We appeared (Charles and me) in an exhibition at the National Botanic Garden of Wales (shut up, you at the back there…) and so went to the launch. At the launch we also saw an exhibition of (some rather lurid, – rather like my efforts on this site – some excellent) pictures from the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. Charles told me there would be a book of the pictures – so I asked him to review it. And he agreed, so here it is. The pictures interestingly look less lurid in the book, I think, but the reasons are no doubt technical.
Anne Wareham, editor
Review of International Garden Photographer of the Year – Collection 6 by Charles Hawes:
As the title gives away, this is the 6th year in which the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition (henceforth to be referred to as IGPOTY) has taken place. This square format paperback contains what the organisers considered to be the best images (that is to say the prize winners and those that were Highly Commended, Commended or Finalists) of the thousands of entries they received. (They are coy about just how many thousands of entries that was).
If you were expecting a volume of gorgeous photographs of gardens from around the world you might be a little disappointed. Of the 300 or so images in the book, less than 40 are of what most people would think of as gardens.
Although IGPOTY was born in the stable of the UK based Professional Garden Photographers Association, its Chief Executive and Co-founder Philip Smith realised early on in its life that in order to attract a wider audience and as wide a participation as possible, the competition needed to have a broader focus than just gardens. It’s now very much broader.
The entries are classified into “Wildflower Landscapes”, “Wildlife In The Garden”, “The Beauty of Plants”, Greening the City”, The Bountiful Earth, “Beautiful Gardens” (they are all beautiful, of course), “Breathing Spaces”, “Trees, Woods and Forests” and (just in case anyone feels left out), “Young Garden Photographer of The Year”. Use your imagination and if your interest is in photographing any aspect of the ‘natural’ world your snap could be accepted into one of these.
These are not “snaps” though. As Andrew Lawson points out in his Foreword to the collection. For Andrew, the images demonstrate that to reach the kind of standard to be judged favourably by the assessing panel of experts, the photographer must take time and prepare the shoot; appreciate the plant in all its growth stages (I can’t agree with him about this), understand the garden in all its moods (nope, don’t agree with that either) and know how the weather will affect the images, what time of day it is best to photograph, and (after a few other musts) have a determination to get the perfect shot. Phew. No pressure then. Andrew is clearly doing his best to talk the competition up!
You might add to Andrew’s list, get yourself a decent camera and a tripod. Philip Smith says in his introduction, and as the millions of images posted daily on Flikr, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter demonstrates, “Anybody can take photographs now”, but only one image in this book was taken on a Smartphone. A handful were taken with compact cameras but the overwhelming majority were taken on fairly expensive digital SLR cameras that would be classified as for “enthusiasts” or professionals. So although getting good gear might not win you prizes, having good equipment clearly helps.
The other thing that clearly helps is for you to get yourself adept at using Photoshop (the image manipulation software for any aspiring processional). For the majority of the images included the photographer has offered some notes about the image and how it was produced (the camera and the work that they did on the image). So that slightly blurred foot of the mole emerging from his heap was not his movement but was added by the photographer. And that sweet shot of the mouse having its supper amongst apples was, in fact, made up of two separate images that had been cleverly merged. (It could be his pet mouse under strict direction.)
I don’t have a problem with image manipulation. Photography is about producing images that, in this competition at least, are pleasing to the eye, not about recording “reality”. But I simply do not believe the light hand that the majority of the photographers claim to have used to produce the images that we are presented with.
Images are produced by cameras in one of two formats; JPEG and Raw. The JPEG files that your camera produces have already been subject to a very sophisticated computer programme built into the camera to give the image that you see on your computer screen. When you set a camera up the settings of this programme have defaults but nearly all the cameras used to produce these images also have a very wide range of options that will change, potentially quite dramatically, the resultant image .
None of the image notes state if they were produced from the “in camera” JPEGS or what the settings were. But most enthusiasts and professionals do not use these “in camera” JPEGs for publication. They use the raw format, which is the basic information that the camera sensors record, and they then process those images themselves to end up producing the JPEG. A raw file reproduced without such “post capture processing” would not look very good. When I work on a raw image there must be at least 10 separate processes that I consider and my make changes to before I produce the final JPEG. White Balance, Exposure, Highlights and Shadows, Contrast, and several other factors may all get tweaked before I am happy with the final image. You don’t enter images into a highly competitive environment without very careful adjustment.
I believe that most of the images will have started off as raw files that the photographer has then worked on, and necessarily so, but when someone I know to be a professional states in the notes that there have been “no digital alterations”, I think that they are not being truthful. So that beautiful overall winning picture of Penstemons clinging to a rock, lit by a stunning sunrise over Crater Lake in the USA was not just the result of the photographer working hard to be at exactly the right place at the right time but was (by his own account) created from several separate images and, in my view, had quite a bit of work done to it before it got onto the page.
So who is this book for? One of the stated aims of the book is to “inspire”. There are many beautiful images in this book and I could imagine that someone new to photography could well be inspired to get out there and take their interest further. For me perhaps the most striking images are those where a fair amount of work went into the construction of the image in the computer – Andrzej Bochenski’s extraordinary lake panorama with its outsized dingy being, perhaps my favourite.
But another aim of the collection is that the viewer might “learn” from the images and I think it fails in this respect as there simply isn’t enough information presented about the how the images were produced.
One of the potentially rather good things about entering the competition is that entrants can ask for feedback about their entries. I entered six images. The feedback was quite blunt. Of the three pics I entered of the National Botanic Garden of Wales it was suggested that they were “lacking in atmosphere”. I was a bit taken aback by that. (see some of the pictures on this page, ed.)
And of the three pics of Veddw, which were “enjoyed much more” the criticisms were more technical and I could see their point. The final comment really did feel like a slap on the wrist, though: “The judges expected more from such an eminent photographer…”. Ouch!