieved the results.

By now I knew I was the class dunce, the least able to grasp even the basics, but after dinner in excellent company and a night's sleep at The Hare and Hounds, I was fired up for the next day and determined to acquit myself well.

It dawned intensely grey, but dry. We drove into the countryside, visiting locations pre-selected by Netley because they offered opportunities for strong composition: a long, curving fence beside a drive; a duck pond; and, by chance, a flooded lane. All banal enough at first sight, but a useful challenge, because in the dullest, flattest light, only the strongest composition can make a worthwhile photograph. I caught myself looking for photo opportunities all the time. I was looking at the world with more inquisitive, more searching eyes.

Back at the hotel, Netley examined our efforts and found, out of some 50 images I had saved, that just three had the strength of composition he was looking for. Even they needed help. Opening them up in Photoshop, he cropped them, enhanced the contrast and brightness, deleted distracting twigs here and there and converted some to black and white. The finished pictures, displayed on the computer, made me elated: I could now go home and do this for myself.

Peter Netley's central message was simple: don't just take photographs. Making the effort to look for visual interest, frame it and organise it within the frame means a whole new way of seeing. As for my husband, he was frankly disbelieving when I told him that the photographs were mine, and still impressed even after I owned up to the tinkering in Photoshop. No talk of fashion accessories now.

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